Cuphead is a disgustingly difficult 2D sidescroller shooter with an artstyle and sound design straight from the 1920s. It was released in 2017 to wide acclaim and for some reason or another I decided I’d play it in 2020 (after a DLC announcement as well). Besides a few wacky hitboxes here and there, it’s an incredibly well-polished and standout game.
On Inkwell Isle, Cuphead and his friend Mugman like to gamble a bit too much. After a bad dice throw, the Devil wins their souls! But he makes a deal with them: if they collect the “soul contracts” of his debtors he’ll let them get their souls back.
The story of the game is cute, simple and funny. The setup suits the types of cartoon shows you’d get in the 1920s such as talking dogs and mice. It’s very charming as well, and while the Devil may be a bit scary, the game seems acceptable for children – if you play on “Simple” mode that is.
Controller vs. Keyboard seems to be debatable here. I couldn’t play precisely with a controller so I moved to KB (similar to Hollow Knight despite recommendations). I had to change the keybindings for my keyboard because the default setup was inadequate for my tiny hands. So: Arrow keys to move left, right and aim up and down. ASD for “Shoot”, “Ex Shoot/Super Art”, “Lock” to lock movement in place. Left Shift was dash and CapsLock was for switching weapons. Space was for jump.
Besides the obvious movement controls, Cuphead is a shooter type game. You have 3 lives and can shoot from literal finger guns in 8 directions if you aim well enough (although I mostly aimed left, right and up because it was less to think about). You have a “Super Meter” in-game (represented by 5 playing cards) which charges up as you shoot things. 1 card is used for an “Ex Shoot” which is the special ability of the current weapon you’re using. Having 5 cards charged allows you to use your “Super Art”.
You can also parry pink objects to fill up your super meter. To parry, you have to jump and then hit jump again precisely when you overlap the object. Sometimes parrying can feel flaky since it requires such precise inputs. It’s made me consider getting a new keyboard more than once.
In-game you have an “Equip Card” which where you can equip 2 different weapons called “Shots”, 1 “Super Art”, 1 “Charm” and can see a list of soul contracts you still need to finish (which I never checked – I’m not good at shopping). You can buy shots and charms from a store using Coins (in-game currency) you pick up throughout the game. Some can be hidden on the map so explore carefully!
“Shots” have their “pros” and “cons” but alas there are some balancing issues. I pretty much used only 2 Shots throughout the game – Chaser (homing bullets but weaker) and Roundabout (projectiles that come back to you, have higher damage than the base shot, have long range flying behind you but short range in front of you). Every other weapon seemed less useful in my case. Same story with Charms which are passive buffs. There are 6 Shots, 3 Supers and 6 Charms in the whole game so far.
Cuphead is also a 2-player game. The 2nd player can drop into the 1st player’s game and they’ll play as Mugman. Mugman will get the same amount of coins that Cuphead has gotten up till that point in-game. Mugman can then buy items at the shop. You can parry your friend’s ghost to revive them and vice versa.
The game is split into 3 parts of Inkwell Isle. When moving between levels and bosses, you are walking on an overworld-type map with NPCs you can and should talk to – some give you tips/rewards. You can choose which levels to tackle in what order but you can only proceed to the next part if you’ve gotten all the soul contracts in that area. Struggling on that one boss? Shame – gotta defeat him to proceed (damn dragon).
Each level is painstakingly hand-crafted. Each one is different, with creative sets of obstacles and enemies. On “regular” difficulty these are difficult. There are so many things that can be happening on a screen at once. It can be a struggle to watch everything. You’ve got to learn patterns, be precise and careful, and die, die, die again! They are fun to me because they are challenging but don’t be ashamed to put the difficulty on “simple” (easy) – no one would think twice.
Same as levels, each boss is beautiful animated, unique with their own set of annoying attacks and phases. I say annoying because sometimes it can be the last phase you get stuck on or one attack in particular that is seemingly impossible to dodge!
When you play levels and bosses, you are graded. That’s right, time to go back to school! You will be ranked based on how much life you have left, time it took to finish and how many parries and supers you used. This adds to the replayability of the game because you can always re-challenge yourself and try to change that B+ to an A+!
Cuphead’s sound design is absolutely perfect! Everything is themed nicely to the 1920s homage they were going for. From UI to gameplay, audio is responsive, cute and put to good use to communicate attacks and events.
The sound track is incredible! Acapellas, rhythmic jazz, wacky audio distortions akin to aged records – the attention to detail is staggering! All of it working towards complete immersion and keeping you upbeat – even if you’ve been dying again and again to the same boss.
Cuphead was hand animated. Hand animated video games!? It takes ages to animate by hand! Frame by frame animation lends a rich, immersive experience to Cuphead and is truly a delight to watch. The consistent themes and art keep everything nice and tidy. The animation is also incredibly good at being a convincing 1920s style (“rubber hose”) but buttery smooth for tight gameplay purposes.
Hilarious exaggerated movement, funny caricatures and cute transitions will make you feel like you’re in a crazy cartoon world. The colour usage is also great, mostly warm and gentle on the eyes. Important elements are highlighted in pink, color coding what can be parried. The few critiques I had is that with so many projectiles on screen, the foreground elements can sometimes be distracting and confusing. A bit too much.
Cuphead is one of the best 2D side scrollers I’ve ever played. The amount of passion that went into Cuphead is incredible. There’s replay value for completionists and a co-op mode for friends. If you like the 1920s era of old cartoons such as Betty Boop and old tough as nails platformers of the 1990s, here’s a game that blends both together with plenty of pizzaz to spare!