My palms are sweaty, my shoulders ache as they tense up, my hands grip my controller tightly in desperation. I swear a little, and then get knocked down. Then I swear a lot. At long last, the moment comes: I figure out how to beat this f#@cking dancing sunflower. A feeling of triumph washes over me — drying my palms, relaxing my shoulders, loosening my hands. It’s a sensation that’s fleeting, one replaced by a painful question that flows through my mind just as quickly as the buzz came and went. Was it all worth it?
The answer to that question is… kind of.
Indie developer Studio MDHR’s Cuphead is a visual marvel of a video game, one evidently crafted with great love and care and surely to be remembered through the video game history books. However, its steep levels of difficulty threaten to leave you with mixed feelings of pain and pleasure that not even its aesthetic allure can completely relieve. But still, even after being stung by the game’s ball-breaking bosses time and again, Cuphead draws you in for just “one more try…”
From a visual standpoint, Cuphead is charming as hell. In a raging sea of titles that feature dark colour palettes, misty and moody atmospherics, and character design that doesn’t feature any noteworthy spark, the cartoony graphics stand out as a lone boat drifting peacefully on the surface. Hand-drawn cel-shading and animation; warm-toned reds, blues, and yellows; and grainy film overlays pop off the screen and are a total treat for the eyes. The designers even left in certain imperfections and purposefully ran the animations at 24 frames per second to make everything look as retro and surreal as possible.
The biggest part of the outstanding visuals is the character design, most notably with the central characters and the many bosses. Cuphead centers around an anthropomorphic dish creature named Cuphead (and his companion Mugman, if you’re playing co-op), who gambled with the devil and now must kill all his associates in order to stay alive. Cuphead is drawn with big eyes, a tiny nose, and a white and red striped bendy straw that sticks out from the top of his cup-skull. Mugman looks pretty similar, only his designated colour is blue. (The two characters remind me a lot of other buddy protagonists like Mario and Luigi.)
Cuphead pulls inspiration from 1930s animations like Betty Boop, Steamboat Willie, and Fleischer Studios cartoons, but that can sort of be lost when looking at the hero duo. The old-school influence is seen far more in the bosses, who are bright, bold, larger than life, and almost charming enough to distract me from the fact that I wanted to slowly lift myself up from my desk chair and Naruto run into the ocean, never to return. The characters that restored my will to live, however, were the cheeky skeletons and the bopping fuchsia ghost. I’m a total sucker for anything spooky and ghoulish, and I love it even more when animations are so adorable that I want to get them tattooed on my body.
The single reason to play Cuphead. pic.twitter.com/xM8OMmgXXA
— Brad Weston 💀 (@TheWesty_) October 15, 2017
This kind of cuteness extends into all elements, including the backgrounds and even the HUD and world map. Hand-painted and reminiscent of watercolor murals, the backdrops in Cuphead are stunning and make me want to kiss the tips of my fingers and shake my hand like an Italian grandpa talking about how perfectly seasoned his food is. The Cuphead world map is appealing in a different way, as it brings about images of a theme-park layout, blending together realism fantasy in its design. In the HUD, I really loved how the supers appeared as little playing cards. I found it a subtle but much-appreciated touch to the gambling narrative that added something extra to the aesthetics.
With its adorable aesthetics and nuanced execution, Cuphead feels like it will never be lost amongst its competitors in the visual department. It’s just that unique.
The game might be named after Cuphead, but the bosses are the characters that really stick out in the game. Fights against them are well-paced and punchy, and players will either duke it out in typical platform battles, bullet-hell matches where pellets of destruction rain over you from all angles, or run-and-gun left-to-right ducks and dodges. Each boss is incredibly memorable, as are the methods necessary to pummel them to the ground, and are equal parts weird and wonderful. I found myself always surprise by who I would be battling next, and cracked a smile when I first faced off against the boxing toads Ribby and Croak, the hilarious but hard-to-beat veggies (Weepy, Psycarrot, and Moe Tato), and the Betty Boop lookalike Cala Maria. The design of the bosses, the layout of their stages, and their abilities added a sprinkle of comedy that was truly welcome amongst the tense gameplay.
Unfortunately, fun quickly turns to frustration in terms of dying over and over again. There’s only so many times I can execute the same pattern of jump, bob, weave, and fire at a boss and their minions to no end before I need to pause and take a breather.
The most straight-forward way to push through the game is making use of your two weapons, a super attack, and an added power to lock in an effective way to defeat each boss. Abilities unlock pretty quickly, and offer opportunities for additional customization and experimentation for the battles you’re having difficulty overcoming. The bosses’ fight sequences are hard to nail down, since each battle consists of multiple forms or mini-levels and bosses can alter their shape, attitude, attack style, and even position on the map as you hit each new phase.
Learning the ropes isn’t easy, but it’s vital to finally besting the animated beasts that stand before you, since health can’t be restored in the middle of a fight and there aren’t any checkpoints to return to within the level. That means when you die, you die for good. Even if you were only one step away from crushing King Dice, you must start over again from the beginning of that round, where you might perish even earlier than you did the first time.
Moreover, the game also keeps you in the dark about your own capabilities and progress. There’s no telling how close to death or a phase change a boss is. It’s unclear how much damage each weapon does, which makes it tough to decide which one will help you out most when eyeing down your enemies. And though it’s common knowledge that you’re given three hit points per stage (plus an additional one if you implement a charm), the initial thrill and tension of a battle dwindles when you’re still struggling to understand how to succeed after ten tries on a single level.
What will keep your spirits high and your mind somewhat at ease as you’re repeatedly killed, revived, and slain yet again is the game’s soundtrack. The music of Cuphead is a masterclass in jazzy ‘30s tunes, performed by live musicians. It features tracks with titles that are super appropriate for the tense gameplay you experience. “Botanic Panic” “Flower Fury,” “Carnival Kerfuffle,” and “The King’s Court” will become personal favorites of yours; you simply won’t be able to resist the big band tone of the horns and percussion. Overall, the entire 56-track score is pitch-perfect and truly authentic to the time period Studio MDHR wanted to recreate in Cuphead.
After spending hours making a deal with the devil with Cuphead, Mugman, and a host of nefarious bosses, I can’t help but feel that the game should be subtitled “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.” Even when I poured my full attention into each boss battle (and a ton of nervous sweat onto my keyboard), I was still struck down over and over in a vicious yet delicious gameplay cycle. It was disheartening and definitely frustrating, but I kept coming back.
Cuphead isn’t a game for the faint-hearted or those looking for an easy way to waste a Sunday night, but it’s plain to see that it’s as fun as it is fiendish. The side-scroller will undoubtedly turn some players away for fear of it being too hard to enjoy, and I had my fair share of moments where I wanted to tear my controller out of my PC, there’s no denying Cuphead’s gorgeous music, killer visuals, memorable character design, and exhilarating enemy fights make for a game that hurts so good.