Cuphead and Mugman are in trouble. Despite Elder Kettle’s stern warnings, they end up in the Devil’s Casino where, after scoring a winning streak at the Craps table, the two brothers soon attract unwanted attention. With a devious and toothy grin, the Devil walks over to suggest that they raise the stakes. Win one more roll, and the brothers will win all the loot in his casino. Lose, and he will take their souls.
Blinded by the promise of such riches, Cuphead throws the dice once more and, to no one’s surprise, rolls snake eyes. Left pleading for their souls, the Devil offers the brothers another deal. Snuff out the runaway debtors on his list before midnight tomorrow, and he will pardon the two mugs. With no choice but to agree, they head home where, after explaining their plight, Elder Kettle hands them a potion that gives them “remarkable magical abilities” to punish the debtors with.
Cuphead is sensational. The game’s creators have referred to it as an “all-cartoon Magical Wondergame,” and I have struggled to come up with a better way to describe it. It’s hard not to simply sit and marvel at it. Taking inspiration from 1930s cartoons, the game has been created using the same techniques of the era. Whether it be the hand-drawn cel animation or watercolor backgrounds, the end result is a game that constantly impresses and astounds from start to finish.
It’s an unmatched spectacle, really. Effortlessly punctuated by composer Kristofer Maddigan’s undeniably glorious big band jazz and ragtime soundtrack, this run-and-gun action game – whether solo or teaming up with a friend in local co-op – challenges you to maraud Inkwell Isle in your quest to kick ass and take names.
Cuphead is tough. We’re warned not to deal with the Devil, but I would consider it if it were to make me better at the game. It’s accessible, at least. The opening tutorial covers the basics, teaching you how to Duck, Jump, Dash, Descend, and Shoot. The trickier move is the Parry Slap, that, while airborne, lets you nullify or interact with pink objects or projectiles. This helps to build up your Super Meter to perform more powerful EX Moves and is needed to revive a co-op partner when defeated.
There are straight up run-and-gun stages where enemies (and bullets) come at you from all directions, but, whether on land or taking to the skies in a shrinkable plane, Cuphead has largely been created as a boss rush game. Whether dealing with the angry vegetables that make The Root Pack, dodging punches from Ribby and Croak, ducking under Hilda Berg’s astrological transformations, or gunning down Baroness Von Bon Bon’s dessert monsters, every boss encounter is an unnerving but incredible tour de force to participate in.
It’s a game that is difficult by design, but there are different options that can ease the challenge. But, while bosses have fewer phases and hurl attacks in your direction less often in Simple mode, as King Dice explains, you can only collect a debtor’s soul contract when defeating them on Regular. That means that the patience to learn attack patterns is needed to complete the game, that, once beaten, will unlock the even more harrowing Expert mode. This heightened difficulty curve may feel like a barrier to some, but, ultimately, the experience is all the more rewarding for it even if there’s some frustration thrown in.
In each stage, your time, ending HP, parries, skill, and the Gold Coins you collect are used to grade your performance. You can return to conquered stages to work to improve upon these, something that your curiosity will encourage as shopping for new items at Porkrind’s Emporium starts to open up new playstyles. This mainly comes in new EX Moves, with longer ranges, different bullet spreads, or that deal increased damage. Maybe even an extra hit point will help, but that comes at the cost of lightly weakening your attack power. And then there’s the Smoke Bomb, which makes you temporarily invincible when using your standard dash – which is easily one of the most useful abilities in the game.
It’s worth quickly mentioning that there are in-game achievements to unlock, and, with Xbox Live support in the works, I could end up rewarding you with some bonus Gamerscore. That is – I would imagine – if you haven’t already unlocked them all on Xbox One or PC beforehand.
Cuphead is a creative masterpiece and a game that rightly deserves to be long remembered as an all-time great. It delivers a riotous gameplay experience that will delight, astound, and frustrate in equal parts, woven into a relentlessly breathtaking and meticulously crafted cartoon world. It can certainly start to feel cruel at times, especially after spending a lengthy session failing to beat one boss, but, now having the chance to play on the move with Nintendo Switch, it’s found the perfect home for players to overcome such a challenge.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by StudioMDHR