If you’ve heard anything about Cuphead, you’ve probably heard that it’s hard. And this is very much true. It’s a couple of hours of content that took me ten hours to beat – and that was without obsessing over the end-of-level rankings, which slap an exam-style grade on your performance. (Mine were mostly B+, which I guess would constitute a pass.) There are two difficulty settings available from the start: “Simple” and “Regular”. The former doesn’t make the game any easier; it just removes bits from it. The latter is the intended experience, and seems designed to break people’s spirits and controllers. There’s certainly nothing regular about it, and you should keep that in mind. Cuphead might not be for you. In fact, it probably won’t be.
All of this is intentional. Cuphead is a fusion of archaic animation and archaic game design. It blends the grainy, rhythmic animation of the 1930s and the simple but exacting demands of 2D side-scrolling shooters. It’s supposed to be hard; as a game comprised almost entirely of boss fights, it wouldn’t be worth playing if it wasn’t. But – and this is crucial – it’s almost always fair. Aside from a couple of late-game encounters that are crippled by an unreasonable amount of randomness, this is an experience that promotes learning by ensuring that success is always just there, a little out of reach, but only one more attempt away. Rarely is that true, of course, but the belief is all you need to keep playing.
The titular character is a china cup in shorts with a diner straw poking from his head; he shoots pellets by clicking his gloved fingers. The whole game looks like him. Every inanimate object, insect and mammal has wide eyes and fidgety expressions, from the pig who sells you new weapons and power-ups, to the ghost who counts your deaths, to the sand timer on the loading screens. They all bend their knees in time with the infectious musical rhythm. The effect is novel and transporting and buoyed by impeccably observed period detail. Cuphead doesn’t just look like an old cartoon – it is one.
The plot concerns the anthropomorphic cup and his buddy, Mugman (the game has local co-operative play), collecting souls for the devil lest he take their own. These contracts are spread across three islands and take the form of screen-filling, multi-phase boss fights that are better left for you to discover on your own. Many are marvels of inventive visual design and mechanical ingenuity; distinct and unique, they’re riddled with idiosyncrasies and offer layers of challenge based on pattern recognition, memorisation and understanding, rather than sheer reflexes. Each successful fight lasts only a couple of minutes, but the precision required to get there is often the result of countless failures and restarts.
This sounds insufferable, and it’s certainly an experience pitched squarely at a very particular demographic, but Cuphead is one of the finest examples of intentionally difficult gameplay that I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s a masterclass of escalating complexity and finely-tuned underlying balance. Playing Cuphead becomes almost performative; every mistake is embarrassing, every lapse in concentration and judgement worthy of a restart. It’s a game that encourages perfection, rather than demanding it.
To offset the challenge, Cuphead gives players a decent amount of latitude in customising their playstyle. The character can be equipped with a secondary weapon; there are several to choose from, each with different properties. One fires a wide arc of powerful bullets, but is only effective at close range; another fires homing bullets that are slightly weaker than standard projectiles but requires no aiming. (The damage reduction is mandatory for the latter, as otherwise it would be effective to a fault.) Various charms can be purchased and equipped, and add effects such as an additional hit-point – Cuphead typically has three, and they can’t be replenished mid-fight – or invincibility while dashing. The options aren’t extensive, and several of them are useless, but learning how and when to use the more effective weapons and abilities is central to success.
Unfortunately, the primary way to earn coins for these purchases is to complete optional side-scrolling levels that are reminiscent of traditional run-and-gunners like Contra. Originally Cuphead didn’t include these, and rightly so. They’re short, often gimmicky, and not as finely balanced as the boss fights. Studio MDHR, the game’s developers, seem to recognise their worthlessness, as they allow you to skip them, but the money for upgrades is still scattered inside them, and thus “optional” becomes a relative term. The only positive of these deviations is that they’re very receptive to the player’s equipment choices. You can outfit Cuphead such that these sections are highly manageable and quickly beaten, while still being able to pocket their rewards.
The bosses aren’t so simple, and require not just planning and preparation, but a thorough understanding of the game’s mechanics. The most important flourish is a technique known as parrying, which allows you to essentially double-jump into certain projectiles, nullifying damage, gaining extra height, and filling Cuphead’s special attack meter. The game highlights objects or enemies that can be parried in pink, which is a clear distinction that can generally be spotted in even the more visually-chaotic levels. Mastery of this technique is important for its utility, but also for the game’s cadence and flow. When the various disparate aspects of gameplay combine, they make for a raucous orchestration; each movement, shot, parry and special attack a percussive beat in a virtuoso performance.
If Cuphead has a crucial flaw, it’s in the game’s slavish devotion to its aesthetic. Enemies have nothing as crude as a health bar, but they also don’t offer any kind of visual feedback to indicate their proximity to death. Deciding when to unload your special attacks or risk crucial hit-points in order to deliver a finishing blow is difficult without clear on-screen information; a progress meter can be seen if the boss kills you, which is usually enough to encourage another go, but it doesn’t help in the moment. It sometimes makes a game that’s already punitive feel a little too unreasonable.
All in all, though, Cuphead is an awe-inspiring retro experience that is brief but so artistically impressive you scarcely care how savagely the game is treating you. It’s a challenging experience, this, one predicated on death and failure and learning through constant repetition. But if that’s your cup of tea, you’ll struggle to find a game that better exemplifies how much pride and satisfaction you can wring from a surmounting a demanding obstacle.