Don’t let its cute looks fool you, Cuphead is pure concentrated evil. Cuphead is a love letter to old-school shooters, like Contra, Gunstar Heroes, and Gradius, written in blood! This is the kind of game you will die hundreds of times in. This game is so hard, I thought I might never beat it. It seemed impossible at first, but I slowly got better, until I finally put the Devil in his place! If you think you’re up to the challenge, Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC for $19.99.
The thing that will draw most people to Cuphead is its graphics. Cuphead uses sprites made from real watercolor painted drawings, combined with lots of film grain and dust particles, to recreate the look of a 1930s cartoon. It looks good enough that you could mistake a screenshot for a scene from Disney’s Silly Symphony. The developers of Cuphead are obviously big fans of animation. This game is full of references to old cartoons, like Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, and even stuff you don’t hear about so much these days, like Popeye, Betty Boop, and Woody Woodpecker. Fans of hand drawn animation will likely fall in love at first sight with Cuphead.
Like in a lot of those old cartoons, the music is a big part of Cuphead. The game features Swing, Ragtime, Jazz, and Barbershop Quartet songs, which perfectly fit the game’s art style. The Barbershop Quartet songs even have lyrics about Cuphead. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill soundtrack. It really feels like a lot of thought was put into it.
The story of Cuphead is also like something straight out of an old cartoon. Cuphead and his brother, Mugman, wander far away from home, and end up in the Devil’s Casino. Inside, they bet on a game of craps against the Devil. If they win, they get all the loot in the casino. If they lose, the Devil gets their souls! Of course, they lose, so they make a deal with the Devil to save their souls. The Devil will let them off the hook, if they bring him the souls of all those who ran off without paying him, by tomorrow at Midnight. Those deadbeats are actually all the bosses in the game.
The bosses are all a lot of fun and very creative. There isn’t one boss that I can say is just a slightly different version of another boss. Each boss starts off with a few simple attacks, and either adds more attacks as the fight goes on, or changes into something completely different in each phase. Some bosses are really more like 2 or 3 bosses in one. The thing that’s really amazing is how they all stay fun, even when you die a bunch of times on them. Well, at least they did to me. There are 19 bosses and 6 separate run and gun levels in the game. Some of the boss fights take place in Parodius-like shoot ‘em up levels. These have you flying on a plane, while fighting smaller enemies, along with the boss, in a side scrolling level. There are no separate shoot 'em up levels, like the run and gun ones, though.
The run and gun levels are fun and challenging, but nothing I haven't seen before. I was often reminded of Metal Slug and Gunstar Heroes, of course, but there's a lot of Mario and Mega Man in there, too. These levels are really more about platform jumping and avoiding enemy attacks than they are about shooting. You can actually unlock a black and white mode if you can beat them all without shooting anything.
Cuphead is not set up like a typical, stage-based arcade game. It has an overworld map you can walk around in, like in Super Mario 3D World. You don’t have to play levels in a specific order. You can play whatever level you can get to. You do have to beat some levels in order to open the path to new sections of the map, though. Maybe a door will open, or a bridge will be built after you beat a level, sort of like in Super Mario World. There are 4 worlds in total, but the last one only has the final battles in it.
Cuphead doesn't use lives and continues. Instead, you get a health bar with 3 hearts by default, so you die on the third hit. It’s not too different from playing Contra with only 3 lives. There are no checkpoints, so when you die, you have to replay the whole level, but you can retry as many times as you want, since you don't have limited continues.
Even though Cuphead is a shooter, he doesn't carry any guns around. He just kind of snaps his fingers and shoots magic out of them. You start off with the straight line shot, the Peashooter, and you can buy new weapons with the gold coins you find in run and gun levels, from a shady looking pig named Pork Rind. There are 6 different weapons, including a spread shot, homing shot, and a charge shot. Pork Rind also sells charms, which you can equip to gain different perks, like extra hearts, or a faster filling super meter.
Cuphead does have a mechanic that adds a new twist to the old-school action, and that is the parry. You can press the jump button, while in mid-air, and bounce off any pink colored bullet, enemy, or enemy attack. Of course, if you mistime it, you will take a hit and lose a heart, but if you hit it, you gain meter. You can ignore parrying early on, but it’s a requirement to beating both bosses and run and gun levels later in the game. Choosing whether or not to parry an attack to gain meter can really affect a fight, so it’s a mechanic that keeps you on your toes. Parrying is also how you revive another player when playing co-op. When someone dies in co-op, their ghost will fly upwards, and the other player must parry off it before they fly off the screen to revive them.
Cuphead is a must play for any fan of 2D shooters. Just be prepared for a real challenge. I love the cartoon art style, and the soundtrack is something special. The story is cute, and I enjoyed spotting references to old cartoons. This is one of those games in which everything just comes together beautifully.