There’s nothing about Cuphead’s gameplay that particularly appeals to me. Boss rush modes, trial and error based encounters, and bullet hell shooters are not high on my list of enjoyable game elements. And yet somehow a small indie studio run by two people has combined all these elements into one of the best games of the year. It’s so good that I’m now looking for similar games to recapture the highs Cuphead provided during my 15-hour playthrough.
The gameplay didn’t initially appeal, but the visuals sure as hell did. The 1930s cartoon aesthetic is beautiful in screenshots, captivating in video, and utterly mesmerizing when you’re playing. The enemies move at 24 fps to capture that old-school cartoon feel, but the game plays at 60 fps to keep the action fast and responsive. The work that went into creating visually appealing enemies out of potatoes, flowers, and casino chips absolutely boggles my mind. The story is told through a set of stunning still images that show Cuphead making a deal with the devil after losing at gambling. Cuphead needs to capture the souls of the game’s bosses to get out of the contract or his soul is doomed. The artwork in these images was so perfect it almost made me care about the story. Almost. Devoting only a paragraph to Cuphead’s graphics is an insult. Nevertheless…
Cuphead is a series of seventeen short boss fights, each of which can be completed in around two minutes. In theory. In reality, most of them took me between thirty minutes and an hour. I’m sure there are people who can beat these bosses first time, but I’m not one of them. I had to learn each phase of the fight and keep retrying until I executed it all perfectly. When I failed, it was usually my fault. Usually. More on that later.
At its core, Cuphead is a simple game. You’ll spend most of your time holding down the shoot button while jumping and dashing around to avoid the wide variety of projectiles thrown at you including mummified cats and a ghost’s eyeballs. Pink projectiles can be parried with a second press of the jump button, although the timing can be a bit tricky. Parrying and doing damage to enemies builds up your special meter which can be saved up for a blistering special attack or used in stages as you earn it. That’s all there is to it. Like I said, Cuphead is a simple game. Until you play it.
Ignore all the silly memes and pathetic discussion surrounding this game. Cuphead is hard on its regular difficulty setting however it’s definitely beatable. If I can beat it, there’s a good chance you can too. Bosses follow patterns and have rules. For example, in its first phase, the dragon will either breath fire or shoot out projectiles. That’s the pattern. If there’s smoke from its nostrils then you know it’s going to breathe fire. That’s the rule. Then you have to avoid the fire. That’s the execution. No matter how complicated things get, there are always patterns and rules. Learn. Understand. Execute. If you fail, you can retry in seconds.
If your three hit points disappear a touch too quickly, you can always lower the difficulty to simple mode. I wouldn’t describe it as simple by any stretch, but it is easier. You don’t need to do as much damage to bosses and some boss phases are skipped altogether. Unfortunately, you can’t complete the game in simple mode. The final two bosses only open up once you’ve defeated all the bosses on regular difficulty. I don’t understand the rationale for this decision. Why not allow players to complete the game in simple mode? All the other bosses have altered versions for the different difficulties. Why not the final two? It’s a little odd.
Cuphead flies a plane for a few of the boss fights and this is when it goes into full bullet-hell mode. The screen can get cluttered and a few times it was genuinely tough to pick out the different types of projectiles from the background and foreground animations. There are typically three different types of projectiles to keep an eye on while looking out for opportunities to parry and build up your special meter. I preferred the non-plane boss fights because there isn’t much skill involved in hitting the boss when flying a plane. You nearly always do damage because the boss takes up the entire screen.
If you want a break from the boss fights, you can dive into run-and-gun 2D platforming levels to collect coins to spend in the shop. I initially enjoyed the change of pace, but these levels get tedious quickly. They’re too slow and the coins you collect are typically sat out in the open with little in the way of skill required to pick them up. I’m fine with slow 2D platformers, but I expect them to reward exploration or precision. These levels are slow without the need to explore or be particularly precise. If Cuphead was full of these levels then it wouldn’t be anywhere near as special. Thankfully, there’s only a few and they aren’t mandatory.
You start with the peashooter as your only weapon, but you can buy more exciting ones such as homing bullets, a spread shot, and even a boomerang. A couple of the weapons were only useful in one or two fights, but I’m sure better players than me can take advantage of all of them. You can also buy perks such as being invulnerable during your dash, an extra hit point, or a quicker special charge. The invincible dash is a clear favorite because it gets you out of tight spots and prevents you losing those precious hit points.
If only the challenge always felt fair. An element of randomness creeps into some boss fights that can mean the difference between reaching the last phase with three hit points remaining and dying in twenty seconds on the first phase. Not every boss attack is created equal, so if you get dealt a rough run of attacks, you’re going to struggle. It can be frustrating to have the perfect run and then get dealt a rough hand right at the end. Even the position of moving platforms has a huge impact on success. Just to be clear, a player with enough skill can defeat the bosses regardless of the randomness. None of the fights are broken, however the level of challenge does vary. For players like myself who struggle with the challenge at the best of times, this is a big deal.
The other major pain was the tendency for certain projectiles to hit you while Cuphead is off-screen. This is especially evident on the final boss where Cuphead is always hit by an invisible projectile at the edge of the screen when the boss performs a certain attack. You’ll eventually learn that you can duck to avoid this, but what are you avoiding? This is a tiny problem, but it can tip the balance of certain fights from difficult to frustrating. It’s the difference between “just one more go” and putting down the controller and not picking it back up. There’s a fine line between difficult and frustrating and Cuphead doesn’t always find itself on the right side.
Cuphead is one of the most visually interesting games I’ve ever played. Its gameplay is a throwback to old-school bullet hell shooters and tough boss fights, without the need to worry about running out of lives. I wish I could tell you to ignore the discussion around difficulty and just buy the game, but that’s not fair. Cuphead is a challenging game that requires a lot of practice and patience. You may not enjoy it and that’s fine. However, if you’re at all interested in what Cuphead has to offer then you should take the risk. Dive in and see what happens. I played Cuphead for 15 hours and most of them were a hell of a lot of fun. Not all of them, but most.