First things first, this review will only be done in written format. While Cuphead is a game with video that begs to be shared, one of joys of playing it is watching each level and boss unfold in front of you. As such, while I’ll share some clips below, I don’t want to spoil anything for potential players with a full video review.
Your eyes focus intently, your heart rate steadily increases, and your hands begin to sweat as you grip the controller with a strength beyond what it was designed for. You are attempting to hold on as long as possible, hoping beyond all odds to see “Knockout!” before you are hit one more time and have to start over again. Cuphead, designed to replicate the challenging run and gun shooters from the eighties and nineties, offers that gameplay loop with every play session. It’s exhilarating, and just one of the many admirable aspects of this phenomenal title.
The story of Cuphead’s development and rise to fame has been well documented. Initial development began on the title several years ago by the Moldenhauer brothers who wanted their title to accurately portray the early 1930s era of cartoons they grew up watching. To properly capture the style of those cartoons, every frame in the game is hand-drawn and animated thus representing the “rubber hose animation” style of the time period. Cuphead debuted to the public during Microsoft’s E3 press conference in 2014 and due to its unique aesthetic, immediately stood out. Microsoft featured it more prominently during their E3 conference in 2015 and it was shortly after that Microsoft and the Moldenhauer brother’s development studio, Studio MDHR, came to an agreement on the title. While Cuphead was initially planned to be a small boss run style title only, the deal with Microsoft allowed them to pursue their full vision for the game which included an overworld, platforming levels, and overall larger scope.
The ID@Xbox Sizzle Reel Where Cuphead Was Originally Shown in 2014 (0:37)
Upon starting, you assume the role of Cuphead and are introduced to the tutorial by the Elder Kettle. If you’ve got a local buddy or family member looking to join the fun, couch co-op is supported with the second player assuming the role of Mugman, Cuphead’s best friend. While the tutorial is standard fare and teaches you the basics of the game’s mechanics, what’s immediately apparent is the fluidity of the controls. Run and gun shooters live or die by the accuracy of their controls so it was incredibly important for the game to act as an extension of your thumbs. Along with being a shmup fanatic, I grew up playing the games that inspired Cuphead, so I understand the importance of movement and hitboxes being accurate to the frame. I’m happy to say that Studio MDHR nailed it. And thankfully, you can also completely remap the buttons should you choose (and from my experience you will want to).
Setting out onto Inkwell Isle for the first time, you are greeted by a delightful jazz tune that, as with everything in Cuphead, is representative of the era. The jazz soundtrack is composed by Kristofer Maddigan and comprised of a 13-piece big band, 10-piece ragtime ensemble, solo pianist, and singers. It is delightful in every facet. Each track seems highly suited to the accompanying level and the main overworld theme is particularly indelible. Several times now I’ve caught myself humming it around the house when not playing. A telling sign of its quality is that as an official, stand-alone soundtrack, it has become quite popular in its own right as well.
A behind the scenes look at recording the Cuphead OST from Studio MDHR
It was Cuphead’s artistic direction which initially drove its notoriety, and after completing the game, I can say wholeheartedly it’s even more impressive when witnessed in person. The Moldenhauer brother’s goal of re-creating the look and feel of an early 1930s era cartoon is fully realized, with every frame of animation containing a degree of life that is quite frankly, hard to put into words. While there are six “run and gun” levels in the game that combine shooting and platforming, and are brilliant in their own right, it’s the bosses that are truly marvelous. Each of the near thirty bosses have a unique theme, setting, randomized attacks, and multiple “forms” that must be conquered over the course of the battle. Each one, from the beginning to the last, is gorgeously drawn and animated. I found myself replaying bosses simply to watch the sequences over again and I took more video clips and screenshots while playing Cuphead than any game in recent memory.
So, onto the elephant in the room then, the difficulty. For me, the talk about how difficult of a title Cuphead is, has been overblown. That’s not to say it’s not challenging, because it is. However, as Cuphead pays homage to the classic run and gun games of the 8 and 16 bit eras, it had to present a challenge to the player. At the core of every classic shooter was a challenging but fair experience that rewarded persistence, hand/eye coordination, and quite frankly, talent. Cuphead does this in the best possible way and for an old school shmup lover like myself, I relish it. I particularly enjoyed the boss battles where you are flying as they were very clearly designed with those classic mechanics in mind. Most importantly, at no time did I blame the game for dying. The combination of fluid combat, air tight controls, and precise design immediately elevate Cuphead’s standing among 2D shooters to among the best I’ve ever played.
To aid with the challenge presented, there are a few nuances to gameplay and some customization options relating to your abilities. You are able to be equipped with two weapon types, a super move, and a charm. Weapon types rekindle memories of titles like Contra with variations such as a spread shot, homing shot, boomerang, and a few others. Charms represent an aid to your standard abilities. For instance, my favorite is a “smoke dash” that allows you to dash through enemies for a few frames of invincibility. Both weapons and charms are purchased from Pork Rind’s Emporium (the in-game store) using coins your will acquire around the Isles and during the run and gun levels. Your super abilities meanwhile, are unlocked by visiting a mausoleum on each Isle (three total) which act as a small side game. Your super ability continually builds while playing a level or fighting a boss and can be used either as an extra powerful shot, or when fully charged, as a special ability. These can be priceless and the timing of their use can be the difference between winning and losing particularly when one of the three supers offers timed invincibility. There are just enough options to add variety to the encounters and you’ll find that specific weapons and tactics are better suited for specific bosses as well.
If there’s an aspect of the game that surprised me even beyond my lofty expectations though, it’s the amount of character that’s injected into every single frame. Every segment of a level, every form of a boss, and even the overworld itself within which NPCs, some offering secrets, are scattered, is bursting with personality at every turn. Though I played mostly solo in a room by myself, I would often catch myself smiling or making a comment out loud about how incredible something was that I had just witnessed. In fact, while I applaud Studio MDHR for the challenging nature and uncompromised vision of the game, my only qualm would be that it will prevent some players from experiencing it fully. And I believe this is a game that should be experienced in its entirety by as many people as possible. If you are someone who has admired Cuphead from the outside looking in and can’t or won’t play it for any reason, I would implore you to seek out streams or videos of the gameplay. I promise it will make you smile.
It took me a little under 8 hours to beat Cuphead for the first time and if you couldn’t infer it by now, I enjoyed it tremendously. In fact, my largest complaint with the game is quite simply that there’s not more of it. Fortunately, after beating the game you unlock the ability to replay each boss at an expert level and there are few secrets to unlock as well including a beautiful black and white mode. At a time when complaints are prevalent that originality is declining in the industry, Cuphead is the stiffest rebuttal yet.
Given the amount of time and effort that went into creating it, I’m not expecting any new Cuphead content for quite some time, but I certainly hope Studio MDHR has future plans for it as a franchise. Given the popularity of the title, I have to expect they do. I am already anticipating whatever comes next.
Cuphead is a love letter to the golden age of 2D shooters containing stunning art direction, a superb soundtrack, and controls tuned to perfection. It is extraordinary.