Cuphead made me scream obscenities at a flower. His merry dragon tempted me to headbutt my television. And the candy princess? Oh, you don’t even want to know. I didn’t appreciate it until much later, but those early maddening hours with Studio MDHR’s run-and-gun platformer were like a furnace, sharpening my skills and turning me into the best fucking Cuphead player I could be. That trial by fire is ultimately one of the most satisfying parts of the overall experience, but players who just want to enjoy the unique aesthetic will burn themselves.
The hand-drawn animation is fascinating and makes for one of the most visually appealing games I’ve played in years. Studio MDHR has faithfully recreated nearly every facet of classic animation of the 1920s and 1930s, from the title cards that introduce each stage to the jazzy score that accompanies the action. If you have any fondness for that era, you are in good hands. Entering the game, I wondered if there would be certain tributes to long-lost techniques, and, without ruining some of the game’s most satisfying little moments, the answer is “Yes!” The attention to detail is amazing and I was immediately sucked into the scratchy Technicolor world. But when I got there, I was in for a surprise.
Cuphead may lure you to you like the visible smell of a cartoon cake, but the trouble is the windowsill slams on your hands. Studio MDHR was inspired not only by classic animation, but also by cool arcade games that were fed a steady diet of quarters. Most of Cuphead is built around boss fights, each of which has different phases. They can be taken out in a few minutes, but that’s assuming you’ve mastered the various tricks each requires. You have unlimited passageways, but no checkpoints or shortcuts through the encounters. If you fail – and you will fail – you will have to fight that boss again from the opening moments. This approach walks the wafer-thin balance bar between frustrating and rewarding, and it usually succeeds. About half the time I finally got the final blow to a boss, I cheered. The other times I would flip it over the bird with both hands. You can play simplified versions of the boss fights, but you won’t get to see many of the game’s best moments. You’ll also need to beat them on the regular difficulty if you want to fight the last pair of bosses. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Compared to the intense boss encounters, the run-and-gun action levels feel uninspired, full of straightforward enemy gauntlets and platforming challenges. These sections aren’t nearly as interesting as the rest of the game, and feature some of Cuphead’s worst moments, such as a poorly implemented gravity-swapping section and a few fatal surprises at the end of the stage that look more like active trolling. Unfortunately, they are the main source of gold coins, which you need to buy additional weapons and special abilities. Fortunately, these levels are not many and you will never have to visit them again once you get all the coins.
Those weapons and abilities add a welcome wrinkle to Cuphead. You can equip two types of weapons, one of the three ultimate attacks and a special charm. In the beginning, I was drawn to skills that gave me extra health. Then I got better at the game and found myself not getting hit as often. That’s when I switched to a force that could prevent damage from storming, and that changed everything. The arsenal is small but diverse, and part of the fun is finding gear that works best for you. On several occasions, when I thought a boss was impossible, I went through it after choosing the right tools. Getting good at parrying, which allows you to knock out pink projectiles, is also key.
When I got stuck, I turned to the local cooperative for help. By bringing along a buddy (who plays as Cuphead’s friend, Mugman), you can breathe new life into your comrade if you manage to parry their mind before it floats to the top of the screen. I thought this would be an exaggeration, but it comes with a trade-off: sharing space with another character can be distracting, especially if you have to watch out for subtle cues the bosses have before they attack. Thanks to co-op, I got through some tough stages, but I beat the rest solo, so no help is required.
Cuphead is a unique experience. Studio MDHR knew what it wanted to make, went ahead and made it. A tough boss rush game based on classic animation archetypes? It shouldn’t work, but here we are. It’s fun to play, and maybe even just as satisfying to watch, because you can fully absorb what’s happening on screen. It would have been easy to lower the overall difficulty (and I wouldn’t have complained), but neither would Cuphead. Stick with it is all I can say. It’s not often we get something that makes you smile and gnash your teeth this close.