Oh boy have I ever been avoiding playing this game.
It’s not because I dislike reviewing popular games or ones that have had a relentless hype cycle (I’ve played recent examples of both). No the reason I’ve been dreading playing Cuphead is because it’s part of a genre that I’m not a huge fan of: bullet hells. Whilst I long ago learnt the lesson of “focus on yourself, not the entire screen” I still don’t find them to be terribly enjoyable experiences. Coupling that with the fervour surrounding the title, both from a general hype perspective and the “git gud” crowd that popped up around it, meant that anything but a glowing review is likely to be met with criticism that I simply don’t get what Cuphead is about.
The thing is though, I do get it and, unfortunately, it’s not everything it’s cracked up to be.
Cuphead and his pal Mugman go against their elder’s best wishes and cross over the wrong side of the tracks, going to the Devil’s casino. There they proceed to embark on a wondrous winning spree, racking up stacks of dollars. It’s then that the Devil himself appears and proposes them a wager: why don’t you bet your souls on the next hand! Predictably they lose and the Devil comes to collect although the duo manages to convince him to not take their souls. Instead they’ll become the Devil’s own debt collectors, beating up those who’ve made similar wagers with the Devil but have yet to pay up. So begins your quest to beat the living daylights out of Inkwell Isle’s denizens in the hopes of saving your own soul.
Nearly all the hype surrounding Cuphead comes from the fact that it’s entirely hand animated in the styles of yesteryear. All of the animations are first done by hand using the traditional techniques and they’re then transferred to digital for colour and integration. The results are honestly quite stunning, especially given the amount of things that can be on screen at any one time. For those of us who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons the art style does bring with it a great feeling of nostalgia, even if it fades rather quickly as you dive into the game proper. Of course I couldn’t mention the art style without also mentioning the music and foley work, both of which have received as much love and attention as the visuals have. Suffice to say the vast majority of the work put into Cuphead has gone into these two aspects which means that something else had to suffer.
The chosen victim for a game built off the backs of 2 people is, as it is with many visuals-first indie games, the game mechanics. The core is a simplistic, run and gun platformer/bullet hell where you move from the left to the right of the screen, battling enemies and bosses alike. Your arsenal comprises of two weapons, a super move and a charm which provides you with a single benefit such as 1 extra HP or becoming invulnerable when you dash. About 2/3rds of the game is spent directly in boss fights without the need to make your way through a level beforehand. The remaining levels are “run and gun” ones which are closer to your traditional 2D platformer. There are different guns, upgrades and super moves for you to collect which gives you a bit of control over how Cuphead plays out for you. All in all it’s a pretty simple game which should make the decision as to whether or not it’s worth your purchase a pretty simple one.
Combat is functional although there seems to be a couple quirks about its particular implementation. For starters the hit detection doesn’t feel like it’s 100%, sometimes being either too generous or too strict (with no discernible way to tell how its going to swing). For example there’s one level, Treetop Trouble, where there’s holes in a ramp in the first section. You can actually get more than half of your character into the hole before you fall into it, something which you need to do if you want to be able to jump over them properly. The shooting, both yours and the enemies, seems largely unaffected by this thankfully but it does mean that the platforming aspects are more irritating than they’d otherwise be.
Cuphead’s combat does suffer from an informational problem though. Whilst it tells you that certain weapons are “above average” damage and so forth it’s really quite hard to tell just how relatively powerful weapons are to each other. This also applies to the supers which can sometimes help you skip a boss stage entirely or seemingly do nothing at all. Indeed some bosses almost feel like the damage you do is irrelevant, you just have to live through the section in order to progress to the next phase. Indeed every time I switched up my build I always ended up going back to the default weapon as everything either seemed to provide no benefit at all or was just straight up worse by comparison.
A lot of the difficulty in Cuphead comes from the randomisation in the experience, making it hard to simply spam a single strategy in order to progress. Indeed once you’ve managed to master one stage of a boss fight it’s likely you’ll die very quickly to the next one, necessitating another replay in order to master the next section. This means that for a typical boss fight in Cuphead, which has 3 phases, you’ll have to play it at least 3 times over. This repetition isn’t something I find particularly fun and unlike other games like Dark Souls I don’t feel like I’m getting that much better by playing it over and over again. I doesn’t help that most of the boss fights repeat many of the same mechanics over and over again, just with different visuals and/or more of the same things to make it harder. Perhaps this is my disdain for bullet hell games coming through as I couldn’t really spend more than 30 mins at a time playing the game.
Indeed it seems the data reflects my experience being similar to that of many. Most people do actually play the game, 86.5% of them defeating a boss, but after there people start to drop off rapidly. 60% will finish the first island, as I did, but only 30% will go on to finish the second one. My play time is below the median at 4.9 hours though so it seems more people stick around longer than I did. Regardless it seems that the hype may have just been that and, once people got it in their hot little hands, it wasn’t the game of the year material that many originally thought it to be.
The story is pretty run of the mill although credit where credits due for avoiding the stereotypical damsel in distress trope. It’s not like they attempt for some grand narrative or anything like that, far from it. Instead there’s only small tidbits here and there, dolled out sparingly as you pass major game milestones. There’s a missed opportunity there for each of the enemies that you battle to give a pre/post battle interview to flesh out the world a bit but with the game’s heavy focus on the visuals I doubt there was much time left over for world building. Suffice to say for those who bought this game I doubt they’ll be writing home about the story.
Cuphead is most certainly a visual and aural masterpiece, sure to evoke a strong sense of nostalgia for us gamers who lived through a time where that animation style was popular. The fact that it came out of a studio that consists of just 2 people is quite incredible, even if it took them a good 7 years to make it happen. However the core game play is nothing to write home about with its repetitive mechanics, so-so hit detection and overall lack of clear progression mechanics to keep the player engaged for long stretches of time. To be sure I’m not a fan of this particular genre and that’s tainting my view somewhat but if you, like me, aren’t a fan of this genre then you’re not going to miss much by not purchasing it. For those who bought into the hype though I’m sure they’ve got their money’s worth, especially considering Cuphead’s exceedingly modest asking price.
Cuphead is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3.2 hours played and 14% of the achievements unlocked.