Hanna-Barbaric

User Rating: 10 | Cuphead PC

Cuphead, a side-scrolling shooter with a focus on challenging boss encounters, is a beautiful, hand-written love letter to old-timey cartoons. Inspired by the ragtime and jazz fever-dream of early 20th century animation, the game is a feast for the eyes and a whetstone for the senses. A difficult shooter fest that dares you to keep up with the ever-increasing odds of its demanding duels and the sensory overload of its lavish presentation, Cuphead is instantly addicting, blindingly beautiful, and deeply rewarding.

The game starts out as any good natured oldie would, as brothers Cuphead and Mugman hit a hot streak at the dice table in the Devil's own casino. They're so lucky in fact, that the Devil himself joins their game and dares them to ante up their souls for a big payoff if they win. Cuphead agrees beside his more reluctant brother, and throws the Devil's dice, losing the game by landing on snake-eyes. When the Devil tries to collect, the brothers beg for another way to pay, and thus their journey begins as the Devil tasks them with collecting the souls of all his other debtors in exchange for getting to keep their souls. It's charming, rife with toonish absurdity, and true to the old "moral of the story" style that many old cartoons were structured with.

The game proper sees Cuphead (and Mugman if there is a second player) navigating an overworld map filled with kooky characters and animated props indicating a boss fight against one of the Devil's debtors. When you stop at one of these props and start a fight, you're instantly assaulted with jazzy tunes and a larger than life cartoon boss, all in pitch-perfect style of old toons like Popeye and Betty Boop. Each boss fight has multiple stages and can change up their rhythm in satisfying and surprising ways as well. In true oldies fashion, many of the boss characters pull huge bombs out of pants pockets, transform into fighter planes, and move in crazy and creative ways as the battle ensues. It keeps the player on their toes and deftly translates the trademark insanity of old cartoons into harrowing battles against unpredictable foes.

Utilizing finger guns that shoot actual bullets, Cuphead can shoot in eight degrees, dash to avoid enemies, and perform a parry ability against pink-colored projectiles by pressing the jump button while in midair. Parrying these pink objects (or simply hitting enemies with bullets) fills a super meter which can be used to unleash more powerful attacks and special abilities. Being successful in the course of the game also nets you gold coins which can be spent on the overworld shop for equippable charms that give passive bonuses or new types of bullets such as homing bullets or a spread shot. It never arms you to the teeth due to only being able to equip so many abilities at once, but it does give you new ways to tackle a tough boss in case the standard bullet type or charm isn't working as well as it did on the last boss.

In so many ways, Cuphead is like what would happen if a time machine melded together with an arcade machine. It's a twitchy and hard as nails side-scroller with an astonishingly crafted tone of emotive, old-timey drawings brought to life. Nothing looks like this anymore, and bringing this aesthetic to life after so many decades of being lost is only a single reason why Cuphead is so special. Even if you didn't grow up with the oldies, it's impossible to resist the meticulous style and refined game that is Cuphead. It's a brisk trot through a wonderland of arcade dreams and irresistible cartoon energy, and it earns every moment of it.