An in-depth look at this beautiful but slightly flawed game

User Rating: 9 | Cuphead PC

As everyone in the gaming community has no doubt heard by now, Cuphead is a great game. The story of two ceramic brothers that have to make a deal with the devil to pay off their gambling debts has captured gamers around the world, and for good reason.

Cuphead is a beautifully designed game, made to look like a 1930s Saturday morning cartoon for a modern age of gamers. In an era where so many games think the way to captivate audiences is going forward, using more futuristic designs and mechanics, it's refreshing to see a game go backwards in time and still be original. Now don't get me wrong, some futuristic games are amazing and are extremely fun to play, such as the Titanfall games, but it is rarely realized well, with developers going over the top and showing off colossal elements to invite the player in, but usually end up pushing them away. A prime example of these failings is Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare, where the sheer scale of the matches made it difficult to play and focus, resulting in the game becoming samey and monotonous. Cuphead is different. The effort that was put into this game is evident in it's design, as each character, background and animation was painstakingly hand-drawn, one frame at a time. This is shown in the design of the isles , which house the game's levels. Upon exploring them, the player can find themselves encountering happy citizens or hidden shortcuts that greatly increase the enjoyment the player gets out of them. When the player wants to enter a level, they can be easily seen as the entry points are shaded in a different way to the backgrounds of the isles. The characters are constantly moving, with Cuphead and Mugman happily bouncing on their knees whenever they're idle, with the same going for most of the other NPCs. This level of minuscule detail shows how devoted the developers were to this game and makes it that bit more enjoyable. Continuing on the isle designs, each is strikingly beautiful. The first is a woodland paradise, where the second is a bustling theme park, the third a sprawling cityscape and the fourth a fiery amalgam of Hell and a sleazy casino. Each of these contains elements of real life, but with a zany, cartoonish twist. Each isle pulses with life, with the level entry points bouncing slightly, as if luring you in for an amazing adventure.

Another huge win for this game is it's variety, which links in to my previous point. Cuphead is a game that consists of boss fights with a few run-and-gun levels scattered throughout. These nineteen bosses are all completely different, with no boss sharing design traits with another. For example, the first world of the four contains a pack of vegetables, a huge teardrop, two boxing frogs, a blimp lady and a demon flower. The originality of the bosses is huge, but nothing compared to the variety of the isles. The creativity of the developers really shines through when you see the wild differences between each world and the bosses are a direct result of that. The first isle, a vast wood, contains bosses such as a flower and vegetables while the third, a glaring metropolis, contains bosses such as a steam train and a suburban house that happens to contain a German rat in a home-made tank. With this much in the game, the player doesn't know where it'll go next, building intrigue that will not leave the player disappointed.

Every good game has a great soundtrack to go with it. Games that are known as some of the best of all time, such and Undertale and the Portal series, are known for their music. The music of a game is important as it provides an atmosphere. For example, the sinister track that plays in Portal goes perfectly with the shock and surprise of Wheatley's betrayal, and the 8-bit, fast-paced Megalovania gets the player pumped when fighting Sans in Undertale's penultimate battle and arguably the best battle in the game. Cuphead does all this and more, with the classy, jazz-esque songs that play in each level build an atmosphere of tension but also extreme enjoyment for the player. This is a fun game and deserves to be played as such. I sometimes boot up the game, after beating it six times, just to hear the opening song again. The characters of Cuphead thrive on this music, with the bosses moving and attacking to the beat of their theme. This gives the player a helping hand and lets them predict the enemy's attacks, helping them through the challenging levels.

This is an extremely important point that most games try for, but few succeed with: replayability. Many games have a strong and enjoyable story that takes up much of the player's time and gives them satisfaction, but fall flat when the game is over, fading into the depths of the disk rack or Steam library, never given a second thought. Again using Undertale as an example, the player's choices throughout the game drive what ending they will receive, with even one choice completely changing the outcome entirely. This factor alone makes it one of the best games to play time and time again. Cuphead has that same allure, that same thing that makes people want to revisit it, but goes about it in a different way. Cuphead ensures that you will have so much fun playing it that you won't want to stop, making it sort of addictive. I'm not sure if this was intentional on the part of the developers but it certainly works. Cuphead will be a game i come back to many times in the future.

The story of the game is simple but effective. The two brothers, Cuphead and Mugman, get in too deep at the Devil's casino and have to sell their souls to pay off their debts. Now their master, the Devil instructs them to kill all his other debtors (the bosses of the game) and collect their souls, seen here in the form of contracts. This sends the two off on a quest along the four Inkwell Isles until they reach the Devil in Inkwell Hell, then the player can choose to hand over the contracts and become his slave or refuse and try their hand and fighting him as the final boss. In a time where most media- films, games and books, is built on complex and winding stories that are sometimes difficult to follow and unpleasant to experience, a story as simple as this one is warmly welcomed.

Like it's design, the content of the game is highly varied and original. Players can visit an item shop on every level in the form of Porkrind's emporium, where they can purchase charms and extra weapons with coins found in the run-and-gun levels. Of course, the emporium is accompanied with catchy music and an amazingly designed Porkrind, who looks like Porky Pig crossed with Popeye. The charms are varied in both design and usefulness, with the most popular among the community being the smoke bomb, allowing Cuphead to dash through objects without taking damage. This is mirrored by the extra heart and double extra heart charms, which give the player one or two extra hit points on top of the typical three, but for each heart equipped, the user's damage decreases by 5%. This is extremely unpopular among the players as it makes the boss fights even longer, but helps for new players. Other charms include Whetstone, a charm used to deal damage to enemies using parries, a maneuver that usually does no harm, P.Sugar, a charm that makes the first parry Cuphead executes automatically, taking a small amount of stress off, and Coffee, a charm that automatically fills up the hero's super meter without needing to do damage. However, most players do not opt for the charms but for the weapons, as there aren't enough coins in the game to purchase every item. Cuphead begins the game with a standard blue finger gun that shoots straight, does moderate damage and has moderate range, but other shots can be purchased from the emporium. These include a spread shot, which splits the shot into four parts that do four times the damage when they all hit an enemy. This is extremely close range. Players can also buy a charge shot, which they can shoot as a normal gun, releasing small, fast bolts that do very little damage, or charge it up for a minimum of two seconds to release a huge blast that deals massive damage. On top of this, a chaser weapon can be purchased. This shoots green shots that follow the closest enemy or foreign object. It guarantees a hit but does very little damage-less than an uncharged charge shot. Furthermore the player can purchase a roundabout weapon that flies in the direction it is shot in for some time, but then makes a u-turn and flies the opposite way before flying off-screen. This does above-average damage and is useful in some levels where the boss spawns in minions. Last but not least, a lobber shot is available, where the player launches a large projectile that flies a short distance before bouncing on the ground, dealing extremely high damage if it hits. Buying all of these weapons is recommended as the player can have two equipped at any one time and can adapt their loadout to the needs of a particular level. Outside of the emporium, players can explore four unique isles and complete the levels there, but can also talk to the natives of each. These include a smartly-dressed fork, a barbershop pole quartet and a lumberjack axe. The people can give you helpful tips and perhaps just crack a joke to break the tension of boss rushing. Aside from them, though, the isles themselves are bursting with content. Isle one contains five bosses, one of them a flying mission, and two run-and-guns at moderate difficulty to ease the player in. On Isle two, the difficulty is raised slightly. The isle still contains five bosses and two run-and-guns, but two of the bosses are flying missions, levels well known to be the most difficult in the game, and are much harder to master, especially on expert difficulty. In Inkwell Isle three, however, the difficulty increases massively. This world contains two run-and-guns as usual, but seven boss levels. These are much more difficult than their predecessors and contain two flying missions. Inkwell Isle four, or Inkwell Hell, is where the game concludes and contains only two bosses: King Dice and the Devil. However, King Dice's boss battle consists of the player rolling a dice to move along a board, trying to fight as few of the nine available mini-bosses as they can before reaching King Dice himself. The game's boss battles, while sometimes grueling, are essential to progression, as the player cannot proceed to the next isle until all the bosses in the current isle have been killed in regular difficulty. At first this seems like an acceptable task, but is made harder by the existence of flying levels.

Rather than go into detail on every single boss fight in the game, I will review and analyse my personal favorite: King Dice. This battle is a perfect example of the best part of the game and is what many players boot up the game for time and time again

King Dice is encountered in Inkwell Hell and is the game's penultimate boss, having to be beaten before the player can advance to the devil. His battle, called "All Bets Are Off!", is by far the most detailed and original in the game, fitting in perfectly with the casino theme of the Isle. The player starts on a board game of fifteen spaces, including the start and finish spaces. They must then use parries to hit a one-to-three dice that will dictate how many spaces forward they will move. There are three safe spaces the player can land on, each with three spaces between them, a space makes the player start the whole game again and is the penultimate space, and the end space which starts the actual King Dice fight. The other nine spaces are mini-boss spaces, with a different foe on each. The first space contains the Tipsy Troop, a group of three alcoholic drinks that consists of a martini, whiskey and rum. The martini will send out minions in the form of flying olives to distract the player, while the whiskey shoots his fluid from the top of his head, sending it flying down on where the player was when it was launched. The rum flings his fluid across the ground at a quick pace, making the player jump over it. When the player has killed all three of the Troop, they can return to the board and roll the dice again. The second boss is Chips Bettigan, a stack of eleven poker chips that is, in my opinion, the easiest mini-boss in the level. He only has one attack, where he splits himself into a random amount of chips and launches himself to the player from one side of the screen to the other, forcing the player to jump through the gaps. Using the chaser weapon, the player can hit the boss even as he's moving, bringing the fight to a quick and easy end. Once the player has beaten him they are free to return to the board game. The third mini-boss is Mr.Wheezy, a huge cigar that resides in one of two ashtrays suspended over a fiery pit. He will attack the player by shooting balls of fire at them. These balls spin in circles in the air, allowing the player to either jump over or crouch underneath them. He also transfers himself from one ashtray to the other, causing damage to the player when he makes contact with them. When he disappears, the player must jump-dash to the empty ashtray to avoid damage. The way is blocked, however, by small cigarette bats that fly over the space between the ashtrays randomly, making the timing of the player's jump-dash essential. This fight can be over quickly if the player keeps up the pressure by using powerful attacks. The fourth fight contains Pip and Dot, two faces of a domino that are joined together, and is followed by Hopus Pocus, a magician's rabbit, Pfear Lap, a skeletal racehorse, Pirouletta, a ballerina roulette table, Mangosteen, a hovering, grinning eight-ball, and Mr. Chimes, a permanently moving symbol monkey. Pfear Lap and Mr. Chimes are both flying mini-bosses, adding an extra streak of difficulty. Once the player has reached the end space they have to fight King Dice himself in a boss that is quite disappointing. The king has only one attack, making playing cards that walk from one side of the screen to another, and it is easily avoidable by either parrying the pink suits or hiding behind his hand when he does it. This boss as a whole is an extremely creative affair that forces the player to adapt to a number of incredibly different and sometimes difficult situations on the fly. It also forces them to choose their weapons and charms wisely as there is no changing your loadout until the boss is done. However, the final boss of King Dice is underwhelming and pitifully easy, considering his status as the Devil's right-hand man.

Now I will analyse the other side of the coin, and what is, in my opinion the worst boss in the game: Dr Kahl's Robot. This boss is encountered in Inkwell Isle Three and is a flying boss. The fight, called "Junkyard Jive!" begins with the giant metal robot unleashing three main attacks. The first comes from it's head and is a laser beam. The robot targets the player with a small laser that dramatically expands into a sweeping beam that is designed to trap them in one corner of the screen. The beam holds for a few seconds, then disappears. This continues until the player deals enough damage to the antenna on the robot's head. The second attack is a laser bot that is released from the robot's chest. The bot fires a laser from the top and bottom of it that collectively spans the entire height of the screen as it moves towards the player. This attack is unavoidable and the only way the player can block it is by parrying the bot, cutting off the stream. This continues until the player has dealt enough damage to the robot's chest. The third attack comes from the robot's abdomen, where it shoots out small robots known as Boterangs. These minions will fly along the side of the screen, occasionally cutting along to the other side. They can be destroyed by the player, but it is pointless and more effective attacking the hatch they came out of, stopping the flow. This is only the first stage of the battle and it is extremely tiresome. The same attacks are thrown again and again and with each part having a separate amount of health, it goes on for a very long time. This is also wildly difficult as all three of the attacks are usually launched at once, requiring the player to position themselves in such a way that they can block or avoid all three. When the player has destroyed all three of these sections, stage two of the battle begins. The robot gains three new attacks that are even more difficult to defend against than the previous ones. The first attack is a head cannon, where the robot's head tilts back to revel the barrel of a gun and starts shooting nuts and bolts at the player in a spread shot. The rate of fire is extremely fast and the player will often find themselves going into the plane's shrunken mode to be able to dodge them. The second attack is the robot's use of it's metal arms for one of two small attacks. The robot will either pull the player toward the bottom of the screen with a magnet, or drive it's arms through the middle of the screen, shooting out bullets as they retract. This is perhaps the easiest attack in the fight as the magnet is extremely weak and the driving arms are slow and easy to dodge. The third attack is the robot's homing bombs, which it shoots out of it's abdomen at the player. The player can either evade the bomb until it explodes, or damage it enough so that it explodes. When enough damage is inflicted, the bomb will detonate with a lasting cloud that expands for a short time, so the player must make sure to stay a safe distance away. Once all these sections have been destroyed, the robot shoots it's head off the side of the screen and the body collapses. On simple difficulty, the battle ends here, but on normal and expert difficulty, stage three begins. The robot's head will shoot across the screen at a very fast pace, giving the player almost no chance to dodge and even less chance to deal damage to it, which is essential to move on in the battle. This is the hardest stage in the battle as the head is extremely fast and deals damage when it hits. On top of this, it also fires homing bombs from the previous stage which add another dimension of difficulty. When the head is defeated, it opens up and Dr. Kahl himself emerges, now piloting the head and the final stage begins. He proceeds to pull out either a red or blue crystal, randomly swapping between the two throughout the battle. Both crystals fire a spread of bolts, with the blue one firing six and the red one firing eight. In addition, electrified walls will fly in randomly from the top or bottom of the screen and move around, trying to damage the player. When enough damage has been dealt to the doctor, the robotic head explodes and the battle ends, finally. This is definitely the worst battle in the game as it's far too difficult, with the attacks being overwhelming and irrational, with the music not giving any indication as to what attack might come next. It is also hugely boring, with all the attacks at the beginning two stages feeling the same and not having much variety. It gets more enjoyable towards the end, but any battle is better than this one.

On the whole, Cuphead is a well-rounded, fun 2D platformer that breathes a breath of fresh air into the genre by combining it with elements of shoot-em-up arcade games such as Battletoads and Metal Slug. The fun, cartoonish design gives it a valuable nostalgia factor and pulls players in from the very start, promising enjoyable gameplay right until the end. The sheer diversity of the content, from the weapons to the charms and the bosses to the environments, gives the player a sense of how much hard work was put into this game, especially as it was developed by only two people rather than the tens or hundreds we see working on triple-A titles these days. There are a few unexpected spikes in difficulty throughout, but they can be dealt with soon enough by practicing and perfecting the technique. Play this game with the music loud. It's a huge help. Despite the difficulty issues there are very few other bad points to this game: only a few minor glitches that barely affect gameplay. When you try this game, you'll see that it's an extremely welcome diversion from the market that's currently polluted with gritty shooters and obscene horrors. Cuphead doesn't have to rely on shock factor to pull it's players in. Cuphead is a game with heart.