Cuphead is a classic run and gun action game heavily focused on boss battles. Inspired by cartoons of the 1930s, the visuals and audio are painstakingly created with the same techniques of the era, i.e. traditional hand drawn cel animation, watercolor backgrounds, and original jazz recordings. Play as Cuphead or Mugman (in single player or local co-op) as you traverse strange worlds, acquire new weapons, learn powerful super moves, and discover hidden secrets while you try to pay your debt back to the devil! Cuphead’s gameplay is based around continuous boss fights, with interspersed run and gun levels. The game also includes role-playing elements, and a branching level sequence. Cuphead has infinite lives, maintaining all equipment between deaths. The player can purchase weapons and “Charms” (special abilities) from the shop using coins collected from the run-and-gun levels. Player characters feature a parry attack that can be used on certain objects marked in pink, to various effects; the most important of them being increasing a “super meter” that enables more powerful attacks. After completing a level, the player will be ranked with a grade based on their performance, through factors such as the time taken to defeat a boss, damage taken/avoided, and number of parried attacks. The levels are accessible through a top-down perspective overworld with its own secret areas. The game also has a two-player local cooperative mode that allows another player to play as Mugman.
Cuphead, at its best, educates the player on how to overcome each obstacle. Every boss fight has an ideal strategy discovered through trial and error. To avoid stress, it’s helpful to think of failure as a greater tool than any weapon. When a Medusa-like boss froze me in midair, I eventually found the spot to hide from her icy stare. After a ghastly horseman uppercutted me into oblivion, I knew to keep an eye on the bottom of the screen so I could spot him preparing a strike. With each round against a boss, I found myself progressing further, not because I was becoming some prodigious video game guru, but because I merely spotted and memorized each stone on the walkway to victory.
Cuphead made me feel more good and more bad than any other game I’ve played in the last several years. I swore, laughed, and hollered with delight. I hated it (and my own fingers) for long stretches but, having finished, I realise that’s more or less the point – I emerged from all that pain smiling. Rather than simply offering the player what they want, Cuphead makes them earn that right – the rewards, if you can hack the tests, are absolutely worth it. Cuphead is incredible for more than just its looks. But before you dive in, make sure you actually want a game that plays like this, and not just a game that looks like this.