Game review: Cuphead honours old cartoons with gorgeous graphics that mask its fiendish difficulty
Mixing the art style of 1930s-era cartoons with the stiff challenge of early console run ‘n’ gun games proves a masterstroke by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, who have created one of the year’s true stand-out titles
Slogging your way through Cuphead may make you feel old. It may remind you of the physical sensation of playing Nintendo games such as Contra, or the arcade version of Ghosts ’n Goblins. Similar to those games of yore, it is blisteringly hard from the jump.
Anyone with the slightest fondness for 1930s Betty Boop or old Warner Brothers cartoons should be wowed by the game’s presentation. For all who ever dreamed of the day that video games would look like bona fide cartoons, Cuphead (for PC and Xbox One) is a sight to behold with its crackly, grainy, gorgeous animation and its exuberant period-themed music.
You may force friends to sit through its opening number – a barbershop song about how Cuphead and his brother Mugman allowed their fondness for dice to lead them into contact with the devil – because it is so charming.
The player’s duty is to help Cuphead get out of gambling debt by collecting the contracts of other adversaries who have bargained with the devil. Accomplishing that means persevering through the game’s more than two dozen boss battles and surviving its “run ‘n’ gun” side-scrolling sections.
In an interview with Time magazine, lead artist Chad Moldenhauer, who co-directed the game with his brother Jared, said that he and his sibling revere games from the second half of the 1980s and the ’90s. Their fidelity to retro gaming is clear.
In Cuphead there are no regenerating life bars, health packs or checkpoints. Rather, you start off with three hit points, then acquire the option to buy another with currency that can be found in the run ‘n’ gun areas.
Unless you are hyper vigilant, those hit points can disappear in a flash. You either beat a boss, getting through a level with at least one hit point intact, or you do it all over from the beginning if you want to proceed.
Bosses can be played on simple or regular difficulty. These fights tend to require you to stay on your toes for about two minutes, which can seem like an eternity when you are constantly having to react perfectly against an onslaught of threats.
Opting for the simple difficulty usually removes one of the boss’s forms so that, for example, when you are fighting the malevolent vegetables known as The Root Pack, you will encounter a potato that shoots clumps of dirt and a carrot that projects rings of psychic energy, but not the baby onion who cries deadly tears.
Although the game supports local co-op, so that you can play it with a friend in the same room, the extra support can be more a hindrance than an aid as you will often die trying to revive each other. There is a brief window where you can jump on your companion’s departing ghost and bring it back in with one hit point, but because the game does not grace players with an invincibility frame when jumping on a ghost, we were often hit when frantically attempting to rescue one another.
Yes, you can already find videos on YouTube of people who have bested all of the game’s bosses in no-hit runs, but that is like saying that you can find videos of someone running a mile in under four minutes and fifteen seconds. Few people are destined to ever achieve such glory. Yet there is satisfaction to be had in venturing outside your comfort zone.