Cuphead is a run-and-gun platformer, and it’s old school on a whole bunch of fronts. The visuals are reminiscent of the 1930’s era of cartoons, borrowing from Disney’s original work but stylized much closer to classic Looney Tunes. The story is also structured similarly to a cartoon from that era, with a focus on simplicity. Cuphead follows two kids, Cuphead and Mugman, playing around and having fun until they go past the village walls and find the Devil’s Casino. Inside they end up on a winning streak until the manager, the Devil himself, offers them a deal in which they put their souls on the line and lose. In exchange for not giving him their souls, the boys agree to go collect from all the debtors in town that also owe their souls to the devil. Translated into gameplay mechanics, the game is a formated as a “boss rush” style of game, borrowing the structure of NES classics like Mega Man and Contra. Similar to many games from that era, the primary focus is on tight controls and monstrously challenging, but still honest, gameplay.
At its bare bones, Cuphead’s story is similar in tone and structure to a Grimm’s Fairy Tale and even presented through the lens of a storybook. The gameplay pulls from one of gaming’s oldest console generations, the NES era. The music beautifully captures the spirit and instrumentality of the early 1900’s jazz scene, and wonderfully replicates the soul of “Merry Melodies” ambience and general parade music. The aesthetic replicate one of the earliest periods in cartoon animation--the reign of 1930’s Warner Bros. cartoons--both in style and in execution. Cuphead pays homage to so many pieces of history, especially animation history, and does so with tremendous care and craft. Quite simply, Cuphead is brilliantly inspired, and just as masterfully executed on every front.
Cuphead should also be praised for accomplishing a daunting task: making the challenge fun instead of frustrating. I played this game with a sibling who is not quite as experienced with action games. She died plenty, even on the earliest stage, but still she seemed to be having a great time. I can’t think of many games where I notice that sensation of taking pleasure even in the act of defeat. She didn’t follow me all the way to the end of the game, which is around when I started feeling the burn, but despite the overall difficulty of the game I never tired of it or hated anything about it. It’s a fun similarly found in games from the same era, the early titles of Mega Man and Contra. Cuphead gives a challenge that is hard, but honest; the sort of challenge that feels so rewarding to actually beat. Where Cuphead excels over its ancestors is in making the challenge tightly packed and remedying losses with exquisite charm and a tangible measure of how close you were to success.
I would recommend this game to almost everyone. I mean, the gameplay and aesthetic qualities should make it a great experience for all ages and levels, but I’m afraid there’s no skirting the issue. Cuphead is hard. Cuphead is really hard; even if you play the game on Simple difficulty, it’s still on average tougher than a majority of other games released. It does have the advantage of being a “fun” type of challenging (you never feel like the game cheats, if you lose it’s on you and it’s fixable), but unfortunately not everyone will be able to handle it. At the very least, I can promise that Cuphead has appreciable content for everyone, but that content doesn’t necessarily include a beatable game.
Also, while the game is plenty fun solo, it really ups the ante with a friend, so go find your bestie and get ready for a wallop.