Cuphead Review – A Tempest in a Teacup

Cuphead made me yell at flowers. Its cheerful dragon tempted me to headbutt my TV. What about Candy Princess? Oh, you don’t even want to know. I didn’t realize it until much later, but those early maddening hours of Studio MDHR’s run-and-gun platformer were like a kiln, honing my skills and turning me into the best I could be Damn Cuphead players. Trials is ultimately one of the most satisfying parts of the overall experience, but players who just want to enjoy its unique aesthetic will be burned.

The hand-drawn animations are mesmerizing and one of the most visually appealing games I’ve played in years. Studio MDHR faithfully reproduces almost every aspect of classic animation from the ’20s and ’30s, from the title card that introduces each stage to the jazz score that accompanies the action. If you have any fondness for that era, you’re in good hands. Going into the game, I wondered if it would pay homage to a long-lost technology, and without spoiling some of the game’s most satisfying little moments, the answer was “yes!” The attention to detail was fantastic, and I was immediately impressed Pulled into its rough Technicolor world. But as soon as I got there, I was taken aback.

Cuphead may tempt you to close like the aroma visible in a cartoon pie, but the difficulty is that the windowsill slams your hand. Studio MDHR is inspired not only by classic animation, but also by tough arcade games that feed on a steady quarterly diet. Much of Cuphead’s content is built around boss battles, each of which has several distinct phases. They can be knocked out in minutes, but only if you’ve mastered all the tricks everyone needs. You can continue indefinitely, but there are no checkpoints or shortcuts in skirmishes. When you fail – and you will fail – you have to fight that boss again from the opening moment. This approach finds a very thin balance beam between frustrating and rewarding, and it’s mostly successful. About half the time I finally got the final blow to the boss and I would cheer. Other times, I flip it over with both hands. You can play a simplified version of boss battles, but you won’t see many of the game’s best moments. If you want to fight the last pair of bosses, you’ll also need to beat them on regular difficulty. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Compared to intense boss encounters, the running action levels feel bland, filled with straightforward enemy gloves and platforming challenges. These sections aren’t nearly as fun as the rest of the game, and include some of Cuphead’s worst moments, such as the poorly implemented gravity-swapping sections and some deadly stage-ending surprises that feel more like active trolling. Unfortunately, they are the main source of gold, and you need to buy additional weapons and special abilities. Fortunately, there aren’t many of these levels, and you won’t have to revisit them once you get all your coins.

These weapons and abilities add a welcome wrinkle to the cuphead. You can equip two weapon types, one of three ultimate attacks, and a special charm. At first, I leaned toward those abilities that would give me extra health. Then I got better in the game and found I wasn’t getting hit almost as often. At that moment, I switched to a force that would allow me to sprint to avoid damage, and that changed everything. The arsenal is small but varied, and part of the fun is finding the best loadout for you. There were times when I thought the boss was impossible, I overcame it handily after picking the right tool. Good at parry skills, which allow you to shoot off pink projectiles, which is also key.

When I get stuck, I seek help through my local co-op. By taking a companion (playing as Cuphead’s friend, the Mug Man), you can resurrect your companion if you manage to parry before their ghosts float to the top of the screen. I think this gets overwhelming, but it comes with a trade-off: sharing space with another character can be distracting, especially if you need to pay attention to the boss’ subtle cues before attacking. I got through some tricky stages thanks to co-op, but I managed to beat the rest on my own so no help was needed.

Cuphead is a unique experience. Studio MDHR knows what it wants to do and moves on. A tough boss rush game based on a classic animation prototype? It shouldn’t work, but here we are. It’s fun to play and even satisfying to watch because you can fully absorb what’s happening on the screen. It would have been easy to turn down the overall difficulty (I won’t complain), but that’s not Cuphead either. Hold on, all I can say is. We don’t often get something that makes you laugh and gnash your teeth in such close quarters.