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If you couldn’t tell from above, Cuphead involves a lot of shooting. It’s a 2D shoot ‘em up game with a crazy amount of charm and a large emphasis on boss fights. It is known for being difficult, but strikes a nice balance where it is (sometimes) enjoyable to try levels over and over again. Not to mention it is composed solely of hand-drawn animations and visuals. As you can imagine, it took a while to make and is likely a large reason why after several years, the long since announced DLC has yet to drop as of this review. In the meantime, however, grab your cup, bring it to your head and get ready for a real high-class bout! (I’m referencing the game, by the way.)
The story immediately begins with two cheerful ceramic-shaped brothers wandering off and getting into trouble at the Devil’s Casino. They are on a big win streak at one of the games when the Devil makes his appearance. He offers them all the riches in his casino if the boys win just one more roll, while if they lose, he gets their souls. I think you can imagine where this goes.
Mugman, who’s guardian angel must have been paying more attention that day, wasn’t having any of it and cowered as Cuphead threw the dice. Rather unsurprisingly, they were not lucky and found their souls in quite some danger. They begged the Devil to keep their freedom, asking if there was another way to repay him. He obliged, pulling out a parchment with his debtors, ordering the boys to collect their souls (via contracts) for him in place of their own. They agreed, and ran home as fast as they could to the Elder Kettle for advice. He advises them to “play along” for the moment, and gives them some magical abilities to aid them on the journey.
Phew, quite a start, huh? As you can see, the main protagonist is the Devil himself, quite literally the most evil villain you could possibly face. His real malice doesn’t really shine through in this game, however, as you could imagine from a E10+ game constructed of 1930’s visuals and sound effects. He is more of an eviler Bowser with talk about soul contracts and.. eternal servitude. If you were intrigued by the 1930’s comment by the way, read on for more about that, but first I need to talk about gameplay.
You take control of either Cuphead or Mugman (both, if you’re playing with 2 players) and begin the journey on Inkwell Isle One. You’re free to choose from a select few bosses and “Run N’ Gun” levels to play. While you can complete these in mostly any order, you do have to beat every boss before moving to the next Isle (3 in total). The Run N’ Gun levels are completely optional, being platforming stages with various weaker enemies, and serve no overall purpose aside from housing coins that can be used in the shop to buy different types of weapons and abilities. Don’t think these are easier than the boss fights though, as I found them taking just about the same time to beat. Speaking of weapons/abilities, however, I was pretty disappointed on this front as many of the guns seemed worse than the basic peashooter and the immediately purchasable spread shot. I only used two other guns (out of 6 total) on a few levels mostly later in the game, these being the lobber for one or two levels and the charge shot when I was very far in the game. When it comes to abilities (known as “charms”) it was even worse, however. The smoke bomb, also being one of the first things you can purchase, is incredibly overpowered and makes you invincible while dashing. The ONLY time I didn’t use this was for airplane levels, since you are unable to dash in those.
I can understand the difficulty of balancing the guns, as their usefulness depends a lot on the type of boss fight and since buying guns are supposed to be completely optional and some are even inaccessible early in the game, I can see why they would want all bosses to be reasonably beatable with the basic weapons. But again, with the abilities, the choice to leave them so unbalanced is confusing.
The smoke bomb can basically be used as a way to freely avoid many attacks that would otherwise hit you, as long as you don’t dash into danger. Meanwhile, other charms like the extra heart (brings the total amount of hits you can take up from 3 to 4) is already worse than the smoke bomb since it can only shield you from 1 extra attack, but ON TOP of that also weakens your attack power. Other charms include an automatic 1st parry (which isn’t much considering you will often be parrying 6+ times a level) and other generally weak substitutes. They have made a few updates to the game since launch, but why they never bothered to better balance the charms is a mystery to me. There are also 3 “Super Arts” you can learn via taking on each mausoleum (1 per isle), and those are somewhat more balanced but I found myself primarily using the 1st one.
Although I did talk about it for long, the balancing aspect isn’t game breaking or anything. It’ll take 1 point off of the gameplay score, sure, but be assured Cuphead’s gameplay formula is so good I would imagine I’d still enjoy the game even if there were no charms and the only guns available were the peashooter and spread shot. It is quite difficult, mind you, but I was able to see myself making progress and remained encouraged throughout.
Now, back to the graphics I mentioned earlier. Cuphead gets an easy 5/5 on that front. All the animation is extremely fluid, expressive, and beautiful. The fact that every frame was hand-drawn no doubt contributed to this masterpiece. Even after I had fought a boss well over a dozen times, I was still amazed and impressed by their animations.
Fortunately, unlike many other teams in the industry, MDHR Studios did not misuse their artistic talent to objectify women or add unnecessarily violent visuals in the game (for the most part). Perhaps you could consider the mermaid with the shell bikini or a few of the somewhat scarier animations (some bosses getting pretty banged up, but no blood) as crossing the line, but if it did in fact meet the criteria, it sure didn’t go that much further. Also, just to make sure I cover all the morality warnings, there are also a few bosses that use magic themes and two feature Greek gods. (Of course, not saying any of this is or isn’t necessarily bad, check our FAQs for an explanation of how we discuss the morality aspect of games).
Now for my favorite visual, especially as a Catholic:
That’s right. Nuns throwing rulers, baby!!! Although this is kind of an overused stereotype, I nonetheless love it and think it’s hilarious. The only way to get this scene to appear is via an “easter egg” (a secret) in the Dramatic Fanatic boss fight. I found this out completely by accident, and boy, am I glad I did. The fight takes place on a theater stage in which a husband and wife are getting married (a priest is present, of course). The wife gives you the stink eye and you begin to brawl while the frightened priest and husband watch in the background. I won’t say exactly how to trigger the easter egg, but let’s just say you have to do certain actions which makes something fall on the husband, causing his wife to retreat from battle and mourn while the stage changes to the nunnery. If you were wondering why the nuns were throwing those rulers, well, there’s your answer.
Final thing I have to talk about is the difficulty. I think it’s perfect for the kind of game it is, but be aware you WILL be retrying levels over and over. I played on the “regular” difficulty (expert is available after beating the game), and it took me maybe 15 hours to beat. During this time I never felt truly stuck on any boss fight, although some did take me a good while longer than others. If you want to decrease the difficulty, consider playing some levels on “simple”, although you will be unable to fight the final boss if you can’t beat all the bosses on “regular”. Playing with 2 people may also be an option but that does increase bosses’ health. If you fancy yourself as a strictly casual player who prefers only a little bit of challenge in a game, I would stay away from this one. Aside from that, I imagine most fans of almost anything 2D will enjoy such swell battles.
Priestly Comment by Fr. Samuel Beardslee:
“Any fan of animation should at least watch this game. Also, for parents considering for their children: This game may prompt some discussion on the role of Satan in our lives. The way this game handles this is not perfectly realistic (it is a cartoon), so it may be good to reinforce the fact that Jesus has already done what Cuphead and Mugman do in this game – paying the debt of our sin and releasing us from Satan’s authority. And Jesus did this without “working with the devil” as Cuphead does in this game (even if he does shoot the devil in the end). While in a game its good to fight the devil, in life it is good to rely on Jesus for the strength to fight against Satan.”
Looking for coverage of the DLC? We’ve got you covered.
Scoring – 90%
Combat/Gameplay: 4/5 (-1 from weapon balancing issues)
-Language: The final two boss fights are located in “Inkwell Hell”, name of final battle is “One Hell of a Fight”
-Sex/Nudity: Mermaid in usual mermaid getup (bikini)
-Violence: Some bosses get beat up as you fight them, can have some scary animations, plane shoots realistic bullets and bombs, some bosses do as well
-Occult/Magic/Paganism: You are fighting the devil, gathering soul contracts, some bosses use cartoony magic, two boss fights reference Greek gods