Everything you’ve heard about Cuphead is true. It is a difficult side-scrolling shooter with relentless boss battles that demand rapid-fire actions and reactions. Think for too long, and you won’t stand a chance against the game’s toughest enemies. Battles may only last three minutes at most, but they feel far longer when you know that you can only absorb three hits before you have to start from scratch. When you are navigating your way around bullets, smaller enemies, and pitfalls, while simultaneously trying to damage your primary target, toppling Cuphead’s imposing bosses is both a monumental and rewarding task.
But difficult battles only tell half of the story. Cuphead’s 1930s cartoon aesthetic is endlessly charming, popping with color and expression unlike anything seen at this scale in a video game before. The sheer variety of characters and settings yields consistent delight as you go from one stage to the next, with everything bearing the telltale signs of grainy ’30s film and rudimentary production techniques. Cel-shading means something to a lot of people, but Cuphead truly re-creates the look of hand-drawn cel animation.
A world map sets the stage for your adventure. As a Cup-thing who gambled with the devil, you now must go around collecting debts from the devil’s other acquaintances–the game’s bosses. Outside of one-on-one fights, you also have a few opportunities to run and gun through less-imposing platforming stages. These help break up the action and give you a chance to collect coins that can be cashed in for “weapons” and passive buffs. Coins are in short supply and can only be collected once, so farming to gain an advantage is out of the question. These stages don’t compare to Cuphead’s main attractions, but they add valuable substance nonetheless.
The mix of ammunition for your hand gun–character fire from their fingers–includes the likes of a spread shot, a charge blast, and a boomerang round. There are six in all, and each comes with a secondary attack that’s tied to a meter that fills when you successfully land shots on enemies. You can also earn meter by parrying pink projectiles and enemies, a task that requires you to jump towards an enemy and then tap jump again at just the right moment before impact. These range from a fireball and a ring of damaging gems to a burst of bulky, short-range arrows. Finally, you have a super art, which can only be fired when your entire meter is full, as opposed to spending one section of that meter to fire your weapon’s secondary attack. The one catch here is that when your meter is full, you can’t perform a secondary attack–you are inconveniently forced to unleash your super art, which isn’t always desirable.
Given that you are able to equip two weapons at once, the variety of loadouts you can equip before a fight allows for flexibility on your part. While you may benefit by bringing a specific set of arms into some boss battles–say, using tracer rounds to pick off minor enemies swarming overhead–you can still carry whatever you wish into battle so long as you have the confidence and knowledge meet the challenge ahead.
Learning the bosses’ attack pattern is oftentimes half the battle, and it’s typical to run through a fight multiple times until you see everything that might get thrown your way. Every boss fight consists of multiple stages or forms. Bosses will change shape, position, and behavior with each new phase. And within an individual phase, you may see as many as four different attacks, though you aren’t always guaranteed to see them all during subsequent fights. When bosses begin to mix multiple attacks at once, the potential for various deadly combos keeps you on your toes no matter how familiar you are with the fight in question.