Dom Reviews: Cuphead

Just as the internet commotion covering Cuphead‘s huge success, intense fan community, and difficulty has finally seemed to die down, I’ve had a chance to complete it. Long story short, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it checks many of the boxes that make it a great experience both in style and mechanical substance.

(all photos courtesy the author)

The game’s complete name, Cuphead: Don’t Deal With the Devil, handily explains what you’re getting into. Cuphead and his pal Mugman stumble upon a casino where they make a lot of money. However, they (more specifically Cuphead) fall into the trap of gambling against the Devil. Losing their bet, they beg for an alternative. In order to save their own souls, they must hunt down other debtor’s soul contracts, which comes down to getting in lots of fights.

The plot is nothing special, likely on purpose, but features characters full of personality nonetheless. Aesthetics are the star of the show here for sure and are definitely the game’s biggest draw. The visuals and audio all hearken back to 1930s Fleischer and Disney style-cartoons. The characters are highly expressive, often with rubber hose limbs and completely bizarre anatomy. Everything that moves is hand-drawn, rather than digitally animated, and the backgrounds are watercolor paintings. This style is truly unique, and the music is equally as detailed; recordings of live jazz are present in every stage, boss fight, and map area, including big band arrangements, ragtime groups, a barbershop quartet, a solo singer, and even a tap dancer. The game is extremely charming in that everything about it feels made with care. It’s obvious that a ton of effort was put into the game, and the final product is more than worth it for the aesthetics alone.

You can reunite a barbershop quartet and hear them sing.

Gameplay is a little different story. The other part of Cuphead’s reputation is its difficulty. No need to split hairs: the game isn’t easy. Cuphead has a few maneuvers. He can run, jump, and dash (even while in the air) as well as use his hand to shoot various laser projectiles. (Sidebar: it’s a cute joke to see finger guns actually be finger guns). Additionally, he can use a parry move in the air to bounce off of certain items/projectiles in the environment for additional charge to a special meter that normally builds slowly by attacking. Lastly, he can use more powerful moves depending on the level of his special charge meter: either a stronger version of his typical gun, or a more impressive super move. The player can buy (with in-game currency, gained in platforming levels and the stage select maps) different lasers and attributes to change how they handle the stages. There is some choice here that makes the task easier in different ways. For example, Cuphead can get a homing projectile that negates the need to aim shots, but it is weaker than the standard shot. There are definitely a few options how you can progress through each boss; you can try to keep your distance and only take obvious shots, you can get up close and personal and never stop firing, and you can even try to hit every parry to try to gain special meter and a higher rank.

Honestly, you’ll need to utilize many tactics to get through the game. As I said, it’s not easy and some bosses have phases that are downright frustrating. But for the most part, you can learn each boss’s tactics and adjust accordingly. Don’t get me wrong, you most likely will die a lot, but the game doesn’t count lives or punish you beyond having to restart a fight or stage. There is also a Co-Op mode in the game, where Player 2 takes the reins as Mugman to accompany Cuphead on his adventure, making the game a little different. You get more firepower against enemies, but there will be more on the screen. Don’t worry; if you don’t have a second player, the story proceeds on exactly the same as if Mugman were there the whole time.

One perk to this game though, is having all the fun parts of 30s animation and style without the racism and much of the misogyny. It would be nice if there were a playable female character, or if the only female protagonist played a more active role, rather than just providing super moves and occasionally being captured by ghosts. But this is a small gripe, I suppose. There are many female bosses in the course of the game and they are handled as well as the male bosses. The women aren’t exempted from turning into grotesque monstrosities like the men, which is different from many other games that only let the men be unique while confining the women to one always-pretty body type. It would have been nice to see a couple Black characters among the human styled characters, especially given the game’s jazz influence, but most of them are fairly off from any human skin tone; this didn’t feel like as much of an exclusion as it is in other games. To be honest, most of the characters aren’t human or human-coded to begin with. When people say they loved the 30s, this must be the stuff they were talking about. Other than these couple points, there isn’t a whole lot of social issues to address, which is nice for a change.

Even the boss titles and fail screens have personality.

Overall, Cuphead: Don’t Deal with the Devil was an incredibly enjoyable game from start to finish. I was smiling pretty much start to finish thanks to the beautiful graphics, humming along to the killer jazz, and laughing due to visual gags in the boss (shout out to a boss that throws literal cherrybombs at you) even when I was falling into traps that I should have seen coming. There was a bit of randomness in some fights that made me feel like I couldn’t quite assess the pattern in a way that I could have played around, and these were where the game felt the worst to me, but that usually wasn’t the sole factor between a victory and a defeat. Additionally, seeing and hearing “KNOCKOUT” upon defeating a boss was continuously rewarding knowing that I was able to overcome the challenge. But this game isn’t for everyone, with the difficulty and old-school aesthetic being both the main draws of the game and the main repellents. I personally like a cartoony challenge, so Cuphead was right up my alley. I highly recommend this game, even if you typically aren’t a fan of difficult games. I’d watch some fights to get a gauge on how you’d fare via Let’s Plays, and if it truly isn’t your cup of tea, I still recommend watching more complete Let’s Plays. The game is so entirely full of charm, polish, and effort, it would be a shame to ignore it entirely. If I were to give it a numerical score, I’d have to go with a 9/10! Bravo!

It’s not a perfect game, but it’s pretty good!

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1 thought on “Dom Reviews: Cuphead

  1. Thankfully, the other types are straight boss battles, and they are an entirely different sentient kettle of surreal, singing fish. Some take the form of bullet hell shooting, with Cuphead mounted in a free-flying plane. As much tests of dexterity as they are pattern learning, they’re a throwback to the likes of classic Treasure games (just with fewer spaceships and more angry constellations), and slot comfortably alongside them for quality.

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