There's not much more we can really add to the conversation surrounding Cuphead. It's been out for nearly three years on other platforms, and arrives on PlayStation 4 with everyone in the know. While we'll probably just be echoing others, it would be remiss of us to not voice our thoughts, so here goes. Cuphead is the grandma of video games -- gorgeous, clever, but tough as old boots.
This is a 2D, run and gun action game heavily inspired by cartoons from the 1930s. It apes the rubber hose animation style (look it up) of early Fleischer and Disney, and it does so in spectacular fashion. The first thing that strikes you about this game is how it looks and sounds, and StudioMDHR has absolutely nailed the aesthetic. It feels inexplicably authentic; the hand painted backgrounds, exaggerated expressions, and nightmarish characters are all present and correct. The amazing visuals are accompanied by a fantastic jazz soundtrack to deliver the full presentational package -- it's brilliant.
In terms of gameplay, this is a very straightforward experience. You can run, jump, dash, and shoot -- that's about it. There are some more complex wrinkles, like being able to parry pink objects, and building up a special meter by shooting enemies, but mechanically speaking, this is pretty simple stuff. Simple doesn't mean easy, though, and this game does everything it can to test you on these basic elements.
The game puts most of its energy into boss battles, which are definitely the stars of the show. Like all the villains from that era of cartoons, the bosses here are big personalities, and there are some seriously creative designs. They are also extremely difficult to defeat. Each boss goes through multiple stages, ramping up the challenge as you constantly blast them with bullets. You're rarely given a moment to breathe in the few minutes it'll take to bring one of these baddies down -- this is a relentlessly hard game.
Sometimes it can feel unfair -- and occasionally, it is -- but almost every death is on you. There might be a lot happening onscreen, but attacks are clearly telegraphed and you have everything you need to survive. It all comes down to memorising attack patterns and skilfully weaving your way through an onslaught of obstacles. Upon death, you're shown how close you came to finishing a fight, and it stings when you're a hair's breadth from victory, but infinite, instantaneous restarts lead to an addictive cycle of fighting, losing, and learning. The quality in boss battles varies, but most of them are great tests of your dexterity. Practice makes perfect.
While bosses are largely successful, the Run and Gun stages are less entertaining. These are more traditional platforming stages, but we found them to fall a little flat. They're quite creative in places, with some neat environments and interesting gimmicks. Hidden coins in each level can be spent on new weapon types and other perks, and these can be a huge help, so these stages are worth playing. However, they lack the impact of the bosses, and often feel like a slog to get through.
Boss fights can feel the same way on occasion, but the constant shifting into new stages helps them tick along at a decent pace. Even though the various phases give you a rough idea how far through a fight you are, there's a general lack of feedback to your shots, and sometimes it feels as though you're not making a dent. It's hard to put our finger on what's missing -- perhaps more sound or controller vibration would help -- but your attacks feel soft. Hits are conveyed by enemies briefly flashing white, but there's no oomph. It's like firing a water pistol at a house fire. Perhaps it makes the payoff when you do conquer a boss all the sweeter.
Cuphead can be played solo or with a buddy in local co-op, but this is a double-edged sword. It can be helpful to have an ally, as they can revive your ghost if you die, but the chaos onscreen makes it very hard to keep track of what's going on. Though you'll likely have an easier time alone, it's a fun alternative way to play.
Cuphead might be a tough cookie, but it charms with superlative art and music. For every time you might be frustrated by a tough section, you'll be delighted by some wonderful animation or new attack. It isn't perfect; the Run and Gun levels don't live up to the bosses, and a lack of feedback can make fights feel futile. Overall, though, the game succeeds in what it sets out to do -- just be prepared for a real challenge.