Released in September 2017 by Studio MDHR, and available on Windows, macOS and Xbox One, Cuphead: Don’t Deal with the Devil was no small feat to achieve. Starting development in 2010, the brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer started working ceaselessly on the game and without stop, going so far as to re-mortgage their own house in order to finance the game’s development process – which involved hand-drawn animations and using recording processes from the 1930s era for the game’s jazz music.
Cuphead is a run-and-gun 2D platformer inspired by 1930s era cartoons from Fleischer Studios among others, with a focus on the boss encounters players can face as either Cuphead in single player or with Mugman in local multiplayer. With that said, the gameplay is not to be underestimated as it will test your skill and patience.
In the land of Inkwell Isles, despite Elder Kettle’s repeated warnings as their guardian, the brothers Cuphead and Mugman managed to end up at the Devil’s Casino, where they had a winning streak against its guests. That was when the Devil appeared with the challenge of winning one more time to claim the Casino’s riches. If they lost, he would collect their souls.
Blinded by the riches, Cuphead foolishly threw the dice again despite Mugman’s pleas, only to lose. The brothers pleaded the Devil for another way to repay him, to which he asked them to collect the souls of previous runaway debtors through contracts before the deadline of midnight of next day. Forced to fight debtors – who can turn to monsters – to death, Elder Kettle had no choice but to grant the brothers a magical potion to fight back against them, and perhaps find a way to stop the Devil’s plans from moving any further.
In Cuphead, as with any platformer game, you can run around, jump, dash and attack using magic bullets shot from your character’s finger. Unless expanded by equipped charms, your character only has 3 hit points, and you will lose once you have zero hit points – with the only recourse being to restart the stage you failed from the beginning, or to return to the world map to try another stage. Attacking enemies causes the “card” bar to slowly fill up; one card may be used for a special attack, while five cards can be used for a more powerful Super Art attack.
Special to this game is the ‘parry’ mechanic, which allows you to “attack” and neutralize anything colored pink by pressing the jump button in the middle of your jump. When timed well – as it is tricky to get used to the mechanic – you will gain a split-second pause along with a full “card,” allowing you to immediately launch a special attack or fill the card bar faster.
You can buy additional equipment from Porkrind’s Emporium, including additional forms of shots (such as the weaker but homing Chaser shot, or the short-ranged Spread, or even the Roundabout – discs that fly to the back of the player) of which you can equip two to swap between mid-battle (with their own special attacks), a charm to help you in battle (such as the Smoke Bomb, my personal favorite, which allows you to dash through dangers without damage – but you will not be visible during the dash!), and finally, a Super Art, of which there are three in the game – none of which are available in the Emporium.
There are six regular “run-and-gun” stages and many more bosses spread across the Isles that make up the game. Besides the first boss you’ll run into, nearly every one of them is a challenge, so you will want to explore the world map and play the run-and-gun stages for coins to buy the equipment that you will need depending on your play style and boss.
There are three difficulty levels in the game: Simple, in which you don’t face any boss’s last phase (but cannot fight the final two bosses on it nor even face them on Regular if you didn’t beat all the bosses prior on Regular), then Regular which is the standard difficulty of the game, and topped by Expert, in which the attacks become faster and less forgiving, but only unlocked via beating the game on the save file you chose once.
Likewise, there are three types of levels, with the regular boss levels being the first and most prominent. The bosses themselves are well designed in their art and attacks, but that doesn’t mean they will be a fair going most of the time. While the game does give you indicators for the attacks coming down your way, you may be expected to dodge several attacks all at once without being hit, or without much room to dodge. This is even more noticeable against one of the bosses, who shoots you at regular intervals along with summoning a random candy goon with a random attack. If you are just starting the game and not experienced in difficult platformers where you constantly move and shoot without break, you will need to bring in as much patience as you can possibly muster and try to hold back your frustration from destroying your keyboard or controller. That said, the bosses excel at the idea of forcing you to learn about them, their attacks’ weak points and finding the most fitting play style to best them – whether in equipment or platforming style.
The second type is the flying boss levels, which utilize your character flying in a plane with a different set of controls than the rest of the game; you fly around the screen in all directions (just like in shoot-em-up games), dashing causes your plane to shrink and go faster than the normal speed at the cost of an extremely short firing range, jumping simply causes your character to parry, and your equipment is mostly fixed – only a few charms work, but your shots or Super Art won’t change.
If you have prior experience with bullet hell games, this might not be as bad for you, but because you can’t change your shots (one straight firing shot and the other a more powerful but slower and arched bomb drop attack, and your Super Art is always turning your character into a bomb you can ram into the boss), you may need even more resilience to stand against these bosses.
The last type is the run-and-gun stages, which don’t have a difficulty to choose from. I believe they are the hardest and least fun stages in the game, as they require you to go from the start of the stage to its end while dodging the constantly moving enemies, sub-bosses and their attacks. They often feel dragged (especially if you lose) and lack the charm behind fighting the bosses and learning how to surpass them. Thankfully there are only six of them, with the main draw to completing them being the coins you can collect from them, at five a pop.
Your performance in any of these stages is awarded by a ranking. For bosses, beating them under a time limit, with at least 3HP and with a determined number of parries will award you the highest rank available for that difficulty, with B for Simple, A+ for Regular and S for Expert. You get less if you perform worse.
For run-and-gun stages, you can also attempt beating them without hurting anything attempting to hurt you. This display of endurance awards you with a P-rank (for pacifist). That i if you can make it to the end of the already brutal stage. Good luck!
Graphics and Music
One of the main draws of the game is its art style, inspired by cartoons from the 1930s, and the amount of effort and dedication to bringing them to life is shown. The animations were hand-drawn, and water-colored before being digitized, using similar techniques from the era. While the game runs at 60FPS, the animation is drawn at the film standard of 24FPS, which brings it even closer to being a faithful representation of the era, all the way down to the weird-but-charming character designs and animation tropes (such as background elements being static or darker-looking while the interact-able elements are animated or lighter-looking). With that said, it even recreates the artifacts old films sport, which may not be your cup of tea. Personally, it added to the game’s focus on the art style.
The music has been created with recording processes from the same era. The energetic jazz music goes along well with the levels and your progression against it; when the bosses heat up, so does the music – unless you take a long time advancing. It also goes along with the game’s old-timey look as even the quality of the recording is old-timey, and despite this, its catchy trumpets and drums will never get old.
If you are looking for a game based off old cartoons that also happens to be a difficult run-and-gun with a focus on bosses, Cuphead hits the mark with its art style and music. However, do bring in loads of patience and skill if possible, as the game won’t hold back any punches.
The gameplay’s strength lies in the boss levels, learning about how they move about and the sense of victory should you defeat them, while the run-and-gun levels aren’t as fun.