There are two things that everybody should know about Cuphead before going in. First: It might not be what you expect. This is an indie game with a clever and cool art style, but unlike seemingly every other indie game from the last few decades with a clever and cool art style, it’s not a throwback to Super Nintendo-era platformers. It’s more like Contra by way of Fleischer cartoons from the 1930s, with your eponymous hero using a finger gun to blast his way through a war zone that happens to be full of wildly expressive and dangerously adorable cartoon animals and anthropomorphized objects. The other thing that everybody should know, which is also something that everybody will notice immediately after taking stock of the gorgeous animation, is that Cuphead is almost mercilessly difficult. You will die many times in this game, whether it’s while trying to learn a boss’ patterns, while trying to avoid a string of bouncing ladybugs, or while trying to pull off the game’s annoyingly inconsistent midair “parry” move. You might die dozens of times in the first world. You’ll probably die hundreds of times by the end.
Thankfully, Cuphead isn’t mocking or sadistic about its difficulty, and that’s almost entirely because of how charming it all is. You play as Cuphead, a cute cup thing with arms and legs who, after indulging in a bit of sinful gambling with his brother Mugman, loses his soul to the Devil. In order to try and save themselves, they travel the world and defeat the Devil’s other debtors to collect their soul contracts. Naturally, facing each of these scoundrels involves a colorful and creative boss fight, with every battle involving multiple different phases that add new attacks or wrinkles to your bounty’s attack patterns. For example, a pirate boss opens with you dodging a barrel that falls from the top of the screen while jumping over cannonballs that shoot across the bottom, and once you’ve done enough damage, he takes out an octopus that fires pellets at you and calls in more animals to attack while the barrel still drops and the cannonballs still shoot across the screen. The game also has a handful of bosses where Cuphead flies an airplane, briefly making it more like Gradius than Contra.
One of Cuphead’s most interesting twists is that each boss fight is a whole level on its own. While there are traditional side-scrolling shooter portions, they don’t progress the story and are only really there for collecting coins that can be used to unlock a series of very important upgrades. It’s a clever setup, and with every boss being a multi-phase ordeal that requires a good working memory, keeping the player from having to slog through a full level before each one streamlines the process. Of course, this also means that the player doesn’t have the benefit of a more straightforward, low-key sequence that allows them to get their bearings, making some of the stranger boss fights—like a bee-filled skyscraper—seem kind of random and cruel on the first few (dozen) tries.
Another twist to the boss fights is that each one has two variants: a “simple” one and a “regular” one. The terminology there is important because the “simple” one isn’t necessarily easier, it’s just simpler. Basically, a “regular” boss might have five different phases, forcing you to go through each one, but a “simple” fight will trim out a couple and only make you survive two or three. You can unlock new levels by doing things the simple way, but you can’t finish the game without defeating each of the bosses “regular” style, so you’re encouraged to just suck it up and do things the “right” way. One of the conceits designed to make this a bit easier is that you aren’t limited to a set number of lives or continues, and you can rapidly restart a fight if things aren’t going your way, so your own level of patience and willingness to endure punishment are the only barriers to progression—even if that makes each victory feel vaguely hollow, sort of like when a classic arcade game is set to free.
Mechanically, Cuphead feels as well-made as it would need to be in order to keep the difficulty from seeming cheap, though that only carries the game so far. Jumping and shooting both feel sharp, but you’ll be regularly wrestling with the controls unless you immediately remap a number of basic functions like the dash and your super attacks. One thing that can’t be fixed as easily is the aforementioned “parry” move, which requires you to hit the jump button mid-jump in order to deflect specific pink-colored projectiles, with each successful parry charging your super meter a little faster. That means you have to throw yourself into harm’s way, facing the risk of taking damage just to get a slight power boost. The parry move is too ineffective and too risky to feel like a crucial skill, and since a few bosses use it sparingly—or not at all—it often feels like an unnecessary complication when you already have to manage shooting the bosses, avoiding their attacks, remembering their attack patterns, knowing when to use the dash move, and keeping track of your super meter.
This is all only slightly easier when playing in local multiplayer, which lets a second person drop in as Mugman. Playing Cuphead with a friend is more fun, partly because you can commiserate with someone else about how difficult and frustrating the game can be, but this isn’t like New Super Mario Bros., where the first player can do all of the work and player two can just sit by and rescue Mario when he falls in a pit. Mugman has to be just as competent as Cuphead in order to avoid simply getting in the way. Partners can also revive each other, but it requires using the parry move and, therefore, might be more dangerous than it’s worth in most situations. Having some backup is helpful, but like everything else in Cuphead, it has its own set of complications and risks.
Cuphead plays like something old and looks like something even older, but it’s more stylish than any shoot-’em-up or moralizing cartoon. Unfortunately, while the game looks phenomenal and is overflowing with personality, it doesn’t quite make up for one excessively frustrating mechanic and an unflinching level of difficulty. Seeing everything in Cuphead for the first time is great and a testament to the amazing things that video games can do, but seeing anything in Cuphead for the hundredth time after getting killed by the same boss over and over again is not. It’s the rare video game that’s a lot more fun to watch (assuming you’re watching someone who knows what they’re doing) than it is to suffer through yourself.