A love letter to both pre-war cartoons and ultra-hard 16-bit platformers
Part boss rush, part side-scrolling shooter, Cuphead is the Dark Souls of 1930s-animation-inspired 2D platform games.
Think Steamboat Willie meets Gunstar Heroes, where every creature has wide eyes and can’t stay in one place without bopping along to a jaunty vaudeville tune – anthropomorphic dinner sets included.
Don’t let those cartoons fool you into thinking this game is child’s play, though. This is one of the most intense and challenging platformers you’re bound to find.
Devil of a time
After making a dodgy deal with the Devil, the titular Cuphead has to work his way through a torrent of tricky bosses in order to save his soul – and the debtors he’s fighting aren’t about to make things easy.
Each boss has its own unique challenges, from a flower that tries to whip you with its roots, to a battle with a gigantic bird where you must take to the skies in a plane in order to pelt it with a barrage of bullets.
Get past the first phase and bosses get even weirder. One memorable foe fires out balloon animals, awakening our nightmarish clown phobia.
It’s not just about epic boss encounters though. More straightforward run-and-gun levels, not dissimilar to your typical 2D platformer, offer some welcome respite between fights.
Your mug-shaped hero’s a bit of a pushover, though: take three hits and you’re sent back to the beginning of the level.
When each encounter has multiple phases to learn, patterns to look out for and projectiles to dodge, you’re going to be seeing the “You died!” screen. A lot.
This never becomes a chore, though. Mistiming a jump or colliding with an enemy attack doesn’t feel unfair, it just encourages you to get it right the next time around.
The way you adapt your playstyle to progress past increasingly tougher bosses creates a warm fuzzy feeling every time you pick up the controller.
Jump the gun
The controls are incredibly simple. Use two buttons for jump and shoot, and use the analogue stick to move Cuphead about.
That said, collecting coins lets you upgrade your attacks, unlock super moves and add special abilities, like the invincible dodge dash that’ll get you out of more than a few otherwise-certain-death scenarios. But for the most part, it’s just your reflexes between you and the game over screen.
Really stuck on a certain level? You can bring your friend along for co-op, but this gives enemies a health boost and creates more confusion on-screen – so it doesn’t necessarily make things easier.
Change one’s ‘toon
Cuphead feels like he could have walked straight from the pages of an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon, firing bullets by clicking his fingers, beatnik-style.
In fact, everything about this game reminds you of vintage cartoons from the watercolour backgrounds to the hand-drawn characters that are all dripping with originality. It’s a shame that you can’t always soak in these sights as the chaotic action demands your trigger-ready attention.
Playing on a fancy Xbox One X? The new console’s immense processing power doesn’t deliver faster load times or smoother performance, but you do get all that beautiful animation delivered at a full 4K resolution.
With the Xbox One having such a limited exclusive line-up, Cuphead is exactly what the console needs.
The music, art and animation combine to create something truly special, a cutesy but crushingly difficult challenge with impressive variety.
You’ll want to see it through, even if there’s a good chance you’ll snap your controller in the process.
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As delightful as it is difficult, this fantastic throwback is a joy to play
Gorgeous visuals with an authentic soundtrack to match
Gameplay that’s a challenge, without being too tough
Perfect couch co-op fodder
Anything but a casual platformer