188 times. 188 times I died while playing Cuphead across the game’s 19 bosses, six run ‘n’ gun stages, and three mausoleum trials before finally beating it on Normal. Never across any of those deaths, though, did I ever become frustrated or angry. I only wanted to dig my heels in deeper, and my addiction for the game only grew as each subsequent boss or level offered up an enticing new challenge. Cuphead’s mix of brilliant presentation, easy to learn but hard to master gameplay, and ever-increasing difficulty has cemented it for me as a personal game of the year contender.

Cuphead tells the tale of two plucky protagonists named Cuphead and Mugman. While exploring their home of Inkwell Isle, they stumble into the Devil’s Casino and are having the time of their young lives. In fact, they’re doing so well at Craps that the Devil himself comes down to watch the boys play—and then makes them an offer they can’t refuse. If Cuphead wins on the next roll, he and Mugman will get all the casino’s riches; if he loses, however, their souls become the property of the Devil. Cuphead can’t resist the temptation, and of course the roll comes up snake eyes. While pleading for their very souls, the Devil sees potential in Cuphead and Mugman, and—more importantly to him—an opportunity. He offers the boys one last chance: serve as his debt collectors and collect the souls of everyone else that owes him on Inkwell Isle, and he’ll let them off the hook. Easy right?

Stylistically, Cuphead is an absolutely gorgeous game. Its visuals harken back to the 1930s cartoons of Fleischer Studios (originally known as Inkwell Studios in the 1920s and paid homage with the name of the world, Inkwell Isle), who were best known for Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons. There’s even little scratch marks on each “frame”, much like you would see back in the old days on original animation cels. This classic look came from the fact that everything in Cuphead was similarly hand drawn and then scanned into computers. It’s no wonder then the game was delayed so long, especially when it shifted from primarily being a boss rush title to include some run ‘n’ gun segments, but the wait has been worth it.

Cuphead’s music similarly draws its inspiration from almost 100 years ago. Big band orchestras play fitting themes for each boss and section of Inkwell Isle. More haunting themes fill your ears against ghost trains, while more carnival-driven fare pumps through your speakers against crazed clowns. (My personal favorite theme is King Dice’s, who serves as the gatekeeper between each section of the Isle.) There is even a barbershop quartet that is happy to shortly serenade Cuphead and Mugman if you can put the band back together in the game’s overworld.

Where Cuphead excels even more than its art motif, though, is in its gameplay. As someone who cut his teeth on games like Mega Man and Contra growing up, I immediately felt right at home in the run ‘n’ gun style Cuphead offers up—even if it still leans more heavily on the boss rush aspects of its original premise (whether on the ground or even in the air). Each boss has multiple forms, and there’s definitely a trial-and-error aspect to everything as you learn how the bosses move and attack. But there’s still a real test of skill here that makes it all the more enticing. While each boss has a certain number of attacks—and there are some patterns apparent with each—there is also always some randomness, too, forcing you to still think on your feet.

A perfect example of this comes very early on with the Ribbit Brothers, one of the game’s first bosses. Although their first two forms are rather straightforward, their final form is literally that of a slot machine that will attack you three different ways—but there’s no way of telling what that way will be until the wheels on their face stop spinning. This is the first, but far from the last, example of Cuphead forcing you to adapt to what it throws at you in the moment, going beyond simple pattern recognition.

And if you think the game’s co-op feature (where a second player controls Mugman) will make things easier, you’d be mistaken. It makes sense that a boss’s health scales upward with two characters on screen, so both players need to be on their game to try to get past each boss. One neat feature if one character dies, though, is there’s a last chance to save them where you can parry (pressing the jump button again at the perfect time) off the ghost of your fallen comrade to give them one health point back. However, I’m saying this from experience: be careful when choosing your co-op partner. If all you’re doing is jumping on them to save their life, it gets old quick.

Cuphead also succeeds in giving the player agency enough to find their own way of beating bosses. Although you start the game with the straightforward Peashooter, you can purchase weapons and powers from coins found usually in hard to reach places in the game’s six run ‘n’ gun stages from Porkrind the Pig’s store to expand Cuphead and Mugman’s arsenals. I personally found the Spread Shot—which fires short-range projectiles in three directions, sort of like a shotgun—to be my personal favorite, but there are also homing shots, bouncing shots, and even shots that fire in one direction and then turn around like a boomerang to sail back the way they came. You can also get special boosts at Porkrind’s, like coffee that will continuously fill your special meter, or extra health that comes at the sacrifice of attack power. Mixing, matching, and finding your favorite combinations to fit your play style is critical to beating Cuphead, but it’s also part of the fun.

One of my most pleasant surprises with the game, though, came in the form of the Mausoleum challenges. There are three haunted mausoleums on Inkwell Isle, and the only way to bust all the ghosts inside is to use the parry move on each of the pink poltergeists. It’s a great way to really perfect this important move that you’ll need later against the game’s hardest bosses, and clearing each mausoleum rewards you with one of three special moves (like temporary invincibility) which are only available when your special meter is completely full. I just wish there were a few more of these around the island, because even more than the six run ‘n’ gun stages, they were a really fun change of pace given no shooting was involved whatsoever.

The only issue I ever had with Cuphead was that there were a couple of small glitches. Over my 188 lives, there were exactly two instances (about 1.1% of the time) where a boss would freeze up in the form that it was in. That allowed me to just wail away as it didn’t attack me for some reason until it shifted to its next phase, unless it was already in its final phase—at which point it just died. It was a weird hiccup when this happened for sure, and I don’t know what ever caused it. I’m sure I’d probably have a handful more deaths, too, had this not occurred twice, but it never really took away from the fun of the game, nor did it affect my score against each boss negatively. But since you unlock Expert mode after beating the game on normal, I had more than enough reason to come back to try to beat each boss properly anyway.

Cuphead is an absolute gem of a game. My playthrough on normal only took about eight hours to finish, but there’s replayability with trying to get high scores on each boss and coming back to try out the three difficulty levels. The gameplay is incredibly tight, and each boss offers up a new challenge whose addictiveness is only trumped by that feeling of accomplishment once you beat it. The art style is absolutely magnificent, and the world is full of little secrets that will have you searching every nook and cranny. There may be a glitch here or there, but they’re never something so frustrating that will make you want to turn the game off. In fact, I may never turn Cuphead off, period. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun with a game, and in my book, Cuphead is an instant classic.

Publisher: Studio MDHR • Developer: Studio MDHR • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.29.17
9.5
Cuphead is an addictive mix of fun and frustration that will constantly keep you coming back for more. It’s amazing combination of terrific gameplay, tremendous style, and an original concept immediately catapults it into every game of the year discussion.
The Good The art style, the music, and the addictively difficult gameplay.
The Bad The occasional glitch that suddenly makes those difficult bosses incredibly easy.
The Ugly How much power I waste now keeping my Xbox One on and the game playing so I can listen to its music all night long.
Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Studio MDHR for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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