Cuphead is this deceptively charming and uber difficult platformer shooter that made waves when it launched exclusively on Xbox and PC back in 2017. Someone must have done a deal with the devil, because eventually it came to the Switch in 2019—despite the developer originally saying it wouldn’t come to other platforms—and a surprise launch last week brought the retro-cartoon-inspired frustration machine to PS4 players at long last. Having not played it on any other platforms, I approached this PS4 release with fresh eyes, and despite years of built hype that could have let me down, Cuphead did not disappoint. Rather, screenshots and video couldn’t ever really do justice to just what it feels like to play this retro cartoon for myself.
Cuphead masks its often brutal difficulty with an incredible animation style that borders on somewhere between being both adorable and terrifying. It’s a work of creative genius to see how the boss encounters bizarrely morph over time adding as much difficulty as they do weirdness. The story begins as thus: Cuphead and Mugman get into a bit of gambling trouble after sneaking into a casino owned by the devil himself. The only way to repay their debts is to collect on the soul contracts of other debtors who have unsettled accounts with the demon king. This is the main goal of Cuphead; a series of tough boss encounters against a bunch of bizarre characters, most often anthropomorphic inanimate objects or crazy creatures with a variety of strange powers and forms.
Perhaps best boiled down to “bullet-hell platformer,” that descriptor doesn’t quite do Cuphead justice. It’s far less of a platformer than I had initially anticipated. Though there are platforming levels used to collect coins to buy various power-ups and modifiers, the main stages are straight-to-the-point boss encounters. Most of these can be completed in around two minutes or less, but that’s considering a successful run. In practice, it’ll probably take you far longer to defeat the bosses. Given 3 HP per level, players must take on myriad bizarre attacks and evolutions from enormous villains that steal the show in looks and panache. With nary a word, each becomes an instantly classic character and the cause of most of your controller-rending frustrations.
Cuphead PS4 Review – Tough but Learnable
It’s reputation had me expecting a tough game, and while yes, Cuphead is hard, it also has a specific set of patterns and a learnability to the variety of boss mechanics. While any given boss may seem insurmountable at first glance, failure is the key to pushing forward. As I played each boss encounter, I found myself getting further and further each time. I’d learn from my mistakes. Rarely was I surprised by what I would call cheap deaths. While there were some surprises in terms of how the boss fights morphed and changed over time, the encounters are both short enough and consistent enough to allow the player to effectively learn from those mistakes and use those lessons to succeed. Seeing “Knockout!” flash across the screen is made genuinely exciting by know you personally overcame that challenge. It feels like a real accomplishment and feat of player skill.
The farther one gets into Inkwell Isle, the more fascinating surprises crop up. Going from your first homegrown boss encounter against a bunch of angry vegetables in a garden to a frog and toad pair who eventually morph into a rather dangerous slot machine to a crazy clown and his army of evil carnival rides and balloon animals. Each new boss mechanic managed to by surprising and overwhelming, but always delightful and eventually surmountable despite the seeming impossibility. Cuphead nails that ever important balance of being tough, but never unfairly so. And with how often bosses shift through phases, the fights never became dull, even on repeated playthroughs.
There are a series of upgrades and alternate mechanics besides the platforming and shooting—which Cuphead adorably does by snapping his fingers—but none ever feel like the golden ticket to victory, rather offering small variations to playstyle, often at the cost of other things. One upgrade adds 1 HP, but lowers the damage you do, making encounters take longer. Another might allow the shots to home in on targets, but similarly lower overall damage output. Each is a tradeoff, meant to enhance the gameplay and give the player options without blatantly overpowering them to victory. I never felt that any equipped ability was the cause of my win against any certain boss, but some at least helped me be a bit more comfortable behind the controller.
A parry mechanic also allows Cuphead to smack any pink objects or enemies on the screen, gaining boosts to his EX meter for special moves (which too can be customized in various ways as you earn new abilities). Again, this is not a golden ticket to success and is something that must be learned. The timing of the parry can be a little unforgiving, and depending on the context, needs to be used in various different ways to best take advantage of the situation. Some fights I felt I needed every parry I did, while others I completely avoided the mechanic altogether—though it does factor into your final grade for each level.
Cuphead PS4 Review – Audiovisual Marvel
But I cannot understate how much the audiovisual theming of 1930s cartoons manages to tie the whole thing together. Through every death that led to moments of learning and victory that came from repeated failures, I continued to grin because Cuphead is simply a treat to behold. Its jazzy soundtrack keeps things upbeat. The “rubber hose” style of animation—which is what that era of very stretchy and curvy animation is called—is in constant motion, bouncing in time with the jaunty piano riffs and sax solos that underscore each moment. Cuphead feels like it could just be an animation, and sometimes I have to remind myself that I am in control. It’s that stunning, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything else quite like it.
Cuphead perfectly balances it’s simple nature, difficult mechanics, and audiovisual style for a game that’s rather unmatched. It’s a work of creative genius that allows the player to feel a sense of accomplishment through learning to overcome tough boss mechanics, and the cartoon visuals and big personalities of each keep them entertaining throughout repeated play. There’s simply nothing else like Cuphead, and even three years after its initial Xbox release, it deserves to be experienced by the PlayStation crowd who may have missed out the first time around.
Cuphead PS4 review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.