Hands-on with Cuphead at Gamescom: A kick-ass 2D platformer

Nathan Lawrence 6 September 2017

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Cuphead is the kind of punishing platformer that’ll kick your butt, but have you grinning from ear to ear as you come back for more.

Cuphead seems like one of those games that’s been in development forever. Development started in 2010 and was first unveiled at E3 2014, but it’s been delayed several times since. Finally, it’s slated for release on 29 September on Xbox One and PC.

And if what I recently played is any indication, it’ll be well worth the wait. If you’ve seen any gameplay videos for Cuphead, you’ll know what to expect from the iconic art design. The catchy design is reportedly born from 1930s propaganda movies, and it’s a look that’s unlikely ever to be rivalled because it’s all painstakingly hand-drawn.

The cutesy design is complemented by a toe-tapping jazz soundtrack, and the off-beat music genre is an apt analogy for what to expect from the gameplay. At its heart, Cuphead is a 2D action-platformer – very much in that order, with action taking up the bulk of your time – but there’s a big emphasis on boss battles. While these bosses follow the kind of patterns you’d expect from a 2D action game, they’re far from easy.

The difficulty is mitigated somewhat in co-op play, mostly because you’ve got an extra set of finger-guns (literally: bullets from the default ‘gun’ spew out of your character’s index finger) and you can revive each other. On paper, revive makes it sound like a breeze, particularly when you learn that you can revive an unlimited amount of times. Technically.

Like most things in Cuphead, just because it’s simple – and the basic mechanics really are straightforward – doesn’t mean it’s an easy task. To revive, you have to jump atop the rising ghost of your fallen buddy and tap a button just as you touch them. If they die at the bottom of the screen, you have more time to get to them as they float upwards, assuming you can navigate around a plethora of incoming projectiles and enemies.

If, however, they die at the top of the screen, you have no hope of jumping to save them before they’ve floated off the screen. In fact, prioritising saving a tricky-to-reach friend over dodging projectiles and dispatching foes is an easy way to have to restart the level from scratch. This is a hard game, remember: you’ll be restarting a level or boss fight in its entirety if you die.

But this punishing difficulty is what makes victory feel so triumphant. We were warned before we started playing that we should hold down the fire button, instead of tapping it. You basically want to have a thumb parked on the fire button for the entirety of a stage. You’re not punished for doing so, and tapping would quickly prove to be incredibly painful: basically, adding an artificial difficulty layer that converts Cuphead into the world’s longest single-button quick-time event. There’s no cooldown at play, but there are a couple of different weapon types, plus you have to aim with the right stick, and you can lock that aim.

Outside of shooting controls and jumping, there’s a dash button, and there’s that reviving jump, which can also be used to bounce off certain projectiles or objects to jump farther. It’s clear that indie developer Studio MDHR Entertainment has taken the ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ mantra to heart. But while depth is usually found in game mechanics, Cuphead’s ‘hard to master’ part relates to the combat difficulty.

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From what I experienced of the platforming, it’s relatively straightforward, though I suspect that’s because I was playing one of the opening levels. Just because the platforming is easy, doesn’t mean the combat is. Cuphead’s combat is intense from the start, and it’s a game of ad infinitum peaks with very few troughs.

Stay in one spot for too long on a platforming level, and the enemies respawn. You could drop the difficulty from ‘Regular to ‘Simple’, but I’d wager you wouldn’t feel the same momentous sense of satisfaction for beating a level. Speaking of difficulty, choosing Regular also reportedly adds an additional phase to the boss fight. Considering that some of the boss fights made the already-challenging (and early-in-the-game) platforming feel like a walk in the park, you’d best be ready to lift your game. There are also whispers of an even harder New Game Plus mode.

If you screw up your timing on one jump, it’s easy to lose confidence and take another couple of hits that’ll have your teammate scrambling to save you. In the same breath, you need to play close attention to the subtle differences between Cuphead (the primary player) and Mugman (the co-op lackie), as you frequently shift your gaze between right-screen incoming projectiles and left-screen dodging. At times, it feels like a tennis match played in fast-forward.

After only a few minutes of gameplay, it was clear that Cuphead has the right kind of mojo to match the promise of the long-gestating hype. If you love punishing games, this is the game for you. But even if you don’t, Cuphead is oozing with so much charm and style it’s well worth suffering the punishment just to experience the game world.

Purchase Cuphead for Xbox One from Microsoft Store

AU$29.95 incl. GST Release date: Friday, 29 September 2017, 11:00pm

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EA sponsored Nathan Lawrence’s flights, accommodation, and meals while he was at Gamescom 2017.

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