There are very few games that so completely achieve what they set out to be. Studio MDHR’s Cuphead is one of them, a game that feels like a singular, focused vision come to life – as though it jumped out of its creator’s imaginations without compromise and without having to be made to fit a framework. It’s beholden to the aesthetics of 1930s cartoons, sure, but that’s it. With visuals as beautifully attractive as this, the world was Cuphead’s oyster. It’s all the more surprising, then, that Cuphead is a shockingly difficult run n’ gun shooter very much in the vein of Contra, with all the twitch reflexes, memorisation and repetition inherent to that genre. One of the most accessible, appealing games ever created on pure visual spectacle – and they applied it to one of the most demanding play styles imaginable. In that respect, it shouldn’t work.

Of course, it does. It works brilliantly. The gloriously detailed animation isn’t a distraction from flawed gameplay; Cuphead would be brilliant fun even if it were grey, untextured polygons. The boss rush style complements its visual strength beautifully – almost every level being a unique boss battle simply means almost every level is unique, as effectively painstaking in their design as the marvellous characters trying to chip away your all-too-limited lives.

What’s the story? Some trifling nonsense about Cuphead and Mugman collecting souls for the Devil. That doesn’t matter. It’s cruft. The meat and potatoes of Cuphead are its tight, precise movement, accurate shooting and the marvellous mid-air parry mechanic. All are brilliantly explained in a simple, effective tutorial, and then you’re straight into the fray. Dodge the boss’ attacks, parry the pink bullets, build up super shots and fire them. Anyway can pick up and play it, but few will see the ending. Just like Contra, again.

The classic game feel is very apparent – there’s even a world map! – but it’s complemented by more modern quality-of-life features; as well as the now-thankfully-standard infinite lives, you’ll be able to equip playing cards that give upgrades for Cuphead’s shots. A weaker homing shot, for example, lets you focus on dodging while whittling down enemy health – or you could equip a short-range burst shot that does high damage, but requires you to get right in the face of danger. These perks are purchased from an in-game store using coins that you can find hidden in the game world, particularly in the occasional run n’ gun stages which eschew the boss battles for brilliantly designed enemy gauntlets. It’s all wonderfully well balanced and you’ll never be prohibitively far from your next unlock, allowing you to tailor your play style in a satisfyingly broad way.

On the surface, Cuphead is fairly short. There are 19 bosses – each of them creative, clever and memorable – but each boss doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes when you play it right. Of course, the entire point is that you won’t be able to do that from the get-go; there isn’t a battle in the game that we managed to clear first time. Every foe has at least one attack that’s a real pig to dodge, but it’s fun to figure out these patterns and escape unscathed. Progression is fairly straightforward – beating each of the bosses in a world allows access to the next world and its accompanying battles. In a nice and well-fitting bit of variety, there are a few bosses that are fought in a horizontal "shmup" style, as well.

As we’ve mentioned, it’s a difficult game, so it’s a little bit of a shame that the provided Simple Mode doesn’t actually allow you to complete it. It’s a cut-down experience with fewer phases to the battles, and you can’t challenge the final bosses at all. It’s a little bit of a downer – why even include such a mode if you can’t finish it? – but at the same time it’s best to simply persevere with the main game difficulty. You have infinite lives and you can almost always walk away and fight another boss if you’re struggling. It’s so much more satisfying to finally beat, say, the flying dragon boss, knowing you’ve learned and improved in order to do so.

Multiplayer is present, but only in the form of couch co-op; perfectly old-school, but a little disappointing when so many other games manage to include the feature. Additionally, playing in co-op makes the bosses stronger, which we have mixed feelings about. On one hand it makes sense to scale the difficulty in this way, but on the other, shouldn’t bringing a friend feel like a significant advantage? Unless they’re terrible at it, of course.

Conclusion

Despite its downright oppositional difficulty, Cuphead is a treasure. Its visual fidelity is second-to-none in terms of presenting stylistic cartoon graphics and its gameplay is tight, responsive shooting at its very best. You might finish it remarkably quickly – due to desperately wanting to see what twisted boss battle they could throw at you next – but you’ll return to Cuphead and Mugman’s adventures again and again.