by Jed Pressgrove
As head-turning as its hand-drawn animation can be, Cuphead is one of the dullest pop shooters of the 21st century. Cuphead’s visuals clinically mirror the form of Fleischer cartoons in an apparent attempt to distract audiences from a lack of artistic conviction in the game’s overall design.
Cuphead is often said to focus on boss battles. The pitch is that Cuphead is an uncompromising experience. What fans don’t often say is that, in Cuphead, you must walk through an overworld and trigger boss fights by standing close to a particular spot and pressing a button. As the manual to Contra 4 might suggest, this overworld is the sort of cutesy nod to RPGs that has no place in a cutthroat action game. Cuphead also seems afraid or incapable of featuring an actual level. When you’re not killing bosses or traversing the contrived map, you’re trying your hand at Cuphead’s “run and gun” challenges, which amount to small and superfluous fragments of a level that register as a half-assed way to pay tribute to Contra, or you’re completing other one-off tests that revolve around a trendy parrying mechanic that has little bearing on a lot of the action in the game.
In Cuphead, imitation is the sincerest form of hackery. So many of the bosses are uninspired riffs on popular shooter trials (despite being packaged as sensational characters that evoke a bygone era). Take the horizontal shooter fights. These make for tedious encounters, with little danger, speed, or original attack patterns involved in the proceedings. The game’s lack of a dynamic power-up system raises the question of whether the developer even understands the appeal of a subgenre it supposedly admires. Indeed, the horizontally scrolling stages resemble mundane fare like Ordyne as opposed to superior classics such as Gradius and Lords of Thunder.
During the majority of Cuphead, I was unimpressed by its villains’ tactics and could envision how to dismantle the bosses based on my experiences with pests in the Contra series and Mega Man games. Cuphead’s lack of unique action becomes downright laughable when you lock horns with King Dice. One of Dice’s forms is a pathetic, nonthreatening clone of the Yellow Devil from Mega Man. As I watched this sub-boss ineptly and obviously mimic an old threat, I realized I was experiencing the work of cowards hiding behind an animation style.