A game by Studio MDHR for PC, Mac, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One, originally released in 2017.
Cuphead is a run and gun actioner with a focus on boss battles, which takes place on the mysterious Inkwell islands. The game features 1P or 2P cooperative play and stars brothers Cuphead and Mugman. While on a hot streak in the Devil’s casino, Cuphead agrees to bet their souls against all the money in the casino… and they lose. To save their own souls, the pair agree to collect the Devil’s debts by defeating each of his debtors in combat. These multi-phase arena battles make up the bulk of the game as the brothers fight their way through a series of dastardly ne'er-do-wells before facing the Devil himself.
The game's visuals are inspired by the golden age of animated film, with hand drawn animations, striking character designs, and surprising enemy transformations, all set against watercolor backgrounds and a jazzy soundtrack. There are some direct nods to the early works of several major animation studios, and the game captures the overall feel of 1930’s animated shorts with traditional “rubber hose” animations for the characters, and a darker style of humor than later kid-friendly cartoons. The lead characters are inspired by a 1936 Japanese propaganda film where a knockoff Mickey Mouse attacks Japan, but his attack is thwarted by a number of characters, including one who has a teacup for a head.
As Cuphead or Mugman, you are able to fire a pulse of energy by snapping your fingers, and this is your only weapon when the game begins. Mercifully, this weapon and most others are set to auto-fire, allowing you do deal the near-continuous damage required to take down most bosses. You are able to fire in eight directions, and a button press allows you to lock your position to fire freely in any direction. You also have a dash maneuver that allows to you to quickly escape danger or cross gaps in the platforming levels, and you can parry certain attacks… but this move is a bit more complex.
A parry is performed by pressing the JUMP button in midair when you drop onto a pink-colored object. These objects may be projectiles, enemies, or just floating items in the environment. Getting the timing right is key, as is ensuring that you are physically above the object that you want to parry. Successfully performing a parry increases a meter that allows you to unleash special attacks, which is represented by five playing cards in the lower left corner of the screen. Simply attacking enemies also fills this meter, but not as quickly.
Once a unit is filled on the meter, you can perform a special high-damage attack that’s dependent on your equipped weapon. It’s important to understand how each special attack will work, since these are precision strikes and not screen-clearing attacks. Using a special attack drains one unit from the meter, or you can wait until all five units are filled to unleash your most powerful move. When the game begins, this fully-charged attack is a horizontal beam, but you later unlock temporary invincibility and a powerful ability that calls forth your spirit energy to cause massive damage (while leaving your physical form in harm’s way if you’re not careful). Skilled players can control their spirit form and their corporeal form simultaneously to deal extra damage.
There are three islands to traverse, with each unlocking as you defeat the bosses on the previous one. You are free to play levels in any order, but some parts of the island don’t open until certain bosses are defeated. That said, every island has a shortcut that lets you skip ahead to another section, so you have a lot of freedom to move around and take things at your pace. The game is quite difficult, even in the early going, but it doesn’t get appreciably more difficult until the finale, so you have plenty of opportunities to develop your skills and unlock weapons and perks to suit your playstyle. And if you want to get some practice to complete a tough encounter, each boss has an optional easy mode.
While almost every level is a boss encounter, there are a few run and gun levels mixed in, and completing these earns you coins to buy the aforementioned weapons and perks. Run and gun levels aren’t overly complex, but they’re lengthy and there are no checkpoints, so you’ll need the skill to make it to the end in one shot. Some coins are slightly hidden as well, but any gamer used to finding the three golden coins in Mario levels will have no trouble sniffing them out here.
There are a few setpiece moments to break up the action in sidescrolling levels, such as chase sequences, a gravity flipping challenge, and some miniboss encounters, but they go by quickly and they are clearly not the focus of the experience. You can use any of your purchased weapons and perks in these levels, making some challenges laughably easy when you can add extra health and smack down basic enemies with infinite homing projectiles. Even bottomless pits don’t kill you instantly but rather drain a single unit of health and send you flying into the air so you can find a safe landing point.
Early on, you’ll find Porkrind’s Emporium, a shop that lets you buy weapons and charms. The selection is small, with new items becoming available as you make purchases. This keeps super powerful weapons like the charge shot out of players’ hands until they’ve experienced more of the game. Early on, when cash is tight, it’s best to find a weapon that complements your rapid-fire snap. This can be a homing weapon, a 3-way shot, and a boomerang-style weapon.
Each of these weapons has its own strengths and weaknesses, with the homing weapon locking onto distant targets but doing low damage, the 3-way shot doing heavy damage but with a short range, and the boomerang weapon firing slow mid-powered projectiles that eventually do a U-turn and fly the other way… which sounds like a terrible choice until you realize that it’s great for hitting bosses when you’re facing away from them. You can also buy a heart to increase your 3HP health meter by one, but doing so slightly weakens your attacks and it keeps you from equipping other perks. The last option at the start of the game is a smoke bomb that makes you invincible while dashing, which is incredibly useful for getting out of tight spaces, or getting behind a boss as it’s rampaging toward you.
Boss encounters are highly tactical affairs, with each offering a wide range of attacks across multiple phases, although the number of available weapons and items means that each player will engage them differently. While some pattern recognition is needed, bosses are capable of performing multiple possible maneuvers during each phase, so players need to be mindful of audio-visual cues to know when to dodge, when to hang back and deal damage at a distance, and when to get up close and personal.
If you’re playing in co-op mode, your partner has a chance to save you by parrying you spirit as it leaves your body, giving you one more chance to save the day… or die again. While the visuals are crisp and foreground elements are well separated from the background, there’s often a lot happening onscreen (including film grain effects), which is only compounded by having a second player and their projectiles flying around. As such, it’s very much possible to take damage without even realizing you were in danger.
As expected, each boss battle starts out fairly easy and slowly escalates, often in surprising ways… which is supported by a visual style that imbues bosses with lots of personality that is enhanced by smooth animations and transitions. Even the transformations are in line with the era of animation being emulated, with wobbly movements, menacing eyes appearing on inorganic objects, and a devious sense of humor. These are very much the archetypal sinister villains and bullies of early animation before such frightening imagery was dialed back for more tender eyes.
Once you deal enough damage to a boss, it enters a new phase. All bosses have at least three phases, and these encounters each take a minute or two to finish… although it will most likely take you several attempts to achieve a knockout. With only 3HP available to withstand each encounter, most of your early attempts will result in death and a better understanding of how to survive a little longer on your next run. Restarts are quick – whether as a result of your death or restarting manually – and you are given the option to change your loadout before retrying.
In a very nice touch, each death results in a screen showing precisely how far you made it through each battle, and where each of the different phases are. This is useful for planning your strategy as you may see that you weren’t as far along as you’d hoped, or that you should have hung onto one of your special attacks just a bit longer so you’d have it in the final phase. You are also graded at the end of each match based on how long it took you to defeat the boss, your remaining health, how much you built/used your special meter, how many parries you performed, and whether you beat the boss on the normal or easy difficulty setting.
In addition to ground-based battles, each island features shmup-style levels as well. Here, you aren’t able to make use of your special weapons or charms, so these encounters offer less variety and complexity. Your plane is equipped with a rapid-fire machine gun that shoots straight ahead, as well as more powerful bombs that fly in a short arc. Your dodge maneuver makes your plane (and its bullets) smaller so you can more easily dodge around incoming projectiles. Your standard special attack is a big bullet that flies in a straight line, whereas a fully-charged attack transforms you into a bomb that you can maneuver as you like. The bomb explodes after a few seconds and grants you temporary invincibility afterwards.

In 2022, five years after the release of the original game, the developers released The Delicious Last Course (yes, the abbreviation is DLC), which offers a new playable character, Ms. Chalice, who has her own unique moveset. Chalice appeared as a spirit in the main game, offering special attack rewards to players who defeated ghosts in mausoleums. In order to take physical form, either Cuphead or Mugman needs to equip the Astral Cookie, which then swaps her in as a playable character. Since the cookie occupies the charm slot, no other perks can be equipped, but Chalice has a few advantages to offset this…
Chalice is able to use all of the same weapons as the boys (and has a few new ones available to purchase in the shop), and she can perform a double jump, she has an invincible roll, she can parry from a dash, and she has 4HP instead of 3HP. The extra hit point gives players a valuable cushion in battle, while the double jump makes it easier to avoid projectiles, and makes platforming sequences much easier as well. Being able to parry from a dash can completely change how players engage certain threats, as they can dash head-first into pink objects (instead of dropping onto them), which allows players to more easily strike them while they’re falling or moving along the ground.
Parrying more pink objects lets Chalice build up her super meter more quickly, and her spirit attack more straightforward to use than the boys’, allowing her to deal heavy damage in a straight line. It’s also worth noting that her attacks are different in shmup levels as well, with her bullets spraying wider and her bombs dropping more quickly and at a longer range. While this does make it easier for her to clear out onscreen threats, it also means she isn’t as good at delivering concentrated firepower like her counterparts. Fortunately, the player can swap characters between runs as the situation demands. Instead of run and gun levels, currency is earned by completing challenges that nullify the effects of your weapons and charms, requring deft use of your parry maneuver.
Rather than fighting debtors for their souls, Chalice is instead facing enemies who hold the ingredients to the so-called Wondertart that can grant her a permanent corporeal form. The action takes place on a fourth island, although the player is free to return to any of the original three islands to play levels with Chalice. Players who begin the base game (titled “Don’t Deal With the Devil”) with the DLC installed may meet up with Chalice at the beginning of the game and use her throughout their adventure.

Cuphead was developed by Studio MDHR, a studio based in Canada and founded by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer. This was the studio’s first release. The developers cite the golden age animation of Disney, Fleischer Studios, Ub Iwerks, Grim Natwick, and Willard Bowsky for the themes and visual style. The game features programming by Tony Coculuzzi, writing by Evan Skolnick, additional animation by Jake Clark, and an original jazz score by Kristofer Maddigan. The game went on to win numerous industry awards for its gameplay and visuals, and was turned into an animated series called The Cuphead Show!, with Chad and Jared Moldenhauer serving as executive producers.