I’ve been looking forward this 1930s cartoon inspired, run-and-gun, tough as nails platformer since it was first revealed at E3 2014. Cuphead, developed by StudioMDHR, is a beautiful marriage of classic hand-drawn animation and side-scrolling arcade action. The stylistic direction is a true work of art and so unique that I believe no one else has attempted this in the medium of video games before.
The tale begins as Cuphead and his brother Mugman find themselves on a winning streak while gambling at a devious casino. The Devil watches the brothers in winning form and offers them both a life-changing deal: win the next roll to claim his riches or lose and ultimately give up their souls. Foolishly, Cuphead takes the chance and rolls the dreaded snakes eyes. The brothers, devastated, plead with the Devil to reconsider, and lucky for them, he has a change of heart and instead tells the two that they can keep their souls if they collect outstanding debts from his other debtors. The story is simple and to the point, and so it should be as the aesthetics and dynamic characters fill out the narrative.
What you’ll notice pretty quickly about Cuphead is that it’s predominately centred around boss battles with only a handful of side-scrolling levels where you run-and-gun your way to the end (much like classic 2D shooters Contra and Metal Slug). Each boss encounter is fantastic as they all offer different challenges, varied attack patterns, and well-crafted enemies, not to mention each is distinctive and oozes personality – so much that I often wanted to keep watching the gorgeous animation. However, this not the type of game where you have time to merely mess about. There are also several boss battles where you’ll control an aircraft and engage in chaotic battles in the sky (which play out like classic side-scrolling shooters R-Type and Gradius) which I think are really well-executed.
Each world also has a theme ranging from locations such as the forest to a carnival, and with that comes various bosses and enemies that reflect the style of the world they’re inhabiting. Visually, each level is both stunning and totally distinguishable with no two stages looking the same, which helps to ensure the experience remains fresh and exciting as you push forward. Let me just say, I died SO MANY times in this game, but my goal always remained unchanged as I really wanted to see what I’d surreal stage uncover next. I honestly can’t undersell just how fantastic this game is to look at. There are so many incredible moments that I didn’t even want to blink for fear of missing out on something.
As much as I’d like to just stare and appreciate the animation, Cuphead is perhaps one of the most challenging games of this year. Boss fights contain multiple stages that will have you dodging an array of projectiles and patterned attacks. You can only sustain three hits before it’s game over, and so it’s essential to master Cuphead’s move-set which includes jumping, parrying, dashing, firing and special attacks. While playing any stage you’ll spot pink-coloured items on the screen, which, if you execute a well-timed jump onto, will act as a double-jump. These are called parries and are particularly useful in all stages and help build up your super meter to perform devastating special attacks.
Once you get used to the combat, you will find everything in the game has a timed pattern, with each battle offering up new hazards such as falling objects or moving platforms. Once you learn the necessary quirks and the nature of Cuphead, the gameplay becomes incredibly exciting and gives you a great sense of achievement after overcoming a tricky area or boss battle. Players can also collect coins which are used for purchasing additional weapons, extra health points, and special abilities. Before making a purchase, you’ll find it’s wise to study each bosses stage and their attack patterns as not every weapon is good for each encounter, so selecting the right weapon for the job is essential.
One issue I did have is that there aren’t enough opportunities to collect coins to purchase items given the limited number of run-and-gun stages – which is a shame, too, as they’re a lot of fun. Cuphead is brutally challenging at times, and I personally found there were many occasions where I would have benefitted from adding new weapons and couldn’t. It’s also worth noting that the difficulty probably won’t be to everyone’s taste. While the boss encounters are thrilling, a few of the battles rely on luck and some of the more complicated attack patterns are bound to result in a few frustrating deaths. It’s hard-hitting, and you will die a lot, but it’s also luckily not the kind of game where you’ll be throwing your controller in a fit of rage. A few reasons being that all of the stages are brief, loading times are barely existent, and it’s the classic case of practice makes perfect as you’re the one making the mistakes and not the game.
There are a lot of individual components that make Cuphead a great game, but it’s difficult not to keep harking back to its aesthetic as it’s simply unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The overall presentation has been entirely hand-drawn, and the watercolour painted backgrounds give the game an expertly crafted Max Fleischer inspired cartoon appearance. The team at StudioMDHR have also added a lot of smaller details like film grains and scratch marks (like those seen in old projection films) to complete the classic aesthetic. Not only have they captured the presentation, but the fonts, sound effects, voice acting, and soundtrack are all spot on. There is an unbelievable amount of research and careful detail that has gone into making Cuphead an absolute marvel for the senses.
Cuphead is a visually stimulating and entertaining experience that is both challenging and satisfying to complete. While there are a few minor issues such as the limited number of run-and-gun stages, the team at StudioMDHR have pulled off a masterstroke in recreating a 1930s cartoon aesthetic which looks both charming and whimsical while combining it with classic ‘Nintendo-Hard’ gameplay that’s exhilarating to play. Cuphead is an impressive must-play game that chooses to be brutally hard to play but also beautiful to the senses, and I can’t recommend it enough.