Like many other residents of the internet, the trailer for a game called Cuphead at the 2014 E3 show, completely blindsided me. The vibrant colors, Betty Boop-esque animation, and ripping jazz soundtrack of this game contrasted so harshly against the gritty and visceral Bloodbornes and Metal Gear Solids premiering that year, that it seemed this footage escaped an animation festival and was being shown in error. Was this game for real?
Luckily, Cuphead wasn’t some fever dream induced by all the Little Caesars I was eating at college. Unluckily, Cuphead would go on to be delayed multiple times over the course of several years. Turns out that animating and painting every single frame of a video game, by hand, can take awhile. The developers of Cuphead, Studio MDHR, were committed to making this game’s artwork as animators in the 1930’s would have, and when the game was released at the tail end of September, 2017, it was easy to see in the final product that all the blood, sweat, and ink paid off.
The first thing you are likely to notice when booting up Cuphead is how it is absolutely gorgeous. Similarly to the South Park game, The Stick of Truth, this game is nearly indistinguishable from a cartoon airing on television. Characters bounce with energy, stretch and grow across the screen to show emotion, eyes pop out of skulls (more often literally than not) with a blaring AWOOGA! However, the animation would mean nothing without brilliant character design, and Cuphead has this in spades. The titular Cuphead and his pal, Mugman, are of course adorable and could pass as tenants in the House of Mouse and no one would be the wiser, but the bosses are the ones that steal the show.
Before discussing some of my favorite bosses, let’s do a quick run down of the story to explain why Cuphead and the other denizens of Inkwell Isle are at odds. Through a storybook intro we learn that our heroes have wandered far from home and ended up in a bad part of town, specifically, Hell. Making the most of it, the boys do a little gambling in the Devil’s casino and after a successful hot-streak the Devil himself offers them a bet on their next dice roll. They can win all of the treasure in the casino or lose their souls. Much to Mugman’s disapproval Cuphead throws caution to the wind and naturally loses the gamble thus earning the game’s subtitle, “Don’t Deal With the Devil”. Being the dealmaker he is, the Devil offers the two a way to keep their souls. Hunt down the Devil’s other debtors, return their soul contracts to him and he might consider letting the two off the hook. The duo then proceed to hit the forests, alleyways, and shipyards battling the ruffians of Inkwell Isle in hopes of saving their souls.
Before starting the game I had no idea that this cheery-looking beverage-man would turn into a rough and tumble bounty hunter but gee-whiz, it turns out that’s all I ever wanted.
The formula for the experience is rather simple. You have a hit-list for whatever island you’re on and you need to collect the souls from the bosses that live there. Cuphead trims the fat from other run-and-gun games by primarily focusing on boss fights. You start a level and boom, you’re in it. There’s the boss, go get ‘em. You can choose to do the bosses in whatever order you feel like and there are also a few regular platforming levels to break up gameplay and also earn you coins to upgrade Cuphead. But as mentioned before, boss fights are the bread and butter of the game.
These battles put our ceramic combatant against foes that range in appearance from cute and absurd to surreal and nightmarish, often warping through multiple incarnations hitting every combination of the spectrum in between. A prime example of this metamorphosis is Baroness Von Bon Bon in the level Sugarland Shimmy. The Baroness begins the battle by first siccing a variety of confections on Cuphead while she waits above in her castle of a cake. One by one the Ol’ Cup will defeat a carnivorous candy corn, a winged waffle, and a few more treats, but not before Bon Bon orders her living castle to march forward and attempt to stomp on Cuphead. Did I mention that she also rips off her head to chase Cuphead around the screen before sprouting a new one? And that’s not even the craziest villain to appear in the game. But it’s these dynamic fights with definitive climaxes that turn what would be an average bout and make it a spectacle.
However, witnessing the final form of a boss means you have what it takes to keep Cuphead alive that long. Hidden behind the facade of the happy-go-lucky appearance is the punishing difficulty. Cuphead’s limited arsenal of attacks and evasive maneuvers need to be firing on all cylinders if he plans on making it out of this bullet hell with his soul in tow. Bosses will launch attacks from all angles and can take a hefty amount of damage before they falter and fall. On the other hand, Cuphead caps out at three measly hits before turning into a ghost.
Even though Cuphead is challenging, it never feels unfair, and that’s what sets it apart from other difficult games on the market. The game demands perfection and expects you to recognize and react to each of the boss’s attacks. Assuming all of these bosses were bad poker players in the Devil’s casino, each one has a certain tell when they are about to attack and it’s up to you decipher these moves. Fights will take trial and error, experimentation, and a good amount of patience, but when you persevere and see that KNOCKOUT! screen, gosh does it feel rewarding.
It would seem easy to get stuck on a boss fight and simply give up, but this title has so much charm behind it, it’s almost hard to get mad at it. Additionally, a normal battle against a boss takes on average two minutes, so a loss or reset doesn’t ever set you back much, which is relieving. Does it ever feel like two minutes when you’re jumping, shooting, dashing, and dodging across the screen at a million miles per hour? No.
Cuphead is a one in a million game. Equal parts charm and rewarding gameplay, it’s destined to talked about for years to come. (Just because I can’t stop mentioning the charm of this game, if you find the lost member of a barbershop quartet around the mid-point of the game, they will sing you a song about how it’s important to take a break, go outside, do some chores, then come back for more.) You owe it to yourself to pick up this game or at least watch someone else play it. It has a certain magnetism that will attract any passerby to the screen.
If the game had one fault it would be that the default controls aren’t great, but you can change those easily. There we go, critique out of the way. Now get out there and get those souls! You certainly don’t want to keep the Devil waiting.
Cuphead is available to play on PC and Xbox One.