I, like many people, was taken in initially by Cuphead’s art style. Capturing the look of animation’s golden era, with comma eyes and rubbery limbs, it has a distinct look that elevates it above many of its pixel art peers. The gameplay, on the other hand, looked pretty ho-hum and it appeared to be at risk of falling into the pit of style over substance. That was years ago, like, over three of them. Since then, I’ve sort of lost track. Further trailers seemed to reinforce my concerns for the game, and it subsequently fell off my radar.
Nonetheless, after years of development, Cuphead has finally landed, and it’s time to see if there’s any validity to my concerns.
CUP AND SAUCER
Regardless of where the gameplay lies, the most striking aspect of Cuphead is its aesthetics. In a world of pixel art and polygons, the distinct style of pre-war cartoons is largely unrepresented. Coated in film grain and emulating analogue colour separation, a lot of work has gone into making the art completely indistinguishable from old VCR copies of the classics. The art itself apes the greats of the era, such as Ub Iwerks and Fleischer studios. Characters bounce rhythmically and feature detailed, exaggerated facial movements. Among my fears for the game’s end quality was that the old art style would not translate to the repetitious nature of video game animation, but the team at StudioMDHR have managed to pull it off spectacularly. As a fan of golden age animation, the whole game is a visual treat.
The story does a decent job of following the manic storytelling of those old narratives as well. Cuphead, and his co-op buddy, Mugman, are winning big at the casino when the devil himself shows up and offers to raise the stakes if they put their souls on the line. While Mugman realizes what a ludicrously stupid idea that is, Cuphead rolls the dice anyway and lands them in debt to the devil. Willing to bargain, the devil will allow them to keep their souls, if they’ll go and collect from a series of debtors. Seeing no other alternative, they agree and set out to do the devil’s bidding, which, of course, means boss battles.
It sticks to the “violence solves everything” mentality the pervaded those old cartoons. There’s a lot of that sincere dark absurdity in many of its facets, and it feels similarly secure in depicting scenes that would otherwise seem disturbing outside the lively visuals. Bosses often suffer morbid fates before fights even wrap up in a knockout, and some of the backgrounds are oddly off-putting. StudioMDHR did more than simply put their title character in gloves and shorts, they obviously know the cartoons intimately and were able to replicate it with loving accuracy.
The art style isn’t the only retro aspect of Cuphead; the game itself borrows heavily from classic run-and-guns like Contra and Metal Slug. That said, it doesn’t strictly prescribe to the formula of any game that I know of. Rather than the typical progression of a series of levels capped off by bosses, Cuphead’s stages are segregated into the more heavily represented boss fights and the occasional run-and-gun. The bosses themselves are highly situational, some even taking the form of a horizontal scrolling shoot-’em-up. It is, quite frankly, a structure that works well for me, as I’ve always loved a good boss battle, and a focus on them is a welcome approach.
With different goals comes different challenges, and whereas Contra‘s difficulty came largely from its requirement that you complete the whole game within a small handful of lives and continues, Cuphead merely requires that you hone your strategy, one challenge at a time. You can survive three hits from the outset (damage can later be traded out for a longer health bar) which is a lot more forgiving than the sub-genre’s standard one hit. This hardly make Cuphead an easier game, though.
Bosses progress through multiple forms and patterns throughout the course of a fight and absorb a great deal of damage. In order to succeed, it’s necessary to master head-bopping parries and Mega Man X2–style air dashes. Staying on the offensive while dodging a variety of attacks and projectiles is core to the game, and not for the faint of heart. However, after numerous failures and a commitment to pattern recognition, the knockout at the end of a particularly difficult boss battle tastes sweet.
FRAGILE – HANDLE WITH CARE
For a game that relies so heavily on recognizing and memorizing patterns, Cuphead features a lot of random elements. Every boss transforms into new forms as the fight progresses, but some change to a random one every time a fight is attempted. Some forms are harder than others, which means you may end up getting royally screwed because it favours its more challenging forms. It’s not the only game to do this, it should be noted, as Gunstar Heroes (a game that Cuphead makes reference to) did the same, as do some scrolling shoot-’em-ups. Still, when you’re looking for something to blame, the game’s occasional lack of predictability can be an easy target.
To that extent, I’d say the game series that Cuphead most resembles is Punch-Out, at least in terms of focus and flow. This goes beyond the games’ focus on boss battles, though that contributes. In both games, your first encounter with a particular battle will almost certainly result in a loss, at least in the later stages. Instead, you’re expected to learn to read a character’s tells and respond appropriately. Neither follow a guaranteed pattern, which means that, while there are certainly ways to make the process easier on yourself, your success relies on your ability to respond to situations, rather than strictly memorization. The difference is only in the genre of the two games and Cuphead’s inclusion of more traditional run-and-gun stages.
This means the game’s hostility will rub some people the wrong way. In more ways than its art style, Cuphead is deliberately retro, and as such, it demands a high degree of competence that can only be achieved by repetition. To that end, I never became stuck with any given encounter. While I admittedly dropped a lot of lives in the effort to each the conclusion, I always felt like I was making forward progress. I also found that the game’s difficulty never reached the heights of Batman, Contra, or the aforementioned Punch-Out on the NES. Cuphead provides a stiff but comfortable challenge, though the accuracy of that statement will no doubt vary from person to person.
I YAM WHAT I YAM
Rarely do I come across retro inspired games that are so agreeable. In an effort to reproduce the difficulty found in quarter munching days of the video game, most falter, at least slightly. They come across as a little too hostile or lifeless, there’s usually some area it comes up short. I’ve lashed many games with curse words in my gaming career, even those that I’ve enjoyed, but while I dropped the odd f-bomb when things didn’t go my way with Cuphead, I never felt like it was against me. There’s a sincere optimism behind its gameplay and that pokes me right in the heart. Not everyone is going to be fast friends with Cuphead, but anyone who doesn’t shy from retro-inspired pitfalls and the odd tendency towards unpredictability will find a lot of value here — especially if they share a fondness for golden era animation.
This review was conducted on the digital Windows version of the game. It was purchased from Steam by the author.