When Cuphead was announced, it piqued my interest. With classical animation schooling under my belt, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game that was inspired by 1930s cartoons. Then I had the chance to play Cuphead at an event and feared it would be too difficult for me to actually enjoy. I am glad to say those fears were put to rest. Cuphead is not only visually charming, but its difficulty doesn’t detract from the game, only adds to its appeal.
The game revolves around Cuphead and Mugman, two brothers who lost their souls to the Devil at his casino. Seems like an appropriate day job for the Devil. They plead with the Devil for mercy, he agrees that if the brothers collect the souls on his list, they may be spared. Players work their way through Inkwells(worlds), collecting souls and trying to survive.
Don’t be fooled, Cuphead is difficult, I mean throw the controller in frustration difficult. Designed to offer players a challenge, Cuphead is up there with the likes of Mega-Man – which I have watched many people play and it always ends in anger. The gameplay consists of tun-and-gun, Boss battles and levels where players pop ghosts. While Cuphead is hard, StudioMDHR has considered that not every player wants THAT much of a challenge and has included mechanics to help players stand up to the challenge. The run-and-gun levels serve as a way to collect coins but don’t need to be completed to continue forward. Boss battles can be fought on “simple” mode, although this will not allow players to collect soul contracts, it will still allow them to proceed forward in the game. Players will need to collect Soul Contracts to actually beat the game however. The mausoleum levels, ghost popping fun, grant players special moves. These allow players to perform a more powerful attack that can aid wildly in Boss battles. There are also other upgrades which help make Cuphead slightly easier.
I found that if I couldn’t beat a Boss on regular mode, once I bought and equipped charms, new weapons and special moves, I had a fighting chance. When I initially started playing Cuphead, I felt dismayed that the dash wouldn’t allow me to move through enemies, as many other games would, but I later discovered that players can buy the such an ability. It’s obvious StudioMDHR has thought everything through. Everything I longed for as a player was made available: extra health, stronger weapons, invincibility. Cuphead allows for two player gameplay so players can torture play with a buddy. This can be a lifesaver, literally. If one player should die, the other player can bring them back, so don’t cry over spilt Cuphead. Simply parry(similar to double jump) the ghost of the deceased and their spirit is prevented from fleeing the scene, dragging them back into the fight. There appears to be no limit on how many times a player can be resurrected, however they do return with only 1 hit point. Sometimes making Cuphead an endless stream of resurrection until one player screams out in frustration.
While Cuphead has a reputation for being hard, its shining achievement is the visuals. Cuphead is hand-drawn and classically animated, transporting players back to the early days of cartoons. Classical animation is just not something that is done anymore. Disney tried to reinvigorate it with The Princess and the Frog, however, it didn’t stick. So a project of this magnitude was ambitious, especially for such a small team, but StudioMDHR brought their A-game and nailed the art. Every little detail is well designed to perfectly imitate a classic cartoon Max Fleischer could be proud of. StudioMDHR carefully planned and throughout their aesthetics and it is nothing short of masterful.
The crackling as if it were an old film reel, the hand-painted look of the backgrounds and the character animations which have them constantly bobbing up and down. Characters in older cartoons had a difficult time standing still and I’m not going to speculate why. Cuphead and Mugman sport a generic cartoon body, but adorn cups for heads, making the character design simple but unique. They even have straws in their cup-heads, which they occasionally drink from, but we won’t even go into the psychological aspects of drinking your own brain. Other characters are just as wacky and ridiculous. The whole game is infused with the utmost love and hard work. Everything one could want from a 1930s cartoon is here, plus colour!
The sound in Cuphead matches the aesthetics quite well. Warm and jaunty music follows the brothers around. The music is unique however definitely demonstrates a respect for classic cartoons and well-loved games. There is a level where the music closely mimics Mario music, however, it doesn’t feel like a cheap knock-off, just a loving homage to one of the greats. The game is mostly non-verbal. There are tidbits here, but not too much. This is ideal for the feel of the game, as old cartoons didn’t have much voice acting either. Mickey Mouse may have said “oh boy” once in awhile but was too busy getting into trouble to say much else. He was kind of a jerk back then and much of his voice acting was laughing at the misery of others.
As someone who studied classical animation, I fully appreciate the amount of love, respect and work that StudioMDHR put into their game, and there really isn’t much to criticise. It’s nearly flawless. I could ramble on and on about Cuphead, using animation jargon, but instead, just go play it. While it is difficult to recommend this to players who may not possess the skill level required, Cuphead is stunning, unique and incredibly delightful. It’s a challenge, but one players will keep striving to conquer. No matter how many times cups are broken, players will feel drawn to return. So for those seeking an enchanting challenge, roll the dice on Cuphead. It’s hard, but not impossible.