The cartoon creations of the 1930s were the fundamental backbone of animation’s future. Walt Disney, Fleischer Studios, and other cartoonists created some strange and rather surreal stories. Go back and watch some classics, such as Fleischer Studio’s Swing You Sinners to see just how dark and diabolical they could really get. Brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer of Studio MDHR channeled their love for the past to create Cuphead, a 2D, run-and-gun video game.
Cuphead’s earliest origins can be traced all the way back to 2010, but the game was first revealed to audiences during Microsoft’s E3 Press Conference in 2014. A few brief moments of boss fights were shown and all heads immediately turned. The game’s art style was a true labor of love and made an immediate impression. After a handful of delays (most of them to polish the art and animation), Cuphead was finally released on September 29th. The question must be asked: does the game play as well as it looks?
Don’t Deal With the Devil
Cuphead follows the adventures of the titular Cuphead and his pal Mugman. As fans of a little gambling every now and again, the duo enter a casino and find themselves on a hot streak. However, the Devil himself is revealed to be the owner of the establishment. He promises the heroes a huge payday if they win one more dice roll. Cuphead foolishly gives the dice one more roll. Snake eyes. Cuphead and Mugman’s souls belong to The Devil. But, after pleading their case, he tells him he’ll spare their souls if he collects the soul contracts of other debtors. Without any other choice, the duo set out to do the Devil’s dirty work.
Almost immediately, players will be charmed by the beautifully intricate art style. The game does not feel like a homage to 1930s cartoons — rather it feels like a contemporary among the source material. The exhaustive creative process the studio took to recapture the adorable, bouncing style of the ‘30s animation era is a monumental accomplishment and is Cuphead’s biggest strength. Each character is frame-by-frame hand-drawn and hand-colored via traditional cel animation, paired with watercolor backgrounds. Every boss move set, the battle animations of Cuphead and Mugman, the vibrant world map, every single detail is painstakingly crafted. The 1930s aesthetic is amplified by the pop of a vinyl record in the audio design and the film filter over the action. It’s clear the Moldenhauer brothers have a true passion for art — they cut no corners and it shows in every single stage.
The soundtrack too is a work of pure beauty. The vintage jazz soundtrack composed by Kristofer Maddigan weaves several infectious and high-energy grooves. From the beautiful piano flourishes, the rolling drum beats, and the powerful horn blasts, each tune provides the perfect backdrop to each stage. Each boss fight and run-and-gun level has their own unique track. The pairing of a new boss with a new music track provides a rush of excitement at every new stage.
But despite its cutesy looks and lighthearted soundtrack, Cuphead is a serious challenge not to be taken lightly. Boss battles have multiple stages, each growing more difficult as you progress. The gameplay bears resemblance to classic shoot-em-ups such as Metal Slug or Megaman. However, Cuphead stands apart from other games in its genre with its strong focus on boss fights.
Raise The Stakes
Each challenge in Cuphead is surmountable thanks to its tight controls. Cuphead can shoot projectiles while standing and running. He can shoot in eight directions while standing still. By landing hits on enemies, Cuphead slowly charges up his Super Meter. He can also jump and use a dash that quickly sprints him forward. Unique to Cuphead’s gameplay is a parry move that allows him to bounce off of pink colored projectiles and objects. Doing so further fills the Super Meter. Parrying is a skill that is hard to perfect when you begin the game, but by the time you reach the last world, you’ll be utilizing it whenever you can.
Different weapons and abilities can be purchased from Porkrind’s Emporium with coins collected in run-and-gun stages. Players can customize their weapon loadout by equipping different projectile types, such as weak homing shots or a powerful short-range three-way spread. Each of these weapons has a different Super Move ability, as well. You can swap between two different weapons while in each stage. The player customization allows just enough freedom for players to fine-tune their personal attack and defense strategies.
Alongside different weapons, Cuphead can equip different Super Abilities and Charms. Super Abilities are special moves which can be triggered after charging up the Super Meter. New Super Abilities are unlocked by clearing mini-games. Charms are passive abilities that provide various gameplay boosts, such as an additional hit point and an invulnerable dash. These customization options provide enough variety that if a boss is giving you trouble, tweaking your equip list might be able to help you overcome them.
Cuphead is designed for couch co-op, and this is where the game truly shines the brightest. Unique to co-op play, if either Cuphead or Mugman die, the other player can use a parry on their ghost to resurrect them. Not only does this mechanic make bosses more conquerable, but it also creates a strong “we’re in this together” bond between you and your partner. You help cover for each other’s mistakes when the going gets tough. Sharing different strategies out loud while you play is a big part of the co-op experience, and it certainly elevates the enjoyment of Cuphead.
Red Hot Boss Romps
Boss fights are split between controlling Cuphead directly or flying open-cockpit airplanes in open-air environments. Each boss is outfitted with an expansive list of moves: melee attacks, summoning minions, throwing swarms of projectiles, and just about everything in between. The game features over 20 bosses, and each of them are hectic bouts that won’t last more than three minutes from start to finish. But every single second of each fight is a heart-racing thrill ride.
There is something so awe-inspiring watching each boss throw their best shots at you. Bosses range from deadly vegetables in a garden, a spooky ghost train outfitted with a giant skeleton and ghosts, a whistling pirate on top of his anthropomorphized ship — the creativity only ramps up from there. One of my favorite fights was with Hilda Berg in the level Threatenin’ Zeppelin. She begins as a somewhat harmless unicycle-pedaling boss before transforming into a giant diabolical crescent moon that spits UFOs and stars at you. I was so blown away by the animation I lost all concentration and died after getting to her final form.
Speaking of dying, unless you are a true pro at these style of games, prepare to perish numerous times. Cuphead can only take three hits before dying (though an equipped Charm can increase it to four). Clearing bosses takes hardened focus and precision, which might not be compatible with all gamers. If you are a player who enjoys honing in on challenges, redoing the same trials again and again, slowly developing your own strategy before perfectly executing your best run, you will absolutely adore Cuphead. There are three difficulty modes, so if you are struggling mightily on one boss you can bump the difficulty down if you wish to keep progressing.
It is worth noting, however, that the game cannot be fully cleared if you play on Easy difficulty. This design decision has the unfortunate side effect of punishing casual players who might wish to see everything Cuphead has to offer without hitting their frustration limit. The game expects players to be patient and dedicated, but it’s unfair to hold the game hostage from those who might struggle.
Originally, the game was designed to include nothing but boss fights, but more traditional ‘run-and-gun’ stages were added midway through development. These stages are intermittently placed between boss fights and hold coins which you spend at Porkrind’s Emporium. Unfortunately, these stages do not bring the same frantic excitement the boss fights do. Enemies constantly respawn if you don’t progress fast enough, and some levels focus more on stringing together tricky jumps than challenging combat. After collecting five coins in each level, you will not feel compelled to replay them.
Is Cuphead Good?
Resoundingly yes. For players that appreciate classic run-and-gun combat, punishing difficulty, constantly learning from failure, and breathtaking art, Cuphead’s experience will not disappoint. The anticipation before each new boss cannot be understated. There will be many times where the transformation of a boss into their final form will awe you. Each challenge is more fun than the last, and higher difficulties provide a ton of replayability for the dedicated player.