Cuphead is one of the most defiant video games I've ever played. The lead-up to the game focused on the animation style that defines the game. And it is worth discussing.
By now anyone who has heard about the game knows about its distinctive hand-drawn animation more reminiscent of Porky's Hare Hunt than Halo. But every facet of Cuphead is about being true to that 1930s cartoon sensibility. And in honoring their inspiration, StudioMDHR Entertainment has created something original.
Cuphead 'Don't Deal With The Devil'
The plot behind Cuphead is startlingly simple and to the point. In another time, its the kind of plot that would have felt right at home in the game's manual.
An opening cutscene shows Cuphead and Mugman losing their souls in a game of dice in the Devil's casino. In exchange for the preservation of their souls, our two protagonists make a deal with the Devil. They will go around town and round up souls from bums who didn't pay up.
From that point on the game is straightforward. Players navigate a classic RPG style map, traveling between boss battles and side-scrolling run and gun levels at will. As players earn coins, they can exchange those coins for power-ups. And beating a level will unlock a new section of the map to explore.
Even before its release, fans and critics lauded Cuphead for its classic animation style. But that isn't the only place where the developers at StudioMDHR broke from the pack.
In a time where video game culture is known for story rich open world sagas packed with 100+ hours of gameplay, Cuphead cuts to the quick. Did you want a retro-style run and gun game about a cup fighting giant monsters? You got it. Now stop questioning things and have fun.
Run and Gun
The game's primary focus is on fighting bosses. The plot centers on finding and defeating these abnormally large opponents and rounding up their souls for the Devil. But if you want to beat them, you're going to need to be stronger.
Getting more powerful means buying power-ups. And buying power-ups means earning coins. And the only place to earn coins in Cuphead is the run and gun levels.
These side-scrolling platform levels are jam-packed with enemies. At the start of the game, Cuphead and Mugman are each only equipped with three hearts, which means getting hit three times in the level results in a game over.
One of the most unexpected things in the most unpredictable game of the year is how hard it is. The run and gun levels are overwhelming because of the sheer number of enemies there are.
Learning the right combination of runs, jumps, sprints, and ducks to get through them all without running down the health meter would be arduous in any other game. This is where any of Cuphead's critics should immediately find themselves proven wrong. Since the game's levels can be so difficult to master, repetition becomes the name of the game.
I've listened to many chirping video game loops in my time. So many that I've been known to mute the TV on particularly difficult levels to keep from losing my mind. This is the first time I've ever found myself joyfully humming along to the soundtrack after 15 minutes of game overs. The game never stops being wonderful.
As for the main event, Cuphead's boss fights are equally excellent. The characters are drawn with the knowing smirks that fit the style of the game perfectly. Even their attacks are accompanied with sound effects and animations that bolster the visual narrative.
Each boss fight consists of multiple stages. Typically, in classic video game style, the manager in question goes through about three transformations before they are finally defeated. Learning to beat them takes the same kind of methodical practice as the run and gun levels do. In these fights, though the training usually involves more experimentation with different sorts of attacks, which can be cycled out in the map before each fight.
The boss fights are bookended by some particularly nice detail work that shows the full extent of this passion project. Each match opens up with an announcer cheering you on while a boxing bell rings out. Then at the end of the fight, one of two things happens. If Cuphead won, "Knockout!" comes up across the screen in a dramatic vintage font.
If Cuphead lost, however, some written dialogue comes up from the opponent who felled you. This dialogue changes based on what stage of the fight you made it to. Underneath, a linear map comes up to show how close you were to the end of the fight. It's little touches like this that make the game feel honest and not gimmicky.
Cuphead might be the closest thing there is to an analog video game. The hand-drawn art, the studio recorded music, and the authentic feel combine to give it a weight that is heavier than digital. The game feels like it has fallen through time, out of some bizarre alternate dimension where kids in 1938 were playing Xbox One.
Of course, though, it didn't. But that still doesn't mean it's entirely at home in our world either. The disappointing part about Cuphead is how unique it feels. The developers took the brave step of giving it the unofficial subtitle Don't Deal with the Devil. Perhaps we should anticipate a sequel then. But the video game industry isn't set up for that. If they got started today, we probably wouldn't see a sequel until 2022. And who can say what consoles will look like then?
Forgetting that for a minute, Cuphead is perfectly at home in my house. It's fresh and, more importantly, it's fun. It manages to combine an art style from before my parents were born with video game tropes from my youth to produce a game that feels new. And they did it well.