A Blast from the Past
Published on November 15, 2017
Release Date: September 29, 2017
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows (Played on Windows)
Developer: Studio MDHR
Publisher: Studio MDHR
In an era where microtransactions, unfinished products, and ridiculous crowd-sourced titles rule the video game landscape, it’s always refreshing to see an indie-title that throws all the corporate gibberish out the door and release a fun, complete product. It’s even more satisfying to see all the effort and polish that went into something that’s nothing short of a visual and auditory masterpiece.
First revealed by Studio MDHR in 2013 (and to the general masses at the 2014 Microsoft E3 press conference), the trailer teased nothing more than a few seconds of animation and gameplay. But its distinct aesthetic and potential already had people excited for what would follow.
Bringing back the 1930s
The first thing you will notice when watching any gameplay of Cuphead is its art style. It’s almost something you would have seen out of a cartoon, with hand-drawn frames and expert attention to detail. Even the story is something that you see out of a TV show: two cup brothers end up making the wrong deal with the devil and sets off on a question to win back their freedom.
The developers mention that a lot of the inspiration came from Fleischer Studios (Betty Boop, Popeye), Disney, and prominent artists from the 30s, for which a lot of the characters in the game pay homage to. On top of that, the game takes a lot of influence from the surrealism that was popular at that time, with characters creating a sense of unease in the player, whether that’d be a psychic carrot, a queen bee with a chainsaw mecha suit, or a ghost train.
The need to capture this style meant the artists manually drew every frame of the animation. This isn’t just for Cuphead or the bosses he’s fighting against, every single moving object has its distinct movement and personality. You can see the chomping roller coaster that’s going up the hill in the background, the electric eels that are dancing in the water, and of course the angry barrel that’s waiting for the perfect time to crush you from above.
With the game animations running at a constant 24 frames per second, and some of the slower boss attacks running for a few seconds, the art team had to draw the same character at least a hundred times to translate it from ideas to tangible products. And since you can’t move parts of the body around by a few pixels after it’s finished, sometimes the team had to redraw the entire animation from scratch.
The game does not stop with just its visual stimulations however, as the original score went through a similar process to ensure the highest quality emulation of the music of that era. Studio MDHR hired Kris Maddigan, a composer from Toronto with extensive jazz background, the big band orchestra was able to create over 3 hours of authentic-sounding ragtime that keeps players engaged through each of the stages. Even the sound effects are able to tell a story of their own as each bounce, bang, and crack are distinctive and give cues to the player what’s happening.
This culminated in an almost insurmountable quantity of work, as the team had to grow from 3 to 19 people, and the release date pushed out three years later than expected for Studio MDHR to be able to finish what they dreamed of back in 2013.
In the end, Cuphead is a video game, and we should ultimately judge it in how it plays. Similar to the games of the 80s and 90s, Cuphead is a run and gun game that pays homage to classics such as Contra and Gunstar Heroes. A lot of the gameplay focuses on your ability to maneuver your Cuphead and shoot down your foes skillfully. And of course, it also means this game is hard as nails.
You will spend the bulk of your time fighting one of the 19 bosses spread over four worlds. Some of them you’ll be on stages where you walk and jump around on platforms, and others you’ll spend flying around in an airplane, akin to a bullet hell game. There’s no time limit to these fights, but you are only granted one life (with a variable number of hits depending on what power-up you use) before the game presents you a game over screen. Most fights will only last a few minutes at most, but the stages ramp up the difficulty to 11 to ensure you die. A lot.
Luckily, there are a variety of mechanics and features that will allow you to overcome the challenges. Multiple weapons are available at your disposal depending on who you’re up against. Parries allow you to “eat” an attack to avoid certain death. And for those of you who prefer a co-operative experience, a second player can jump in at any time to pitch in their own bullets.
The pleasure of Cuphead is discovering all the attacks the bosses throw at you and learning how to deal with them. Every attack in the game has its unique telegraph, and after a couple of practice runs, you’ll be able to dodge every shot, laser beam, chainsaw, and bomb with reflexes alone. But don’t mistake it as just a pure memorization task though, as each attempt randomizes the attack order and forces the players to think on their feet.
One quick thing to note here is that there are certain attacks and sequences of attacks that are impossible to dodge. This is a shame because it makes the game stray from purely being a skill-based game and tosses in some random factors that may add frustration to the player.
Along with the boss fights, there are a couple of side-scrolling levels sprinkled in each world to change up the tempo (which the team added after public feedback in 2015). Although they are more deterministic due to how they spawn enemies, don’t mistake them for being cakewalks. They are equally challenging as the boss stages if not more at times. Another differentiating factor is that they are the source for gold coins, which serve as currency in the game to purchase different types of weapons and power-ups.
Stage design is nothing without responsive controls, and I’m glad to say that Cuphead has the tightest controls and physics I’ve played with in a long time (It’s feels very similar to Megaman). The movement starts and stops on a dime, every jump feels fluid, and you can quickly tell where your hitbox will be when playing. The mechanics are slightly deeper than you would expect from a game like this as well. There are parries that I mentioned earlier. Special moves let you deal massive amounts of damage at the expense of a full power meter, while EX moves (which differ per weapon) use up one bar of the power meter at a time.
This leads to a frustration I had with the game, where there are just way too many buttons that the players need to press: movement, shooting, jumping, parrying, special moves, and aiming. Many times I would forget which button did what or pressed the wrong button which resulted in my death. Fortunately, the game lets you customize your controls so you can change the button mappings as you see fit.
Every one of these components combines to form a grading system for each boss fight, which tests a combination of speed, your reflexes, and understanding of the game mechanics. The game encourages players to retry levels with different sets of weapons, skills and special moves to help them achieve the coveted S rank. Side-scrolling levels also have a similar grading system, with a bonus for if you can beat the stage without killing a single enemy.
A Blast From the Past
Overall, Cuphead is a fun, tightly packed game that is both a visual spectacle and a controller-wrenchingly difficult experience.
Although the game only lasts a small amount of time, with my playthrough running roughly 8 hours, I didn’t feel like the game was short. The replayability of all the stages, along with the Expert mode that unlocks after beating the final boss, it felt like the game would occupy me for a bit longer. That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind a couple more islands with extra stages though. I would sign up to endure more bosses and the chance for the beautifully crafted stages and animations to awe me one last time.
Studio MDHR hit it out of the park with their first game, as it manages to find a unique space in today’s crowded video game world, along with presenting such a polished, complete product.