Animation, as an art form and genre of entertainment, owes a lot to Max Fleischer. An artist whose work preceded Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, Fleischer was the brain behind famous cartoon characters Popeye and Betty Boop. He was also the inventor of the Rotoscope, a piece of filmmaking equipment that allowed him to create more fluid and realistic-looking animations never before seen. Fleischer’s cartoons had a distinctive style characterized by over exaggerated movements, elongated limbs, and a bounce in every step. As animation techniques advanced over time, the idea of the Max Fleischer cartoon exists now as the opening chapter in the annals of cartoon history.
It is surprising then to see a video game in 2017, an era marked by companies vying to create the “world’s most powerful console,” forgo intense photorealism for muted colors and film scratches (then again, it’s not uncommon for indie titles to employ striking art styles). Cuphead, developed by Studio MDHR Studios, exists on a whole other level as a lovingly crafted homage to an animation pioneer. But is there more to this Silly Symphonies-esque adventure than its appearance? That largely depends on whether or not you’re a glutton for punishment.
The story of Cuphead is a cautionary tale. Friends Cuphead and Mugman frolic in the land of Inkwell Isle (a nod to Max Fleischer’s animation studio) and stumble upon a casino run by King Dice. Drawn in by the glitz and glamour of high stakes gambling, the two youths do well for themselves until they are hustled by the Devil himself. As they beg for their very souls, the Devil grants Cuphead and Mughead an alternative: collect the soul contracts from notable notables across Inkwell Isle in exchange for their lives. Don’t let the cheerful, bouncy animation and cutesy looking characters fool you. Cuphead is comically dark: two boys are charged by the devil to collect debts by killing those who have made pacts with Old Scratch. Golly gee!
Leading up to its release, rumors suggested that Cuphead was designed to be a boss rush and that’s exactly what it is. Inkwell Island is divided into four worlds occupied by a collection of high profile debtors the player needs to take down. Comprised of multiple phases and unique environments, these boss encounters are platforming levels onto themselves (or, in some cases shmups) as you dodge attacks and obstacles from desperate foes. Much like older video games, victory relies on pattern recognition and following various tells. Going against convention, however, is the inability to tell how much damage is dealt during the encounter. Instead of a big, glowing red health bar taking up the screen, progress is defined by a boss’ attack phases. In the event of your death, the game over screen highlights a position on a track, letting you know how close (or far) you were to victory. This, naturally, is cause for a great many instances of emotional “Oh, hell, I was so close!” outbursts.
Cuphead is a difficult game and you will die. A lot. As of this writing, I’ve died 234 times in my quest to collect souls for the devil. Though overcoming a boss is defined by attack patterns and managing obstacles, a lot of bosses can be super difficult because of how many spinning plates you have to manage. Unless you’re really lucky or have fantastic reflexes, you can count on dying repeatedly until you’ve figured out the best way to avoid and attack. Another reason why the game can be so hard is the limited amount of health at your disposal. Cuphead and Mugman can only withstand three hits before they’re killed and forced to restart the battle from the beginning. And with no way to replenish health during a battle, I eventually fell into a pattern of forcing a restart anytime I got hit during the first or second phases because I knew there was no point in continuing on with anything less than full health.
You’re not entirely helpless thanks to character upgrades purchased with coins collected in non-boss related “Run ‘n Gun” stages. A shop owner offers new weapon types, and additional health (at the expense of weakening attacks), and various perks that work great in a pinch. Your attacks have secondary abilities that are mitigated by a meter system, represented in-game as a hand of cards, that continuously fills as you shoot enemies. Spending one card will trigger a weapon effect while waiting for all five cards to be active unleashes a special ability, such as a power stream of hits or temporary invulnerability. The card meter fills at a moderate pace as long as you’re hitting something and the parry system is helpful in speeding the process along. In every encounter, be it a “run ‘n gun” stage or boss fight, you’ll find pink versions of projectiles and enemies. Parrying these things (hitting “A” mid-jump just before you come in contact) provides a noticeable boost.
With its unique and eye catching visual style, Cuphead is liable to capture people’s attention unaware. The cartoon aesthetic belies a seriously challenging game that frequently tests the patience of the player. I myself spent just over two hours fighting one boss, an experience that left me more frustrated over time. The pure euphoria I experienced--a mixture of relief, adrenaline, and proud accomplishment--after finally taking the creature down was unparalleled, resulting in a lot of shouting and cheering.
Before it got its hooks deep into me, my enjoyment of Cuphead was entirely superficial, as I was only interested with how it recreated a cartoon style from the 1930s. I still can’t believe how Studio MDHR managed to perfectly capture a specific moment in time. Adding to the beautiful design is a soundtrack so evocative, so pure that the only way composer Kristofer Maddigan could have done it was to use a time machine. Mixing together elements of ragtime and period jazz, Maddigan created an audio backdrop so pitch perfect, I immediately purchased the $100, four vinyl deluxe edition from iam8bit without blinking an eye. Those not wanting to drop as much coin can head over to Studio MDHR's Bandcamp page and purchase the digital version.
Studio MDHR’s Cuphead is going to be one of those game you’ll either totally love or hate with a fury hotter than the fires of hell. This is a really, really hard game. One of its oddities is the inclusion of a “Simple” mode for bosses that make the battles significant easier except you cannot advance to the next world unless you've taken out their “Regular” forms. And because the “Simple” variants aren’t particularly helpful, there’s no reason they should exist. The platformer minded Run ‘n Gun stages are nice diversions but at their worst, you can tell they were added for wider appeal. As someone who absolutely love what Cuphead is, I learned to take these issues in stride. This is a game that made such a huge splash on arrival and has more personality and charm than anything launched this year.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.