Cuphead’s animation style is certainly a major factor in helping Studio MDHR’s game to stand out from the pack. By channelling the spirit of 1930s cartoons such as Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Fleischer Studios (Betty Boop, Popeye) with their fluid rhythmic motions and a film filter furthering the theme, it’s been on a lot of people’s radar ever since its announcement at the rather lacklustre Microsoft E3 2014 conference, and as I played it, I was blown away by what I saw.
In motion, this relic of the past looks stunning. Enemies have bags of character with their maniacal grins and visible tells as to when they’re about to attack, and backgrounds and NPCs that feature are lovingly animated with a hand-drawn aesthetic that will be as timeless as its inspirations. I only wish I could hear the music as the booth wasn’t set up for audio, but if the reported jazz music is set in time with the game itself, then I would be grooving along as the animations play out in front of me.
But this isn’t a cartoon; it’s a game and for games such as this one tight control is essential. Cuphead’s tutorial hub is a safe haven to explore the rather simple controls, such as running, jumping at varying heights depending on how the button is pressed, dashing, and your surprisingly varied arsenal of attacks. It feels great to play and becomes second nature in no time whatsoever.
Cuphead and Mugman – the second player avatar – have access to a long single bullet, a short range spread shot, and when the Special bar is filled they can unleash a beam of destruction for heavy damage. While it was difficult to pinpoint how the bar was being filled as my eyes focused on boss patterns, it’s reassuring to have options available, especially when taking three hits means restarting the battle.
Each time I came back out of the game I was presented with an overworld map with locations to access. For my first fight, I went to an unassuming garden where the first task was to defeat a potato rolling dirt and worms along the ground. Upon his defeat, signalled by the squeezing of his own face, a telekinetic carrot appeared to fling all sorts of hazards at me. This was by far the easiest of the fights and the only one I was able to defeat, thanks to attack patterns that were relatively simple to avoid.
However, the second encounter was very different, as a huge cuckoo lay in wait for me and my little plane. Some of the cuckoo’s attacks effectively turned Cuphead into a bullet-hell shooter, in particular when I had to try and dodge a flurry of feathers. Alas, with plenty more to see in the game, this character remained undefeated as I moved on to the casino level.
Here, boxing frogs with a variety of different attacks were able to combine their abilities to deadly effect, and this was an indication of just how imaginative Studio MDHR is being with their boss battle design. Elsewhere, a cloud level had a dragon with the added challenge of keeping your footing in the clouds, while a ghost train has plenty of spooky foes to shoot at while on a moving carriage.
My only concern is that the gameplay seems to be a glorified boss rush. A lot of the game time will probably be found in trying to use your limited arsenal to overcome the bosses, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Treasure have done that in the past with Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier on the Mega Drive, but despite a plethora of levels to try out during the show, there was little indication of how expansive the final game will be. One aspect that wasn’t on show was Cuphead and Mugman’s suits, which ought to imbue the two with more abilities, along the lines of Mario’s arsenal of mushrooms and items, and this will surely help to expand upon the gameplay.
As I went back several times to play this indie gem, this was the one of the few games at EGX that I felt genuinely compelled to play again and again. By the time the final day of the expo rolled around, it was starting to gather a small queue of people that, while nothing to compare with the lines for the likes of Halo 5, is another good sign that this is a game Xbox One owners should look out for next year.