Animation techniques have evolved a lot over the last 100 years. From its rather simple beginnings, we now live in an era where 2D cells have given way to computer animation in the House of Mouse – Disney. Yet it’s easy to forget what came before and in the 1930s in particular animation went through its own renaissance thanks to the work of pioneers such as Walt Disney and, more importantly to Cuphead, the Fleisher brothers – famous for creations like Betty Boop.
While Betty has been confined to history, the animation that inspired Cuphead shows dedication to a style that is quite frankly timeless. Displayed to have an authentic Technicolor feel at HD resolutions at 60FPS, the characters animate with the sways and fluidity that the Fleisher’s had with their work. For a game where watching tells in enemy animations is key, the style makes this a more than pleasing experience.
Accompanying the visuals are swing and jazz music appropriate for the time period of when the Fleisher’s cartoons were popular. Each one is a groovy and fitting number that further emphasises the themes wonderfully, making it difficult to not put the controller down and snap your fingers in time with the music. Presentation is therefore flawless.
As for the game itself, it’s generally a good time, if somewhat on the difficult side at times. I consider myself rather adept at the likes of Castlevania and Mega Man, though less so when it comes to side-scrolling aerial shooters with bullet hell mechanics. Since each level uses either multi-phase Mega Man style boss fights or side-scrolling shooting, the distinction is always apparent.
The first world was honestly a cakewalk for me, but that was mostly because the patterns of enemies were either simple to understand or I’d been exposed to enough of Cuphead prior to release that I instinctively knew what to do. In fact, while the bosses took a bit of trial and error, I only struggled with just one of the many bosses the game has to offer.
This is largely thanks to Porkrind’s Emporium – the shop where you can buy weapons and charms for the small smattering of coins available in the game. Each shot type allows Cuphead to deal damage in a variety of ways, with some shot types being more suited to certain battles than others. Charms also change the way the game plays from giving invincibility when dashing to an extra hit point.
But perhaps the controls are the key as to why Cuphead feels great to play. Everything is so tight that when got killed, it genuinely felt like it was my mistake rather than some inconsistency with the controls. Cuphead has a surprising amount of movability that I did forget a couple of moves I could have used to make certain fights easier for myself, such as shrinking to avoid projectiles in plane sections or even air-dashing to avoid attacks.
One thing key to playing well in Cuphead was mastering the art of parrying. Each pink object can be parried by jumping next to it and pressing the jump button again to initiate a slap. This not only negates that attack, but also goes some way to charging your EX meter, represented by cards. I could spend one card by pressing the corresponding special attack button or initiate a Super move by pressing the button with five cards full. Both systems are simple to understand and highly effective.
For those that decide to play with a friend, there are two things to consider. There’s the advantage of being able to revive your partner providing you jump and slap their ghost in the right spot. The window to do this is somewhat short, but it does allow for comebacks. However, with a partner by your side, there also comes an increase in the maximum health of the boss, meaning you may be shooting for quite a while and dodging attacks accordingly.
Much like games of a certain era, there’s a bit of a false sense of progression when playing the game on Simple difficulty, akin to many Practice modes where a portion of the game is locked behind a difficulty wall. Those familiar with Mega Man and the like will find little reason to play when Regular provides a more fitting challenge, while the unlockable Expert difficulty houses more difficult variants on the bosses.
If Cuphead has one shortcoming, it’s that outside of the boss battles the offerings are somewhat barebones. Side-scrolling platformer levels are entirely optional, offering the chance to collect coins to spend in Porkrind’s Emporium. There are also three mausoleums that upon eliminating many pink ghosts trying to take an urn by slapping them mid-jump, a spectral cup will reward Cuphead and Mugman a new Super Move. You can unlock things such as filters and a new difficulty mode, but that’s about it.
Cuphead was well worth waiting for. It provided exactly what Studio MDHR said it would be – a boss rush with plenty of well-designed bosses and gorgeous presentation that mimics the Fleisher brothers’ art style. Depending on how used to 2D platformers with difficult bosses you are, there’s a decent amount on offer, though with limited side attractions beyond the bosses, it could all be done before you know it. It’s a swell ol’ time though.
Version Tested: PC