Cuphead, developed and published by Studio MDHR, is a game that combines 1930’s-style hand drawn animation with the difficult run n’ gun gameplay of 2D shooters from the 90’s.
The story echoes those of typical cartoons from the era. Cuphead and his brother Mugman get lost while exploring the woods and find a massive casino owned by the wealthy and powerful King Dice. After a long lucky streak, the Devil comes up and give the two brothers an offer: Win the next game and they’ll win all of the riches in the casino, but if they lose the Devil will take their souls. Foolishly making a deal with the Devil, Cuphead rolls the dice, but he ended up taking the price as he payed the price. As the brothers beg the devil gives them another option: Defeat all of his contractors and he might spare the brothers. Cuphead and Mugman take the deal and set off to save their souls.
Cuphead’s most defining feature is its visual presentation. Inspired by classic cartoons of the 1930’s such as Popeye and Looney Tunes, every character, environment and effect in the game looks straight out of the golden age of animation. Every single frame is hand-drawn with painstaking detail to really sell the look, and in action it looks absolutely gorgeous. All of the bosses are about as outlandish as you could expect as well: Malicious vegetables, boxing frogs, candy queens and so much more. You’ll feel like you’re interacting with a classic toon.
That is, if you live long enough to see any of it. Cuphead’s inspiration not only comes from rubber hose animations, but also from some of the most challenging run n’ gun shooters of yesteryear. It seems simple enough. All you do is jump, shoot and dash. However, every single stage and boss seems destined to drop the anvil on you at least a dozen times, if not more. It’s not unusual to spend at least a half hour on stages that would normally last 3-4 minutes. Projectiles and enemies fill the screen as you try to poof your foes out of existence, and massive bosses take tons of bullets to defeat. But all of this helps to create a game that manages to be challenging yet fair, and to keep you playing despite failing at seemingly every turn. At one moment, the game will make you feel like you’re in the Great Depression, but once you hear the magic words of “Knockout!” and “Bravo!” you feel like you struck gold despite all odds being against you.
That’s the simple beauty of Cuphead. Experiences like this don’t come often nowadays, and there isn’t any other game that quite manages to match the balance of its unique visuals and punishing yet fair difficulty. If you enjoy 2D action games or just hard games in general, Cuphead has my full recommendation.
Cuphead is available on Xbox One and Windows PC for $19.99 MSRP.