Cuphead by StudioMDHR Entertainment, Inc.
Five years (since it came on our radar) is a long time to wait for the promise of a new Dragon’s Lair in one’s life; that magic box where for 50 cents I could get three lives to make the Saturday morning cartoons that live only in that arcade machine respond to my joystick decisions. Now imagine if those cartoons were inspired by Fleischer cartoons – those strangely sinister and wildly creative worlds filled with the wacky inflatable arm-waving tube men equivalent of anything one could imagine in the real world, in lieu of the already transcendent Don Bluth fare.
Our Cups Runneth Over
From Canadian developer Studio MDHR comes glorious Cuphead, offering us on a silver tray interactive exchanges with painstakingly and meticulously crafted animated scenarios rife with the overwrought and exaggerated characters of a bygone time when hand-painted cel animation was the first exit through the glowing televisual portal from the reality we had theretofore known.
After making a bad deal with the devil, you and your porcelain chum are tasked with going out to reap some souls to bring back to exchange for the redemption of your own. Questionable heroics aside, you are then dropped down on a world map where you can choose where to begin your desperate efforts to salvage your eternity from eternal torment and servitude to the lord of darkness.
The bounty of originally recorded music – a wild mix of bebop, Klezmer, Dixie, barbershop quartet, Tin Pan Alley, Carl Stalling, Thelonius Monk, Scott Joplin and Stephen Foster – and vocal performances induced by this project alone are worth the cost of admission. This is a passion project like Fez, Bastion or The Banner Saga – the kind that moves beyond iteration into wholly new territory.
A Brutal Beating (On Second Thought, Make That a “Mean Mugging”)
Yes, it is incredibly hard, and that is also tuned to a sort of Super Mario Bros. perfection: “Learn me and bow to me,” says the level design. The reward for achieving the extraction of these baddies’ souls, the sense of accomplishment is not only palpable but perhaps even a valuable real world cognitive skill set. It sharpens one’s tenacity, grit, reflex, curiosity, resilience and ultimately obsequiousness, for the visual treats that await are so delectable that one can’t imagine surrendering to the punitive gameplay and risk losing the wonders that await.
We may have become exceedingly jaded about the derivative nature of games these days – with entire genres named after videos games – whether they be Metroidvanias or Roguelikes or Mario Clones. With each of these, we faced total obliteration at first, but with each failure learned more and more about what to expect and when – and how to overcome it – a skill like windsurfing or chess. That is what Cuphead offers without compromise: a formidable challenge in a world so beguiling it begs to be unlocked. But we must literally earn it, fighting for every inch, every beautifully illustrated and scored scene.
A Devil of a Good Time
Once you do begin to learn the structure of a given level, Cuphead will let you through the gates of cartoon heaven. With the exception of the run-and-gun levels, where mobs are procedurally generated, most levels are consistently scripted so that you can simply practice and get better at them. This can lead to mastery and speed runs. Within a week of its release, players were already clearing this sucker. Don’t feel bad; the play-style is designed for such talents.
The attention to detail – to the provenance of the form – is gob-smacking. It is a transcendent tribute to many things: art, music, video games. Cuphead has aggregated and repurposed a century of figurative human-driven whimsy and launched it out of a cannon with all the bravado and proficiency of the masters upon which it draws. A creative tour de force. Get it, and get good at it.
Cuphead is available via the XBOX Store, Steam and GOG.
Watch the official trailer for Cuphead below: