Cuphead

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Cuphead is a run and gun platformer that exclusively uses rubber hose animation and one of the very few of its kind.

ConsolePC, Xbox One
DeveloperStudio MDHR
PublisherStudio MDHR
GenreRun and gun, platformer, shoot ’em up
Release Year2017
Purchase (PC)Purchase from Humble Store.
Purchase (Xbox One/PC)Purchase from Amazon.

Remember the days of rubber hose animation, AKA inkblot cartoons? Probably not because most of us here were not even alive during that time. To clarify, this is the first animation style that became standardized in the American animation industry, starting around the 1920s. The style itself places an emphasis on abstract movements and surreal transitions, making the animated characters look like they have “rubber hose limbs.”

Nowadays, rubber hose animation is a rare sight, mostly used as a sight gag in various modern cartoons. Unless you somehow had old VHS tapes or DVD compilations of these types of old cartoons, it’s very unlikely you’ll see them on television.

We owe a lot to rubber hose animation, for it began the golden age of American animation. Had it not been for companies like Fleischer Studios and Walt Disney Animation, animation wouldn’t be as prominent today. It was an era of innovation for a new medium to tell a story. It had been nearly a hundred years ago. That should tell you how far we progressed.

And this brings us to a video game known as Cuphead, which brings back rubber hose animation as the primary style. While there were previous video games that played around with rubber hose animation (i.e. Kingdom Hearts II and Epic Mickey), none of them kept the style through the whole experience. It’s odd that no one until recently had even tried this in the realm of gaming. Hmm.

But this was only part of the appeal about Cuphead. How about tough bosses and a punishing difficulty?

 

Don’t Deal With The Devil!

The game stars Cuphead and Mugman, two residents of Inkwell Isle who live with Elder Kettle. The two kids ended up gambling at the Devil’s Casino. The boys bet their own souls in exchange for riches, then lost a game against the Devil himself. Cuphead and Mugman begged for another way to repay him, and the Devil presented them with a new task:

“I have here a list of my runaway debtors. Collect their souls for me, and I just might pardon you two mugs.”

So, the moral of the story is…

DON’T DEAL WITH THE LORD OF LIES, PEOPLE! WHY WOULD YOU THINK IT’S A GOOD IDEA AT ALL?

So if you’re wondering if the premise is meant to be pretty dark and adult, you’d be right. Supposedly, the main inspiration of Cuphead is a 1930 Fleischer short called Swing You Sinners! starring Bimbo the dog.

Yeah… don’t you just love how dark and deranged it is? Even John Kricfalusi, the creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show, listed this short as an inspiration.

So before I enter another tangent here, let’s discuss the gameplay.

 

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Swing You Sinner!

Cuphead gameplay Perilous Piers

Cuphead is a game built like a run and gun platformer similar to the likes of Contra and Gunstar Heroes, but there are actually only a few run and gun stages. Instead, it focuses on a large number of boss battles. The controls themselves are straightforward: you run and shoot. Additionally, you have a parry attack that lets you destroy/bounce on pink objects. A successful parry will charge up your super meter, allowing you to use powered versions of your shots and Super Arts.

Cuphead game Porkrind

The game also has roleplaying elements, giving you some level of customization over Cuphead’s abilities. Through the overworld maps and run and gun stages, you can collect golden coins to spend at Porkrind’s Emporium, where you can purchase new weapons and charms. Some of the weapons include a spread shot, a homing shot and a charge shot just to name a few. The charms are basically passive powerups that grant you certain abilities, like more health or the super meter continuously filling up. There are a total of six weapons and six charms to try out, though you do need to find every last coin to obtain all of them.

Cuphead Legendary Chalice

There are also mausoleum stages, where you must parry ghosts to protect the Legendary Chalice. By successfully keeping her safe, she will grant you a new Super Art—three in total, but you can only equip one at a time.

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But as I mentioned before, the main appeal of Cuphead is its bosses. And yes, they’re all quite difficult to defeat the first time around. You’re most likely going to die many times until you can memorize their attack patterns or change your attack strategies to something that works better. Furthermore, these creations are just insane.

I mean, look at ’em! Not only do these characters look familiar (due to resembling famous cartoon characters), they take on all sorts of weird forms. And don’t get me started on some of the facial expressions they were able to show!

In addition to the boss fights where you use the standard run and gun mechanics, there are also boss fights where you drive a plane instead. While you get full range-of-motion in these fights, you’re only limited to two weapons for the whole game.

Overall, I’m enamored by Cuphead’s punishing difficulty to the point where I keep picking the game back up just to keep dying over and over. I even went as far as completing all of the run and gun stages for a P grade (pacifist run) and all of the bosses on expert difficulty for an S grade. Yes, I’m a sadomasochist. Don’t kink-shame me. Cuphead’s difficulty is widely recognized to the point of being called the “Dark Souls of platformers” by gaming journalists.

…Wait, really. A Dark Souls comparison? Come on, people. It’s not like Dark Souls is the first game in the world to have a punishing difficulty level. I’d be quicker to compare Cuphead to tough NES platformers before I’d compare it to Dark Souls.

The game’s soundtrack was wonderfully made, possessing a mixture of ragtime, big band, swing and jazz music. There are even some a cappella tracks performed by a quartet. These do extremely well in setting the mood, making you feel like you’re really viewing a cartoon from the 1930s.

List of Tracks

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Cuphead gameplay Dr. Kahl's Robot

The art and animation are easily the best things about Cuphead. In order to replicate the look and feel of cartoons from the 1930s, Studio MDHR actually made hand-drawn frames on cels. That is some real dedication to the craft and it definitely shows just how much of a passion project Cuphead is. You’re not just watching a cartoon. You’re playing it.

Furthermore, the game is full of references. As I mentioned earlier, Cuphead was inspired by old Fleischer cartoons such as Swing You Sinners! and old Disney cartoons. But it also references ’90s video games, believe it or not.

Contra and Gunstar Heroes are a given considering the gameplay. But we also got references to Street Fighter, Mega Man, Dragon Quest, the Parodius series, Pac-Man and even Sonic the Hedgehog. Want a list of these references? Check out the TV Tropes page!

And supposedly, the character designs of Cuphead and Mugman were based on that of a character from an obscure Japanese propaganda cartoon. Seriously.

Yep. The evil American Mickey Mouse tries to conquer the small island nation apparently inhabited by Japanese Felix the Cat. And there’s a man with a cup for a head who can turn into a tank. Even though I know this cartoon was meant to shit on the United States before World War II, I still found its surreal premise hilarious.

So anyways, that’s Cuphead. Before I conclude the review, I would like to discuss my minor gripes with the game itself.

While I generally feel that the gameplay is well made and polished, I feel like the timing on parries can be off at times. There were moments during my playthrough where I made a successful parry, but take damage anyway because…

*shrugs*

This rarely happens for me, but it always seem to happen during some of the most intense boss fights for me. And it can be irritating when you’re taking damage when you thought you timed your parry just right.

And also, while the game is very beautiful to look at, there are times when the visuals can get distracting. I’m talking about, of course, the foreground objects. This is most prominent during the plane stages, such as the fights against Djimmi the Great and Dr. Kahl’s Robot. The problem with the foreground is that it tends to conceal small projectiles from the bosses, making it much harder to dodge them. In a game where you really need to do a lot of split-second dodging (to the point of resembling bullet hell games), being unable to see the bullets is like the game taking free shots at you.

And that’s about it for the time being. Overall, I had a hell of a time playing Cuphead and considered it to be easily one of the best video games I played in recent memory. Not only do I enjoy the revival of the rubber hose animation, I consider the challenge just right for a gamer who grew up playing Nintendo Hard games.

And speaking of which, I should bring up that Cuphead is not meant for the casual player. It’s designed to be a challenging run and gun game for people who actively enjoy gaming. The reason I’m bringing this up is because of people out there complaining that the game is too hard and should be made easier. Considering the challenge is one of the main aspects that made Cuphead enjoyable, I heavily disagree.

Even though this game is a very ambitious indie production, it’s not the end just yet. In fact, come 2019…

DLC called The Delicious Last Course. And yes, I’ll be getting it as soon as it comes out.

Cuphead

$19.99
9.5

GAMEPLAY

9.0/10

GRAPHICS

10.0/10

SOUNDTRACK

9.5/10

Pros

  • The game doesn't shy away from dark and adult themes that were more prominent in older cartoons.
  • Solid run and gun mechanics with many fun and challenging bosses.
  • The art and animation are solid representations of 1930s rubber hose animation, down to including film grain and certain color modes that give the game a more saturated look. Nearly everything is hand-drawn on cels.
  • The soundtrack is a wonderful variety of ragtime, big band, swing and jazz music.
  • Numerous references to older cartoons and 1990s video games.

Cons

  • Minor issue: sometimes, the parry ability doesn't work like it should.
  • The foreground can be an annoyance at times, especially against tougher bosses on higher difficulties.
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