That hypnotic tumbling, dots flashing before your eyes, the distinctive clattering of well balanced ivory against ivory, and complimentary dull thud as those cubes of chance tumble against the green baize. In the background a deep rasping chuckle; the acrid smell of brimstone fills your nostrils, yet the jazz plays on and maybe… just maybe your luck will change… you order another martini and roll again…
I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all played dice with the devil and lost and that’s exactly where the player joins the action; our porcelain protagonist, ‘Cuphead’, and his best friend, Mugman, rolling bones with Satan himself, the enigmatic Diceman looking on with glee. Now the crockery couple are bound to do the devil’s bidding and collect souls on his outstanding contracts from the poor… beings… that inhabit the three Inkwell isles before showing down with Lucifer himself at Diceman’s Casino… this task is no walk in the park…
‘Cuphead’ is the creation of indie studio MDHR and grabbed gamers’ attention with early footage a few years ago. Since it’s release it has been almost universally lavished in praise. The visual style alone makes it one of the most distinctive games to have been released in recent years; taking the concept of retro in a completely different direction, the game faithfully captures the style of early 1930’s animation. Characters and enemies are all assembled using traditional hand drawn techniques to recreate a world where everything danced to a syncopated jazz rhythm, limbs were made of elastic, and smoking, demonic forces, drinking, and gambling were all themes that could be included in cartoons.
The only thing fortunately absent are the underlying offensive racial stereotypes that often stepped hand-in-hand with these early cartoons. There is an excellent article here that examines how the ghosts of the ingrained racism in this early style of animation are still visible in Cuphead; it’s an interesting and thought provoking read that I would strongly advise you check out.
Visually and audibly this all comes together to be a vibrant treat for the senses. The attention to detail is staggering, the soundtrack is toe-tappingly catchy, and even the grainy filter & colour bleed scream authenticity. Critically however this superb style is coupled with some excellent gameplay which echoes the frantic soundtrack and wild dancing of the onscreen characters – far too often games appear visually spectacular but fail to deliver on the actual game. ‘Cuphead’ follows in the footsteps of the many punishing platformers that have gone before it, its appeal lies in its difficulty, and I couldn’t help feeling that I’d experienced this sense of challenge before in my time with games like ‘Super MeatBoy’, ‘Spelunky’, and even recently with ‘Strafe‘.
The game presents the player with an overworld where they can attempt various levels as they work through the Inkwell Isles. The designers were sensible in generally presenting more than one path through each Isle allowing the player to pick between a few options for which stage to attempt next… without this I’m guessing many players would abandon the game in frustration at getting stuck on one particular boss. That being said, I found myself playing each Isle to completion before moving on to the next (this isn’t a brag, I was just enjoying the spectacle and challenge of each too much). There is a certain variety to the level types, but all present a significant challenge. Most prominently are the boss levels; in these the player must take control of Cuphead to defeat an elaborate multistage boss based around a specific theme. The imagination that’s been used to create the bosses is pretty incredible: Frogs eating each other and morphing into slot-machines, a haunted train with different demons inhabiting each carriage, and a mermaid that turns into Medusa… to list just a few. To compliment these boss encounters there are also a handful of ‘Run & Gun’ platforming levels to survive, and finally some bonus stages where Cuphead must protect a vase in a mausoleum to ‘win’ an extra special attack.
The game control is sharp and responsive, which was a huge relief as sloppy controls would have destroyed this game. In the platforming levels and bosses, Cuphead can run, jump, and fire projectiles from his finger. He can ‘parry’ pink projectiles (slap them out of the air whilst jumping) which, along with when he lands normal damage, greatly charges his ‘special’ powers. The special gauge is represented by the playing cards in the corner of the screen and can be used to launch special attacks, or if fully charged an EX attack to inflict larger amounts of damage. The player can also spend earned coins in ‘Pork Rind’s Emporium’ (One of my favourite characters) to buy different primary & secondary attacks, and charms which add a passive effect; selecting the best loadout can be critical in effectively clearing levels. Some of the levels also put Cuphead in an aircraft and present a more traditional ‘Bullet Hell’ experience.
The aspect that kept me coming back to Cuphead however was the sense of progression. The difficulty enhances the feeling of achievement, even for just getting a little further than your last attempt, the idea that you’re actually improving. A typical first attempt at a boss ended very very quickly, but as I learnt the attack patterns I soon scraped through to the next stage of that boss. That next stage presented a new challenge and it’s only by perfecting the initial stage that I really had the chance to decode the strategy required for the second, and so on. In this way the player can, over 30 mins, see that not only are they close to defeating whatever monstrous behemoth is before them, but that the section that a little while ago seemed impossible is now trivial compared to the closing stages. The thought of repeating the early boss stages again and again might sound tiring, but it was actually this repetition that kept me coming back; that feeling of being able to nail these sections made me see that I was improving whilst still chipping away at the greater goal.
In addition to the sense of progression from ‘dismantling’ each of the boss behaviour, there’s a more subtle progression as the player realises that, like the jazz soundtrack, they’re becoming better at improvising. Being able to deal with a flurry of attacks which result in an awkward combination of projectiles, or being able to immediately walk through the first few stages of a brand new boss gives the player that extra boost of “I’m getting better at this” and it’s a good feeling.
I thoroughly enjoyed Cuphead and would happily recommend it, but don’t be fooled by the cartoon presentation, this is a game that’s anything but Mickey Mouse. Visually it presents a disturbing and twisted world full of sinister themes, and the gameplay punishes any slight error in judgement or execution. Can you best the Devil?…
Have you played Cuphead? What did you think?… Are you still humming that Isle III overworld theme? (I really like the piano version)