Aladdin. Contra. Megaman. If one of these games didn’t bring back loving memories of you raging as a child then we had very different childhoods. These were times where checkpoints and auto saving were things of dreams. These were times where you had to memorize the entire level inch by inch. These were times where each enemy would kill you in one hit. These were times that every gamer grow out of, as generations of console were made. But thankfully these times are back, in the form of a cute 1930s inspired cartoon game that will capture your heart and soul in a rage inferno of affection.
It was E3 2015, I was sitting in the Xbox conference along with thousands of other gamers, journalists and enthusiasts waiting to see the lineup of games for the next coming year. Little did I know, there was one game that would capture my heart within seconds.
A title card popped up: “Cuphead and Mugman gambled with the Devil…” Cut to two characters looking very much like they just jumped out of a Popeye cartoon. My heart skipped a beat. All the memories from animation school were flooding back. Mickey Mouse. Betty Boop. Coco the Clown. All the iconic characters of the 1930s that came out of studios like Walt Disney and Fleischer Studios.
Fleisher of the 21st Century
Cuphead isn’t just using traditional animation techniques in their development, but specifically a technique from that era. Now you must be asking: “Isn’t traditional animation still animation? Drawing frame by frame by hand on paper is the same across the board.” Well no. If you look at the cartoons of the 1930s, they move differently from cartoons of the 1950s and 60s, for example Flintstones, Yogi Bear or any Hannah Barbara cartoon.
Now, what was remarkable about this type of animation was that the animators manage to make the characters feel like they were three dimensional. When a character turned from left to right, it had volume. Something that most, if not all, cartoons lack today. “Why is that?”, you ask? Well, that is a discussion for another time. All you need to know is that Studio MDHR has done this type of animation justice. I’m sure that if they presented it to Max Fleischer himself, he would be quite pleased with the results.
Die (Several) Times Trying
Let’s put aside visuals for a moment, because as beautiful as a game can be, gameplay is still important. Cuphead had me, but now would it keep me. It was only a year later that I had the chance of getting my hands on some gameplay. I will be honest, it hit me like a brick wall. I was so excited about playing, that the difficulty didn’t hit me until I died within twenty seconds of the boss fight, (Captain Brineybeard if I recall). I was dumbfounded, “How did I die so fast?” But I tried again, the same thing happened, and at the same spot as well. Something was up here. I tried at least nine more times and then quit. It was too hard.
Now, the day has come, I have my controller in hand, waiting for the game to load. I’ve been waiting for this for two years now and I’m sure there are others who’ve been waiting longer than that. The title screen appears, music starts and tears fill my eyes. This game means so much not just to me personally as an animator, but for the animation industry as a whole. Cuphead was animated by hand in a style that no longer in practice. People are excited about it. People are talking about it. It fills my heart with joy that a game like this is getting attention, positive attention. It wasn’t about pumping out a 2D game that was hella hard but crafting an experience that no one else can give.
It succeeded. I played solo up until the last boss of Inkwell Isle I. It wasn’t because I wanted to stop, but because I couldn’t actually beat Hilda Berg. (It was the HAHs if you wanted to know). Each boss has a rhythm you must learn through multiple deaths in order to survive the different stages of the fight. I’m a proud person so I will not switch to Simple mode but for the sake of this article I redid a boss that I had already beaten to compare. Certain elements that are hard for me to dodge just aren’t there at all in the Simple version. The use of items that you can buy from Porkrind’s Emporium can help but once again you must learn the boss in order to outfit yourself with the proper tools.
That’s when I passed my second controller to my player 2. Starting a new save file, I experienced the game on an entirely different level. Coordinating two character that almost look alike on screen whilst paying attention to what the boss is doing, is just pure chaos. After much trial and error, seeing that “Knock Out!” is satisfying beyond belief. On a side note, the enemies do scale if one of you die. So don’t feel overwhelmed when your player 2 ghosts off the screen before you can parry them back to life.
Cuphead isn’t just a retro looking game, it also plays like a retro game, most noticeably by not having checkpoints and by having to learn how to beat a level by dying through the different stages of a boss.
My Cup of Tea
This game was worth the wait. My heart fills with joy upon every boss fight because I want to just watch all the animations that bring them to life. But then I throw my controller across the room because they killed me before I could get to the second stage of the fight.
DISCLAIMER: Cuphead review code was provided by Xbox Canada. The opinions expressed in the article above have not be affected by, dictated or edited in any way by the provider. For more information please see Girls on Games’ Code of Journalistic Ethics.