PC, Xbox One

A love let­ter to the early his­tory of two medi­ums – im­per­fectly writ­ten, per­haps, but deeply and sin­cerely felt

De­vel­oper Stu­dio MDHR Pub­lisher Mi­crosoft Stu­dios For­mat PC (tested), Xbox One Re­lease Out now

An im­prob­a­ble union of vin­tage an­i­ma­tion and ar­cade-era chal­lenge, Cup­head’s art and de­sign seem to be rather at odds with one an­other. It fea­tures some of the most as­ton­ish­ing hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion you could wish to see, and places it within a game where be­ing dis­tracted by such an­tic de­tail leads to fail­ure. It has the kind of im­me­di­ate aes­thetic ap­peal to at­tract a broad au­di­ence, yet it’s wed­ded to the kind of un­flinch­ing dif­fi­culty only a small niche of play­ers will be able to fully ap­pre­ci­ate. The re­sult is an un­miss­able game that can’t be rec­om­mended with­out se­ri­ous caveats. Yes, Cup­head is quite the para­dox.

The first rule of Cup­head is rather more re­laxed than its Fight Club equiv­a­lent. You can cer­tainly talk about it, but to dis­cuss par­tic­u­lars is to do the game – and its po­ten­tial play­ers – a huge dis­ser­vice. It’s why Stu­dio MDHR has been tout­ing around the same slightly un­der­whelm­ing demo of the game for ages. It wanted to pre­serve the game’s se­crets for as long as pos­si­ble. And when you play it, you be­gin to un­der­stand why.

Its story setup is han­dled eco­nom­i­cally. Cup­head and his friend Mug­man – player two, if you have a will­ing part­ner – have for­feited their souls to the devil thanks to a dice roll. The pair strike an al­ter­na­tive deal, the devil giv­ing them un­til mid­night the fol­low­ing day to col­lect a se­ries of signed con­tracts for the souls of his debtors, which range from mu­tant veg­eta­bles to pi­rates, in­flat­able clowns to pugilis­tic am­phib­ians.

It’s a se­ries of boss fights, in other words, spread across three is­lands, with the chal­lenge steep­en­ing as you ad­vance. Some en­coun­ters are locked off when you first en­ter a new hub, but usu­ally there’s more than one op­tion avail­able to you at any given time. For a palate cleanser, you might fancy tack­ling the odd Con­tra- es­que run-and-gun in­ter­lude, which rep­re­sents a wel­come change of pace, al­beit not in dif­fi­culty. We al­ready know they were added later in de­vel­op­ment after con­cerns about va­ri­ety were raised dur­ing early pre­views, and one gravity-flip­ping se­quence aside, that’s quite ap­par­ent. Still, they ful­fil a pur­pose, and while they’re tech­ni­cally op­tional you won’t want to skip them – since each holds five coins that can be spent at an in-game shop, un­lock­ing new weapons, perks and spe­cial abil­i­ties.

Each bat­tle be­gins with the cer­e­mony of a clas­sic car­toon short. A ti­tle card names your up­com­ing op­po­nent and also of­fers a pun for the bat­tle it­self. Then an an­nouncer comes in with a snappy sound­bite, be­fore Cup­head pre­pares to, well, die quite a bit. With three health points – one equip­pable perk ups it to four, at the cost of some at­tack power – and no check­points, there’s lit­tle room for mis­takes, nor for ma­noeu­vre against op­po­nents that dwarf our hero and can stretch or bounce across the en­tire screen. Two min­utes or so might not seem like a long time, but ev­ery se­cond seems to last an age. The ex­cep­tion is a slightly static open­ing set-to that gives you more room to ad­mire the art but proves mis­lead­ingly gen­teel.

After the first is­land – and cer­tainly mid­way through the se­cond – you’ll likely con­clude that Stu­dio MDHR should have stuck to its orig­i­nal plan. There’s cer­tainly no short­age of va­ri­ety here: you’ll face a sin­gle-screen skir­mish and then an air­borne sidescroller. A bat­tle that plays more like a one-on-one brawler will be fol­lowed by an­other that re­quires care­ful plat­form­ing through­out. What they all have in com­mon is an ex­act­ing chal­lenge, with threats com­ing in twos and threes. Lunges from your as­sailant might co­in­cide with a vol­ley of mis­siles from else­where. One boss fires an ovoid bomb that ex­plodes off­screen, the de­bris split­ting and re-en­ter­ing from be­hind you. And yet Cup­head him­self is a ca­pa­ble, ath­letic hero, equipped with a re­li­able jump, a brisk lat­eral dash and an ar­se­nal that ranges from peashoot­ers to charge shots, short­range spread fire to hom­ing bul­lets. The de­fault con­troller con­fig­u­ra­tion, how­ever, does him no favours, with dash, jump, shoot and spe­cial bound to the four face but­tons. Map shoot to one of the trig­gers and dash closer to jump, though, and you’re laugh­ing.

Well, even­tu­ally. At var­i­ous points you’ll be con­vinced that this is where you’re go­ing to have to call it a day. After each fail­ure you’re shown a progress bar, let­ting you know just how close you were to vic­tory – or how far you were from it. It’s hard to know whether it’s more de­mor­al­is­ing to fall just inches from the line, or to see you still had two more phases to beat. With lit­tle feed­back beyond that you’ll won­der if the ef­fort is worth it. But then your op­po­nent col­lapses in an­guish, the an­nouncer re­turns with a tri­umphant “Knock­out!” and you ex­hale, elated – and not a lit­tle re­lieved. It’s a sen­sa­tion you’ll chase again and again, your pulse keep­ing time with an en­er­getic sound­track that pairs brassy melodies with per­cus­sive flour­ishes. Each at­tempt comes to feel like a high-wire act; each mis­take a pre­car­i­ous wob­ble on the tightrope. The in­evitable fall doesn’t al­ways feel like your fault: a parry, trig­gered by jump­ing again in mid-air to bat away lurid pink pro­jec­tiles, can feel capri­cious in its tim­ing. Tucked away in a cor­ner, the spe­cial me­ter it tops up is hard to ef­fec­tively fol­low as the ac­tion heats up. And when it does, the ran­dom el­e­ments that lend a spon­tane­ity and un­pre­dictabil­ity to each new at­tempt can com­bine in ways that leave you un­able to avoid harm.

Yet frus­tra­tions rarely linger in a game with such a bright, cel­e­bra­tory vibe. This is a love let­ter to the early his­tory of two medi­ums – im­per­fectly writ­ten, per­haps, but deeply and sin­cerely felt. Charm­ing, dis­tinc­tive and im­pos­si­ble to for­get, Cup­head is the kind of game you’ll im­me­di­ately want to talk about, yet be des­per­ate not to spoil. Like we said: quite the para­dox.

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