Drink up


Deal­ing­with the devil is never a good idea, but it’s es­pe­cially bad when you are a small boy with a cup for a head and you and your mug-headed brother live with a can­tan­ker­ous old ket­tle in a bizarre an­i­mated world heav­ily in­spired by early Dis­ney an­i­ma­tion and Felix the Cat. You see, Cup­head and his brother Mug­man, a cou­ple of drink­ing re­cep­ta­cles with arms and legs, de­cide to do gam­bling at the Devil’s Casino. Af­ter a hot win­ning streak at the craps ta­ble by Cup­head, King Dice, the croupier, calls in The Devil who promptly ups the stakes. If Cup­head wins his roll he takes the house, but if he loses the broth­ers’ souls are for­feit. Cup­head rolls craps, but to save him­self and his brother makes a deal with the Devil – he will travel through­out Inkwell Isle and col­lect all of the Devil’s out­stand­ing con­tracts. This means a lot of jump­ing, fin­ger guns and boss battles.

Cup­head is with­out a doubt one of the best look­ing games in years, if not ever. Stu­dio MDHR has nailed the 1930s cel-an­i­mated look and proudly wears its in­spi­ra­tion for all to see. There are el­e­ments of early Dis­ney, Fleis­cher Stu­dios and more in ev­ery frame of the gor­geous an­i­ma­tion, from the char­ac­ter bob­bing that was all but syn­ony­mous with early car­toons, to the jud­der­ing, not quite pre­cise out­lines that typ­ify early cel an­i­ma­tion. The colours are as bright and bold as the char­ac­ters and there is a slight pro­jec­tion haze over every­thing (com­plete with the oc­ca­sional scratch of film flaw) that re­ally sells the re­al­ity of the car­toon. The sound­track is equally evoca­tive of time and place, with a mix­ture of big band, swing, rag­time and hec­tic, brassy jazz bounc­ing be­hind the fre­quent boss battles or run and gun sec­tions. It’s a won­der to be­hold.

The look of the game may be 1930s car­toon sur­re­al­ism, but the feel of the game is closer to some­thing from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a time when longevity was of­ten linked to bru­tal dif­fi­culty more than any­thing else. There are some run and gun lev­els that re­quire pre­cise jump­ing and a crack­shot aim, as well as side scrolling fly­ing lev­els a-la R-Type (with smil­ing planes), but the ma­jor­ity of the game is made up of huge, frus­trat­ing, elat­ing, mul­ti­stage boss battles that will have you tear­ing your hair out one mo­ment and cheer­ing the next. Right from the out­set the boss battles are shown as the ob­vi­ous fo­cus of the game, with progress un­lock­ing new ar­eas of the world only avail­able through de­feat­ing bosses. Don’t ex­pect things to start off easy ei­ther. The first area con­tains five bosses con­sid­ered to be of nor­mal dif­fi­culty. The Root Pack is prob­a­bly the eas­i­est of the five. It is a three stage fight, first against a spit­ting po­tato, then a cry­ing onion, then a gi­ant psy­chic car­rot. It’s a tough first en­counter but it sets you up for what’s to come. Nearby are the boxing frog broth­ers, Ribby and

the ma­jor­ity of the game is made up of huge, frus­trat­ing, elat­ing, multi-stage boss battles

Croaks, who fight side by side in the first phase, on op­po­site sides of the screen in the sec­ond and in the third trans­form into a gi­ant slot ma­chine that fires coins at you. To do dam­age to the ma­chine, first Cup­head has to parry the arm when it turns pink (pink pro­jec­tiles and ob­jects can be par­ried by jump­ing into them), then avoid the ran­domly cho­sen ob­sta­cles thrown his way, fir­ing his fin­ger guns the whole while. De­feat the first five bosses and you un­lock the next area of Inkwell Isle with the pro­gres­sively more dif­fi­cult bosses. Beat the five of them and you un­lock the next seven for an even greater chal­lenge.

Most of what Cup­head does is very clever, but one of the great­est de­sign de­ci­sions made by the de­vel­op­ers is let­ting play­ers know how far through a level or fight they got be­fore be­ing killed. When you die a lit­tle an­i­mated Cup­head runs across a mea­sure of the level or fight and it’s hard to re­sist try­ing one more time if you’re so close to the fin­ish line you can taste it. We re­peated some bosses that took an hour or more of try­ing to get them down, but that lit­tle fig­ure show­ing the end get­ting closer and closer with ev­ery at­tempt made it all but im­pos­si­ble to stop.

In ad­di­tion to the boss battles there are the run and gun and fly­ing lev­els, but these are more a means to gain gold coins to buy up­grades than an es­sen­tial part of the game. With the ex­cep­tion of the Smoke Bomb, an abil­ity that grants a split sec­ond of in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity when Cup­head dashes, and ex­tra health, noth­ing else re­ally seems too nec­es­sary if you don’t want to do the reg­u­lar lev­els. While they’re not as ab­sorb­ing and out­landish as the boss battles, the shooter lev­els are still a great deal of fun, if you’re a fan of hard, pre­cise plat­form shoot­ers like Con­tra or R-Type.

If snakes are her head hair, where are the eels com­ing from?

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