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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