‘Cuphead’ is a Dazzling Homage to 20th Century Cartoons

By Javier Reyes, Contributing Writer

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A screenshot from a carnival-themed boss in Cuphead
Photo Courtesy of studiomdhr.com

From the game’s title screen, accompanied by a tune that could be associated with oldies tunes like The Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman”, it’s made abundantly clear that “Cuphead” exudes a presentational fervor and personality like no other.

In development since 2010 by Studio MDHR, an indie game development company consisting of brothers Jared and Chad Moldenhauer, “Cuphead” is a an action platformer for the Xbox One and PC inspired by classical cartoons of the pre-World War II era. The game follows the eponymous Cuphead and his brother Mugman who—after disobeying their elder’s warnings, find themselves in debt with the Devil after losing a game of dice. They must then defeat a series of bosses in order to repay him and save their souls.

What stands out the most about “Cuphead” is its absolutely gorgeous aesthetic. It’s a finely tuned amalgamation of all things that old-fashioned cartoons fancied in the past. This is seen in the imaginative and outlandish character designs. It is seen from Cuphead himself to the various bosses, which are easily the game’s biggest highlight, like a giant carrot shooting energy rays and an ancient genie hurtling sarcophagus’ filled with deadly cats.

A gamer can enjoy the finer, nuanced details like the goofy “boink” sound effects made when you’re hit by enemies and the crackles in the display like a projector for a black and white film from the 1920’s. This results in a game that’s sure to remind players of old classics like “Steamboat Willie” and deliver a satisfying nostalgia infused tribute that would make even the legendary Walt Disney blush.

While the style of the art itself should make “Cuphead” worth anyone’s investment, its aesthetics do not replace fine gameplay. The game can be broken down into run and gun segments, aerial dogfights and boss stages. As mentioned earlier, “Cuphead” shines brightest when you battle against its many bosses. Each boss is creative and distinct in its own way. The run and gun stages are well designed and feel like an ode to the old “Contra” games of the 1990’s, but this is a game focused on its titanic boss menaces.

It should be made clear that “Cuphead” is not the game for the faint of heart. The game is brutally difficult. So much so that it becomes frustrating at times. This level of difficulty is actually a good thing because even though you may perish after being hit by a stray fireball for the hundredth time, it never feels unfair. It feels like it’s your own fault and that you have to keep at it in order to learn how to overcome the odds. There are plenty of unlockable upgrades and skills to experiment with during each encounter throughout the game.

By and large, playing “Cuphead” is a satisfying experience. In an industry filled with a litany of blockbuster titles, it’s refreshing to see a smaller-scale heartfelt adventure with an indelible art style in old-school platform gameplay.

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