When I was a kid my brother and I would take turns playing Earthworm Jim on SEGA. It was one of those games we loved to hate. We’d scream incessantly at the screen when we’d lose, and yet, you couldn’t pry the controller out of our hands. Until one day when my brother was closing in on one of the final levels. It was the farthest he had ever got in the game up until that point. But, as fate would have it, he repeatedly fell into spikes stemming from the wall and died. He died over… and over again. With every attempt he grew more furious. “The computer is cheating!” he yelled (a phrase my siblings and I use to explain our own inabilities to beat a game). But then the computer cheated one too many times. My brother took the plastic box the game came in, and hurled it into the wall where it shattered into a thousand pieces. To this day I still make fun of him for breaking the box for my Earthworm Jim cartridge . But karma is a bitch… Because the way he felt then is exactly how I feel now playing Cuphead, and yet… I can’t seem to put it down.
Cuphead is the story of two siblings, Cuphead and Mugman, who wander from their home on Inkwell Isle and find themselves at the Devil’s Casino. Their winning streak at the Craps table comes to a halt when the Devil himself offers them a deal; if their next roll is a winner they walk out with all the casino’s loot, but if they lose the Devil claims their souls. It wouldn’t be a game if Cuphead turned down the deal outright. So of course the brothers roll, lose, and are left begging the Devil to let them repay their debt. He complies and tells the brothers that if they collect the souls of his runaway debtors he may let them off the hook in return.
After a quick tutorial players are set loose on the map and are free to explore different location markers to enter levels, defeat bosses, and collect Soul Contracts. The levels are fairly short but holy hell some are near impossible. But that’s the exciting part of Cuphead. It’s far more difficult than your average run and gun game, and that’s on purpose. The developers said their goal was to create a game that is “tough but fair”, similar to the games they grew up with. I mean, I didn’t think I wanted to feel the pain of Earthworm Jim all over again but here I am, growing furious over each failed attempt with my fight against Hilda Berg. When you play Cuphead you need to go into it with the understanding that you’re going to feel frustrated when you try to make it through each stage alive. But once you finally beat a level you feel like you’re on top of the world. “Nothing can stop me now!”… Until you enter the next level and you go through the whole range of emotions all over again. I promise you it’s worth it.
The premise is interesting enough to pick up the controller. And the challenging gameplay is essentially one big dare staring you in the face… so how could you not play? But I think the real draw to the game is getting to experience the artwork. It’s like being a part of an old trippy Saturday morning cartoon. Inspired by Popeye, Betty Boop and other classic Fleischer Studios cartoons, Cuphead utilizes the animation techniques of that time period to create their cel animation and watercolor backgrounds. The amount of work the studio’s small team did to make the game feel like an authentic 1930's cartoon would be difficult to believe, if it weren’t already true. And after years of delays it’s easy to see what took so long. From pencil sketches to scaled ink drawings, every frame (approximately 50,000) is meticulously hand drawn. HAND. DRAWN. It makes me not only want to beat each level for my own satisfaction, but I want to be able to see each level for myself… because quite frankly, I’ve never seen a game like this before.
The visuals are nothing though if not for the soundtrack accompanying the animation. While each song is an original piece, the jazz soundtrack sounds like it’s straight from a 1930's cartoon or silent film. Kris Maddigan composed the score and recorded live in studio with a 13-piece big band, 10-piece ragtime ensemble, a solo pianist, and singers. The horns fill me with angst as I try to run through each level, shooting my victims as fast as I can, trying to make it out alive. But despite many failed attempts, I never tire of the music. The soundtrack is even available on vinyl, providing an authentic listening experience to this jazz era-inspired score.
Brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, the founders of StudioMDHR, quit their jobs in order to invest the time needed to make the perfect game that they would want to play. And together with a small team they’ve done just that. Cuphead defies what we think the future of gaming looks like, providing a fresh take on a vintage style. And who knows, maybe I’ll invite my brother over so we can utilize the game’s two-player mode and better the odds. Luckily this one is a digital download so I don’t have to worry about him breaking the box this time.
Cuphead is currently available on Steam, Xbox One, Windows 10, and GOG. And stay tuned for their new DLC-add on, Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course, featuring a new character named Ms. Chalice. The DLC is expected to be released in 2019 to Xbox One and PC.
Check out the trailer below: