Call us crazy, but Cuphead is probably going to be everyone’s Game of the Year. Beautifully crafted hand-drawn animations, meticulous responsiveness, and harrowing boss fights make Cuphead a game for the ages. It’s a big claim to make, but everything about this love-letter to 1930s animation just screams success. Developed by Studio MDHR, Cuphead has been a long time coming, but the wait has been well worth it for the product the 20-person team was able to deliver.
For the uninitiated, Cuphead is a 2D platforming shooter similar to the old-school games of yore, such as Contra, Metal Slug, and a host of side-scrollers that made it onto the NES Mini and SNES Mini – along with their killer soundtracks. However, what sets Cuphead aside from those games is its deceptively charming 1930’s style animation and soundtrack.
The premise of the game is simple, Cuphead and his pal Mugman love a bit of gambling, but they make the grave mistake of betting against the Devil, and wouldn’t you know it, he wins. The Devil says he’ll take their souls, but after they beg for an out, he concedes, but there’s a condition: they must track down the contracts of several others who have reneged on their own promise. And so off Cuphead and Mugman trot, to capture the soul contacts of these other rapscallions, so they can save their own skin.
From the moment you boot up Cuphead, to the final scenes of the game, the stylized animations will have you captivated. What’s incredible is that these graphics were all done by hand; not a single element was manipulated with software. In an interview with Alex Gilyadov of GamesRadar, Chad Moldenhauer explained the painstaking process, “To really capture the style of the 30s animation, we had to double down on the authenticity by doing the work the same way they did back then – pencils, inks, watercolour paintings, every frame done by hand. We don’t use any of the modern techniques or software tricks to assist our animation. If you see an egg spin 360 degrees in Cuphead, we didn’t draw one frame and spin it in software, we drew all the individual frames at each stage in its rotation.”
This mesmerizing style will sometimes take you by surprise. You’ll be so wrapped up in the glorious combat, that as soon as you find a moment to breathe, the way an enemy moves or boss transforms will startle you, and then you’ll get startled again as your brain realizes everything is hand-drawn.
The combat and art style blend so seamlessly together that you’ll wonder why no one has done it before. From jumping and dashing, to shooting and using your super, everything feels tight and responsive, and looks amazing. Stringing moves together, all while dodging attacks, will have you feeling like a gaming legend as you close in on the boss kill.
Even the audio in the game is impeccable. Sitting back with a set of the XO THREE gaming headset for Xbox One on your head, you’ll be able to appreciate just how detailed every piece of audio is in Cuphead. The firing of the Peashooter finger gun sounds markedly different to the Charge upgrade or the Spread. Every enemy has a unique sound associated with every move, from the way they move across the screen and attack, to how they die. Better yet, every sound plays as if it was recorded in the era, so it has an authentic crackle of age to it.
And the soundtrack. Oh, the glorious soundtrack. For a game where you die constantly and have to fight the same boss dozens of times, Studio MDHR has done a marvellous job at ensuring you won’t grow tired of a boss’ theme song. Eschewing traditional gaming practices seems to be a theme with Studio MDHR, as according to PasteMagazine, they reached out to Kristofer Maddigan, a composer who had never written music for a video game before. But what we have is one of the most memorable soundtracks to ever grace a game. You’ll be torn between wanting to fight the boss and wanting to stand around and listen to the jazz.
Aside from the gorgeous art and the foot-tapping tunes, Cuphead is also brutally difficult, but not to the point of being unfair. While the game will push you to your limits and demand more of you, it won’t throw anything at you that you can’t overcome – at least not on your first playthrough. If you’re a pretty casual player, Cuphead might be too much, but it’s worth dipping your toe in, if only to experience the gameplay, art, and music, of what is likely to be a lot of gamer’s Game of the Year!