By Kimari Rennis
Cuphead took the internet by storm – within a few days after releasing, it skyrocketed in popularity, quickly appearing in the “Top-Paid Games” list on the Xbox Store. The question is: Why? Well, Cuphead is a unique, challenging and beautifully crafted homage to the cartoons of the 1930’s, reveling in the magic of toothy grins, bulky gloves, and sadistic stares. What’s not to love about this 2D shooter and boss rush?
It’s more than the graphics. Struck with greed, Cuphead takes his chances on gambling. The big potential win? All the loot in the Devil’s Casino. Upon rolling snake eyes, Cuphead loses. now the Devil wants Cuphead’s and his brother Mugman’s souls. The brothers plead for their lives, and the Devil makes an offer; the brothers must gather all of the Devil’s soul contracts from runaway debtors within 24 hours. Only then will Cuphead and Mugman keep their souls. And thus, the adventure begins.
The game’s visuals are Cuphead’s bread and butter, and are heavily influenced by the cartoons of the 1930’s. Cuphead’s look succeeds in giving you a hints of nostalgia towards old Disney and Max Fleischer cartoons with the subtle white cracks and pops in the audio and screen. Cuphead’s style includes the lack of audible dialogue, and the inclusion of exaggerated movements and gestures. This game is proof that high resolution and sharp 3D graphics isn’t necessarily the standard of a good looking game. Looks depend on theme and purpose and in Cuphead’s case the idea for the game is the 1930’s.
Everything is hand drawn and animated, from the watercolor backgrounds to the plethora of bosses, characters, and enemies you encounter. The soft blend of colors and frantic, upbeat jazz make an excellent combination for an old-school stylized beat-em-up. When I first visited Porkrind in his emporium, the first things I laid my eyes on were his arms and the similarity to that of Popeye the Sailor. Even having the title of the game on the big screen with Cuphead and Mugman posing on poker chips gives you a feeling of “You’re in for a treat.”
A treat you are in for indeed. The most well-known aspect of Cuphead is the difficulty. Don’t let the tutorial’s simple controls fool you; You must stay on your toes with quick reaction times, timing and positioning. Run and gun levels are the only way to earn coins to purchase perks and abilities from the emporium that suit you.
However, these courses aren’t necessary for beating or playing the main game (although they’re quite helpful). Your top priority in Cuphead is collecting soul contracts obtained from knocking out every boss. A player’s focus should be solely on the boss fights as that’s the only way to progress and complete the game. Cuphead doesn’t teach you how to defeat bosses. Instead, you are responsible for preparing yourself for trial and error and an innumerable amount of deaths. Players must sit down to learn and understand the boss’ different attacks and phases. Following this process will mitigate errors, identify the type of bullets you’d like to fire from your finger guns, and finally get that victory you deserve. There’s joy in leaving the boss dazed – with black eyes and chipped teeth.
The title of the game doesn’t lie when it insists that you “Don’t Deal with the Devil” because all I felt during my entire playthrough was regret, but not in an “I don’t want to play this game anymore” way. I was never angry at the game itself; I was upset with myself because of my slow reaction times and the idiocy of making the same mistake over and over again.
When I think about it, the witty remarks spewed by the bosses after death is what makes my blood boil. I’m OK with perishing after getting a feel of Hilda Berg’s new take on the zodiacs. But when she calls me a wimp after losing to her blimp form, the cycle begins anew, and I replay the level in an attempt to prove her wrong once and for all.
Of all the bosses, dueling Cagney Carnation has been the most traumatic experience for me. Never in my life would I see myself being frustrated by a deceitful and maddening flower. There is just an innumerable amount of hazards on the screen during boss fights. So my mind goes numb, and a single attack can be the difference between a win and another death. That also applies to most of the other boss fights.
I learned the hard way that there is no handholding when it comes to dealing with the devil. Although Cuphead’s difficulty puts a sour taste in my mouth occasionally, I overall had an immeasurable amount of fun playing. Cuphead is quite captivating and charming. I’d pick up and play the game anytime with its refreshing burst of challenge, the intense learning curve, and those memorable heart racing moments when you have one point of health to go and you plead for the boss to die.
It’s very easy to see why Cuphead is praised and why the game is so popular. The art style and gameplay is a breath of fresh air. This unique blend gives gamers time to appreciate the past, and it’s both and nostalgic. Cuphead is addicting, visually pleasing, challenging, and yes, “fun.” It’s difficult and the mocking bosses angered me. But it’s not unbearably frustrating or a demoralizing experience. However, that may be a different story when you play on expert difficulty. It only makes sense for trouble to come when you deal with the Devil himself.
Kimari Rennis is a New York Videogame Critics Circle intern, part of our ongoing partnership with Bronx’s DreamYard Prep School.