Back in the day my friend and I used to play a little game named Contra on the SNES. You may have heard of it before. It is probably one of the most well known of the ‘run-n-gun’ style games in which you (and occasionally a second player) move across a map, machine guns blazing, while taking out a constant stream of bad guys. Super C, the iteration of Contra on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System upped the ante with bigger explosions, large bosses and new play mechanics (double guns).
That was many, many years ago.
Enter Cuphead, a unique run-n-gun style game along the same lines as Contra, but with the unique distinction of completely hand drawn animation that reflects the style of old cartoons. Not just any cartoons, but Fleisher cartoons, which you may have heard of if your my age (42) and have every seen old Betty Boop or Superman cartoons, amongst others. The thing is the game really, REALLY does an absolutely fantastic job of emulating the original cartoon style, right down to the odd black, scratchy screen between scenes. For someone of my age it seriously takes me back to being five or six years old, sitting in my grandma’s TV room (yeah, old people used to have a specific room for TV watching), after church on Sunday, tuned in to KTLA Channel 5 Los Angeles watching Colonel Tom Parker host Fleisher cartoons.
When you have a minute to stop running and gunning take in the extremely smooth and clean animation, which oozes love for the genre and the source material! Both Cuphead and his brother, Mugman, have that 1920’s gritting smile that all the ‘bad boys’ in the source cartoons seem to have had. Everything has those thick, distinctive black outlines around them and there’s an intentional bit of noise and scratching in the overlay that adds to the nostalgia.
I get ahead of myself.
As stated above the graphics in the game are incredibly true to the source material and a beauty to look at. Cuphead and Mugman are well defined and have a lot of character (and are also colored the Contra classic Red and Blue). Your standard enemies are a wide variety of oddball characters which are clearly drawn and also meet the Fleisher requirement of being weird and mean! Flower-men with scowls, beetles with angry faces, log-men that spit spiny balls, boxing Frogs and a flying girl who turns into an evil moon. Back in the 40’s it seems like cartoons didn’t treat very many subjects with kid gloves, and some of the antagonists come directly out of kids nightmares.
I cannot stress enough how much the developers try (and succeed) to emulate what seems like the old Sunday morning cartoon showcases of my youth! In one area our protagonists must battle a genie (while they are in their planes) and while the gameplay is taking place in the foreground the background spins around a glorious, cheesy looking paper-mache miniature of a desert oasis, complete with a pharaoh spinx: The kind of thing you would have expected to have seen if you were watching those types of cartoons back in the day!
The game sounds great, with many effects that are clearly made by someone simply making the sound into a microphone ‘by-mouth’. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the majority of sound effects are made this way, and it works really well. The music is catchy, 40’s fare with plenty of piano and brass, like big-band era music should be. Voices are clear and fit extremely well, from the announcer at the beginning of every stage (“Good day for a swell battle!”) to the gruff, scratchy voice of the pig-man owner of the local store.
I cannot stress enough that Cuphead is not a difficult game by any stretch of the word. That being said it is absolutely brutal in its simplicity. I wouldn’t even consider it a “bullet hell” style game, yet my son and I found ourselves constantly getting beat down!
The premise is simple: Cuphead and Mugman have basically become bounty hunters for Satan (yes, you read that right) and must collect the souls due to old Beelzebub in order to save their own. Having been given a list of debtors, the two head off to save themselves by hauling in others. This is done through two different types of stages;
- Run-N-Gun: as the name implies these are straight through levels in which the duo simply run through and blast baddies until they reach the end. Along the way they can collect coins with which to purchase upgrades.
- Boss Battles: These stages are straight up boss fights. Beat the boss to successfully collect their souls.
Levels are accessed via markers on a world map, and a card will tell you the name and type of level before you enter.
In either type of level Cuphead or Mugman can fire shots from their finger guns (don’t try this at school, kids), jump, duck, dash (a very useful move) and, of course, run. The L bumper button (on my Xbox One controller) changes shot types, while the R bumper locks your character into place, letting you fire directional shots without moving.
Dashing can save your life in many situations, and lets you clear slightly wider than normal gaps.
Jumping is, well, jumping, but the jump button can also be used to activate the Parry mechanic, which can be used against pink shots or attacks from enemies. Parry an attack and your super gauge builds faster. In addition if your partner dies you can snatch them from deaths jaws by performing a parry on their ghost. The more times they die, however, the faster their ghost rises, and the less time you have to reach them before they get out of jump range.
Both protagonists start with a basic, long range, mid damage straight shot, but a short ranged, wide area shot can be purchased almost immediately. There are many other types of shots that can be purchased from the shops, and each one has an advantage and disadvantage. The trick is to know which one best applies to your situation, but you can only equip two at a time. Switching between the two is quick and simple.
Along with your shots you get a super move activated by building up your gauge, which is represented by cards located near your hit points. Activating your super will consume a card and fires an enhanced version of your current shot attack (that typically hits multiple times), but building your gauge up all the way allows you to use your equipped super move, which typically hits many more times and has a vastly improved range.
In addition to shots and supers the two can also equip a charm that will grant them special abilities such as an extra hit point or invincible dashes.
Now, the problem here is that the action on either one of the two stage types is hectic. VERY hectic. There never seems to be an excessive amount of bullets flying around on the screen, but everything is so big and flashy that it can be overwhelming! Whether its bullets or baddies, something is almost always moving in to kill you. Enemy placement can be brutally close to drops and, if your not paying attention, you will find your hit points dropping fast. Your going to find yourself a little frustrated that you, once again, got hit by a lazily floating coin that is relatively easy to dodge, if only you weren’t looking somewhere else on the screen at the same time!
Some of the stages require you to take flight in airplanes. These stages probably have the most amount of bullets in them, but even then its not an excessive amount, and the bullets don’t travel too quickly. There’s just so much going on with the enemies zipping onto the screen, the bullets, the gorgeous backgrounds and characters: It gets easy to let your eyes come off of your character to look at something else and then lose track of where you are. Its more a personal issue than one with gameplay, but its almost like the beauty of the game is an antagonist itself!
Controls are wonderfully accurate and crisp, and need to be, as some of the mechanics require precision, as noted below in this battle against some street fighting frogs.
Overall Cuphead is a real gem of a game. In a time when fancy graphics, polygon counts, shaders and all manner of technical stuff make us ‘oooo’ and ‘ahhhh’ on the latest powerhouse systems something so beautifully simple is a breath of fresh air. My son and I had a riot playing together and often found ourselves laughing and yelling having juuuuust missed beating a level or boss. Because the game tells you how close you were to the goal it drives you to continue by teasing you with a tiny map of the stage and pointing out where you died. Or, in the case of boss battles, how close you were to wearing the boss down. There’s that “We almost had it, we got it this time!” feeling of urgency and need-to-win built in!
I picked my copy up on the Windows store for 20$ so I could play it on my PC, and I know its also available for XB1 and PS4. For 20$ you can’t go wrong! You can also pick the game up on Steam for PC if you aren’t interested in Windows.