This past week, I was grateful enough to be able to attend Fan Expo 2015 here in Toronto. Host to the fandoms of anime, comics, sci-fi, horror and, of course, gaming, I was able to preview several of the hottest upcoming holiday 2015 titles. I would like to thank event organizers at Fan Expo for granting me press access, doing so with no requirements or contingencies for specific games coverage.
I purposefully removed myself from searching for any details about Cuphead before I got hands-on time with playing the game. I knew it was a 1930’s-era animation game that played like a run-and-gun shooter, and that the main protagonist(s) wears a cup for ahead. That much has been made by its trailers, both showcasing Microsoft’s love for the Indie gaming scene at E3 2014 and E3 2015. Actually getting to play the game as a single player opened my eyes up to what could be an Indie Darling by this time next year.
Hello, My Ragtime Gaaaaaal!
The framing of the story is very simple; after making a bet against the devil (and losing), Cuphead and Mugman must earn their freedom by overcoming the boss battles that face them. There’s not much else to the story, although switching between one and two local players brings a difference to the power of your attacks. An individual retains an equal amount of endurance as two co-op players, although they hit only half as hard each.
In single player, you play as the titular protagonist as you go from location to location on an animated overworld map similar to Donkey Kong Country 3. You fire projectiles by pointing your finger in the shape of a gun and firing Mega Man-like Buster shots. You can also jump, switch to an alternate, short-range burst of energy or line up enough hits to perform a special blast move. Each stage is in 2D animation ripped out of the 1930’s, now with color added to the scene. The enemies plus the dynamic duo of Cuphead and Mugman run in 60 FPS, meaning there is a lot of effort put into developing a stylized action similar to classic Mickey Mouse cartoons.
As mentioned, it’s picking and choosing the locations for Cuphead to engage in battle that makes the game interesting. For one, each location from the demo doesn’t seem to involve some Contra-like platforming level to reach bosses at the end. The game just throws you into the boss battle right away. That notion was extremely worrying after fighting the first boss battle: a potato and a carrot. The potato spat four smaller spuds at you, while the carrot shot slow-moving homing carrots and projectile mind beams at Cuphead. 3 hits from bosses and you’re dead. You can restart infinitely, or try another boss.
My biggest fear about combat, at first glance, was that the developers would run out of ideas to create battles that are both creative and logically dynamic. There are only so many things you can do in a run-and-gun, platform-like shooter, and on paper it seems like it can run out of steam quickly. Unless that becomes true down the line, I did not encounter that problem.
In The Mood
Let’s break down each of the boss battles I got to experience during my time with Cuphead.
After the giant potato and carrot, the next battle I encountered was a pair of frogs with boxing gloves at a dinner club. It started with just the one, spinning his arms around to shoot ghost-like boxing gloves while the other sent out bees that floated from the top and shot down at Cuphead. All bosses experience a form change, as the frogs jumped onto both sides of the screen. One would systematically blow wind like a fan, pushing you into the other frog, while he shot energy disks that bounced vertically to the left and right. Finally, they finished up by turning into a slot machine, with a handle you could pull to unlock the ability to hit its weak spot.
I’ve always loved when a boss encounter involves multiple enemies because they usually include the strategy of balancing attack between multiple targets. While damaging one meant tackling down one health bar, players still could optimize their strategy to tailor to the enemies’ weakness. Plus, the aesthetic of a frog with boxing gloves and a gruff look just oozes of that 30’s charm that very few people today are nostalgic for. The fact that nobody has brought this element to a video game before seems like a wasted opportunity for everyone, including an audience to play it.
The next battle took Cuphead to the sky, where a bird was stuck in a birdhouse as you fly alongside shooting nails from plane. Cuphead is a deceitfully difficult video game, and this boss’ variety of skills illustrate why that is. The main move is to shoot eggs at players. Once they land on the left panel of the screen, they break into three pieces, coming back towards the player. Additionally, bird adds fly in slowly with nails attached to their heads. Taking them down is key to manage freedom of movement, which becomes difficult when the bird shoots feathers at all directions. It requires bullet-hell-esque dodging to avoid taking damage.
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Not minutes after worrying about boss battle variance, here I was chasing a bird in flight while engaging in combat similar to a very light version of Panzer Dragoon Orta. It also serves to be my hubris, as I was quite thoroughly humbled by this battle. Those feathers shooting at all directions were tough to dodge, and with only three hits before death (plus onlookers watching), I couldn’t quite manage to pull off the complete victory. As the game intended, it was on to the next one before I got too frustrated.
Finally, I encountered a salty pirate on the edge of dock. From the safety of his boat, the stage constantly has a crate slowly move side to side on the platform, dropping on the player when it appears above them. While this is happening, our pirate captain either shoots pink projectiles from his weapon, the ship shoots cannonballs towards you, or the captain whistles for some additional help. A sea lion shoots from the right edge, where you have to shoot him enough times with your wide-range burst to bring him down before he hits you. Otherwise, a shark swims from the left and chomps most of the platform.
Every aspect of Cuphead plays to a certain authenticity of an animated cartoon reel, and the jazzy music laid overtop the action adds to the complexity of the scene. Background environments are so meticulously detailed, with waves crashing at juxtaposing times, audience members of the club scene were looking on enigmatically, and the mountaintops of the birdhouse battle changed as each stage of combat was met. When you have little real estate outside the frame of a boss battle, there’s a lot of time to concentrate on padding out extra details, and the gameplay is supremely rewarding because of it.
I didn’t get to beat all the bosses available at the booth, but I left intensely keen for more time with the game. Although it’s not quite as competitive, nor as replayable as Rocket League has been for the PS4, Cuphead could easily be the Xbox One’s standout Indie exclusive when it comes out in 2016. I’m extremely happy to learn that the intriguing allure of its style is backed by substantive, tight and satisfying gameplay mechanics.
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