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Golden-era American animation and intense side-scrolling action are beautifully mixed – right to hell and back.

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Three years is a long time coming for Cuphead. A colorful side-scrolling action shooter from Studio MDHR that gained an overnight reputation, not only as a homage to the golden era of American cartoons but a layered throwback to when video games were tough. The caliber is admirably old-school (i.e: hard) as nearly every boss, enemy and projectile can appear unforgiving; but the experience is one of magic — at the very least, Cuphead is a prime example of games not being made like this anymore. And yet…

Don’t Deal With the Devil

This is also why Cuphead stands out among its modern theatrical-laden peers. The premise is conveniently basic as our eponymous protagonists Cuphead and Mugman wager a deal with the devil after going broke at his crooked casino. Now they must pay off their debt by collecting on delinquent contracts or risk losing their own souls by midnight. All of Satan’s debtors just happen to be big and intimating, played out in standalone boss fights.

In other words: there isn’t much plot to get in the way of gameplay. This motif will directly appeal to people who fondly recall coin-op arcade shooters or grew up playing hardcore classics like Gunstar Heroes, Darius Gaiden, Contra: Hard Corps and Alien Soldier back in the ‘90s. Inspiration is very apparent and undeniably raw right out of the gate, with the only real objectives to thrash the enemy and survival.

To Hell and Back

The majority of Cuphead involves grandiose boss battles that often last 2-3 minute maximum, each with their own whimsical charm and mechanics to break down. Learning how it all works comes a learning curve steeped in a bout of trial and error, and a small number of Run ‘n’ Gun platforming stages that serve a mild distraction for needed flavor.

Boss fights in particular make up the core of the game with the pressure figuring out the firework patterns and then lasting long enough to reach the next phase of the scuffle; and yes, the formula changes itself up keep the action fresh — including surprisingly tense shmup moments in a bouncy biplane. Bosses will either transform in cartoonish fashion and ramp up their attacks and limitless spawns of enemies, with your life ending in a mere three hits throughout the tussle.

The game is absolutely demanding but fair, immediately dominating evergreen players to the point of quitting in aggravation—an understandable response for those unfamiliar with the excesses of the genre. All you have is jumping, dashing, and infinite peashooter bullets (actually snapping his fingers) most of the time, with some additional EX attacks, supers, and item buffs that can be earned or purchased for extra help. You’ll need them all.

You’ll still need to fall back on your own mettle but there are options such as two-player cooperative (jump in/out) and a ‘Simple’ difficulty level. The latter gives you a taste of what Cuphead has to offer by being a little more manageable, although you can never engage the final boss if you go this route. Knowing that, I believe most people may never actually see the proper conclusion of this game, period.

The only consolation for constant failure is looking at a progress chart of far you’ve gotten (or could have gotten) if only you tried a little harder or didn’t mess up the flow of the match when you died. It is one of those times where you’ll want to fling your controller across the room in blind anger, but are still determined enough to repeatedly attempt to beat it on principle alone. Everything else relies on reflexes and loose memorization of each encounter.

In the Details

Undoubtedly, the biggest attraction for many will be the artistic direction of Cuphead. I don’t think I have to tell you its look are lovingly cultivated from those classic 1930s cartoons, a decade when masters like Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer created worlds of vivid imagination and exquisite hand-drawn craft, with unbridled parody thrown in. The amount of detail that MDHR has put into replicating the jovial and antiquated charm without waxing cheap nostalgia is extraordinary in its own right, where imperfections such as bleeding colors and booming audio scratching were part of the production. You want bounce and stretch? Cuphead has it in spades.

It’s of little wonder why it took the team years to get these visuals to an authentic level, as the animation and characters feel like they could’ve deceptively come from some forgotten animation reel. To match the essence further, the accompanying swing jazz and quartet soundtracks really cements it in the age it intended to borrow from, the result is a cerebral presentation that intentionally underlies the unapologetic charisma of the game.

Modern Vintage

It took a long time for Cuphead to arrive and I genuinely believe the wait was worth it. Games that pile on the difficulty while being widely anticipated are far and few, but there’s plenty of reward in sticking to this devilish journey. Nearly everything here will attract aged hardcore gamers  of a time long past, when over-the-top complexity and style went together, instead of being a lazy crutch for the other. Granted, it’s an experience that will be damn near impossible for most, but the real climax is the overall feeling of accomplishment for those who can endure.

About the Author: Herman Exum