Cuphead was undersold.
I remember sitting at my brother in law’s house watching the 2014 Microsoft E3 press conference. They had just unveiled their ID@Xbox program – a focused initiative to get great new independent developers into the Xbox ecosystem. Directly after an introduction speech by ID@Xbox head, Chris Charla, an indie game montage showed off all the promising titles coming to the new program. We got an excruciatingly short 4 second glimpse at what would end up being the best independent game at that year’s Game Awards. I recall wondering why Cuphead wasn’t more prominently featured in that year’s E3 festivities. It turns out that Studio MDHR had quite the gem on it’s hands. Cuphead took the gaming world by storm and stands tall as one of the most remarkably distinct and novel games of the decade.
The first striking aspect of Cuphead, which simply can’t be overstated, is the terrific jazz soundtrack which graces each and every level. Cuphead’s composer, Kristofer Maddigan derives inspiration from jazz legend Duke Ellington to create an upbeat and frantic score which wonderfully compliments the already frantic gameplay. You can tell an extra layer of focus was placed on the soundtrack as Maddigan assembled a fantastic group of jazz musicians. Truly, Cuphead’s assortment of songs can easily be enjoyed in a vacuum without the need to play the game. The soundtrack is a crème de la crème effort and deserves any and all accolades it receives. It’s superb.
The second striking aspect of Cuphead is the 1930’s inspired art style. The Canadian creative leads, Chad and Jared Moldenhauer both grew up enjoying classic American animation films such as those produced by Walt Disney and especially by Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell studio. Cuphead goes so far as to name it’s 3 islands after Fleischer’s studio – Inkwell. With the artistic inspiration locked, the sibling duo marvelously hand painted all the levels found within Cuphead. The majority of levels boil down to extended boss battles, but the art design remains fresh as the player moves from phase to phase of the boss fight. One great example is the boss, Wally Warbles. This flying bird boss begins with basic attacks from the safety of his bird house. The next phase has him flailing feathers toward you in a panic. After beating this phase, Wally falls from his destroyed house and you are met with his evil baby bird with whom you must match wits. Finally, Wally re-emerges in the last phase but is featherless and being hauled on a hospital stretcher by two other birds. As you plant the final blow, the stretcher birds whip out their salt and pepper shakers to season up poor ol’ Wally. Imaginative artistic details like this are sprinkled throughout Cuphead and do an outstanding job of making the player feel like they’re experiencing an animated film from that era.
Even though I accented the music and art first, they are both underscored by hyper-accurate controls and challenging gameplay. As a “bullet hell” side-scrolling shooter, Cuphead gives you plenty of reason to want to throw your controller through the TV. Thankfully, you can seldom blame the game for your folly. Cuphead delivers some of the tightest controls I’ve ever seen in a 2D side scroller. Aside from a few unlucky circumstances, you always know you can come back and do it better. It’s the kind of game that quickly gets you back in the action and gives you all the tools you need for success. Originally boss battles were Cuphead’s only focus, however they also included standard platforming levels to help keep things fresh. These more traditional levels offer the perfect balance to the incredible boss battles seen in most of the game. Adding in the ability to swap out different shot styles, charms, and super moves further enhancements the gameplay loop and offers welcome variety.
Cuphead is a game whose “4 seconds” overshadowed the extravagant and expensive trailers which surely peppered 2014’s E3 conferences. Studio MDHR weren’t trying to be unique for the sake of it, but simply created what they loved. From music to art to gameplay, there’s a pure essence to Cuphead’s creation which spills over and intoxicates the entire game itself. It’s wholly unlike any other game on the market and I simply can’t recommend it highly enough.