Remember Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Steamboat Mickey, Betty Boop? Classic animation of the 1930’s was both frightening at times and magical. There’s something special in the scratched frames of old cartoons. Thankfully someone else feels the same way. Studio MDHR has brought a digital version of that majesty in the Xbox exclusive, Cuphead.
Developer: Studio MDHR
Published by: Studio MDHR, Microsoft Game Studios
Available on: Xbox One and PC
From a tutorial that gives you the perspective of an old school animator at his drawing table to the game’s nearly impossible final boss, Cuphead is a game loaded with expression and charm. Players will take on the role of a cute propaganda cartoon character called Cuphead (and in 2 player mode, Mugman) who after making a deal with the devil must pay off his debt by collecting the cartoon souls of others who need to pay the piper.
First of all, Cuphead is a challenging game and that’s putting it lightly. Studio MDHR credits gameplay influences from Gunstar Heroes (Seven Force!), Contra III, Contra Hard Corps, Super Mario World, the Thunderforce series and Street Fighter III. Boss fights in particular are enraging, you’ll need to memorize patterns and use precise timing. In a way it’s reminiscent of playing Contra on the original Nintendo. It might seem like chaos but getting the hang of jumping and shooting required practice to get through that game in less than 30 lives and you’ll need the same focus to make it through fever nightmare boss fights in Cuphead where you’ll only be able to take three hits from an enemy.
Cuphead is a fantastic game but not in the same technical behemoth way Horizon or Tomb Raider are. What makes this game among the best of the year is the process by which its made. It’s where the soul of this game takes shape, one that reminds me of watching a talented mechanic rebuild a classic hot rod. In an age where entertainment can feel completely digitized, Cuphead is a reminder of what inspired artists can achieve through traditional media. The studio even credits its inspirations as vintage Fleischer Studios and Disney hand-drawn animation, along with classic studios such as ComiColor, Van Beuren, Columbia Pictures, and Copley Pictures who goes back to cartoons like Felix The Cat.
The process of Cuphead’s creation perfects its tone by using production techniques from cartoons of a bygone era, the visuals and audio are painstakingly created with traditional hand drawn cel animation, watercolor backgrounds, and original jazz recordings.
It’s soundtrack is completely original yet sounds as though it was recorded in the smoky club period of jazz. The Cuphead soundtrack is made up completely of original recordings, composed and recorded live in studio. There is over two and a half hours of fully composed music written specifically for Cuphead using a 13-piece big band, 10-piece ragtime ensemble, a solo pianist, and singers.
You won’t find much of what we consider a full robust story in the game. Most of the cartoons of the era it homages didn’t have one. Just like the old cartoon, it tells enough of a story without using dialogue or any deep character beyond eye catching looks. All the emotion you need to hook you as a player lives in details from the rough cell look of everything on screen to the melt your heart pie eyes the character sports. Nothing visually about your experience with Cuphead is taken for granted.
The sheer amount of things happening on screen can be overwhelming to your sense of hearing and sight, we’d advise you to simply sit back and take in the enjoyment your grandparents felt as kids watching classic animation. Cuphead isn’t without flaws, but the work put in outshines any loading or eye straining issues by a long shot.
Back when Cuphead was first announced at E3 2014, its style let you know from first glance that you were looking at something unique. Studio MDHR achieved something digital filmaking technique has been attempting to for years; make something new look like something old yet still look good. The ambition of this game made almost entirely by hand-drawn animation succeeds, even through its multiple delays the final result was worth it. There has never been a game like Cuphead in the modern age of video games and there never will be again…until Cuphead 2.
10/10- Cuphead is the soul of classic animation brought to video games in a title that’s already the best game of year on Xbox.