Cuphead is certainly a pretty game. It has one of the most striking visual styles in years, emulating the look of cartoons from the 30’s and 40’s. However, a great art style means nothing if it’s not backed up by great gameplay, and I’ve often found myself wondering how Cuphead plays. It’s lucky for me I got a chance to see for myself at E3 2015 when I spent some time playing Cuphead.
The first thing to know is that while Cuphead
looks like a platformer or a traditional run ‘n’ gun, it most definitely is not. It’s really more of a boss rush mode extended into a full game. There are no stages in the traditional sense or small enemies to fight – every level of the game is nothing but a fight against a gigantic, multi-tiered boss. There’s very little downtime. After guiding the titular character around the world map and selecting your level, you’re thrown directly into the boss arena. No playforming, no cannon-fodder enemies, just pure action.
With how frantic the game’s endless bosses are, it’s a good thing the controls are up to it. Everything is impressivley tight and responsive. Actions are immediate and characters stop instantly, ensuring that you have complete and total control. When you die (and you will die) it’s not because of unfair design or poor controls, but because of your own lack of skill. This seems harsh, but it’s actually incredibly satisfying to be limited only by your own skill with no artificial constraints.
You have several control options at your disposal. In addition to normal movement and shooting, you’re able to lock Cuphead into position and engage in eight-direction shooting. And speaking of shooting, you’re able to fire as quickly as you can mash the button. This applies to both weapons: the blue shot that goes straight forward and all the way across the screen, and the red shot that’s splits into 3 but only goes half as far. You can switch between them with a press of the left bumper.
I personally tried two different stages. The first stage was garden themed and opened with a giant potato that spit objects at me. It spit out the projectiles at varying rates, and to defeat it I had to jump over the constant barrage of objects while continuing to shoot. Once it was dead, the second phase of the fight began when a giant carrot grew from the background. This portion was tricker. The carrot would summon smaller, homing carrots that flew in from the edge of the screen and had to be either dodged or destroyed. It also had a second attack in the form of psychic blasts that it would fire once it got a lock on my position. This meant I had to be constantly on the move, and the red split-shot came immensely useful in dealing with the homing carrots.
The second stage was much more difficult. It took place on a train where I was fighting a giant ghost. The ghost would shoot eyeballs from it’s hands that would bounce toward me, but could be shot a few times to be destroyed. I was on a small car on a parallel set of tracks, and occasionally flying jack-0-lanterns would drop bricks onto the car, dragging me closer to the ghost and forcing me to change my position lest I be hit by the eyeballs. After this was defeated, the train moved along and another, bigger skelton erupted out of it. This beast would use his arms to swat at me, and this is where I died. Even after several attempts I found I couldn’t get in more than a few shots before he hit me the 3 times required to kill me.
According to the developers, the game should actually be slightly easier in co-op. You see, when Cuphead dies he turns into a little ghost and floats toward the top of the screen. When another player is present, it’s possible to revive each other. As long as the other player stays alive until the ghost reaches the top of the screen the dead player will come back and can continue to fight. No doubt this would be incredibly useful while fighting against the giant skeleton on the train.
Finally, while playing the demo the developers explained some of the methods bhind Cuphead‘s creation. Their goal was to help keep traditional, 2D animation alive. To this end, each frame of Cuphead is penciled, inked, and drawn by hand, and the backgrounds are a series of watercolor paintings just like in the cartoons that inspired it. Even the music goes for a classical feeling, consisting entirely of recorded jazz and with each level opening with a line or two of 1930’s lingo.
Cuphead is due to be released on Steam and Xbox One sometime next year. When asked, the developers explained that a mobile release is not in the cards. According to them, the game uses too many buttons and requires too much precision to be feasable on a touchscreen, and are choosing not to release it at all rather than make a compromised version that doesn’t play nearly as well as it should.