JOYSTiCK Ep. 2: ‘Cuphead’: Hand-drawn dominance

By: Daniel Kendle

When ‘Contra’ meets Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, I guess.

Hello, and welcome to JOYSTiCK, the HPSH serial that enjoys reviewing and exploring video games. This episode is of ‘Cuphead’, a 2017 indie game that has become one of the most popular of it’s category in the last half-decade, partially being that it’s the only known video game to be entirely made up of hand-drawn cell animation, rather than digitally-drawn, CGI or other forms. But is ‘Cuphead’ a shining example of gaming? Let’s take a look.

‘Cuphead’ was created by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, who were not video game developers at first, but then jumped to making the game after their recollections of games as kids. Reportedly, the first iterations of ‘Cuphead’ were based around a “school grade” aesthetic, with the game progression also having you move up in grades and art style. Eventually they went with a “rubber-hose” style after their friends saw them use an old 1930’s cartoon character as a stand-in for an actual game model. And then after that, they created Studio MDHR.

To talk about rubber-hose animation, it defines cartoons such as Betty Boop, Popeye, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and other Disney and Fleischer Studios work. It gets its name from the rubbery, unrealistic animation in most shorts. These are some of ‘Cupheads’s’ main influences, but the other prominent one is of “Run n’ Gun” games from the 80’s and 90’s, like ‘Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts’ and ‘Megaman’. These titles were normally difficult, grind-centric games that had players face off against bosses and enemies, focused around dodging attacks first and dealing damage second. They rewarded muscle memory and quick reflexes, as players would normally spend a good amount of time learning bosses’ movement and attacks in order to win.

‘Cuphead’ was first introduced in E3 2014, in a short trailer that didn’t feature much, except the art style chosen. Even with the relatively-small amount of info, the game was a highlight of the Xbox press showcase. The game had periodic updates shown until eventually releasing September 29, 2017. It was very well received, with over 1 million copies being sold within its first 2 weeks on the market. Its art style, difficulty, and gameplay were praised, and the game has been running smoothly ever since, selling 6 million copies by July 2020.

PART ONE: GAMEPLAY

‘Cuphead’ is, as stated previously, a Run n’ Gun game, where the player has to shoot targets and enemies whilst dodging attacks. ‘Cuphead’ is divided into 2 different types of levels: boss levels and platform levels.

The main focus of ‘Cuphead’ are the bosses. The game is one big Boss Rush, with most levels being where you have to fight a powerful enemy with multiple stages. The game is a VERY challenging game, reminiscent of other games in the genre. Most of the game is you reattempting bosses and stages, though it’s not annoying most of the time. In fact, defeating a level is incredibly satisfying!

The game’s moral of “tough but fair” lets the game designers not have to create bosses that scale with difficulty, if by only a little bit. They instead mold them around the idea of muscle memory and skill, the way a player proceeds through their journey being of their might rather than of a scaling difficulty. This is something other famously-hard games practice, like ‘Dark Souls’.

But diving into actual play, ‘Cuphead’ has someone shooting projectiles out of their fingertips (More on this in the Story section). There are 9 different types, each with different values and properties.

  • The Peashooter is your basic shot, the one given to you at the start of the game.
  • The Chaser is the weakest, but can track a target around and hit them without needing the player to aim.
  • The Spread has great damage in a small radius in front of the user, so it’s good for close-quarters combat.
  • The Lobber shoots gravity-affected balls that bounce on the ground.
  • The Roundabout is like a boomerang in that it loops back after firing it, so you’re able to hit something even when your back is turned.
  • The Charge has a short charging time (duh) between shots, but does the most damage out of any weapon. It’s also the only shot where you’re able to hold it without having to auto-fire.
  • The Crackshot is arguably the best shot. Like the Chaser it follows targets, but also does a lot more damage and will do more damage by shooting an enemy before the shots break away to track and hit the target.
  • The Converge is a 3-way shot that narrows its flight path when the player is locked into shooting. (I’ll explain this later as well.)
  • Finally, the Twist-Up is the opposite of the Lobber, flying upwards instead of down.

Along with these shots are things known as Charms, little abilities that give Cuphead extra perks. These can range from extra hearts to a smoke bomb, from axe-parries to even more hearts! They mix up gameplay just enough that, like shots, can dramatically change how a boss fight plays out depending on what loadout you use.

While 2 shots can be equipped at a time, only one Charm is able to be.

But where do you get shots and Charms from? The shop, of course! The game has a traveling shop that can be found on 4 of the isles of which the game is played. Each item costs coins, which can be found in the platform levels, each with 5 coins each. I enjoy having to buy your power ups; ‘Cuphead’ isn’t exactly the type of game to have power ups within the levels, there’s only 6 platform levels along with the 34 boss fights, so there just wouldn’t be enough space to level out the progression if shots and power ups were inside the levels themselves.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the platform levels. Each has unique theming and gameplay, with some focusing on different mechanics entirely. While the bosses have you shooting them up until they eventually run out of health, platform levels have you reaching an end goal. And honestly… they’re fine.

We’ll get to the bosses soon, but with the 6 platform levels, they feel like they have less of that “grandness” of the rest of ‘Cuphead’. While fine in their own right they feel more like afterthought than a mainstay of the game. They follow a linear progression, with you more or less traveling right while shooting enemies. No big baddies, no interesting concepts and ideas, just… eh. They’re alright, but “alright” isn’t cutting it for a game like this.

The main characters Cuphead and Mugman also are okay to control. Since the main game revolves around shooting, having the player be able to shoot in multiple directions is an obvious addition. However, hand-drawn animation is extremely time consuming, so animating hundreds, maybe even THOUSANDS of different poses would’ve taken forever. Instead, it was decided to only have players shoot in 8 different directions: forward, backward, up, down, and diagonal versions of all of them. This is VERY janky; I found myself more often than not shooting forward only, elevating and de-elevating if needing to shoot up or down respectively. This is very awkward, and doesn’t work very well. It’s a moment where it feels like the art direction and game design clash, making a worse experience.

‘Cuphead’ has a ‘lock-in’ mechanic that lets you access this 8-way shooting. When holding down the respective button, you’ll be locked into place, allowing you to aim as you fire using what you would normally use to run. This is also bad to control, as ‘Cuphead’ is a game where you need to be constantly moving around in order to dodge attacks, and having a button lock you in place is disorienting to the rest of the game, sorry.

PART TWO: BOSSES

‘Cuphead’s’ bosses are arguably some of the best in the business, in my opinion. They ALL have some of the best quality in gaming, with snappy combat and powerful attacks that combine with their incredibly creative concepts. There’s too many to list like from my last review on ‘Metroid Dread’, so I’ll simply mention some of the best and most interesting of the bunch.

Bosses in the game all have generally whimsical and fun ideas, just like how the 1930’s style of animation had very crazy and loony settings and characters. I feel like this gives them a distinct appearance when compared to another game’s enemies. Overall, I love this game’s bosses, for they feel like creations that remove themselves from the mold of the rest of the gaming industry’s blueprints.

There are 2 bosses that I’ll consider “Tutorial” matter, though I’ll only be talking about one: The Root Pack. Made up of 3 mean vegetables, they’re essential in teaching the player the 3 main ways attacks try to hit you, and how to dodge: jumping up and down, moving left and right, and a combination of the two. And the fights are fun too! I’m glad that they made the first bosses to the same standards as further fights, showing the complex polish of the bosses.

Another is Cagney Carnation, one of the most iconic characters in ‘Cuphead’. The flower’s fight is also great fun, with raised platforms and more challenging attacks to avoid. They also introduce the idea of bosses changing form, with him eventually turning into a tangle of weeds and barbs by the end of the battle. A fantastic fight; one of my personal favorites.

Moving farther up the ladder is my favorite boss in the game, Werner Werman, this German tank pilot who controls a giant mechanical cat in his fight. I don’t know why, but this fight is just so fun. I like the idea of having a smaller scale fight (literally) and have the two be the size of actual mice. I don’t know if this is controversial, but this is my favorite boss in the game, personally.

Finally, let’s talk about the final boss: the Devil. He’s one of ‘Cuphead’s’ hardest fights, and for good reason. You’ve made your way all the way to Hell, and he’s certainly fit for his kingdom. The fight’s chaotic and eerie, but man, defeating him is satisfying as all heck, and comes to make you realize what you’ve just done: beaten the game. While I do think that some of his attacks feel a bit RNG-based, the Devil’s a great way to end the main game. And speaking of the Devil…

PART THREE: STORY

I didn’t touch on ‘Metroid Dread’s’ story due to it being the final entry in the main Metroid saga, and I didn’t want to spoil anything. ‘Cuphead’s’ story is much more simple, and pretty easy to figure out. It’s not a detriment to the game though; I like having a more basic plot compared to other games having complex, moving narratives.

Cuphead and his brother Mugman are two kids who one day come across the Devil’s Casino. After gambling for a while they find themselves on a winning streak, to which the Devil notices and gives them a wager: if they can win their next roll, they get all the casino’s riches. If not, the Devil gets their souls.

Mugman doesn’t want to spread his luck dry, but Cuphead blindly rolls again. Of course, he gets snake eyes, and the Devil now gets their lives. The boys beg for mercy, and the Devil admits he’s gone too far… before tasking the 2 to go out and bring back the souls of those who owe him theirs.

Not knowing how to get others’ souls, they go to their grandfather Elder Kettle, who gives them a magical potion to let them shoot lasers out of their fingers. Eventually, after using their powers to defeat all the bosses (debtors) Cuphead and Mugman storm into the Devil’s casino again, and after beating his lackey King Dice, defeat the Devil as well, and free the debtors from the demon’s grasp, ending the story in a happy light.

Like I said, the story’s not very complex, instead feeling like something an actual Disney short would be about. I like it, though I do feel like we don’t see the bosses outside of battle, and now knowing them to be the debtors the boys have to beat it would’ve been pretty cool to see them after the main game is done, and maybe be able to talk to them and stuff.

PART FOUR: GRAPHICS

I mean, what is there to say?

‘Cuphead’ is arguably one of the best looking video games of the past few years, and possibly even of all time. Its unique hand-drawn animation style lends itself to some gorgeous graphics and fidelity beyond anything of recent memory.

One thing I noticed is that it feels like something straight out of a Disney cartoon. The backgrounds have such a warm feeling, I wish that I could look at them without having to be constantly sweating through the boss battles!

Oh, and the animation! It’s SO good. Studio MDHR used a type of animation called “Squash n’ Stretch” to animate moving objects, which basically means that a lot of frames exaggerate and contort frames of things to feel more fluid-like, which gives everything such a fascinating appearance that hasn’t been seen in many other games. It was practically eye-candy to myself, someone who loves animation in movies and cartoons. Great work all around.

There are some blips in quality here and there. Some bosses feel a little more constrained and bland compared to the animation of others, the same going for standard enemies and other sprites. Occasionally there’s some landscapes in the game without the polish seen in others. What I’m getting at here is that the few problems I have in the graphics department mostly come down to fluctuating art and standards seen in it. I’ll admit it, some places in the game look better than others. Whether that’s the art direction’s fault or the area’s theming, it’s still an issue nonetheless. But still, this game looks like some kind of blessed artifact from the 1930’s that ironically holds up greatly 5 years later.

PART FIVE: CONCLUSION

‘Cuphead’ is a great game. It’s snappy combat, beautiful visuals and – while not mentioned – great music makes it an awesome game to explore and play. However, some issues do arise, like boring platforming levels, semi-inconsistent graphical quality and clunky controls. For this, I think ‘Cuphead’ is a solid 8/10. While it does flub in some areas other games don’t, this is a great package, and deserves the recognition it has received, and hopefully will continue to gain.

That’s all for this episode of JOYSTiCK, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it! I plan on doing other indie games soon, so if you’re into that, make sure you stick around and not only check out my work, but other people’s as well.

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