Cuphead isn’t my favorite game of all time, but the love I have for it is different. It’s the rare game that evokes a childlike sense of wonder long after the formative period of imagination and discovery has seemingly ended. Cuphead is like the Saturday-morning cartoons you never wanted to end.
I started playing Cuphead on Xbox One the moment it unlocked on September 29, 2017. While showing the game to my wife later that day, I made an offhanded remark about wanting a Cuphead plush. She loves arts and crafts and immediately offered to make one for me. We went to Walmart and bought fabric and stuffing. By the end of the night, my amazing wife had created a Cuphead plush, complete with a red and white swirled straw made from pipe cleaners.
Since launch day I’ve amassed a growing collection of Cuphead merch. I have teeshirts, a hoodie, two blankets, glassware, a water bottle, a Mugman figurine, and a second Cuphead plush my daughter bought me for Christmas. My Cuphead love is peculiar in a sense, considering I rarely buy gaming merchandise. Despite The Legend of Zelda being my favorite video game franchise for my entire gaming life, I now own more Cuphead stuff than even Hyrule memorabilia.
I finished Cuphead on launch weekend after a laborious and painstaking run-in with King Dice, who is by far the hardest boss in the game. After dealing with the Devil, I immediately went back to the beginning and started again on expert difficulty. After clearing that less than a week later, you would think that my time with Cuphead had come to an end.
Endlessly enamored with Cuphead‘s magical cadence, I kept replaying stages to look for any details I may have still missed. Now that Cuphead has arrived on Switch, I’ve played through it yet again. Even 1.5 years later, Cuphead remains fresh. At this point, I’ve beaten most of the bosses at least ten times. Yet I’m still here, revisiting stages, trying to see just exactly how each one ticks.
Cuphead‘s animations were all hand-drawn by the small team at StudioMDHR
Cuphead‘s art style is revelatory and demands to be examined closely. The aesthetic matches 1930s cartoons, with a specific nod to the cartoons devised by Max Fleischer. Fleischer Studios was responsible for cartoons such as Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and Koko the Clown throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Since the game itself is challenging from the beginning, it can be easy to miss details both small and large throughout the 19 boss battles and six run and gun levels.
The surrealist bosses change forms multiple times, introducing new animations. From their oversized eyes to their over-the-top grins that quickly turn to disdain, Cuphead‘s bosses look and feel like they really were designed for a 1930s cartoon.
From the seemingly innocent Cagney Carnation to the brilliantly named Baroness Von Bon Bon to the overly zealous clown Beppi, all of Cuphead‘s bosses are fascinating. While playing, I can imagine actual cartoon storylines where Cuphead and Mugman have to invade the Von Bon Bon’s candy castle or when the brothers have to stop Sally from putting on her diabolical show.
Sometimes I play Cuphead on “simple” just so I don’t have to pay as close attention to the action, allowing me to closely watch a boss’ facial expressions or the way they conjure projectiles that drift across the stage at around 24 frames per second, closely aligning to the movements of the visual flair of cartoons of the era.
Every single boss can be defeated with the tools you have from the very beginning
Cuphead‘s animations were all hand-drawn by the small team at StudioMDHR. That fact alone continues to baffle me to this day. I’ve never played a game that oozes as much personality as Cuphead. It’s abundantly clear, simply from watching it in motion, that StudioMDHR put their heart and soul into this grand, incredibly unique experience.
The joy of discovery
That’s what really drew me to Cuphead to begin with. It’s incomparable. Sure, plenty of other games have similar gameplay, but Cuphead‘s presentation is unparalleled. Even playing it on the Switch’s screen in handheld mode, the alluring visuals and intricate animations shine. Cuphead, to me, accurately mirrored the joy of discovering something brand new as a child. Only this time I was 26, unaware that any game would have the power to replicate the wonderment of discovery.
The art direction is what made Cuphead such a hotly anticipated title when it was initially revealed in 2014. But the sound design is equally impressive. All throughout, an old film reel fizzles in the background. Jazzy snare drums reverberate during tense moments. Horns squeak, whistles pop, and strings twang. The sound design masterfully complements the cartoon visuals. They wouldn’t be nearly as powerful in isolation, but together they transport you to a very specific moment of the 20th century.
If you couldn’t tell already, my love of Cuphead is intrinsically tied to its aesthetics. The gameplay is great, too, if not wholly original. What I truly appreciate about Cuphead‘s gameplay is how minimalistic it remains from start to finish. While there are unlockable weapons, charms, and super moves, every single boss can be defeated with the tools you have from the very beginning: A peashooter, jump, dash, and parry.
It’s tough in the same vein as early ’90s run and gun games, but it doesn’t overwhelm the player with superfluous mechanics. What you see from the start is what you can expect all the way up until the Devil. Naturally, the difficulty rises as you make your way through Inkwell, but Cuphead crucially compels you to tweak how to use what you have, rather than completely changing the formula.
Each time the announcer says “Good day for a swell battle,” or “This match will get red hot,” or, my personal favorite opening, “A brawl is surely brewing,” I get a tinge of excitement for what’s to come — even though I already know each boss’ moveset and reanimations like the back of my hand. Remember how you could watch the same movie every day for a week as a kid and still marvel at it just the same? That’s Cuphead for me, now, and perhaps forever.
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