Finally getting my hands on the most intriguing surprise of E3 2014 was both a joy and a buzzkill. Going into it after a year of wondering what it was, my expectations were basically nonexistent save for its visual flair. And it does not disappoint. Cuphead from Studio MDHR is an unequivocally beautiful game. I’m so glad to find out that it’s also a promising one.
First off, the premise: you are Cuphead, and you and your friend Mugman made a bet with the devil. It almost obviously goes sour, and the two are soon locked into doing the devil’s bidding. The pair fill their heads with some fine grain liquor and proceed to go out guns blazing. (And with Mugman in the mix, you can co-op the game with a buddy.)
Its aesthetics throw back to the animation stylings of the early 1900s like that of Max Fleischer‘s Betty Boop and Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie but its gameplay is straight out of the 1980s. It’s a side-scrolling shooter that is very much in the vein of Contra and the like except almost exclusively a protracted boss rush à la Shadow of the Colossus. (I guess that’s more accurately a boss game.)
And gosh is it brutal. You run, you jump, and you shoot, but most importantly, you die. You have to have the dexterity and reaction time to survive just as much as you must have the ability to learn and retain patterns until they become habit and intuition instead of studied motions.
You can also time a midair jump to deflect certain enemy projectiles, which will in turn charge your super weapon. If you do it enough, you’ll gain use of an ass-kicking beam attack, but if you miss (and you will; the timing is super tight), you take damage. It’s okay, though. That super is only somewhat essential to beating the bosses.
The noteworthy part in all of this is that it comes with great variety. You’ll face pugilistic frogs, psychic carrots, and ornery slot machines, and all of them fight uniquely. It’s one thing to have an expertly punishing game but it’s another to make so much of it feel consistently fresh.
The audio and visuals certainly don’t hurt either. It’s a lusciously smooth and lovingly drawn game from just two brothers (which might explain why it went with the boss rush structure) with a pitch-perfect original, totally manic jazz soundtrack. The adorable characters and animations do betray the sweaty palms and enraged screams into the night that it holds for your future, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Cuphead looks to be shaping up quite nicely. It’s got flair to go along with what seems like a competent core of run and gun gameplay. So what’s the buzzkill? It’s not out until 2016 for Xbox One and PC.
(Read more about the game’s development in this SlashGear interview from last year. It’s fascinating.)