Hands-On Preview: Cuphead

on June 20, 2015 7:00 PM

When watching vintage cartoons and animated films from the golden age, a certain kind of nostalgia strikes that, when compared to the animation slates of today, reveal a whole different kind of artistry and talent.

Compared to the digital age where animation has become easier, the likes of early Mickey Mouse cartoons and Looney Tunes reveal an art that took time and patience to complete: although decades have passed since their original debut, many of them still hold up as classics, and Studio MDHR is looking to accomplish the same with its unique and similarly styled title, Cuphead.

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During this year’s E3 2015, we had the chance to get hands-on time with the highly-anticipated Cuphead, one of the indie titles highlighted during Microsoft’s “ID@Xbox” portion of its E3 press conference and long-awaited from its initial reveal last year. Developed by Canadian brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, it would be easy to confuse Cuphead for a vividly animated and wild short film, and yet once you get a controller in hand, it’s a completely different experience when realizing it is a full-fledged, interactive short film in game form.

The game’s demo at E3 2015 featured several levels from the title in local two-player co-op, where Cuphead and his partner Mugman run, dodge, jump, and shoot (by snapping their fingers, charmingly enough) to defeat the game’s various bosses.

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Composed almost entirely of boss fights, Cuphead is most reminiscent of the classic 2D side-scrolling run-and-gun titles of the 16/32-bit era, such as Contra and Gunstar Heroes. With players using Cuphead and Mugman’s jumps, dodges, and finger-snapping blasts to take out enemies, the gameplay is fast, frenetic, and extremely challenging, and all blends seamlessly with the game’s most striking element: its art style.

It’s one thing to say that Cuphead is visually striking, and yet after having hands-on time with the title during E3, it’s another to say that Cuphead may just be one of the most beautifully-animated and stylized games that I have ever seen in motion. Echoing the art and style of 1930’s-era cartoons and animation, it’s rooted deeply in the classics of animation’s golden age. With elements from early Mickey Mouse cartoons, Fleischer Studios, and beyond, the level of detail and animation in Cuphead is almost overwhelming, but in the best way possible.

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With the Moldenhaurs having extensively watched cartoons from the 1930s era and even producing the game in many of the same ways from that era, Cuphead drips with detail, color, and style that’s often hard enough just to have a grasp of and appreciate in full.

Character animations are vibrant and incredibly-detailed, even down to the struts of Cuphead and Mugman moving and in their bouncy idle animations. Beyond the art and style, the game even uses additional effects to add to the game’s 1930s aesthetic, including projection flickers and a noisy filter to emulate the game appearing like it came off the reel from a dusty old theater.

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During our demo with the game, I went in as Mugman with another player as Cuphead against one of the game’s numerous bosses, a pair of rough and rowdy boxing frogs. To say the game is difficult is an understatement: even during our demo we barely were able to defeat the bosses with a limited amount of health and revives seeming to be nowhere in sight, though infinite lives are present even if Cuphead and Mugman crack under the pressure.

Much like Contra or Gunstar Heroes, Cuphead and Mugman are able to run, jump, and duck to avoid enemy fire while retaliating on their own through their snapping finger blasts. Able to shoot in multiple directions, the game will also feature a variety of different weapon types to up the arsenals of Cuphead and Mugman, especially when faced against a plethora of bosses with incredibly varied styles: it’s challenging to say the least.

Though Cuphead is still not set for release until next year, the small taste of the title I had the chance to play during E3 2015 was more than enough to keep me wanting more until release. Even in only a short 10-15 minute gameplay session, Cuphead bursts to life with responsive, quick-paced gameplay that will challenge any gamer’s trigger fingers through its boss fights.

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Aside from the gameplay, the centerpiece of Cuphead is its sumptuous art style, where the gameplay session couldn’t possibly do justice to its visuals and only makes me want to see more of what wacky antics lie ahead for Cuphead and Mugman. Even if you’re not quite old enough to appreciate the classics that Cuphead is referencing (or were alive at the time), by next year we’ll all be transported to the 1930s through Cuphead‘s visually charming world.

Cuphead is currently in development on Xbox One and PC for release in 2016.

 /  Features Editor
Ryan is the Features Editor at DualShockers, with over five years' experience in the world of video games culture and writing. He holds a BA in English & Cinema from Binghamton University, and lives in New York City.
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