So I’ve Finally Played Cuphead

God, it was worth the six year wait.

Warning: this post contains SPOILERS for Cuphead.

Five years ago, as part of an History of American Animation module in the final year of my Film Studies degree that has turned out to be extremely helpful ever since, I had to give a marked 10-minute presentation on the career and influence of Ub Iwerks.  Iwerks was one of the pioneers of American animation, most famously being Walt Disney’s right-hand man throughout the 1920s having met during their time working in Kansas City.  The early Laugh-O-Grams, the Alice Comedies, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar, the refined designs of Walt’s initial sketch for Mickey Mouse; those were his creations, at least in large part.  A lot of what we know today about how animation works, its principles, its bounciness, its musicality, he had a major hand in, sometimes being the sole animator on multiple classic shorts.

Perhaps his crowning achievements, even more so to me than lead-animating Steamboat Willie, were two shorts by the name of The Skeleton Dance and The Haunted House.  The former, the first official Silly Symphony in Disney’s library, involves four human skeletons re-animating in a graveyard and dancing about the place until dawn.  The latter is a Mickey Mouse short in which the mascot takes shelter during a storm in a seemingly abandoned house overrun with ghosts he has to flee from, with a similar dance-break late on – there’s also a deeply regrettable Al Jolson blackface gag that mars the fun times somewhat.  Both of them, whilst of course tame by today’s standards in all aspects besides racism, stick out from both Disney’s oeuvre and other studios’ animated field at the time on account of their early horror aesthetics.  They were pretty creepy and transgressive, taking advantage of animation’s freedom to pull together disarmingly off-colour images with an underlying macabre-ness that feels subtly wrong (albeit always chased by a gag cos these were still gag cartoons) in a manner which sticks with you.

Iwerks rarely gets his due in the annals of history, both in public perception and a lot of film geek circles unless you run real hard with animation historians, undoubtedly because he was vastly more of a technician compared to Disney’s creative showman.  It’s an uncited Wiki quote but I’m gonna refer to it anyway cos it’s too perfect: animation legend Chuck Jones, who got his start at Iwerks’ failed studio post-Disney split, said of his legacy “he was the first… to give his characters depth and roundness. But he had no concept of humour; he simply wasn’t a funny guy.”  He’s not untrue, by the way; I had to watch a lot of Iwerks’ post-Disney shorts for my presentation and they were, frankly, rough on every level other than technical animation.  But the fact remains that animation history would not be anywhere near the same without his work, technical craftsmanship, and unique visual flair.

So, to close out the presentation, I had to touch on said influence with tangible examples, especially since I chose to make my presentation more about close readings and individual animations rather than wider industry history.  There were his technical achievements in the realm of special visual effects, developing the tools for combining live-action and animation, plus his work on Hitchcock’s The Birds.  But I predominately focussed on the E3 2015 trailer for a then-in-development run-and-gun shooter called Cuphead, utilising its hand-drawn squash-and-stretch 1930s aesthetic super-reminiscent of the works of Ub and rival animators The Fleischer Brothers as evidence of how even modern pop culture is enamoured with those classic cartoons.  I made sure to let the trailer run right up to the bit where a giant skeleton popped out of a moving train, even though I risked going even further over my allotted time, just to make sure the comparisons were fully driven home.

I don’t remember what grade I got for that specific presentation, in case you’re wondering, but I do remember it being pretty good and my lecturer was very surprised and intrigued by the video game I closed out on.

So, almost six years on from my first exposure to the game at that E3 press conference, I have finally played Cuphead.  This delay is partly due to the famously prolonged development process, it took until September 2017 for the thing to finally see the light of day, and mainly because I apparently picked wrong when it came to gaming systems so had to wait until Studio MDHR deigned to grace we peasant PS4 players after bountifully treating almost every other platform first.  But, actually, whilst that wait raised my hype levels ever more, due to the overwhelmingly positive reception it got from game players and how much more stunning it looked in each new released footage, it also elevated my scepticism and worries ever higher, due to all the talk around its deliberately rage-inducing difficulty.

See, I don’t game like I once used to.  There was a time where I would indeed put my life on pause for a week at a time to fully consume a game, bash my head through all of its challenges, explore every nook and cranny, and get that trophy score as close to 100% as I could manage.  I would default to playing on the difficulty setting just above whatever the designation of “Normal” was if a game had one.  But at some point, I wanna say within a year of leaving university, my gaming habits changed considerably.  Not only was I barely playing new release games anymore, but most of my gaming sessions were based around comfort blankets to unwind or pass a day (Rock Band 4 most especially) rather than knuckle down and bash through for a challenge.  When I do sit down to play or replay something proper, it’s almost always to experience something more story-driven whose end can be seen within no longer than 20 hours and, to ensure that, I usually drop the difficulty down to whatever the equivalent of “Easy” is.

I want a focussed experience, nowadays.  One where I can see everything on offer without having to dedicate literal weeks to get to the ending, or grind through seemingly endless flow-breaking sidequests that stall the narrative’s momentum, or find my progress ground to a halt due to a brutally difficult stretch I have to replay dozens upon dozens of times to just barely squeak through and it’s suddenly 3am but my brain won’t let me go to bed until this thing is done.  I play games now to unwind somewhat and be told a story, not so much for crushing difficulty.  Admittedly, an aversion to difficult games hasn’t been an entirely recent development.  My total experience of Dark Souls and its descendants consists of three one-hour sessions of the original on PS3 back in late 2012 where I spent the whole time lost, confused, and dead before filing it away as “not for me” and giving the game to my brother.  (THERE!  THAT’S YOUR ONE DARK SOULS REFERENCE IN A CUPHEAD ARTICLE!  DEAL WITH IT!)  But the point stands, as anyone who read my… mixed thoughts on Crash Bandicoot 4 may already know.

But for every rule there must be an exception and Cuphead has proven to be an exemplary example of that maxim.  I loved Cuphead.  I loved every single second of my time with Cuphead and, with the spare Expert Mode experiences I’ve had so far before setting the game down for a bit to work through more of my backlog, I have a strong feeling I will continue to love every single second of my time with Cuphead still to come.  Given everything you know about me, both mentioned in this article and in my decade-plus of writing things on the Internet about stuff, you may think that’s entirely down to Studio MDHR’s incredible style, a loving cel-perfect homage to classic 1930s animation with a rollicking big-band soundtrack among the best I’ve ever heard in a video game.  And whilst that’s certainly a part of it I’ll touch on later, I’m actually just as equally in love with the gameplay and its resultant unsparing difficulty.

Cuphead is hard.  Cuphead is murderously hard.  It’s nails.  It starts off difficult and only gets harder.  Each time that it decides to ratchet the challenge up comes with a tangible sense of “ok, enough fucking around, time to kill you dead.”  Cuphead is like a Predator that collects the balls, metaphorical and literal, of any player who ventures into its play zone.  It will shove your balls into a speedbag filled with broken glass and arsenic, and batter it for like a half hour without breaking a sweat.  It’ll lay your nuts on a fuckin’ dresser, just your nuts layin’ on a fuckin’ dresser, and bang them shits with a spiked fuckin’ bat, BLAOW!  If your hitbox is so much as a hair inside the attack of one of Cuphead’s enemies, you’re taking that hit and you better be ready to dodge out the way of its immediate follow-up and the fourteen other things currently flying about the screen in a technicoloured near-bullet hell frenzy.

Cuphead is remorseless and frantic and ruthlessly demanding and always completely and totally fair.  For as hectic and seemingly impossible as the game’s many bosses get, whenever a form throws out a hitherto-unknown super-move that sucks up over half the screen with a split-second’s notice to get the hell out of dodge, as in-baked as trial-and-error is to the overall rhythm… there is almost no challenge that Studio MDHR throws in front of players which can’t theoretically be bested first try.  The chaos on screen is always manageable, the game always provides consistent feedback in advance of its next move, and every mechanic does exactly what it is supposed to do every single time without fail.  Now, admittedly, I think there’s only one boss I did beat on my first try (the Root Pack) and just one other whose attempts never got into the double digits (Beppi the Clown), but it’s a testament to the strength of the game’s design that I honestly believe it’s possible to do a perfect run of Cuphead.  This is genuinely one of the best designed and best feeling games I have ever played.

Let’s break it down in stages, then.  First, the on-screen chaos.  Cuphead gets busy.  Cuphead gets busier than Britain’s beaches on a day where the sun is just barely peeking out and temperatures are 14°.  Screens are completely filled to the brim with platforms, mooks, projectiles of varying different colours, bosses themselves with their many various appendages, environmental effects to watch out for and, somewhere in the middle of all that, Cuphead and/or Mugman.  It is a lot, but it’s almost never unmanageable so long as the player is paying complete attention.  A lot of more particle-effects-heavy action or fighting games that are a tenth as deadly on a moment-to-moment basis are significantly harder to follow than Cuphead which can be put down to strong designs and effective usage of space & size.  Everything stands out from everything else; the colours of both Cuphead and Mugman contrast clearly with the things they need to avoid; and there are loud distinctive audio cues for special meter charges, successful parries, and devastating hits to both the boss and yourself so that, even if you can’t see that info right now, you can still hear it.

(The one big knock I do have, however, is the lack of a colour-blind option for parry objects.  The pink of those can sometimes be a little too hard to immediately distinguish from non-parry attacks or objects and my colour-blindness isn’t too severe.  I was able to get used to it after a while, but I’m not sure those with stronger colour-blindness could and that’s an unfair barrier to entry for that segment of the gaming population.  I wish Studio MDHR would figure out a fix.)

Speaking of audio: feedback.  Of Cuphead’s many magic tricks, I think this one may be the slyest yet most astounding of the lot, especially from a design standpoint.  After all, the game’s entirely hand-drawn, and specifically hand-drawn in the manner of 1930s rubber-hose animation, which is a very long and very time-consuming and very expensive process.  You cannot possibly animate every single little flinch for when an enemy gets hit, which means a player might not know if their attacks are doing anything unless you drop a giant gauche series of health bars on screen and that’s a definite no-go since screen-space is stretched to bursting as is.  Yet, somehow, I would always subconsciously know how far into a battle I was and never felt like I was plugging away ineffectually at my enemies, and that’s even before dying and seeing the progress bar of my latest failed attempt.  The game does a really good job at subtly indoctrinating into the player how effective each weapon type is, how long a phase usually lasts, and whether we’ve made it to the final phase yet.

Some of that is, admittedly, down to trial-and-error and, through that repetition, mentally taking notes on each successive attempt.  But I do think the visual and gameplay designs played a vital part in instilling that sixth sense upon me.  The little flashing effect which surrounds a boss as you successfully land blow after blow on them is minimalist but clear and not excessively distracting, aided by a slightly enhanced “pop” on the firing sound effect to differentiate between a hit and shooting air.  Distinctive enemy designs with cartoonishly exaggerated expressions delineate phases and a growing desperation.  And because Cuphead and Mugman don’t abide by the same rules of anticipation as everything else in their world, there’s a really pleasing snap to their actions that makes every stolen super-shot in the middle of a perfectly-timed dodge so endlessly satisfying.  All of that’s without even talking about the way that the game’s animation perfectly utilises anticipation and telegraphing to denote different severities of attacks, but this is something Design Doc explained far better than I ever could so I’m just gonna leave a link to their video on it here for you to go watch.

Lastly, there’s the reliability of Cuphead’s mechanics.  Since Cuphead demands near-perfection from its players, it’s ready to back up that demand by offering perfection itself in controls and mechanics.  There’s the aforementioned snap to everything Cuphead and Mugman do, not so much as a millisecond’s delay between input and response.  Hitboxes are meticulous yet consistent to such a degree that not only did I always blame myself for each hit taken instead of the game, I could also feel my playstyle evolving the deeper in I got.  Bosses I would start out overly-cautious against, where I would over-dodge and panic in ways that would either lead to a hit or landing too far away to do real damage, soon saw me play with significantly more aggression, taking more chances and making multiple last second dodges or parries or ducks on the very edge of hitboxes as I tested the limits and grew in confidence.  Similar consistencies also apply to the dash and parry mechanics where I knew, every time I took a stray hit as a result of them, that it was always down to a miscue from myself rather than the game, even if the initial learning period was hard to get down.

The wider result of all these factors is that Cuphead’s rock-hard challenge never once felt insurmountable or cheap.  Across the at-least 20 hours I put in, there were only three instances where I found myself blaming the game.  One was during the second phase of Werner Werman’s fight where trying to jump through the lower half of his tank to avoid the fire above and buzzsaws to the side would often involve me taking a hit from either the tank or landing on the on-fire platform above whilst doing so… only to later discover that I hadn’t actually mastered controlling my jump-height via strategic dashing yet so that was still on me instead of the game.  The second involved the fight with Rumour Honeybottoms which is also a vertical auto-scroller with semi-randomised platforms and the game’s hit detection meaning that anything becomes dangerous the second it enters the play area; a few unavoidable hits not entirely of my own boxed-in making came from there.  Lastly, there were the run-and-gun levels which, though not without their charms and somewhat learnable, I feel went a little too overboard into chaos; they’re optional and a nice variety switch, but they were also home to the few times I felt like I’d simply gotten lucky.

Other than those, however?  Every single death felt like my fault.  That I had played too aggressively, taken the wrong opening, waited too long before jumping, mistimed the parry window, forgotten the tell of that particular attack, allowed myself to get boxed in, didn’t adequately clear that projectile field, took my eyes off of that sneaky shot, brought an ill-fitting loadout to this fight which was making it so much more difficult than it needed to be, and so many others.  As a result, I rarely found myself getting properly frustrated because, at every step of the way, the game gives you exactly the tools you need to best its trials since it always, when it counts, plays fair.  Even the marathon boss rush gauntlet against King Dice, which takes the form of a deliberately unfair dice game as a period-appropriate condemnation of gambling, is actually quite fair so long as you memorise which squares you personally most struggle against and can time the parries right since the dice always spins in the same order at the same speed every time.

To harp on Crash Bandicoot 4 – a game I swear I otherwise really enjoyed when not going for any of the proper completion criteria – one last time, there were stretches when my failures in that game felt entirely out of my control.  Cheaply placed crates, jumps and dash moves that were inconsistent in their height or length, death gauntlets whose necessary timings didn’t sync up with one another, camera positioning which either hinders or straight up lies about proper depth perception, yet all still demands player perfection regardless of those missteps.  You’ll recall that, in the game’s worst moments, I started greeting failures and interminable restarts with Ashley Johnson-esque “I hate this!” exclamations.  With Cuphead, I would instead greet failures and endless upon endless upon endless (thankfully instantaneous) restarts with Ashley Johnson-esque “okay, okay, okay” determinations.  Because each death I’m learning something, each death I’m in full control of, and each death leads me one step closer to that “KNOCKOUT!”

And when that “KNOCKOUT!” blasts across the screen?  I’ve genuinely celebrated some of those occurrences in the same way that national football fans respond to England goals in the World Cup.  Literal cheers and multiple fist-pumps and barely controlled giggles of joy and exhalations of pure relief!  Some of these battles took literal hours of gruelling attrition, where average progress upon each try could oscillate back and forth, but never once would the thought of quitting pass my mind because I knew that I could beat this.  The game is that tightly designed, feedback is that instantaneous, there are enough viable options in methodology, and a successful battle rarely lasts longer than two-and-a-half minutes, that victory always felt attainable with time.  The satisfaction which came with each and every “KNOCKOUT!” never ever dulled and that hit provided some of my all-time favourite gaming experiences.  Finally defeating The Devil after more than two hours of attempts late into the evening, on my very first reaching of his final phase but with just one hit-point remaining, was a sensation like few others in my two decades of gaming.

But for as vibranium strong as the gameplay is, all those hours spent bashing my head against that brick wall weren’t just out of a stubborn refusal to let a bunch of 1s and 0s best me.  That’s where the presentation comes in.  And it’s not just that Studio MDHR have meticulously recreated the aesthetics of classic Fleischer Studios (not for nothing are the various islands called “Inkwell”) and Ub Iwerks shorts.  That same springy ultra-expressive rubber-hose character animation, those same vibrant colour schemes being muted and muddied somewhat due to the limitations of the projection technologies of the time, that same scratchy mono audio mixing, that same swinging big band soundtrack which seems to uncannily match on-screen actions (or maybe that’s just a case of repeat tries learning phase lengths and tying them subconsciously to the score)…  Recreation is all well and good as a formal exercise, but recreation alone cannot sustain 90 straight minutes of Grim Matchstick attempts; it gets old.  No, more than mere recreation, Cuphead brims with personality.  The kind obviously indebted to its influences yet maintains a unique feel of its own, and not just from how its channels the era mostly sans the latent racism.

(Sidebar on that racism front.  I feel like the game mostly manages to avoid the spectres of early animation’s more racist and antisemitic prejudices, at least as much as a love letter can do so.  Djimmi the Great is the one outlier, hewing a little too close to Middle Eastern and Egyptian exoticism stereotypes for its own good; a shame given that his fight is maybe the best of the airplane levels.  And there’s also the white gloves thing but, even though I know the given reason by animation historians and animators themselves is that white gloves on characters made them easier to animate, I’ll let this Slate video explain how unconscious learned societal racism may have also influenced that.  This all said, I am obviously not the person to speak authoritatively on the subject, so you may want to go and seek out other critics’ work on that front.  You should definitely start with this excellent Unwinnable essay by Yussef Cole.)

For as much as the generalised look of Cuphead invokes Fleischer and Iwerks, none of the game’s dozens upon dozens of character designs feel like they can be traced to a specific source, at least to me.  The closest are maybe Sally Stageplay and Cala Maria who have more than a bit Olive Oyl and Betty Boop in their base designs respectively, but even then they have entirely different mannerisms and expressions which dispel any “heh, I get that reference!” inclinations.  I genuinely didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did whilst playing Cuphead, all of these bosses brimming with such character and many of their phase transformations carrying impeccable comic timing.  Even constant failure wasn’t as demoralising as it should be, since each boss’ phase is given a pun-ishing win quote that’s exactly the right amount of lame to express their characterisation and not feel like the game is seriously mocking your ineptitude.  They even commit to that bit so well that it makes the times where it’s subverted to something blunter either unexpectedly unnerving (such as The Devil) or hilarious (like the final phase of Captain Brineybeard simply having the ship itself go “HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW-HAW”).

The best example of that capacity for comedy came during the Wally Warbles plane fight.  Phase 1 sees a giant red-headed blue-feathered bird wearing the shell of a cuckoo clock firing out eggs and bullets, later resorting to shaking his feathers at Cuphead/Mugman in a bullet-hell spread.  Once beaten, the guy collapses out of the birdhouse which then explodes to reveal his son who starts blasting at you with a laser pistol, the death quote revealing that he was the real villain and his dad was just dumb muscle.  Beat that and the kid starts crying out for his dad, at which point Wally returns on a stretcher carried by two bird paramedics, bandaged and featherless, reduced to coughing up garbage from his stomach and his own heart in a humorously pathetic last-ditch attempt to take you out.  My war cry of “YES!” upon scoring the knockout would morph seamlessly into uproarious laughter when the two concerned paramedics, as soon as Wally was defeated, pulled out a knife and fork and started salting his corpse with hungry glee in their eyes.

Wally may have been my favourite in terms of presentation, but a similar level of reverential yet unique personality is prevalent across the entire game, up to and including the magnificent score which is fully of the era whilst still not actually sounding anything like the tunes which backed those early cartoons.  And since it’s so intertwined with the substance of the gameplay, both ends informing the other, that’s how Cuphead weaves its magical spell.  Beating it was not something I was doing out of spite.  It was something I wanted to do because I was excited to see what the next boss phase would be or how their death animation would play out or what new surprises the next marker on the checklist would bring me.  Likewise, I wasn’t just sinking upwards of three hours retrying The Devil over and over and over and over again, delaying my evening tea to almost midnight, because I am such a homer for traditional animation techniques and quality big band jazz (nor was it cos my unmedicated Aspie brain has a tendency to get fixated on near-finished tasks at the expense of my own health).  I was doing so because I knew I was only ever one near-perfect two-and-a-half-minute run away from victory, each and every single retry teaching me something new, and the faultless mechanics meant that said run felt doable at any moment.

With all that said, I don’t begrudge complaints about the game’s difficulty and refusal to offer a proper easy mode for less capable or disabled gamers who will absolutely have been and continue to be shut out by Cuphead’s high skill gate yet want to experience that ultra-charming presentational character anyway.  “Simple” mode isn’t up to that task given how the run-and-gun stages have no “Simple” option, ditto the last two fights against King Dice and The Devil, and defeated bosses on the lower difficulty rung don’t count towards progression which means the mode is more like ineffectual shortened recon for the real game.  I can see how other players would just bounce off of the imposing difficulty, we all have different lines as to when “difficult” crosses over into “obnoxious,” or simply never be able to reach the skill demanded of them no matter how many tries they take.  And that’s fair; I can’t say for certain whether or not I would’ve taken the easy mode route were it actually useful during some of the tougher encounters, nor whether my doing so would have seriously dulled the satisfaction I got from besting a level on that lower difficulty.

All I can speak are my own experiences and they involved 19 progressively louder and more euphoric fist-pumping screams of cathartic joy, broken up by lengthy stretches of energised determination that never turned into prolonged frustration, which will go down as some of my all-time favourite gaming experiences.  It’s not often that something with six years of anticipation behind it manages to live up to your hopes, even rarer that it actually surpasses them, but Cuphead absolutely did for me.  This was everything I was excited for upon first seeing the E3 2015 trailer and more besides.  With 2020 and 2021 so far having been the fucking assholes of a year that they are, it feels really good for me to get a win like this.  Bring on the DLC, whenever that may be!

Callie Petch is a beam of light, maybe that’s why their battery runs dry.

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