I love cartoons. Since I was a kid, I’ve watched everything from “Animaniacs” to “Invader Zim.” But I have a special place in my heart for cartoons from the 1930s and ‘40s. The simple, hand-drawn characters, matched up with the watercolor painted backgrounds blow away anything on TV today.
It’s that style, complete with white-gloved characters, rubber band-style legs, eyes the size of saucers, that developer StudioMDHR is channeling with its first game “Cuphead.”
Available Friday for Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs, “Cuphead” ($20) has been highly anticipated not just for its stylized visuals, but also for the fact that it is based almost entirely on brutally difficult boss battles.
That’s right, in a time when game developers have largely moved away from such classic fights, StudioMDHR built “Cuphead” around the kind of multistage boss fights that keep your adrenaline pumping and your palms sweating.
It’s a ridiculous, must-play experience, but I also wish it offered a bit more variation in its run-and-gun side-scroller levels.
Hand drawn gaming
“Cuphead” is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The game has been hand-drawn and painted, and StudioMDHR has added smaller nuances like the scratch marks you’d see on a film reel as it plays and the crackle of a record skip to truly round out “Cuphead’s” retro feel.
It’s hard to explain how perfectly the team captured the Max Fleischer-era look of cartoons. The font, the voice acting, even the colloquialisms the characters use are spot-on. Naturally, StudioMDHR avoided the absurdly racist caricatures of the time.
Don’t mistake the fact that the game is influenced by more than 80-year-old cartoons fool you into thinking everything is sunny and bright, though. “Cuphead’s” story centers on two brothers — the titular Cuphead and his sibling Mugman, though you’ll only play as the latter during co-op games. The duo is indebted to the devil after entering into a Faustian pact while gambling at a foreboding casino they happened across.
But the devil tells the two that they can keep their souls if they collect outstanding debts from his other debtors. Those are the bosses you’ll fight.
Each boss is lovingly crafted to look like the picture of innocence when they first appear on screen, only to transform into corrupted versions of themselves as soon as your battle starts. One particular boss starts out as a zeppelin and turns into an insane crescent moon that fires stars and UFOs at you.
It’s tough, but you won’t throw your controller
Part of what helped build the hype around “Cuphead” was how difficult it was rumored to be. Initial previews made the game sound as though it was a waking nightmare that would pulverize you over and over again — and then, after you thought you had the upper hand, crush you again.
And to be fair, if you rush into the game’s various boss fights headfirst without a strategy, that’s exactly what you can expect. But what makes “Cuphead” so impressive is that these frenetic battles that fill the screen with enemies and projectiles are actually a bit like moving puzzles.
Oh, sure, you’ll fail boss fights a dozen or so times without having a clue as to what you’re doing. But then you’ll catch a pattern, or think of a certain weapon to use, and it will all click. You’ll still need to use precise timing, but if you’re patient, and follow the right strategy, you’ll be able to tackle any enemy.
Don’t get cocky when you figure out a boss’s first phase quickly, though. That’s because each boss has multiple, uniquely elaborate stages that attack you in different ways. A piece of advice: If you lose one of your three — yes, just three — health points during the first phase of a boss battle, you might as well restart the fight instead of pointlessly marching toward defeat.
The fact that boss battles last about two minutes, though, means that when you do die, and again, you will, you never feel completely defeated. You’re not going to have to trudge through 15 minutes of additional gameplay before you reach the boss again started like you do in games like “Dark Souls.”
One of the “Cuphead’s” main mechanisms is your character’s parry ability. By tabbing the jump button while in the air just as you connect with any pink-colored item on screen, you’ll perform a parry. Parrys, and shooting enemies in general, build up your super meter, which lets you unleash a devastating attack or perform another ability, like turning invisible, to help you defeat enemies.
Run and gun
Taking on boss after boss, regardless of how varied they and their attack styles are, would have inevitably made “Cuphead” feel repetitive. So StudioMDHR added in a handful of run-and-gun side-scroller levels to balance things out. These levels basically have you run from one end of the stage to the other unscathed and feel ever so slightly more forgiving than the game’s boss fights.
I just wish there were more of these levels than the game offers. As they are, they feel like little more than filler. Really beautiful, fun to play filler, but filler nonetheless.
These levels also allow you to collect coin, which you can use in the game’s shops to purchase upgraded weapons, additional health points — though that’ll lower your damage output — and abilities like turning invincible for a split second during a dash.
You’ll need to purchase and use a number of these abilities and weapons if you’re going to finish “Cuphead,” as each boss will require a different combination of attacks. During one fight, a boss was situated behind me as the screen moved forward, preventing me from using my base gun to attack him. The solution? Equip my weapon that fires forward then boomerangs back to enemies behind me.
Unfortunately, I found that there were a handful of upgrades that felt all but useless, which made me regret purchasing them with the few coins I had.
Should you get it?
“Cuphead” is a love letter to not just the decades-old cartoons it apes, but also gaming’s classic boss battles that have fallen to the wayside, as well. It’s far from easy, but don’t let that spook you out of playing this wonderful work of art. You’ll need patience and a steady hand, but you’ll absolutely be able to win out in the end.
Reviewed for Xbox One
What’s hot: Gorgeously stylish visuals; wonderful soundtrack; epic boss battles
What’s not: Not enough side-scrolling levels; some upgrades feel pointless
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Email Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.