Cuphead (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Cuphead (2017)

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My education in animation started early in the morning and late at night.  Syndicated re-runs of what would become my favorite cartoon, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, introduced me to the joys of silly scenarios and groan-worthy puns tied together with good cheer.  It's those late nights that felt foreign when networks would show cartoons from the early 20th century featuring caricatures of then-popular stars colliding with one another in dive bars and smoky jazz clubs.  It was the perfect way to teach young me that animation wasn't just silly scenarios and chipper characters, there was an undercurrent of danger complete with firearms and cigarettes.

Enter Cuphead, a long time coming labor of love from Studio MDHR, and to its bones understands the giddy thrill of watching late-night cartoons while not fully understanding what they're about.  Studio MDHR takes familiar building blocks of the more family friendly, if still threatening, early 20th century cartoons into fights that border on the sort of hallucinatory nightmare children might have after watching those old cartoons.

The enemies fit into this mold perfectly, and when I was fighting a carrot beast who clearly imbibed a few too many psychedelic drugs (which for kids could easily be translated as psychic powers) I knew I was in good hands.  Aside from the boss battles, which form their own stages with multiple phases of attack patterns, all the enemies have a rubbery sense of menace about them.  Fish flying through the air have an oblivious look to their path of destruction, then seemingly friendly platforms suddenly spring to life as angry crabs, all while grumpy spiked urchins get an annoyed look as they come to life to try and hinder Cuphead (or his pal Mugman.)I love how Cuphead occupies this liminal space where the overall animation industry and audience had not settled on cartoons being for kids or adults.  Cuphead's character design is great for this, as in motion with his finger blasting away (another term great for kids or adults) he has a menacing look about him with a furrowed brown and sadistic grin.  Mugman tweaks this nicely, being the put-upon sidekick and all, whose overall look is more chipper and his blasting motion set for delight instead of sadistic fun.

Since I just used "sadistic" a couple of times - let's chat about Cuphead's difficulty.  I stay as far from game media as possible but it was impossible for me to miss the conversations around a gameplay demonstration that showed Cuphead might be too hard.  Both the idea of Cuphead's intense difficulty and that the supposed difficulty should have been a media topic are preposterous.  They harken back to the conversation around Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, where sloppy reporting and small glitches coalesced into a groupthink hysteria over whether your save game could be permanently deleted or not.Cuphead is perhaps the most fairly balanced, if still challenging, run and gun platformers I've played in years.  I noticed a lack of momentum in Cuphead's movements as the tightly responsive controls reacted no matter if Cuphead was engaged in some aerial blasting or dashing ahead to avoid an attack.  The lack of momentum suits the aesthetics, as early cel animation didn't have the resources to account for subtle shifts in their figures behavior and led to a sort of rubbery dance of objects mostly in static formation.

This also meant that when I failed, it's because I wasn't paying enough attention to the differing patterns of each enemy.  The hand-drawn aesthetic isn't just a throwback for throwback's sake, and the design of each enemy includes a hint of how they can be defeated or their attacks avoided.  My favorite example comes late when you're fighting a demonic horse on a race track.  Go too low, and you may hit some of the smaller horses that are having their own race.  But on occasion, I'd be hit by something and I wasn't sure why.  Sure enough, I wasn't paying close attention to the smaller race track horses, as some of them carried ghosts that - when Cuphead flies over them - fly up as an obstacle that can damage Cuphead.  It's a super blending of cartoon logic (ghosts can fly) and Cuphead's approach to environmental threats (attentive players will catch it without the cartoon logic.)It's not all dancing roses and psychedelic carrots.  The responsive controls aren't applied as well when it comes to Cuphead's parrying mechanic.  When you jump and press the button again, a sort of shield pops up that can absorb pink attacks.  On its own it's a great risk/reward system, but in practice the shield is a tiny hand rotating around Cuphead quickly.  You have to anticipate the timing of the parry with the motion of the projectile, which is at-odds with the rest of the tight controls.  Even though I got skilled with it at the end, there were still moments where a shift to the left when the projectile is coming from the right changed the position of the hand and I got hit.  Less concerning are the flying sections, which are super charming in a Galaga sense, but render most of Cuphead's arsenal useless.

Minor gripes aside, Cuphead is a near flawless fusion of fully realized aesthetic blended with cartoon logic and tight controls for a fun as hell run and gun.  Sometimes passion projects are misguided or grow bloated as other producers come in to have their say.  But by keeping it simple and consistent with that old school cartoon logic, Studio MDHR have made a unique specimen of run and gun I'll be replaying for years to come.

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Posted by Andrew

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