In the 1930s, employees at Universal Studio Cartoons devised a game to interrupt the bow-backed routine of inking cels and preparing animation frames. The men would work rubber bands and clumps of spit-mulched paper into spongy balls, hide them on their laps and, at an opportune moment, hurl the missile at the back of an unsuspecting colleague’s head. A direct hit would be marked with a “bullseye!” that victory cry familiar to boisterous classrooms and offices everywhere, before everyone returned to their busywork, newly invigorated by the emotions of exhilaration, anguish and playful resentment now settling in the room.
Shortly after he joined the company, Tex Avery, the Texan animator who would develop and popularise cartoon characters such as Daffy Duck, Droopy, Porky Pig and Chilly Willy, was busily working when he heard a co-worker shout a warning. Avery spun in his chair just in time to catch one of the projectiles in his left eye. This missile, however, was different: it had been weaponised with a thumbtack. Avery was instantly blinded in one eye. Robbed of depth perception, some speculate that the injury resulted in the unique, chaotic style of Avery’s subsequent, era-defining cartoon work.
50 years later, the emerging video game medium’s art style was similarly funnelled and defined, not by the limitations of physical injury, but by the limitations of technological crudity. The chunky pixels, the three-head-tall characters, the graph-paper mazes, the backgrounds that scrolled like a slow-motion deck shuffle: video game development’s artistic minds were forced to work in tight corridors of possibility. With time the boundaries scraped outwards, and games were no longer forced to share a family likeness. As style diversified, nostalgia for the old ways of working and seeing emerged and today the vintage aesthetic of the medium’s earliest days is as commonplace as any other.
Cuphead is a mash-up of these two stories, two rich traditions that have never before been blended with such gusto. It draws together the continents of 1930s animation, where every inanimate object, insect and mammal had wide eyes and moved with a bobbing, metronomic rhythm, and that of early 2D video games, with their simple rules and exacting, often cruel, demands.
The novelty of the effect is astounding and long-lasting. This is not the first playable cartoon, but it is the first whose spell is weaved from and held by impeccably observed period detail – the washed-out tones, the brittle dialogue, the weirdly familiar characters, the fidgety appearance of hair and dust particles on the screen, as if the game was being luxuriously reeled off film and projected onto your widescreen TV via a hot lamp.
The titular character, a china cup boy in short shorts who shoots pellets by clicking his fingers with beatnik cool, is as recognisable as any Avery creation. So too is the pig that sells you upgrades, the ghost who counts your deaths or the devil against whom you ultimately fight, having beaten and collected the souls of his various eccentric minions.
Artistic coherence extends far beyond the drawing board. See how every anthropomorphic object, from the sand timer used in loading screens to the devilish gobstoppers and slices of cheery toast you battle dips on its knees in time with the musical rhythm. And what rhythms they are: the rolling timpani, the chirruping flutes, the fluttering oboes, those startling stabs of trumpet, each instrument giving shape to thick dark rumbas, Dixieland fights of jazz, and the occasional piece of Tinseltown schmaltz. As a period piece of animation and music, Cuphead is peerless and immaculate.
The structure, too, is familiar. Here, brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, who started the project as a hobby before going all-in on the indie dream, re-mortgaged homes and all take their cues from Dark Souls (Cuphead even borrows Hidetaka Miyazaki’s screen-squishing catchphrase “You Died!” for its game-over text). Cuphead must explore three islands in sequence, collecting, one by one, the souls of his marks in order to clear the path to the next. These marquee fights are extravagantly designed, with screen-filling characters that move through various phases of attack as you pepper them with your chosen ammunition. The designs are ingenious. See the red-faced genie, with his weaponised turban who, in his final phase, whips out a dangling puppet to do his fighting. Or the fat-faced jester who inflates balloon-dogs that attack you while, every now and again, sending over a toothy rollercoaster.
Boss battles are interspersed with a few run-and-gun platform levels, while in another repeated vignette, you must protect a genie from the lunging attacks of ghosts by ‘parrying’ their attacks with a second stab of the jump button. Regardless of the stage type, the difficulty is wincingly high throughout. By default, it’s three strikes and out for Cuphead (although you can add a health point by buying the appropriate upgrade). Even with seeker projectiles and other improvements installed, it will take even an accomplished player many attempts to learn and master the patterns of a single boss. Few will see it through.
In part the difficulty is a function of a lack of clear on-screen information. Cuphead is a game, you sense, in which the artist won more arguments than the game designer. Every decision has been made in service to the aesthetic. Crucial information such as your lives, or how many screen-filling specials you have in stock is relegated to the bottom left of the screen, forcing your eyes to make perilous diversions. Enemies have nothing so vulgar as a health bar, but neither do they give any visual indication of how close they are to expiring, by turning redder, for example. This ensures that the game’s pristine presentation is never compromised or cluttered. It also ensures that what is already a highly punitive game is made all the meaner.
It is, however, mostly fair. This is not a Japanese bullet hell kind of shooter, where enemy bullets create a non-negotiable maze. There are, at any given moment, usually only one or two active threats on screen at a time. Difficulty derives from the combination of these threats (e.g. a sunflower’s finger-like roots that jab up through the soil at the exact moment an airborne venus fly-trap descends from the sky). Managing space in between these constantly moving and mixing threats demands not only great skill but also some luck; it’s possible to become boxed into unwinnable situations.
As a result, Cuphead is as frustrating as it is exhilarating. There are Dark Souls-esque moments of extreme elation. But Miyazaki’s series balances its brutality with moments of serenity and downtime, and pushes players forward with an alluring sense of constant acquisition (of both fine-motor skills in the hands, and ever-stronger weapons in the inventory). These traits are missing from Cuphead, for which the only route to progress is Karate Kid montage-style training and perseverance. The result is a curious combination: a wondrous, everyman style with a dizzying, elitist substance.