Cuphead Review: Fun by way of self loathing

Twas the night before Christmas 1984, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a little Bubbaloola snoring contentedly and sure as shit not having visions of sugar plums dancing through his head.  Ohhhh no, it was of a Spectrum 48k that I was dreaming of that I knew my folks had bought me.

For the young whippersnappers in the audience, a Spectrum 48k was one of the first ever personal computers available to the wider market in the UK.  I had a very forward thinking Assistant Headmaster at my primary school who had forked out for one (plus 2 of the earlier iteration, the ZX81) and having lost quite some time to The Hobbit game whilst at school I begged my folks to get me one.

That Christmas morning was glorious.  I unwrapped the new computer and hooked it up to the TV.  Then hooked it up to the tape player (yes again, for the young whippersnappers a tape player was……ahhh look it up yourselves!) in order to load the game cassette tapes at the correct volume!  And woe betide you if you had the wrong volume setting as after the 30 minutes trying to load the game it would bomb out, you rewound the tape and tried again with a different volume (whilst being deafened by the loading noise – think the old 56k modem noise but louder).

This meant whatever game you finally loaded successfully, you made sure you played it.  The snag was that most of the games out at the time were hard…..bastard hard……”burn with fury to the point of self-immolation” hard!  They were a marathon in patience and perseverance.  If you got your ass handed to you in Jetpac then you had to weigh up carrying on or take the risk that you might not have enough time to load up and play Elite before having to switch it off so Nan could watch the Queen’s Speech.

Brief side note: if developers/publishers think pirates are a problem today, woooo boy that’s nothing on the amount of bootleg tapes that were around in the 80’s.

Anyway, this little amuse-bouche from my past leads neatly into one of the best new games to arrive and scratching a particular retro itch.

Cuphead comes from StudioMDHR and in particular the Moldenhauer brothers.  Whereas most platform style games have the hero running levels a la Mario to then be finally faced with an end of level boss, Cuphead skips straight to the Boss battles for every level.  As Cuphead (or his brother Mugman in the 2 player version) you move around a map and collect souls for the Devil to save your own soul.  There is a very light RPG element to it where you can buy power ups to use and you progress from one Boss level to the next.

And as you can already imagine, a game almost exclusively made up of Boss battles means that each level is comfortably within the ‘bastard-hard’ category of difficulty.  There has been some criticism that the game is too difficult which is to whistle straight past the whole point of the game.  This is not about handholding or instant gratification.  It’s about running that marathon in patience and perseverance.

I’ve bought it, I’ve played it, I’ve screamed at it, I’ve thrown my controller down and stomped off.  But more importantly, I’ve returned to it a number of times.  Partially because the game mechanics themselves are polished and you get that pang of addiction of wanting to succeed, but mainly because of the whole aesthetic of the theme.

It very successfully recreates the look and feeling of the old Fleischer Studio cartoons from the 1920’s and 30’s such as Betty Boop as well as the likes of Felix the Cat, early Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies and even the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.  And wow does that ring every possible bell for me.  And no not because I was around when they were new thank you very much!

For such a small studio to produce a game with such a perfectly realised art and sound design, great gameplay and solidity at launch is incredible.  And it certainly is astounding value for money at only £15!  Having sold over 1 million copies in the first two weeks, StudioMDHR should hopefully be around to develop their next game which I will certainly keeping be an eye on when announced.

Cuphead is available on Steam for PC and XBox One.

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