The common argument is gameplay is more important than graphics, and while that may be true to an extent, the same proponents of the argument can’t deny this: the perfect art style is enough to sell a game to players and then draw them into the world. For instance, because its competition on Microsoft’s stage was mostly a creepy sludge of conformity consisting of shooters, Cuphead, with its 30s cartoon style, captivated members of the audience in a way that few indie games are capable of. And while the design of Cuphead doesn’t sacrifice its mechanics in favor of the animation, the overall design of the game leaves little to be desired.
Much like how Obsidian created South Park: The Stick of Truth to seamlessly blend in with the show on which it’s based, Cuphead looks like an interactive version of a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Enemies are simultaneously menacing and adorable, and most of the preview brought the audience’s attention towards them. However, Cuphead captures the subtle nuances of 30s animation, and this is what truly sells the presentation. White, cloud-like smoke appears whenever the giant potato boss blows debris towards the protagonist; a giant carrot’s eyes flashes with zebra striped eyes consisting of purple and brown before it shoots its lasers at you; and all throughout, the picture has the slightly grainy quality of an old picture theater or television.
The developers of Cuphead are so proud of the meticulous details of their wonderful characters that they decided to focus on them–i.e., the bosses. This is not a standard platformer, complete with worlds and levels, as one would expect. Instead, it is essentially a boss rush mode without a timer, and thankfully, the demo provided a surprising amount of bosses for the demo–enough for players to get a feel for the zany antics of the animation. The game is surprisingly difficult, and most participants couldn’t kill the bosses, even when working with a partner; however, this setup allowed players to simply survey the landscape.
Luckily, Cuphead and Mughead have unlimited ammo, and they’re not afraid to use it. Although the animation is the focal point of the game, the controls are fluid and could not be used as a scapegoat for a player’s poor performance. Cuphead and Mughead come equipped with a standard pistol, which allows players a clear shot, and a spread shot, which allows them to shoot multiple bullets traveling in scattered vectors–both of these weapons are cutely presented as a child would imitate a gun with his or her hand. Characters can also jump high enough to dodge most attacks and not too floaty, and thankfully so, as the boss’ attack patterns are varied and tricky to learn. The combined gameplay mechanics should resonate familiar with run n’ gun games similar to Contra.
However, although the boss’ have their bag of tricks, their health bar is insanely high, which resulted in fights dragging on. The developers doubled the health bar of the bosses in co-op mode, which was how most journalists played in order to keep the line at E3 flowing. This means that if your partner loses all of his or her health early, then you’re stuck chipping away at a boss who just won’t die already.
If StudioMDHR had created levels similar to Contra and Gunstar Heroes and dwarfed the boss’ health bar, then they would have the next hit run n’ gun game. However, it’s not a run n’ gun shooter in the traditional sense, and it feels like a cartoon in production whose animations still need cutting.
Cuphead is slated for a 2016 release for PC and Xbox One