Thursday, October 19, 2017

Victory Vindication!: Studio MDHR’s Cuphead

Cuphead was released by Studio MDHR on September 29.

I had been hotly anticipating the release of Cuphead, the debut game from independent Canadian developer duo Studio MDHR, since its very first reveal trailers. I mean, how could you not? At a glance, it’s abundantly clear that the game offers something that has literally never been seen before in gaming: a vibrant visual style modeled after the Disney and Fleischer cartoons from the 1920s and 30s. Cuphead’s animation – and its general sense of polish and pizzazz – is so jaw-dropping that it almost didn’t matter what the game actually was. I didn’t care if the thing was going to be any good or not; I just wanted to bask in its aesthetic.

I was delighted to discover when it finally released last month that, in spite of my low expectations, there is indeed more to Cuphead than meets the eye, and that its pleasures in terms of gameplay precision, retro mechanics, and difficulty are a match for its visual (and sonic) delights. Much ballyhoo is being made about its level of challenge, and whether or not it may be prohibitive to those who just want to enjoy its unique style, but I think the way Cuphead handles its difficulty is exemplary. It’s the same type of punishing, balanced, satisfying design that I find so compelling in some other very different games that are also infamous for their difficulty.

Everything old is new again, and Cuphead’s distinctive “Steamboat Willie” look (and Big Band jazz soundtrack) is no exception. Its aesthetic design is a delightful trip through the surreal, exaggerated, and slightly creepy animation style of the early 20th century (which skillfully and mercifully leaves out the ugly, racially charged cartoon content of that era). Its plethora of characters, enemies, and backdrops are bursting with personality, and its overworld resembles an old-timey Disney World park map that you can freely explore. But behind the artifice, Cuphead is a 2D shooter that’s reminiscent of the arcade classics of yore, whose insane difficulty was engineered deliberately to encourage players to keep feeding quarters into their cabinets. Cuphead is similarly interested in keeping you glued to the game, but not for such mercenary reasons. Its influences include everything from traditional Japanese shoot-‘em-ups (“shmups”) like R-Type, Gradius, and Ikaruga (represented in Cuphead by the flying segments where you control an adorable machine gun-toting plane), to sidescrolling run n’ gun action titles like Contra, Metal Slug, and Gunstar Heroes (literally called “Run N’ Gun” levels on Cuphead’s maps). The titular hero (and his pal Mugman, if you play cooperatively with a friend) run and hop and shoot their way through three islands comprised almost entirely of boss encounters, with the occasional sidescrolling “reach the end” level thrown in. This is where Cuphead feels the most unique, and where its challenge really shines.

The narrative premise is that Cuphead and Mugman lose a game of dice to the Devil himself, who offers them a chance at redemption if they can defeat all his other debtors in battle, and stop those rascals from reneging on their deal to deliver their souls to him. Each of these debtors is represented by a boss fight with the offending scallywag – from a pair of boxing frog brothers to an evil clown to a candy queen, and many more – who, apart from their unique appearances and personalities, offer unique combat challenges. Each bout contains several phases, and the goal is to deal enough damage to the boss to progress to the next phase, while avoiding their attacks, until they’re knocked out. It’s no surprise that many gamers are put off by what appears to be prohibitively difficult combat, even at the game’s earliest stages. These guys throw everything and the kitchen sink at you, offering absolutely no quarter, and since you can only survive three hits before dying and starting over, you’re going to be dying a lot.

But I believe this is precisely where Cuphead’s design is so thoughtful. There’s a seemingly small UI element tucked into every death screen, which resembles a little progress bar with a flag at the end, showing you exactly how close you came to beating the boss before you were flattened. This is core to what kept me coming back, after hundreds and hundreds of failed attempts – I was so damn close. Patience, practice, and repetition are key to success in Cuphead, and I settled into a deeply satisfying rhythm with the game of studying each phase of every boss, coming to know exactly what they were going to throw at me, and learning how to avoid it. I quickly became familiar with the “safe spots” to be on the screen, which objects to dodge and which to shoot, which weapons to use at which parts, and so on. That little progress bar that popped up every time I died was like a rallying cry egging me on, like “C’mon, you can do it! You were so close! Just give it one more shot!” And, inevitably, the game was right: through calm composure and perseverance, I did it. I beat ‘em all. And boy, did it ever feel great.

It doesn’t hurt that I was also galvanized to keep pushing through the game’s tougher bosses just so I could see what else it had in store. It’s hard to be mad that a game is kicking your ass when every new boss character and environment is a treat just to look at. The game’s fantastic soundtrack kept me in it too, urging me forward so I could hear more of its jazzy, brassy (Toronto-based!) brilliance. Cuphead’s clearly not for everyone, since it is indeed a challenging game that asks for more focus and patience than most gamers are willing to commit. But – as evidenced by its quick and huge success, having sold over a million copies already – it’s definitely a game that everyone can enjoy, and I suspect many so-called “casual” gamers will find themselves inexorably sucked into its unique take on the punishing titles (and distinctive aesthetic) of yesteryear, just as I was.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

No comments:

Post a Comment