Cuphead: E3’s Most Beautiful Game

A run-and-gunner with stunning hand-drawn animation inspired by Max Fleischer, Cuphead is arguably E3's most beautiful game, Ryan writes...

As the dust settles on the frankly manic flow of reveals and announcements from E3’s annual circus, it becomes a little easier to process exactly what’s emerged. The expo saw familiar names bubble up from the past: Fallout 4, Doom, The Last Guardian, even Shenmue III, which few could have seen coming – often to a joyful response.

E3 also saw EA DICE finally give us a look at this autumn’s Star Wars: Battlefront, Nintendo show off Super Mario Maker and Star Fox Zero, while From Software announced Dark Souls III. But as is so often the case at gaming’s largest expo, the most intriguing titles aren’t necessarily the highest-profile. Keita Takahashi’s Wattam looks like a delightfully odd gaming sandpit, while Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, the latest game from the creators of Dear Esther, has the creepy and quintessentially British atmosphere of a John Wyndham novel.

For my money, though, the single most beautiful, exciting game to hail from E3’s echoing halls is Cuphead. At it’s core, Cuphead’s a run-and-gunner along the lines of such classics as Contra or Metal Slug, but distilled down to a series of outlandish boss fights. Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes has often been cited as a reference point, but from an outside perspective, I’d say it has even more in common with another Sega Mega Drive classic from Treasure – Alien Soldier, which was itself comprised almost entirely of increasingly chaotic boss battles.

In fact, Alien Soldier has previously graced the pages of the Guinness Book of Records thanks to the number of its bosses – a figure that Cupheads creators plan to beat. There’s far more, however, to Cuphead than those comparisons with Treasure’s output might suggest. 

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This is the labor of love from two Canadian brothers, Chad and Jared Moldenhaur. Since 2010, they’ve been crafting a game that pays homage to American animation of the 1930s – specifically, the immediately recognisable work of Max Fleischer. Fleischer was an early pioneer of hand-drawn animation, creating with his brother Dave and a small team of artists such characters as Betty Boop and Koko the Clown. His work had an unfettered, anarchic feel, where ordinary objects come to life and all of reality seems to be in a violent, wobbling state of flux. 

That same febrile sensibility spreads through every frame of Cuphead, it seems – it’s a game where you’re attacked by a gigantic, grinning flower one minute and a Bluto-like villain riding a sailing boat the next (one of the characters Max Fleischer brought to the screen in his heyday was, of course, Popeye).

What’s most remarkable about Cuphead is that its creators haven’t taken any shortcuts in creating their animated world. If the delicate backgrounds look like watercolours, that’s because they are. Each character and frame has been painstakingly drawn by hand almost entirely digital techniques – albeit with a bit of Photoshop to add colour at the end. The result is a game that doesn’t look quite like anything we’ve seen before.

Sure, we’ve had games with beautiful animation in them – see WayForward’s hugely under-played A Boy And His Blob or Vanillaware’s sumptuous Muramasa: The Demon Blade, both for Wii – but none has quite managed to evoke an era or style of animation quite so comprehensively as Cuphead.

The Moldenhaur brothers have a real geek’s eye for animated history, too. As a 2014 article over at Kill Screen reveals, the title character was inspired by a Japanese propaganda film from the mid-1930s. 

Far from mere retro window dressing, Cupheads hand-drawn animation feeds into its bullet-drenched gameplay. Like a Fleischer cartoon, the game presents a world where seemingly anything can happen – a pair of giant frogs wearing boxing gloves alternately lob projectiles at you and roll across the screen. A colossal potato emerges from the ground and spits what appear to balls of earth at you. Then a carrot shows up and tries to kill you with its deadly third eye…

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This is just a small example of the madness Cuphead has waiting for us. Some stages even take to the skies for a bout of Gradius-like old-school shooting. To add to the 30 bosses available at launch, there’s also some additional packs which will each add 10 or 15 more weird villains to fight.

To even things up a little bit, a second player can join in to lend a hand, while mastering the art of deflecting bullets by double jumping just at the right second will fill a meter which, once topped up, will unlock a powerful counter-attack. Nevertheless, Cuphead looks like a brutal, unforgiving game of the old-school variety – The Behemoth’s rock-hard run-and-gunner Alien Hominid might be a fair comparison, or maybe Super Meat Boy‘s dizzying array of fast and repeated deaths. 

Unforgiving though it looks from the plethora of gameplay videos that have proliferated on YouTube since it appeared on E3’s floor, Cuphead looks like the kind of game that constantly rewards the player’s effort through the sheer quality of its design. With every sequence invested in extraordinary detail and care – check out the incidental characters in the background of the giant frogs battle – this looks like the kind of game that will surprise and delight from beginning to end.

If you’re still not convinced, just look at the game in action. It really is a thing of beauty.

Cuphead is out in 2016 for Xbox One and PC.