|Release||September 29, 2017|
|Genre(s)||Run and gun|
Cuphead (subtitled "Don't Deal with the Devil") is a run and gun indie video game developed and published by StudioMDHR. First announced in 2014, the game was released for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One in September 2017.
Cuphead was inspired by the rubber hose style of animation used in cartoons of the 1930s, such as the work of studios Fleischer and Walt Disney Animation, seeking to emulate their subversive and surrealist qualities. The game features one or two players taking control of animated characters Cuphead and his brother Mugman to fight through several levels that culminate in boss fights as to repay their debt to the devil.
Cuphead was praised for its art style and noted for its challenging difficulty, it was both a critical and commercial success, selling over three million copies by August 2018. The game won several year-end awards for its art, animation, and music.
Cuphead's gameplay is based around continuous boss fights, with interspersed run and gun levels. The game also includes role-playing elements, and a branching level sequence. Cuphead has infinite lives, maintaining all equipment between deaths. The player can purchase weapons and "Charms" (special abilities) from the shop using coins collected from the run-and-gun levels. Player characters feature a parry attack that can be used on certain objects marked in pink, to various effects; the most important of them being increasing a "super meter" that enables more powerful attacks.
After completing a level, the player will be ranked with a grade based on their performance, through factors such as the time taken to defeat a boss, damage taken/avoided, and number of parried attacks. The levels are accessible through a top-down perspective overworld with its own secret areas. The game also has a two-player local cooperative mode that allows another player to play as Mugman.
On the fictional Inkwell Isles, Cuphead and his brother Mugman are two fun-loving kids who live under the watchful eye of Elder Kettle. Against the elder's warnings, the brothers enter the Devil's Casino and begin playing craps. When they go on a winning streak, the Devil himself offers to raise the stakes. If Cuphead and Mugman can win one more roll, they will receive all the money in the casino; if not, the Devil will take their souls. Cuphead loses by rolling snake eyes, and he and Mugman beg for mercy. The Devil makes a deal with them: collect the "soul contracts" that signify his ownership of the souls of his runaway debtors by midnight the next day, and he might let them keep theirs. They visit Elder Kettle, who gives them a potion that allows them to fire blasts from their fingers to aid in their quest, but also warns them the debtors may change themselves to different things in attempt to stop them.
The brothers travel around the Inkwell Isles, fighting the residents who have lost their souls to the Devil in order to obtain their contracts. On entering the second island, the Elder Kettle informs them about "doing the right thing" when they come up against the Devil again. Once they have the contracts, they return to the Devil's Casino, but its manager King Dice blocks their way. He has lost a bet with the Devil, presumably over whether Cuphead and Mugman would be able to complete their task, and forces them to fight his own henchmen before confronting them directly. After the brothers defeat King Dice, the Devil demands that they hand over the contracts in exchange for "joining his team". What happens next depends on the choice of the player. If the player decides to do so, the Devil turns Cuphead and Mugman into his demonic lackeys and the game ends. If the player declines, the Devil becomes furious at the brothers' refusal to honor their deal and fights them himself. Cuphead and Mugman triumph over him, burn the contracts, and race home. Learning that they no longer have anything to fear from the Devil, the former debtors honor the brothers for their heroic actions.
Cuphead was the first game by StudioMDHR, a Canadian indie game development studio consisting of brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer. Additional animation work was contributed by Jake Clark, with programming lead by Eric Billingsley. Its development began in 2010 using the Unity game engine, and it was developed from the brother's homes in Oakville, Ontario and Regina, Saskatchewan, respectively. The game was inspired by cartoons produced by the Fleischer and Walt Disney animation studios, along with cartoonists Ub Iwerks, Grim Natwick, and Willard Bowsky. Chad Moldenhauer called Fleischer Studios "the magnetic north of his art style", who particularly sought to mimic their "subversive and surrealist" elements.
The Moldenhauers watched 1930s-era cartoons in their youth, which Chad Moldenhauer describes as happenstance, based on gifts and VHS compilations. Among other siblings in their Regina, Saskatchewan childhood home, the two shared aesthetic taste and interest in gameplay. They attempted a game in the style of Cuphead in 2000, but lacked the tools to continue. The brothers decided to try again following the success of the indie game Super Meat Boy, which released in 2010. The character that became Cuphead descended from a 1936 Japanese propaganda animated film where a man with a teacup for a head morphs into a tank. The Moldenhauers emulated the animation because they found it strange, and "right away it stuck". Before settling on him as the main character, the brothers had created around 150 different character designs, including a kappa in a tophat and characters with a plate or fork for a head.
The animation techniques behind Cuphead are similar to that of the 1930s cartoons. Chad Moldenhauer, who had previously worked in graphic design, would hand-draw the animations and paint the backgrounds using watercolors, colorizing them in Photoshop. The gameplay runs at a framerate of 60, while the animation runs at 24, which is a film standard. Chad Moldenhauer also saw his process with its human imperfections as a reaction to the perfectionism of pixel art.[vague] Jared Moldenhauer worked on other aspects of the game, though they would discuss gameplay design together. Their studio hired a Romanian developer, a Brooklyn animator, and an Ontario jazz musician for the project. They sought to keep the recording processes of the time period as if the team were developing in that era.
The Moldenhauers described Cuphead as having a difficult, "retro game" core for its emphasis on gameplay over plot. Kill Screen described the developers as "obsessed" with run and gun fundamentals of "animations and exploits and hitboxes". Over the development process, they have made multiple revisions to many gameplay elements, including how gameplay actions feel at the edges of platforms and how long players are disabled after receiving damage. They planned multiple difficulty levels, and chose to abandon a typical damsel in distress plot for one where Cuphead perpetually creates trouble for himself. The developers planned to surpass the Guinness World Record for number of boss battles in a run and gun game by having over 30 to the record's 25. The game's implementation and visual design, combined with the limited number of people available to work on the game, proved to be StudioMDHR's biggest challenge, so the Moldenhauers had to go the extra mile to bring the game to life, even remortgaging their house in order to finance the project.
Promotion and release
Though the game was shown during the Xbox press event of Electronic Entertainment Expo 2014 to audience approval, Cuphead was not available to play and was estimated to be 40 percent complete. Cuphead was expected to be extended via expansion packs with 10 to 15 bosses each, similar to how Sonic & Knuckles added atop the Sonic series formula. Cuphead was released on September 29, 2017 for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One, with potential later releases for macOS and Linux. Cuphead is an Xbox console exclusive, and supports Xbox Play Anywhere. King Features Syndicate has the licensing rights to Cuphead merchandise and assorted paraphernalia. Downloadable content for the game, titled The Delicious Last Course and featuring a new playable character, levels, and bosses, was revealed at E3 2018 for release in 2019.
Ben Kuchera of Polygon wrote that Cuphead was one of the five most interesting reveals at Microsoft's E3 2014 press conference, even though he knew little about the game apart from its aesthetic. He said it "stood out immediately" and that everyone in the website's press room viscerally reacted to the trailer. Cuphead won the IGN Best Xbox One game at E3 award in 2015, and also won the award for "Best Indie Game" at the Gamescom 2015 Awards. It was also nominated as "Best Independent Game" at the E3 2016 Game Critics Awards.
Cuphead received "generally favorable" reviews, according to review aggregator Metacritic. The game has also been noted for its difficulty by several media outlets. Destructoid's Brett Makedonski welcomed the high difficulty, which he noted as "tough but fair". Based on "exhaustive" pattern recognition, he said it ultimately relied on muscle memory, rather than reaction. He thought structuring the game around boss battles was well executed, and that each boss encounter held "different and special and memorable" traits. Praising the 1930s aesthetics as cohesive, Makedonski found the jazz-based soundtrack to be "similarly fabulous". Despite dying 188 times in his playthrough, Ray Carsillo at EGMNow felt no frustration from the difficulty, but rather motivation to "dig my heels in deeper". Carsillo lauded the "gorgeous" hand-drawn visuals, asserting that the only thing surpassing the artwork was the gameplay, which he said went "beyond pattern recognition". Peter Brown of GameSpot opined that combatting enemies provided a considerably rewarding experience. He described the cartoon aesthetic as charming, adding that it infused "color and expression" to the game. Further, he saw Cuphead as a "true recreation" of hand-drawn cel animation. Brown also relished how quick loading times proved beneficial to trial and error tactics.
Lucas Sullivan at GamesRadar+ wrote that Cuphead "stands tall among the best 2D shooters of all time", and agreed the gameplay challenges demanded patient pattern recognition to be accomplished, from which he said players would be rewarded "tenfold". Sullivan called the animation adorable, noting the wealth of detail present in the watercolor backdrops, and said it worked well with the gameplay. Like Carsillo, Sullivan claimed never to be frustrated with the difficulty. Giant Bomb's Ben Pack remarked that playing the game yielded one of his most enjoyable experiences with video games, citing the combination of "brutal" platforming and an "exceptionally well realized" art style. Writing for IGN, Joe Skrebels declared every scene a "masterwork" and commended the sound work, calling it an "ideal match" to the aesthetics. Platforming battles were seen as the most imaginative part of the game, and having no health bars for enemies its "smartest" and "most devilish" addition. Like Brown and Sullivan, Skrebels found the battles to be rewarding as well as "one of Cuphead's greatest strengths". Chris Schilling of PC Gamer expressed approval of the controls, saying that their "reliable jump and dash" led to more "nimble and responsive" handling. Disagreeing with Makedonski, Schilling explained that certain random elements meant "you can't simply learn patterns by rote and rely entirely on muscle memory". Chris Plante at Polygon commented that, at its best, the game serves to educate the player in strategy through trial and error. He enjoyed the parrying system more so than the various attacks, as it proved to be a "crucial" and "relatively forgiving" mechanic. Colm Ahern of VideoGamer.com wrote in his verdict, "Cuphead will best most games in how it looks and sounds, and defeating that boss that you once deemed unbeatable is glorious".
Conversely, Makedonski said the "eight-direction firing radius" was his least favorite system in the game, calling it "clunky and awkward". Even though Brown saw "the fear of the unexpected" as part of what made Cuphead thrilling, he disparaged the game's failure to identify progress and capability. Skrebels thought that the "run 'n' gun, left-to-right platforming" lacked inventiveness, while also subjecting the "parry system" and control scheme to criticism. Plante complained that the final bosses made Cuphead's greatest features less effective, and mentioned that the difficulty "eventually goes too far". Ahern agreed with Plante in his reproval of the final bosses, also saying that the challenge was "a step too far".
Unwinnable writer Yussef Cole wrote an essay titled "Cuphead and the Racist Spectre of Fleischer Animation", in which he thought that by using the rubber hose animation style, Studio MDHR also brought up the "bigotry and prejudice" which had a strong influence on early animation, thinking that Studio MDHR ignored the context and history of the aesthetic it "so faithfully" replicated. Cole identifies that much of the imagery that Studio MDHR took from the Fleischer style effectively carried the racial stereotypes of the 1930s Harlem and minstrel shows that the animation style was built on. Chad and Jared Moldenhauer had stated prior to release that they wanted to make an animation style that harkened back to 1930s cartoons without getting ties to racism or minstrel shows in them. Maja Moldenhauer further stated that all they wanted from the Fleischers was the animation style and visuals, and that anything else happening "in that era we’re not versed in it". In response to Cole's essay, Brandon Orselli of Niche Gamer defended the game as a tribute to that art style, writing that it was not meant to deliver narratives, or "go anywhere beyond where it needs to go in terms of its basic and child-like storytelling".
Awards and accolades
Entertainment Weekly placed Cuphead fifth on the list of its "Best Games of 2017", while GamesRadar ranked it ninth on their list of the 25 Best Games of 2017", and Polygon ranked it 14th on their list of the "50 best games of 2017". In Game Informer's Reader's Choice Best of 2017 Awards, the game won the "Best Microsoft Game" and "Best Co-op Multiplayer" categories, while it came in third place for "Best Action Game". The website also gave it the awards for "Best Microsoft Exclusive" in their "Best of 2017 Awards", and for "Best Bosses" in their 2017 Action Game of the Year Awards. EGMNow ranked the game at #2 on their list of the 25 best games of 2017, while Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation ranked it third on his list of the Best Games of 2017. The Verge named it one of their 15 best video games of 2017.
Cuphead was nominated for "Breakout Game of the Year" in PC Gamer's 2017 Game of the Year Awards, and won the award for "Best Xbox One Game" in Destructoid's Game of the Year Awards 2017. It also won the award for "Best Xbox One Game" and "Best Art Direction" in IGN's Best of 2017 Awards, whereas its other nominations were for "Game of the Year", "Best PC Game", "Best Platformer", "Best Original Music", and "Best Multiplayer". The game also won the award for "Best Looking Game" and "Best Style", in addition to being runner-up for "Best Shopkeeper" for the character Porkrind, "Best Music", "Best Debut", and "Game of the Year" at Giant Bomb's Game of the Year 2017 Awards.
|2017||Golden Joystick Awards||Best Visual Design||Won|||
|Best Xbox Game of the Year||Won|
|The Game Awards 2017||Best Art Direction||Won|||
|Best Independent Game||Won|
|Best Debut Indie Game||Won|
|Best Action Game||Nominated|
|2018||New York Game Awards 2018||Off-Broadway Award for Best Indie Game||Won|||
|Statue of Liberty Award for Best World||Nominated|
|45th Annie Awards||Outstanding Achievement for Character Animation in a Video Game (Hanna Abi-Hanna)||Won|||
|Outstanding Achievement for Character Animation in a Video Game (Tina Nawrocki)||Nominated|
|D.I.C.E. Awards||Game of the Year||Nominated|||
|Outstanding Achievement in Animation||Won|
|Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction||Won|
|Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition||Won|
|Action Game of the Year||Nominated|
|NAVGTR Awards||Animation, Artistic||Won|||
|Art Direction, Period Influence||Won|
|Game, Original Family||Won|
|Original Light Mix Score, New IP||Won|
|SXSW Gaming Awards||Excellence in Musical Score||Nominated|||
|Excellence in Visual Achievement||Nominated|
|Excellence in Animation||Won|
|Excellence in Art||Won|
|Most Promising New Intellectual Property||Nominated|
|Excellence in Design||Nominated|
|Independent Games Festival Awards||Excellence in Visual Art||Nominated|||
|Excellence in Audio||Nominated|
|Game Developers Choice Awards||Best Audio||Nominated|||
|Best Debut (Studio MDHR)||Won|
|Best Visual Art||Won|
|16th Annual Game Audio Network Guild Awards||Audio of the Year||Won|||
|Best Original Instrumental ("Sugarland Shimmy")||Nominated|
|Best Original Song ("Die House")||Nominated|
|Breakout Talent of the Year (Kristofer Maddigan)||Won|
|14th British Academy Games Awards||Artistic Achievement||Nominated|||
|2018 Webby Awards||Action||Nominated|||
|Best Art Direction||Won|
|Best Visual Design (People's Voice)||Won|
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