Cuphead Preview

His best friend is Mugman.

It was clear why Cuphead was being projected at Microsoft's San Francisco loft at its recent ID@XBOX event for independent games on the platform. No other game looks like it in any way. Designed after Fleischer Bros. cartoons of the 1920s and '30s like Betty Boop and PopeyeCuphead looks exactly like a cartoon from another century, crossed with a NES-era side-scrolling shooter.

I asked Chad Modlenhauer, half of the sibling developer team with his brother Jared Moldeheur of StudioMDHR, what the inspiration was for Cuphead, and he simply said, "We really love Contra." As the titular Cuphead, you play a diminutive noodly-armed hero with a smirky grin who shoots projectiles from his finger in diagonal directions. Cuphead is joined in multiplayer by Mugman, who has the same abilities but a different shape to his straw. The game starts with ultra-clean 2D-animated character and background art before a series of shaders is applied to add film grain and lower contrast. 

How the game will be structured wasn't discussed, but what was available during the game's demo was a series of boss fights with different challenges and varying degrees of difficulty. The brothers Moldenhauer advised new players to try "The Vegetables," a boss fight with a giant carrot who spits bowling balls.
 
Cuphead has a special attack meter. While the beverage container headed hero can do a hadouken-like flame blast at any time, the real benefit is when the special meter fills to completion, allowing him to do a massive blast of what looked like milk or cream coming out of the top of his head. While the special meter can be slowly filled by performing regular attacks, it can be filled much faster by jumping onto a pink enemy projectile (often at the end of a series of attacks) and jumping off it at the last second. 

The highlight of the demo was the boss fight with Captain Silver, one of the harder, later bosses, who bears no small resemblance to Popeye's perpetual antagonist, Bluto. Captain Silver sits up in his ship and has two main attacks: a squid that he squeezes to fire projectiles and a gritted-toothed shipping crate that crashes down from above. This fight was the prize match of the game demo, and many players tried in vain to beat it.

The trick, Jared Modenhauer told me on the side, was that the game adapted to the player. In many games of this type, the player advances through levels by learning enemy attack patterns. However, in Cuphead the game deviously monitors players and, if they start doing well, is programmed to vary not just the type of attacks, but the frequency and other variables to keep the player off guard. This makes it an aggressive experience similar to God Hand.

I got to see this firsthand when I took on Captain Silver. Having watched the previous player take on the villain, I tried a different plan of attack expecting a certain attack, and then Captain Silver whistled and a great white shark attacked, dashing almost across the entire screen. Over the course of the battle, as I tried different tactics (often having to start again at square one after being defeated), he also called an octopus that shot ink drops that could blot out the screen and a series of small dog sharks that had to be jumped over. 

I did not defeat Captain Silver, and instead decided to take on a pair of boxing glove-wearing frogs at a nightclub, in the background of which noodly-armed onlookers cheered with the same animations as Street Fighter game backgrounds. As a mix of traditional 2D animation and classic "Nintenhard" gameplay, Cuphead is a totally addictive experience. It's slated to come out later this year on the Xbox One and PC.