Studio MDHR's Cuphead waltzes into a video-game market saturated with beta-stage runaway successes, aggressive monetization, and an irritable community primed for outrage. Few titles reach popularity without scandal, and you'll find many message boards populated by enthusiastically disappointed consumer lobbyists. They aren't wrong; triple-A game publishers smell the money to be made, and many hit titles tend toward the cynical. Gaming has become entrenched in society, more of a stage for our cultural frustrations than a portal through which we escape them.
Video-games have a lot of promises to deliver on nowadays. We expect them to run butter-smooth at every hour of the day. We expect lots of bonus content, will shell out for it, even, but not if it gives players too much of an advantage. Developers of most multiplayer games are expected to wade through the swamps of their games' communities for feedback. We also expect those developers to come down hard on cheaters and to never lie or misspeak. We expect our games to represent our times, but not be too political, lest we disagree with them. Let's face it -- as a culture, most gamers have privileged access to powerful technology, expendable income, and a lot of time to waste. To spend it biting the hands that feed them seems only natural.
Cuphead is a carnival dunk tank out of this cynical age in gaming. It harkens back to the 80s in terms of its side-scrolling design, and the 30s in terms of its Steamboat Willie look, and the two come together in a pure distilment of more innocent times.
The game opens on scratchy filmreel, and the warm harmonies of a barbershop quartet over the crackle of old vinyl. For the entire time you're playing, the illusion goes unbroken -- in-game copyright imprints are dated to 1930. All the music is live-recorded brassy jazz. All the visuals are presented in and loopy hand-drawn animation over watercolour backdrops. All the script is cheery, cheesy "And How!" sloganeering. Movement and action are frantic, but simple: hit enemies with your finger-gun without being hit yourself. Everything about Cuphead is just so wonderfully... obvious. There are surprises and secrets to learn, sure. But I find myself playing simply for the fun of it. Not to amass treasure and top scoreboards and chase all the millions of carrots on sticks we hunt down in most modern games -- but for the satisfaction and pleasure of seeing and conquering more of the game itself. Cuphead is so transparent in its goals, expectations, and appeal that, barring her arthritis and one glass eyeball, I feel like I could play with my grandma.
For its immersive polish, its carefree attitude, and its disciplined lack of now-industry-standard bells and whistles, I see Cuphead as a perfect game.