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Playable Cartoon “Cuphead” Is As Beautiful As it Is Sadistic

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There have been many attempts throughout the years to replicate cartoons in video game form. There’s been the “just make a cartoon and then sprinkle a few choices here and there” method (Dragon’s Lair), there was then the “use as many sprites as possible in a 2D sidescroller” method (Earthworm Jim, the original Rayman), and then there was the “cel-shade some polygons” method that took the Earth by storm a decade ago (Wind Waker, some Wind Waker imitators). Some came very close, but no one’s managed to visually do what Studio MDHR’s new action game Cuphead has done. If you hadn’t been told before you saw it that Cuphead was a video game, you never would have guessed. It looks EXACTLY like a cartoon, and not just that, a really old cartoon.

Unfortunately Cuphead seems to be getting the cold shoulder from the press at E3, and only IGN and Wired have published an extensive review of the demo. It’s the product of two brothers, both of whom had to quit their jobs and mortgage their homes out the wazoo to finance the game, but their passion shows through: this is one of the most visually impressive games of E3 and that is saying a lot. It may be small-time, but it has its own section in the XBox booth, which is constantly crowded.

Make no mistake: the game is tough. The E3 demo consists mostly of boss fights where there’s one little vulnerability that you have to peck at after dodging ten thousand attacks. Not everyone is up to the demo and most challengers have failed to beat it.

From IGN: That jolly pirate is one tough cookie. At the time of this writing, Jared tells me that no one from the press has beaten him. I couldn’t stop trying though. Like Gunstar Heroes and similar old games, bosses have learnable attack patterns, but unlike so many of those older games, each has a deep bag of tricks to pull from. This pirate would call a squid friend to splatter ink everywhere, obscuring my vision. He’d call in a shark attack from off the left side of the screen too, or pull out an umbrella and squeeze little pink bullets from it. Each fight really demands that you pay close attention, and that you have sharp reflexes, just like arcade games of yore.

Inspired by retro games as much as it is retro toons, the game requires a lot of quick thinking and strategy. From Wired: Any object that’s colored pink can be “parried” by tapping the jump button in mid-air as you run into it. So if an enemy shoots a pink bullet, you can jump into it and tap jump again juuuust as you collide with it. (The window for successfully parrying is minuscule. If you miss it, you take damage, which is very bad.) If you parry the object away, you’ll destroy it and get another notch on your special-move meter. Build this up to full power and you can unleash a death ray. Only once I started doing this did I actually start defeating some of the boss encounters.

Cuphead will be out sometime in 2016 for XBox One and PC. Hopefully the game will do well enough to see release on other platforms as well, because it’s the kind of unique thing everyone should experience. Spread the word!