Video games are pretty nice to look at these days. From the photorealistic asphalt of Forza Motorsport 7, to the vibrant splatters of Splatoon 2, to the charming pixels of Golf Story, visual competence is a basic expectation for games in 2017. While plenty of titles are still impressing us with their unique style or new graphical innovation, it is increasingly rare for the gaming world to be uniformly and immediately enraptured by a game on its visuals alone – but that is exactly the case with September’s Game of the Month, Cuphead.
Many developers go for a unique look by embracing a retro aesthetic, from gaming’s early days in the 1980’s and 90’s. Cuphead developer Studio MDHR turns the clock back a bit further – nearly a century in fact – and captures the look and feel of 1930’s era cartoon animation. And by capture, we mean absolutely nails. The static watercolor backgrounds, the noodle-limbed, “anthropomorphize everything” character design, the frame-by-frame hand-drawn animation, and the convincingly filtered soundtrack and audio all combine to perfectly evoke the look and feel of cartoons like Oswald the Rabbit and Popeye. Even the games high difficulty and narrative setup (you, Cuphead, and brother, Mugman, pay off your gambling debt to the Devil) provide a dark juxtaposition to the silly visuals, as was often the case with cartoons of the time. In development for seven years, and publicly announced in 2014, Cuphead really is something that must be seen for yourself.
Underneath the visuals lies a well-crafted and quite difficult game of platforming, bullet dodging, power ups, counters, dashes, bosses, and even a Mario World esque overworld to explore. But if we’re being honest, the gameplay could be lousy and it still likely would have taken this month’s award on it’s aesthetic alone. It really is just that impressive. Though, credit where credit is due, Studio MDHR originally envisioned the game as a continuous series of boss levels, but expanded it after fans saw it and wanted more to do in the Cuphead universe. That this was the inaugural title from Studio MDHR, a team of less than 10, makes their achievement all the better.
More than just a cool look, Cuphead’s aesthetic is a reminder that gaming, for all its technology and innovation, still has a lot of room to grow as a medium. It raises the bar for small and large studios alike, and in a year already full of high quality experiences, gives gamers something they have never seen before. For literally animating a video game the old-fashioned way and more, Cup earns our Game of the Month.