Cuphead: Visually stunning 'toon won't be everyone's cup of tea
Review: When the first teaser clips of Cuphead surfaced back at E3 2014, there was an almost immediate buzz around this eye-catching interactive cartoon. Before anyone had even played it, hype began to build based entirely upon its distinctive look and art style.
At this point, the game had already been in development for four years. A labour of love driven by two brothers, Chad and Jared Moldenhauer and their indie start-up Studio MDHR Entertainment, Cuphead was inspired by their childhood obsession with vintage-era animation.
You only have to look at a single screenshot to see how closely those classic cartoons has been lovingly recreated in Cuphead. There are shades of classic Disney and early Warner Bros, but chiefly it's a love letter to the "rubber hose" 'toons popularised by Max Fleischer in the pre-TV American movie theatres of the 1930s.
The Moldenhauer brothers describe this style as "surreal and subversive", and that pretty much sums up the visual style of Cuphead. Grotesque faces grin and grimace, arms and legs flail around wildly and innocent-looking objects morph into menacing enemies.
It would have been easy to take their inspirations from the past and use modern tools and technology to bring them up-to-date, but instead the original techniques have been retained to make Cuphead look and feel as authentic as possible.
Every frame of animation and every backdrop has been painstakingly hand-drawn and painted. When you consider just how many different characters and environments are featured in the game, it's easy to see why this one has been seven years in the making.
So, there's no denying that this a genuinely jaw-dropping game to look at - but how does it play?
Well, in a word, it's hard. Not just mildly challenging or a bit tricky in parts; it's teeth-grindingly tough, and proud of it.
Cuphead's difficulty is as much a part of its DNA as its stunning visuals. This is a game that's designed to be deliberately frustrating, forcing players to replay levels and persist with unforgiving boss battles until the intricate patterns of play become ingrained in your brain.
It basically boils down to learning from your mistakes. If at first you don't succeed, die, die again. Every time you fail, you make a mental note of what went wrong and hope that you don't get caught out the next time. Until you do.
If you're the kind of gamer that doesn't like repeating the same sections over and over, Cuphead probably isn't for you. If you have a short temper, a low threshold for frustration or get angry when things go wrong, Cuphead definitely isn't for you.
If however, you've got the patience of a saint, enjoy a challenge and get a kick out of finally cracking a problem that's been bugging you for ages, then you'll probably love it.
It has to be said, there's a certain amount of satisfaction of beating a boss that's been getting the better of you or discovering a way through an "impossible" level but the road you take to get to these fleeting moments of joy is a long, uphill struggle.
In a way, it's lucky that the game is so beautiful to look at because it distracts from all the hard yards you have to put in. Every new character you meet, every new backdrop and jaunty jazz tune you encounter keeps you coming back for more.
At the same time, there's the nagging suspicion that Cuphead might be a bit of a case of style over substance. If it didn't look so amazing, would people be raving over it? Would there have been the years of hype building up to it? Probably not.
In all honestly, some of the games in the Mega Man or Metal Slug franchises are probably better examples of the run-and-gun boss rush experience, but they literally don't make them like they used to.
Cuphead is a retro throwback, both in its aesthetic, and its gameplay. It certainly won't be for everybody but it you've got the patience and appreciate games as an artform, it's well worth checking out.
Cuphead: Don't Deal with the Devil
Developers: Studio MDHR Entertainment
Publishers: Microsoft Studios
Formats: Xbox One/Windows 10