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Cuphead is an Xbox Indie Game That Crosses Steamboat Willie with Contra

This boldly original game is a lot harder than it looks.

Chances are you’ve heard of Cuphead at least in passing. The indie game made its debut at E3 2014 with a trailer showcasing the game’s art, and it’s been talked about excitedly in gaming circles since. No wonder — Cuphead looks like nothing that’s come before it, although its gameplay treads on well-worn and well-loved ground for longtime gamers.

One look at Cuphead, and you’ll be transported back to the days of Steamboat Willie and Disney’s origins. The titular character, Cuphead, looks a bit like Willie himself, but (big shock) with a cup for a head. The animation style looks every bit the part of a ’20s or ’30s era cartoon, something that the creators really wanted to pull off authentically. Made by StudioMDHR, Cuphead is completely hand-drawn, which is almost never seen in video games. And why would it? It takes a crazy amount of frames to pull that off — over 1,000 individual frames for just a single boss, in this case. Consider that all of those frames feature hand-painted watercolor backgrounds, and you start to see why this indie game took so long to be developed!

The desire to set Cuphead in a certain point in animation history extended to the music. The development team went all-out here, too. They wanted to capture the jazzy sound of the era, and they did so by recording a three-hour soundtrack composed by Kris Maddigan, with the help of a big band orchestra and ragtime pianists — 42 musicians in all were involved! Is it going to be available on vinyl? You bet it is.

Just the art and music alone probably make the game worth it, but the gameplay really seals the deal. Cuphead plays like an old-school 8-bit or 16-bit platform shooter like Contra or Mega ManContra is probably the better comparison — Cuphead runs, jumps, and finger shoots his way through enemies coming in from all directions until getting to the end of the level, where a big boss will stand in the way and make life even more difficult.

And from what we’ve been hearing, life will be very difficult indeed. Word is even the easier settings are pretty tough. The creators were as thorough about paying homage to the ’90s-era side-scrolling shooter as they were about paying homage to ’20s- and ’30s-era animation, and that means a whole lot of game over screens. Fortunately, the developers did have some mercy — Cuphead has unlimited lives and doesn’t lose any of the weapons he’s collected along the way, so trial and error will get you though to the end without having to start over all the way at the beginning. You can also have a buddy hop in as Mugman to help in co-op mode.

After years of development, this labor of love is just about ready for prime time. Cuphead is out for Xbox One (compatible with Play Anywhere) on September 29 and seems almost like a steal at $20Cuphead will also be released on Steam and GOG.