Thursday, 19 October 2017

A Post about Cuphead

Cuphead came out on Xbox One and PC a couple weeks back, and given that very, very little was heard or shown for nearly five years as it was being put together, I imagine that lost some people some bets. For my part, I didn’t know shit about it until it came out and everyone lost their minds. Never one to miss out on a cup of koolaid, I decided to head to the Steam store to see what all the fuss was about.

What we’re fussing about is a 2d shoot-em-up from indie studio MDHR, reminiscent of Contra or Mega Man, with focus on elaborate, multi-phase and bloody difficult boss battles. You assume the role of Cuphead (and optionally his brother Mugman for co-op), a cheerful boy with a cup for a head whose penchant for gambling with the actual Devil has got him into quite a bit of trouble, the little scamp. Satan, ever magnanimous, offers to waive the soul debt if Cuphead retrieves the debts of the other inhabitants of Inkwell Isle (the bosses), which he does by shooting them up (the battles).

These fundamentals are solid, but not particularly special. The specialness is the style. Cuphead channels the vibrantly hand-drawn cartoons of the ‘30s and ‘40s, trying its hardest to look and feel like it came straight out of the golden age of animation. Believe it or not from my world weary outlook and, tired, soulful eyes, I’m about 70 years too young to have been fully immersed in the cartoons Cuphead homages, but I’m familiar with the type- Tex Avery and all that.

aye awrite Billy Bitcoin calm down
And here’s the thing – the look, the sound, the style of this game is perhaps better than the real thing ever was- an idealised, rose tinted hindsight on what was pretty good to begin with. I can’t exaggerate how much I love it. Also, unlike real old-timey cartoons, it’s not, you know, racist. It’s a big statement, but I got a big mouth- Cuphead’s visuals are basically perfect. That is to say it succeeds completely in the style it sets out for, the ‘30s animation thing. Everyone should know by now that art direction beats the piss out of technical finesse every time when it comes to great graphics, and Cuphead proves it.

But it goes further than looks, a lot further. Every detail, from sound effects and music to the layout of menus and title screens, is excellent and feels so right. Let me tell you how a level starts in Cuphead- c’mon, it’ll only take a paragraph. You first traverse the prettily handdrawn overworld to a start point. There’s an amusing title card, like it’s an episode of a show, says something like “Hilda Berg in Threatenin’ Zeppelin”; you select difficulty and it loads up- well drawn Cuphead at one side, a beautifully drawn villain at the other, and an exquisitely drawn background behind. There’s an announcer who has only a handful of voice clips, but all of which just fit with the experience, in the words and speech- “A great slam and then some, and begin!” The word ‘WALLOP!’ flashes across the screen, a wonderful and period correct jazz tune swells in accompaniment, and only now does battle begin- you haven’t even played Cuphead yet, but you’re having a wonderful time just looking at it.

But when you do play, the next thing you’ll notice, the other thing about the game, is the difficulty- there’s quite a lot of it. You normally have three hit points, and while these can be expanded with equipment it comes at the cost of damage output and precludes you from using other items. Three hits until death is a fairly tall order with these bosses shooting, punching and leaping at you in pattern memorisation bullet hell fashion- die, and you have to start the fight from the beginning, no checkpoints.  Bosses, by contrast, have huge, unseen health pools that you have to chip away at while evading, and will switch to a (usually far nastier) new form two or more times upon taking enough of a beating.

it was hard to get screenshots and also fight this rat guy sorry 
Fights are demanding and unforgiving in a very old school kind of way- I told you, Contra and Mega Man. Honestly, I’m not even that good- it took me 14 hours or so to get through, and that length is almost all beating my head off of tough bosses. But for me at least, it was the good kind of difficulty, that makes you reflect on how to improve and which you feel so so good at conquering- I never got apoplectic about my many deaths in Cuphead, but your mileage may vary. While your Dark Souls and such has made difficulty trendy, some folks that were maybe art fans more than game fans were drawn to the game by the look, and found it not their cup of tea. They might have a point when they ask if Cuphead, a game where the main appeal is the looks, need to be so punishingly exclusive about the skill levels of those who get to look at it?

My answer is yes, but only because the talented creators at MDHR wanted it that way. I understand these madmen remortgaged homes and such in their commitment to the project, and it has paid off and then some. Cuphead is a solid set of mechanics with a distinctive level of challenge and greatly elevated as a package by the quality of its presentation- a creative work only gets to be that way because it was made with a huge amount of love and attention. Independent production by a small team allows vision and personality to be deeply ingrained in the product rather than stamped on as an afterthought- the style and challenge of Cuphead makes it one of the most charming and personality-filled games I’ve played in a long, long time. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

WipEout Omega Collection- Faster Remastered

So the WipEout Omega Collection came out last month, and I’m not sure how I feel about all that. On the one hand- WipEout is bloody great! So great I will type its name in all its ridiculous stylisation. I love the pace and weird handling of the futuristic anti gravity racing and the sheer style of its presentation, and I have done since I unexpectedly got a PSP with WipEout Pure because it was the cheapest bundle.

On the other hand, this is merely a collection of content previously released over the last 9 years or so (most of which I’ve already tasted), and the reason there’s nothing much new here is because Sony ruthlessly killed the series by shuttering developer Studio Liverpool in what I still consider a targeted attack on my way of life. I bought it anyway.

What you buy is a package of the PS3’s WipEout HD, its vast and combat-focused expansion Fury, and WipEout 2048, which was previously exclusive to the ill-fated Vita handheld. That’s actually a hell of a lot- three full campaigns with several exciting modes, dozens of tracks and ships to choose from, comprehensive custom race options, and probably other things I take for granted as one steeped in the world of AG racing. Visuals are shined and polished in the way you’d expect from the now ubiquitous remaster release, with 4K support for PS4 Pro owners, and these games which were gorgeous to begin with look appreciably better even in 1080p.

WipEout is a unique experience- its floaty but fiercely quick hover-ships, complete with airbrakes and pitch controls, handle nothing like simulated cars, and though you pick up weapons from the track and hit boost pads where you can it’s certainly not like playing a kart racer. Every event is genuinely, pulse raisingly intense- races and battles due to the aggression and proficiency of your rivals, time trials due to the extreme precision needed to meet challenging targets, and all of them coming with a truly relentless sense of speed. Every discipline has its place, but my favourite remains Zone mode, a sort of survival event where you’re strapped into a ship that will continue accelerating forever, whether you’re crying or not, and must keep it in one piece for as long as you can before sweet relief comes in the form of inevitable disintegration.  

Moreover, the game is fucking cooool. The art direction on ships, scenery and even the interface is appealingly futuristic, although not believably so as it suggests the future is likely to be good. Race sounds, from the hum and whine of ships to the voice prompts warning you of incoming shooting, fit perfectly, and the driving electronic soundtrack contributes massively to the overall atmosphere. While plot is wisely left largely absent, there is a certain amount of pleasing background lore for those who care for it, with each of the game’s racing teams having a larger than life backstory. Effort and craft has gone into making the game’s vision and style coherent and attractive- particularly evident in the 2048 content, which covers the first days of anti-grav racing in a world recognisable but enhanced, contrasting with the WipEout HD’s extremely techy and far off era.

So I like it, but I liked it when I bought it before. The 2048 content is new to me, but only because I was too smart to fall for the Vita- everything else is familiar. The remake and remaster trend is nothing new, of course (and I do keep buying them, with Crash Bandicoot and Call of Duty 4 joining the collection last week), but I sort of resent the marketing of this release, playing to nostalgic fondness- “remember WipEout? Wasn’t it good?” Yes I remember, you bastards, and I remember how you cut it down in its prime! Supporting this release isn’t really a show of support for the series- Studio Liverpool, formerly Psygnosis, is dead, and given their intimate connection to the game from the very beginning it is safe to assume any future possibilities for this fairly niche franchise died with them.

Remastered re-releases of games seem to be a hallmark of this console generation- some of them are well executed and enhance the original, but all of them share the lazy basic premise of selling something they sold before. Digging up the classics is one thing, but the treatment being applied to a recently defunct series makes me uneasy. Yes, I enjoy having a new WipEout release to play through, and developer XDev has done a great job with this remaster (I’m assured it looks genuinely incredible in 4K)- however, the whole thing seems to amount to a requiem. Though sales have apparently been strong, I can’t see anything new for this unusual series, and without its parent studio holding the joystick I’m not sure I’d want it. So is this Omega Collection a treat for those who cared for WipEout and thought it was over, or a cynical effort to cheaply and easily cash in on a nostalgic fanbase who deserve better? Am I and the rest of the WipEout faithful being saluted, or exploited? It could be both- certainly what’s being sold here is quality- but I can’t help but wish WipEout hadn’t gone out like this.