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Cuphead: Old School Art Style, Old School 2D Difficulty (GAMING)

After a couple years of waiting since its announcement at E3 2014, the hype surrounding Cuphead has finally reached its climax. The game captured many eyes with its unique and beautiful hand-drawn, classic cartoon art style. But beneath the fantastic and accurate aesthetic is a challenging yet rewarding experience. These are my thoughts about Cuphead.

The story of Cuphead is pretty bare, but it does its job in telling us why we’re fighting all these bosses. Doesn’t tell us why Cuphead has a cup for a head, but oh well. So Cuphead and his pal, Mugman, walk into a casino where Cuphead recklessly makes a deal with the casino owner, the Devil, betting his soul on the roll of the dice. After losing, they plead for their lives. The Devil allows them to live as long as they go to take the souls of the many bosses you fight in the game. Darker than you’d expect coming from a game with this aesthetic, but I like It. Speaking of the aesthetic, it’s done extremely well. From character design, level design, and sound design, Cuphead perfectly captures the feel of a 1930s cartoon. Don’t let the look fool you though, make sure you want a game that plays like Cuphead plays, not just the look that It has.

The gameplay in this game should have been the main attraction before it was released. Visually, it looks cute, but as soon as you go into the first level, you’ll realize just what you’ve gotten into. You may have heard already, but this game is definitely one of the most challenging games to come out this year. If you’re familiar with bullet-hell games or if you’ve played Contra, you’ll know what this is like. Cuphead moveset is somewhat limited, but it’s appropriate. His default weapon is the pea shooter, which probably has the most consistent damage. You can switch out other weapon types in between levels, experimenting definitely helps. In terms of defense mechanics, Cuphead is also equipped with a dash and a parry. You can only parry attacks that are colored pink, but by doing so, you gain enough super meter for an EX attack.

There are 3 types of levels:
Run n’ Gun, which are platformer levels to alleviate the player from doing so many boss fights.
Aeroplane boss fights, which are boss fights where Cuphead utilizes a plane to shoot the airborne bosses. This is where the bullet-hell comparison comes from.

Of course, the standard boss fights, where Cuphead stands on his own two feet and uses his finger guns to fight. The boss fights are what are necessary to progress through the game, while the platforming segments are there for the player to earn coins to spend on new weapons, charms, and supers. Almost all of the boss fights are incredibly well implemented and so very creative. (I’ll get to that “almost” part in a bit.) Each boss has multiple phases that change their attacks and no two boss fights are going to feel the same. They also have multiple different attacks which they switch up randomly, preventing the player from relying on muscle memory and keeping them on their toes. The whole game relies on a trial and error method of teaching, which some may like, some may not. You really have to ask yourself if you’re willing to spend an hour or so on a single boss, dying over and over and over, learning the patterns, and switching methods on the fly just to do it with the next boss again and again. Again, some may see it as a great challenge, but some may see it as a huge waste of time.

Now when I mentioned that almost all of the bosses are creative and great, I had one exception in mind. The dragon in the second area is garbage and his boss fight is easily the worst designed. From the randomized platforms, to the annoying little fire people that jump at you, to the fact that he just looks boring and generic, I hate everything about this one. Another issue some have had with the game is the fact that there isn’t an easier mode for people who may be less skilled, but still want to go and enjoy the game. There is a level difficulty switch for boss fights, simple and regular, but you can’t finish the game on simple. Something else I see some people mentioning is the controls and to an extent I agree, it’s annoying that the eight-way aiming is mapped to the same directional buttons/thumbstick as moving. Besides that though, I had no other issues with the controls.

So those are my thoughts on Cuphead, it’s a beautiful and incredibly challenging little indie game that definitely sets itself apart from any other game coming out this year. You’ll easily get at least 7-10 hours out of this, maybe even more if you’re finding any particular boss fight especially hard. This game has sparked a very interesting conversation about inclusion and accessibility versus whether or not exclusive difficulty is a valid design choice. Again, the aesthetic and style may draw many people in, but just make sure you’re up for the challenge.

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