Cuphead is a challenging, bullet-hell platformer with an art style based on classic cartoons from the 1930s. While many gamers are interested in its unique aesthetic, its difficult playstyle is proving to be more than they can handle.
Although the story is straightforward and simple, the colorful and distinct aesthetic enhances the narrative experience. The story is focused on the two main characters, Cuphead and Mugman, trying to resolve a gambling debt they owe to the devil. The way the heroes repay their debt is by defeating various debtors in diverse and exciting battles.
Bullet-hell gameplay, where damaging items are constantly moving towards the player, and the customizability of the character’s abilities provides players with diverse ways to complete the same challenges. While newer generations of western gamers may not be used to the difficulty of bullet-hell games, players can overcome any boss fight using different combinations of abilities, persistence and memory.
Cuphead’s ability system provides an in-game currency (coins) for players to purchase a permanent unlock of an ability. Each ability is balanced so that no specific weapon or charm, a bonus to the character’s abilities or health, is overpowered or game breaking. With this system, Cuphead gives players multiple playstyle options as they progress through the game.
To progress through different areas, players must complete boss battles and platforming levels called run ‘n gun stages. Each boss battle is designed to test the players’ reflexes and pattern recognition through increasingly difficult waves of enemies and attacks. The run ‘n gun stages provide arduous gauntlets of incoming enemies and platforming challenges that focus on players’ attention to detail and memorization skills. Players on the PC version can choose to approach these levels using a game controller for precise movements or using a keyboard and mouse for ease of use.
Cuphead approaches each battle at an individual level, forcing the player to completely restart each scenario upon death. While this may seem unfair to certain players, the system compromises by having each level operate in a predictable pattern that players can memorize.
While players are restricted to Cuphead during the single-player campaign, they can bring in a friend to help them on their campaign as Mugman. The two-player system provides players having difficulty with certain bosses the ability to have extra damage, health and a new perspective to each battle. Although an additional player seems to be an advantage, bosses have increased health and extra players add to the on-screen clutter.
Although Cuphead has an intimidating level of difficulty for new players, the game offsets this by using a low learning curve. While games such as Bendy and the Ink Machine and the Epic Mickey series have attempted using character designs based on 1930s cartoons, Cuphead’s complete use of the aesthetic creates a more streamlined and uniform design.
Overall this is a well-developed, balanced game that focuses on tough battles and individual playstyles. By combining its superior design with unique graphics and a two-player experience, this game tands out as one of the better releases of 2017, earning it 5 out of 5 stars. Cuphead is currently available for $19.99 on Steam, the Microsoft Store and Gog.com.