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Cuphead
Game Reviews

Cuphead

Hardcore gameplay and classic cartoon style comes to the Switch; a dazzling port made in Hell.

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When Cuphead originally came out a year and a half ago, it was lauded by many as a creative ‘masterpiece’. Although proclamations like these are often exaggerated, nobody could argue that Studio MDHR put a ton of love into their shoot ‘em up – crafting an aesthetic that recalled the heyday of 1930s cartoons and paid homage to hardcore video games that littered consoles and arcades of the 1990s.

After gaining acclaim on the Xbox One, PC and Mac, it’s now on the Nintendo Switch to spread the love of how games used to be back in the good ol’ days. Scores of Switch owners can finally admire (and endure) the gleeful romp through hell and back, and that’s ominously good.

To Hell and Back, Again

This is a port so nothing radical has changed in its transition to the modular screen, with nearly everything that was said back then applying here too. The premise is basic as our eponymous protagonists Cuphead and Mugman wager a deal with the devil after going broke at his crooked casino. Now they must pay off their debt by collecting on delinquent contracts or risk losing their own souls by midnight. All of Satan’s debtors just happen to be intimating and off the wall, played out in standalone boss fights.

In other words: there isn’t much plot to get in the way of gameplay. This motif will directly appeal to people who fondly recall coin-op arcade shooters or grew up playing hardcore classics and undeniably raw right out of the gate, with the only real objectives to thrash the enemy and surviving.

This is the core of Cuphead with the pressure figuring out the firework patterns and then lasting long enough to reach the next phase of the scuffle; and yes, the formula changes itself up keep the action fresh—including shmup events in a bouncy biplane. Bosses will either transform in cartoonish fashion and ramp up their attacks and limitless spawns of enemies, with your life ending in a mere three hits throughout the tussle. There is a learning curve steeped in a bout of trial and error, and a small number of Run ‘n’ Gun platforming stages that serve a much-needed change in pace.

The game is absolutely demanding but fair, immediately dominating evergreen players to the point of quitting in aggravation—an understandable response for those unfamiliar with the excesses of the genre. All you have is jumping, dashing, and infinite peashooter bullets (actually snapping his fingers) most of the time, with some additional EX attacks, supers, and item buffs that can be earned or purchased for extra help. You’ll probably need them all.

You’ll also need to fall back on your own mettle, and you’ll be seeing a progress chart of how close you were to beating the boss, if you didn’t mess up the flow of the match. Fortunately, there are options such as local two-player cooperative (jump in/out) and a ‘Simple’ difficulty level. The latter gives you a taste of what Cuphead has to offer by being a little more manageable, although you can never engage the devil himself if you go this route.

In The Details

Undoubtedly, the biggest attraction for many will be the artistic direction of Cuphead. I don’t think I have to tell you it’s look are lovingly cultivated from those classic 1930s cartoons, a decade when masters like Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer created worlds of vivid imagination and exquisite hand-drawn craft, with unbridled parody thrown in. The amount of detail that Studio MDHR has put into replicating the jovial and antiquated charm without waxing cheap nostalgia is extraordinary in its own right.

‘Switching’ It Up

So, what are there any differences for the Switch version of Cuphead? Well, not really except for the physical controller if you decide to stick with the standard Joy-Cons. Though the input remains responsive, the small form and fragmented array of the D-pad itself is merely adequate, but people with bigger hands will bemoan the occasional press of the wrong button. It’s not game-breaking but you may find yourself blaming the joypad more than justifiably allowed, so I suggest sticking to a Pro controller or third-party equivalent if you’ve got them.

Another alteration—and I’m really reaching are the load times themselves. All iterations of Cuphead got an internal update (v1.2) which added content such as animated cinematics, additional art, and the option to select either Cuphead or Mugman. In preparation for the Switch, the annoying load times are halved for all available consoles. Waiting between stages goes from 14-20 seconds to around 5-8 overall, which is greatly appreciated if you never played it on PC beforehand. Overall, this is a change that benefits everybody considering that nothing else was compromised, only improved. However, we’re still waiting on the standalone DLC and Xbox Live integration.

Vintage Charm

It’s hard to believe that Cuphead came out in 2017, and that’s meant to be a compliment towards Studio MDHR and the meticulous craft the team put into melding the golden age of cartoons with the inexorable fury of old-school gameplay. As the Nintendo Switch comes into its own as a definitive gamer’s machine, it’s interesting to see a hardcore title make its way into semi-handheld form. A trend that is gaining traction as developers aim for mass appeal with prior exclusives. Whether you never played it before or want to face the madness once again, Cuphead continues to be an energetic foray.

About the Author: Herman Exum