In a period with few exclusive bright spots, Cuphead turned out to be an unlikely flagbearer for Microsoft’s oft maligned Xbox One. A game whose singular early 20th century animation aesthetic belied a brilliantly balanced, if often excruciating run ‘n’ gun experience, it’s a game that Xbox owners have been legitimately proud of. That period of console exclusivity is now at an end though, and as Microsoft seeks ever closer ties with Nintendo, it’s come to Switch where, if anything, it’s actually even better than before.
You’re cast as Cuphead or the now solo-playable Mugman, a pair of happy little chaps who become less happy when they find themselves in debt to the Devil. Rather than sending you straight to hell he gives you the chance to stay out of the hot stuff by collecting soul contracts from other debtors. So off you head on a twisted cartoon adventure where you have to shoot carrots, pirates and flowers in the face to save your own skin.
Current Cuphead owners can rest easy in the knowledge that all of the extras that are being rolled out for the Switch version have also arrived as an update on Xbox One, PC and Mac, but what they’re not getting is the Switch’s number one party trick. Being able to take Cuphead on the go makes what was already a brilliant game feel even better. It’s a natural fit for being played in portions while you commute your way to and from the crushing boredom of your day job.
It’s Cuphead’s structure that makes it a perfect match, with each level a separate destination on the beautiful cartoon map. Most of the brilliantly animated bosses are very tough – more on that later – but in classic fashion it’s all about learning their moves, knowing where you are or what you need to be doing, and working your way systematically through their phases on the way to taking them down. There are few games as rewarding.
That portability might also help to minimise Cuphead’s only pitfall: frustration. There’s probably only so many times that you can continue to bang your head against an animated tombstone wall before giving up, but playing in bite-sized chunks makes it easier to step away, put it down, and coming back later on with a fresh sense of awareness. You still might not do it, but at least you’ll feel less like throwing your Switch in a river.
You do have the option of jumping into Simple mode if you want to unlock the whole map in a much… simpler fashion, but you won’t gain any Soul Contracts from the bosses you defeat, and it’s not really a particularly useful tool for learning how to beat them either, since whole phases or attacks are missing from their arsenal. The game still cries out for an actual easy difficulty mode, especially with the jump to Nintendo’s console, but at this point it doesn’t look like we’ll ever get one.
Whether it’s the hardest game you’ve ever played or not, Cuphead remains one of the best-looking pieces of software ever created. The shift to Nintendo’s constantly surprising hybrid hasn’t diminished the impact of any of the 1920’s animation art style, and if you’re playing in portable mode the large sprites and bullets/carrots/bombs that come your way are still easy to read – if not avoid.
On top of that you’re now treated to extra animations from Cuphead, Mugman and various enemies as well as fully animated cutscenes which bring the whole experience full circle, and top off an already incredible achievement. It all runs at a silky 60fps as well, and when combined with the stellar jazz soundtrack it becomes a game that you simply have to experience, and now you can do, anywhere you like.
There are a few minor downsides to playing on Switch, and perhaps the main one is the Joy-Con. Without a real D-pad you’re left to use the analog sticks, and they’re just not my favourite way to play this style of game. I found things felt much more natural with Hori’s proper D-pad controller, though it’s an empty husk of a Joy-Con knock off, so there’s plenty of downsides that come along with it. Still, for playing in portable mode it’s well worth thinking about picking up, especially if you play platformers and retro games, and it’s pretty damn cheap to boot. If you’ve got the Swithch Pro Controller at home you can forget entirely about this mini-rant.
Cuphead was already one of the best games of the past couple of years before Studio MDHR started tinkering with it, but here on Nintendo’s console, it’s proved the recent adage that everything is better on Switch.