StudioMDHR’s rock hard platform shoot-em-up Cuphead makes its way onto the Nintendo Switch.
The Nintendo Switch version of Cuphead is, as far as I can tell, a precise replica of the previous versions that came before it. Played on an upscaling 4K television, it looks identical to my Xbox One version and, when in handheld mode, it loses nothing in terms of performance, framerate or graphical fidelity.
Obviously the ability to play Cuphead whilst travelling is completely unique to the Nintendo Switch, and a particularly nice touch is the inclusion of local multiplayer via the Joy-Con. That said, I don’t think Switch owners would (or should) expect anything less. If you already own Cuphead on another format, then that’s more or less all you need to know — there’s nothing new or different except for the addition of a large update that offers a few tweaks and is available on all formats anyway.
For those who are unfamiliar with this particularly attractive mix of retro gameplay and modern, Steamboat Willie inspired visuals, read on, because Cuphead is a game that is good enough to appeal to newcomers even now, two years on from its original release. I’d also like to add the personal inflection that it is a game that seems to work particularly well on a handheld console — it almost feels as though the Switch version should have come first, but I digress.
Cuphead tells the tale of titular character Cuphead and his brother, Mugman. The brothers are on a hot streak at their local casino when they foolishly choose to double down in a bet with The Devil. Naturally, he wins, and in doing so, he claims the two brothers’ souls. To escape their fate the brothers agree to seek out and claim all the souls already owed to Satan, which is where we come in.
Roaming around a top-down, slightly isometric and highly detailed map that is littered with secrets and shortcuts of its own, our heroes must face down boss fight after boss fight. Occasional interruptions come in the form of fast-paced and challenging run-and-gun sequences. Shops and other characters provide the brothers with the opportunity to add new weapons and power-ups to their arsenal, making them stronger or more resilient.
You’ll likely already have heard about how tough Cuphead is, but simply saying that the game is hard would be quite unfair. In fact, Cuphead is firm, but fair, and what stands out about it most to me is how it curves from feeling overly challenging to extremely rewarding. Fast restart times and the ability to leave one level behind and choose another (on most occasions) help to prevent frustration.
Cuphead and Mugman have unlimited lives, so again, even though it is hard to succeed in Cuphead, there’s no feeling of stress, frustration or impending doom as the result of losing a level. Each level offers two difficulty levels that can be chosen on the fly, so it’s possible to use the casual mode to scout out a level against a slightly easier configuration, then return to it for a ranked playthrough.
There are something around thirty of the boss fight levels to work through in Cuphead and most of them are just a few minutes long, with no preamble. Again, this helps to keep up a healthy pace and prevents frustration setting in. The fights themselves are always tough, with enemies that feature increasingly complex attack patterns that must be carefully choreographed. Dodging, jumping and excellent timing are all needed, always without letting go of the fire button.
The players can swing the odds slightly in their favour by setting the characters up to have more health or a more damaging super attack — or whatever else they feel they need. In more practical terms though, Cuphead is all about learning attack patterns and responding to them. There are definitely moments when a dextrous move can save the day, but relatively few parts of Cuphead are left to chance — some walls of bullets cannot be jumped over and must be ducked, for example.
Despite a lot of deserved praise, Cuphead isn’t perfect. When I originally played it, I remember that it featured a few strange spikes in difficulty, especially towards the end. It seems that numerous updates have since smoothed out most of these, but the last few boss sequences remain an absolute pig to fight through. I always struggled with the jump-parry move that becomes essential later on, and sadly for me, the need to use it liberally in these later fights has not been patched out.
Even before I played it on Nintendo Switch, I considered Cuphead to be one of the most outstanding and unique titles that I have played in the last few years. The fact that it is now available on my favourite handheld console is more like icing than cake, but I can say without hesitation that Cuphead has been converted superbly well. As always with a Switch port, I’m disappointed that there’s no additional content, but there’s little to complain about when the original product was so good.