IMPRESSIONS: Cuphead on Switch

Friday, May 10th, 2019

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I will fully admit I probably should have played Cuphead much, much sooner. Especially given that I bought it on a Steam sale a year or more ago. But there was a small part of me that was holding out hope, perhaps unreasonable at the time, that Cuphead might come to a console I own. Namely, the Nintendo Switch. Sure, that was seen as a pipe dream by many, until a breathtaking Nintendo Direct that totally took us all by surprise. Once they announced it was coming to Switch, I knew I had no more excuses, and I gladly agreed to review it on Nintendo’s latest console. The question is, was this challenging boss rush worth the wait?

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Though I won’t recap all the elements of the game, which were done already in our Steam review of the game, I will give a quick summary. The game takes place in a cartoon world full of mischief and whimsy. You get all the main story beats from cutscenes, both still and animated, that explain the basic plot. Things go wrong quickly after Cuphead and Mugman try to beat the Devil at his own game in his personal casino, and whether old hornhead cheated or not, the two brothers are quickly indebted to him. Specifically, they are forced to become his bag men and collect the soul contracts from others who tried to welch on deals with the devil. Thus begins our story, and though there isn’t much plot or characterization other than this, it’s still a wonderfully enjoyable adventure.

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Cuphead is split into 3 sections – Run & Gun levels, Mausoleum challenges and of course the boss fights. While the latter is where the meat of the game is experienced, the other two shouldn’t be ignored either. The Run & Gun levels are spread through each world except the last, and provide a meaty platforming challenge. Frankly these were harder for me than some of the boss fights, mostly cause I tried to get a great score every time. That involves parrying a certain amount of times, collecting all the coins, using your super meter and not taking any damage. As you might expect that last part is a challenge, especially since each of these stages is flooded with nasty critters trying to maim you. Though I liked these sections for the diversity they provided, I felt they paled in comparison to the others. Their one saving grace was that the coins you find in each can be used to buy important upgrades.

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By contrast, the Mausoleum challenges are fun and tricky platforming sections that never wore out their welcome. That could be cause there’s half as many of them as there are Run & Gun, only a mere three, and it might also be because they each take place in a small room as opposed to a long stretch of areas. Your goal is to keep hordes of nasty ghosts away from the chalice in the center of the screen until the clock runs out. I liked this since you can’t kill the ghosts, you instead have to parry them into oblivion. The parry mechanic is well used here, since the whole point is to bounce off each ghost to send them back to the afterlife. Best of all, by beating each Mausoleum you’re rewarded with a powerful super attack you can use during battle. There’s a standard mega laser beam, temporary invincibility and the ability to control two Cupheads simultaneously. I admit I only used the first 2 super arts, and found they did the job. But in case that wasn’t enough, you are also able to customize your loadout with different bullet shots and charms.

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At the beginning you’re stuck with a basic linear shot, the Peashooter, but you eventually will have 6 different shots to choose from. You are able to equip 2 shots for each boss fight or Run & Gun section, and can switch between them with the L button. My personal favorites were the powerful Spread shot and the homing Chaser, but they all work well. There are also 6 Charms, and they serve very distinct purposes. There are some that increase your starting health, others passively charge your super meter and more. I found the most useful was the Smoke Bomb charm, which turned Cuphead and Mugman’s basic dash into one with temporary invincibility. Much like the shots, the charms all have their place, and each also has a slight negative condition to balance them out. The extra health makes your bullets weaker and the dash makes you invisible for a second. Put together with the Super Arts, these help make the game feel balanced and diverse, allowing different playstyles to win. And that’s a good thing, since the game has some challenging boss fights.

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Now, I’m gonna assert right now that while Cuphead is a challenging game, it’s nowhere near as challenging as people were saying it was. That could be because I grew up playing games like Contra, or it could be because I’m stubborn as hell, but either way I found the game very well balanced. Sure, there are some fights that are incredibly difficult or tricky to get through unscathed, but there’s also several that were downright easy. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say any boss is a pushover, there are some that definitely feel more like a mini-boss. These would only take a handful of tries to beat as opposed to dozens. That’s not a bad thing though, since they serve as welcome breaks from the more hectic battles. And given that each boss fight has different phases and dramatic transformations to mix things up, that’s probably for the best. I’d say the hardest fights for me were the following – Grim Matchstick, Baroness Von Bon Bon, Rumor Honeybottom and King Dice. Compared to these, the other bosses are much easier to deal with. And yes, that includes the final fight against the Devil himself.

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Besides the standard boss fights, which involve running and gunning, there are also aerial battles. These are essentially the same, except that you’re forced to only use 2 specific shots and are locked into a specific Super Art. The other change is that in place of your dash move, you instead hold X to shrink to teeny tiny size. This makes it very easy to avoid bullets, but it also dramatically reduces the range of your attacks. I actually really enjoyed these fights, and found some of my favorite bosses there, including Cala Maria, a mix between Betty Boop and the Little Mermaid; Wally Warbler, an insane Coo Coo Clock brought to life; and Dr. Kahl, the twisted love child or Robotnik and Wily nobody wanted.

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It goes without saying that the art in Cuphead is fantastic, but I didn’t realize how fantastic until I played it. The screenshots I took while playing don’t do the art justice, as part of the beauty is how fluid and detailed the animation looks in motion. Best of all, the game ran really smooth portably on the Switch, and only had occasional minor bouts of slowdown. The only real downside to the art is that sometimes stages were so detailed that my character could get hidden behind a piece of foreground, which could be problematic in especially dire fights. The music and sound effects are also transcendent, featuring larger than life big band jazz tunes that really liven things up. I loved how all the sound effects were bold and served a strategic purpose, usually indicating an incoming attack or new battle phase.

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There’s a tremendous amount of things I loved in the game, but even here I found some nitpicks. While I liked the idea of parrying pink objects, they often felt forced and didn’t really fit the flow of battles. Sure there were some fights that were the exception, such as facing the slot machine frog and parrying his lever, or bouncing off Werner Werman’s blocks to avoid his soup tank, but there were plenty more that were just irritating. Especially since you often have to jump into incoming objects to parry them, which goes against every instinct I’ve learned over 30 years of gaming. I almost wish parrying inflicted damage to foes or something more intuitive, and it wouldn’t be a problem except that getting a good score requires parrying at least 3 attacks. And though I loved the music in the game, there were a few rare occasions it was so loud I didn’t hear a sound cue to avoid an incoming attack. Lastly, though I loved all the bosses in the game, I don’t feel the final boss was epic enough. In many ways the second to last boss fight against King Dice felt like it should have been the final battle. Other than that, I really loved every other aspect of the game.

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I managed to beat Cuphead in about 3 days, though I spent several more getting all its achievements. Which is something I rarely do, unless I truly love a game. So if that doesn’t tell you everything, I don’t know what will. It’s a wonderful indie gem, and the only thing it lacks is a art gallery and music select. Studio MDHR has shown tremendous talent in this first outing, and I can’t wait to see more from this creative and dynamic universe.

Cuphead Horror

It’s even worth getting the bad ending…

About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Head Editor and Review Manager, he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his limited spare time he devours indies whole and anticipates the release of quirky, unpredictable and innovative games.