A brawl is surely brewing!
Just. One. More. Go. You fail, you’re taunted by the boss, and a meter displays how tantalisingly close you were to knocking out your nemesis. It’s enough to have you hitting retry immediately. “A brawl is surely brewing!” screams the announcer as the battle commences again. It sure is!
After enjoying success on Microsoft’s Xbox One, Cuphead arrives on Nintendo’s Switch as one of the first examples of their recent partnership. It’s an exceptional conversion of a really excellent game that presents the epitome of addictive gameplay.
Cuphead is a manic, fiendish side-scrolling boss rush. Over three worlds, the titular character (or his brother Mugman if you so choose) must defeat a number of inventive enemies in his quest to appease the Devil. He can shoot bullets from his fingertips, jump, dodge and parry any pink-coloured attacks to build up a devastating special. And that’s it. This is tightly constructed gameplay as the ultimate test in skill, timing and – most of all – patience.
There is some variety, with flying levels and platforming challenges mixed in. In the latter, you collect coins that can be spent on charms and weapons, allowing you to mix up your strategies. These can be swapped in the gorgeous map screen that sees your adorable hero marching through each world, tackling the bosses in any order of preference and discovering secrets. Log in with a second controller and you can play two player co-op, too.
It’s the presentation that really elevates Cuphead, though. Taking inspiration from 1930s American cartoons like Steamboat Willie, Felix The Cat and Betty Boop, each character and level is hand-drawn to depict a surreal fantasy. Huge eyes, animated expressions and other cartoony effects give a unique character to the game, all underscored by a playful ragtime and big band score that’s as fun yet cruelly mocking as the visuals.
The multi-phase bosses are amongst the most inventive in gaming. Anthropomorphic vegetables cry; a flying transforming cuckoo clock fires a storm of feathers; a devilish clown rides a rollercoaster from hell; a pair of boxing frogs morphs into a slot machine. To say any more would spoil the fun of discovery.
Yet it’s the little touches that truly make Cuphead. The grainy filter that overlays the visuals and the crackling sound that make you feel like you’re literally playing a cartoon from that era. The way the band breaks down when you die. The words of encouragement from the announcer and the trash talk of the bosses.
It may look like a children’s game, but Cuphead is anything but. The (almost) pitch-perfect difficulty is sky-high, requiring multiple playthroughs of each boss to merely learn their attack patterns. Rarely do games test your skills as much as this, but no matter how hard it gets the game’s charm keeps you hitting that retry button again and again. Not since Dark Souls has beating a game boss felt so exhausting and rewarding. Relief soon turns to excitement at what’s to come next, followed by dread, panic and rage.
At times the difficulty becomes intensely frustrating and may leave you hoarse from screaming (or it that just me?). The odds are unfairly stacked against you and the random nature of some boss attacks require you to rely on instinct rather than learned patterns. This sometimes leaves you in impossible situations where death is inevitable and the game merely laughs at you in response.
Thankfully, it runs beautifully on the Switch. The controls favour the face buttons that are somewhat cramped, but can be reconfigured in any way (move dodge to one of the triggers – you’ll thank me later). It looks stunning when docked, but is just as smooth and responsive in handheld mode – even if you risk throwing your console across the room in a huff.
But then, eventually, you break through. Cuphead’s crazy visuals are endlessly charming and its punishing difficulty ultimately satisfies. So give that boss one more go. Maybe this time you’ll score a knockout.
[Reviewed on Switch]