The Wait for Cuphead on the Nintendo Switch Was Worth Every Second—Here's Why

Ever since Cuphead came out in 2017, I've been desperate to play it.

Unfortunately, the game was an Xbox One and Windows exclusive, meaning that if I wanted to play it, I'd have to shell out at least a couple hundred dollars for a console I didn't otherwise care about. I resisted the temptation, and instead watched some of my favorite streamers play the game for hours upon hours to live vicariously through them, unsure whether I'd ever get to play it myself.

When rumors started swirling about Cuphead being reported to my favorite console, the Nintendo Switch, I was excited but skeptical. Why would Microsoft hand over one of their most coveted exclusive games? But the rumors proved to be true, and last month it was announced that the game would land on the Switch today, April 18.

I reached out to Cuphead's developer, Studio MDHR, who made all of my dreams come true by sending me a review key of the game a week and a half ago. From there, the race was on. Would Cuphead live up to my lofty expectations? Would I even have the talent to get to the end of the game? I had to play to find out.

Cuphead's charm shines through from its opening screen. Its heroes, Cuphead and Mugman, draw inspiration from Mickey Mouse and other cartoons from the '30s, and the jazzy music perfectly matches that tone. It seems cute and inviting, proving to be the perfect contrast to the game's sometimes punishing gameplay.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

The narrative unfolds via an adorably illustrated storybook, though things are a little bit darker than they immediately let on. After a day of successful gambling at the Devil's casino, the Devil himself makes an all-or-nothing bet with the duo. When the two lose, the Devil wins their souls.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

But the two are enterprising, and when the Devil makes them an offer, they have to choice but to accept it. It turns out there are many others who are indebted to the Devil, and Cuphead and Mugman can travel across the Inkwell Isles and collect all of their soul contracts, the Devil promises to let them free. That sounded simple enough, but the residents of the islands had a few tricks up their sleeves for me.

I knew a series of challenges were ahead of me, which was why I was relieved by the game's simple and danger-free tutorial area. It was here that I got my first handle on all of the game's most basic controls, from jumping and dashing around the screen to using Cuphead's signature Peashooter weapon, both shooting as I moved and aiming from one fixed position.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

It was here that I also learned Cuphead's unique parry move. By timing my jumps properly, I could jump off pink objects and enemies to activate switches, get extra air or defeat certain characters. The parry also contributes to Cuphead's super meter, which allows him to use extra-powerful moves, so it's important to masterful it (even though I don't think I quite managed that until toward the end of the game).

Then it was time to play. The levels were spread out across the overworld, but they weren't all available immediately. Upon arrival at Inkwell Island One, only three levels were available, and only upon completing them did I unlock more of the map, until I could waltz my way into the Die House with all of the soul contracts to move on to Inkwell Island Two.

The game is split up between the run and gun levels, where the objective is simply to get Cuphead to the end, and boss fights, where you only win if you can defeat the big, bad enemy. The first forested area I encountered was a run and gun. It seemed inviting enough, but with flower-headed enemies dropping from the sky, mushrooms shooting projectiles and purple tulips trying to end my life, it was a lot tougher than it looked. Cuphead has just three HP, so all it would take was three little mistakes to send me all the way back to the beginning of the level. There are no checkpoints in Cuphead, which is one of the reasons it's so difficult.

With the handful of coins I collected in the forest (and one I found by carefully exploring the overworld) I made my way to the game's shop, Porkrind's Emporium. Here, I could purchase different shooting weapons and charms that might help me in battle. The first weapon I bought was the red Spread weapon, which has a short range but deals a lot of damage. Even though I bought and tested all of the others over the course of the game, I stuck to the standard Peashooter weapon and the Spread for every single level and boss I completed because they simply worked best for me.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

Similarly, my second purchase was the Smoke Bomb charm. It made me invulnerable while I dashed, which was invaluable to me throughout the game and I didn't dare to swap it out at any point.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

My first boss level was Botanic Panic, in which the boss enemies were a spitting potato, crying onion and telekinetic carrot. When I was able to beat them in just a few tries, I was a bit surprised, but later bosses in the first world took a lot more trial and error to defeat. A blue blob called Goopy Le Grande completely stumped me with its erratic jumping until something clicked in my brain and I suddenly became able to anticipate his every move. Boxing frogs worked in tandem to take me out until I memorized their patterns and defeated them.

Each of the three islands also features a mausoleum level in which the goal is to protect the spirit of a pretty chalice lady by parrying away evil pink ghosts. When I beat each one, I was rewarded with a new Super Art—a unique move I could use whenever my super meter filled up. The first creates a giant beam of energy that can devastate enemies, the second temporarily makes Cuphead invincible and the third summons an awesome spirit version of Cuphead.

It was also pretty early on that the game introduced its airplane levels, which control quite differently to Cuphead's regular movement. While the airplane levels start of relatively simply with a transforming zeppelin boss called Hilda Berg, they get pretty ridiculous toward the end of the game. Of all of the bosses, I spent the most time trying to defeat Dr. Kahl and his absurdly overpowered robot in the game's toughest plane level.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

Things were going well until I got to Treetop Trouble. Toward the beginning of the game, completing it felt a true test of skill. The first portion of the level sends Cuphead through a hollowed-out tree trunk avoiding bouncing and rolling beetles as well as dastardly attacks from woodpeckers. This wound up being so much more difficult than it looked, and I died a few times before ever making it to the next portion of the level. I'd get flustered after one hit, causing me to make additional mistakes—and after just three blunders, I'd have to retry from the beginning.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

The next area was a vertical climb up the tree. Stacked tree trunk enemies shot projectiles while beetles buzzed around in an attempt to halt my progress. Despite the predictability of their movements, I found myself dying a lot here, too. At one point, I tried to leap back down to a lower level to safety, only to find that Cuphead had borrowed a trope from devious NES platformers and the floor had transformed into a pit, injuring Cuphead and ending my run.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

I was relieved when I finally made it into the last area after a bunch of attempts. Here, flying mosquito critters held up leaf platforms, but as soon as I'd step on one, a fireball would rise from the pit below me and destroy them. Having tight controls of my platforming was critical here, and still being relatively new to the movements, I fell a lot more often than I'd like. This was especially true in the very last phase of the level, when a large dragonfly boss appeared, destroying the mosquito platforms I stood on with its fiery attacks. It took me another few deaths to wrap my head around his attacks, but eventually, I did manage to best him.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

It's that kind of incremental learning that makes Cuphead truly great. Every time I failed, I learned how not to do something. In subsequent runs, I'd either make progress or make a silly mistake and make a mental note not to do that again in the future. I could tell my skills were stacking up and that I was getting better and better at the game, even if it was taking me longer to beat each new level.

Dying again and again might sound pretty disheartening, but whenever you die in Cuphead, you're presented with a timeline of the level that shows you precisely how close you were to victory. While the run and gun levels simply show you how close you were to the finish line, the bosses also split up their diagrams into the boss' different phases. Being able to see Cuphead move further and further down the line helped me stay focused and determined to stick through things, no matter how impossible they seemed at first.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

And after struggling with an enemy and dying dozens of times, it was always so satisfying to finally bring them down and see their defeat animation.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

With the game's first third completed, I started feeling more confident, but I hadn't earned it just yet. For the sake of creating the most informed reviews, I prefer to finish games before I write about them, but early on I realized that might conflict with my desire to drop my coverage on the game's Switch release day. I began to seriously doubt whether I'd be able to finish the game before today as its difficulty continually ramped up.

Sugarland Shimmy was one of these doubt-inspiring levels. While the true boss is Baroness Von Bon Bon, she sends three of her minions out for protection, first. The really tricky part is that the enemies who show up are randomized. I'd find myself crossing my fingers to face off against the candy corn, gumball machine or jawbreaker monsters, and groan when she sent out the pain-in-the-butt waffle or cupcake instead. After I beat one evil candy, she'd send walking jellybeans after me, and once I'd beaten the second, she'd pelt me with a cotton candy gun.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

But all of that paled in comparison to her final form in which her giant sweet house came to life and started chasing me across the screen while the baroness continued to shoot me with candy floss, sent her head flying after me and rolled giant starlight peppermints across the ground to halt my attack. I made it to this phase so many times before I finally got there with the health I needed to survive, and when I finally took her down, it felt like a true accomplishment.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

Cuphead is packed with so many incredible fights that it would take forever to discuss them all, and each new one forces players to learn, adapt and grow, even if certain skills take longer than others to learn. Only when I got to Inkwell Island Three did I even come close to perfecting my parrying. When I was greedy and didn't move precisely enough, I'd get hit instead of racking up a much-needed addition to my super meter. But I had to get good to complete one of the game's final levels, Railroad Wrath. Here, I had to parry a minecart back and forth while attacking a haunted train and dodging its attacks and parrying bricks dropped by invading jack o' lanterns. I was stuck on the first phase of this boss for far too long before advancing, but once I made it to the second, I was well on my way to figuring out the whole level and defeating him.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

And when I'd return to earlier levels to improve my scores or nab coins I'd been terrified to grab earlier, I found that they now seemed like a breeze. And sometimes, when something really clicked, I'd manage to finally beat a boss with two of my three hit points intact, despite having failed so many times before.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

I felt like I was really improving, and that was incredible. You have to play as flawlessly as possible, because if you don't, you're not going to survive for even 30 seconds. I also appreciate the fact that some levels that gave me a ton of trouble were a breeze for others, while some bosses with reputations for being notoriously hard didn't pose too much of a challenge for me. Grim Matchstick the dragon and queen bee Rumor Honeybottoms are well-known for how tough they are, but I didn't struggle too long with them compared to some other bosses.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

Despite their difficulty, every single boss in Cuphead feels special. There's real care and attention paid to every single hand-drawn detail you see on the screen, and the music couldn't be more perfect. These fights are unlike anything I've seen before, and though their next moves are rarely predictable, the logic always works. Finally beating a boss felt kind of magical each and every time it happened.

I held the screencap button down and accidentally captured video of me beating Wally Warbles, so I thought I'd share! #CupheadSwitch pic.twitter.com/UTNmtigHvi

— Amanda McArthur (@amandamcarthur_) April 18, 2019

After hours of dying, and learning, and dying all over again, even the Devil himself didn't seem all that tough when he arrived at the end of the game.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

When I was finally finished with it all, I returned to a character called Quadratus who tells you how many times you've died in the game. I wasn't at all surprised by what he told me. Now, I suppose it's time to try all of the expert versions of the levels.

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(Cuphead via Studio MDHR)

If you like run and gun platformers, you can't do much better than Cuphead in terms of visuals, sound or gameplay. As tough as Cuphead is, it feels fair almost 100% of the time. While certain situations sometimes made it seem like they were impossible to escape without taking damage, I later realized I was approaching them incorrectly. In fact, most undodgeable attacks could be easily avoided with the Smoke Bomb dash move. If there was anything that bogged me down again and again, it was moving from ducking and shooting to jumping. Holding down while pressing the jump button sent me down through platforms and careening into bottomless pits more times than I'd like to admit.

And because Xbox One is so much more powerful than the Nintendo Switch in terms of computing power, I was worried that there might be lag in the game that would occasionally make it tougher to play—or worse, end an otherwise solid run. Thankfully, I never encountered this issue. In fact, the only times I'd see noticeable lag would be on the loading screens, which don't impact the gameplay or visuals in the slightest. This game looks just as good on the Switch as it ever did. Unless you're totally turned off by the potential of challenge, I don't see any reasons to skip it.

Cuphead is available now in the Nintendo Switch eShop for $19.99.

 

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