It’s a well-known fact that teamwork makes a dream work. Console wars are all well and good, but when great games are made available on multiple systems, the ultimate winner is the player. The recent love-in we’ve been seeing between Nintendo and Microsoft started a while back when Minecraft was released on Nintendo systems, and grew stronger when the two paired up to passive-aggressively taunt Sony’s refusal to embrace cross-platform multiplayer.
Now, though, we’re being treated to the most impressive sign of their partnership yet: a Switch port of Cuphead, one of the most critically acclaimed games on the Xbox One and a title that was an Xbox console exclusive (until now, obviously). Not only that, but in a future update the game is going to receive Xbox Live integration, including the ability to unlock Xbox achievements. Yes, it’s fair to say that Nintendo and Microsoft are best buds just now, and Switch owners are starting to get the benefits of that.
Cuphead is already much loved by the Xbox community, so for those already familiar with it here’s all you need to know: the Switch version is a near-perfect port. For everyone else new to the game, read on.
When Cuphead and his brother Mugman enter the Devil’s Casino, the Devil himself offers them a bet: double their money or forfeit their souls. Naturally, the big man wins, but he gives the pair a chance to redeem themselves: if they can chase down other debtors who are on the run from the Devil and collect their souls instead, he’ll let the drinks-based duo go free. Cue a series of extremely difficult action stages in which you have to take out a bunch of boss characters on your way to freedom.
Cuphead mainly consists of two types of level: run-and-gun stages and boss battles. The former are much fewer in number (there are only six in total) and are straightforward enough affairs – get to the end of the stage with at least some health intact – but it’s the 19 boss encounters which are the real meat of this game, and the ones that will test your abilities to their limits.
In case you’ve missed out on its notoriety on other systems, Cuphead is known for being an exceptionally difficult game. The reality is that, yes, it can be tricky at times, but it’s not like it hits you with an endless onslaught of abuse: it’s more about pattern recognition. The boss fights may be a little longer than those in other action platformers, but the same general principle applies: learn each boss’s attack patterns, figure out how to avoid each type of attack, discover its weak spots and let it have it until it eventually keels over.
Most players’ frustration will likely lie with the bosses’ random nature; although they tend to have three unique phases, each with their own sets of attacks, these attacks are generally chosen at random throughout each phase. This means you can’t stand there thinking,“Right, he’s going to do this attack, then he follows up with that attack, then I can get him”, as if you were learning a sequence of fight choreography: instead, you have to wait to see which of their attacks they’ll use next and react quickly (and often you won’t have a lot of time to do this).
At the risk of sounding like an insufferable “git gud” macho man, practice really does make perfect with this one: this is a game where you’re expected to take on these boss fights over and over again and slowly learn every attack permutation as you edge ever closer to completely defeating them. While there is a ‘Simple’ mode, which greatly reduces each boss’s health and generally makes things more manageable for beginners, it’s not an ideal solution: it removes a lot of boss attack types – even entire phases at times – and doesn’t give you a soul contract when you beat them, meaning you can’t reach the final stages and beat the game. By all means, consider it a way to ease into Cuphead’s parry and weapon-changing mechanics, but you’re going to want to switch to Regular difficulty as soon as possible to make sure you don’t miss out on a lot of the game’s charm.
It’s this charm where Cuphead’s real strength lies. Designed in the style of 1930s Fleischer and Disney animations (think Betty Boop and Steamboat Willie) and nailing that style with laser precision, it’s easily one of the most visually jaw-dropping 2D platformers you’ll ever play. Everything is of an immaculate standard, from its hand-drawn animated characters to its deliberately blurry and scratched film look, to its fantastic original jazz and big band soundtrack: it’s not an exaggeration to say this game is a piece of art.
Thankfully, this Switch port handles everything masterfully, too. Image quality is more or less on a par with the Xbox One and PC versions – bear in mind this is a game that’s designed to look blurry and low-res anyway – loading times are nice and quick, and everything runs at a smooth 60 frames per second the vast majority of the time. There are occasional hiccups, most notably during the more intense run-and-gun moments, but these are the exception rather than the norm.
The Switch version also adds a few new features, which are also being added to the other versions in a free update. Mugman – who usually plays the Luigi role and appears during co-op play – can now be selected from the start in single-player mode, just in case you like your heroes wearing blue instead of red. There are also a bunch of new character animations included; while these are generally minor things like new pre-battle taunts, they’re still a welcome addition.
In all, Cuphead’s short bursts of action make it a perfect game for the Switch. Playing it in handheld mode is an absolute delight (though you may need to change the default controls for comfort’s sake) and it runs almost as well as it does on more powerful systems. If this is the sort of thing we can expect more of as a result of Nintendo and Microsoft being best pals, this could very well be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Cuphead was an absolute masterpiece when it launched on Xbox 18 months ago and nothing has been sacrificed in its move to the Switch. It’s the same visually jaw-dropping, aurally delightful, knuckle-whiteningly difficult game it was on Microsoft’s console and the Switch’s library is all the better for its presence. Its focus on intense boss battles won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into we can’t recommend it enough.