Cuphead review for Nintendo Switch

Platform: Nintendo Switch
Also On: Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Studio MDHR
Developer: Studio MDHR
Medium: Digital
Players: 1-2
Online: Yes
ESRB: E10+

Does it even matter whether Cuphead is any good?

I mean, yes, in one sense it does: if you’re thinking about whether you should buy it, then obviously you want to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. (And, as I’ll get to shortly, in that sense it delivers.)

But at the same time, Cuphead’s gameplay is almost secondary to how it looks. While there are plenty of games nowadays that claim to be retro, Cuphead takes things to a whole other level, jumping well past the days of 8- and 16-bit gaming to an era that predates video games by a good four decades or so. There’s something audaciously ambitious about trying to recreate the look and feel of a 1930s cartoon in video game form, but that’s precisely what we have here.

In fact, not only do Studio MDHR try to create a game that invokes the feeling of a 1930s cartoon, they succeed beyond a shadow of a doubt. The visuals, the music, the dialogue — all of it feels like it could be slotted into an animation retrospective between Steamboat Willie and Betty Boop and no one would bat an eye. As someone who’s really into films of the era (though, admittedly, my preferences run more towards pre-Code talkies than cartoons), it warms my heart to see a piece of modern-day art that embraces the era so unreservedly.

If that was all Cuphead did, in my mind it would still be noteworthy. That it combines a long-lost visual style with gameplay that a) somehow fits its aesthetic perfectly and b) is a lot of fun just makes the achievement here all the more impressive.

Admittedly, Cuphead’s gameplay — equal parts run-and-gun platformer and sidescrolling shooter — are somewhat less unique. In this respect, you can think back to the days of ?8- and 16-bit gaming and be mostly on target, with games like Mega Man and Contra acting as quasi-templates for what’s going on here.

It’s also worth noting that Cuphead favours the kind of extreme difficulty you see in a lot of other retro-inspired platformers. Most levels will require a couple of attempts as you figure out everything that needs to be done each step of the way, while boss fights will probably make you want to toss your controller across the room in frustration (not recommended if you’re playing the Switch in handheld mode). The game makes the boss fights a little easier with two difficulty levels, but ?easier” is a relative term in this respect.

It also doesn’t help matters that Cuphead doesn’t explain itself very well. You have to dig around, and occasionally go online, in order to figure out some of its core mechanics, which seems like a bit of an oversight.

As far as I’m concerned, however, things like that are forgivable when you make a game that’s as stunningly great to look at as Cuphead. Reviving a long-lost art style gives you a bit of leeway when it comes to the other stuff, you know what I mean? That Studio MDHR were able to make an aesthetic that’s nearly a century old seem fresh and new at the same time as they made an enjoyable game is just a bonus.

Studio MDHR provided us with a Cuphead Switch code for review purposes.

Grade: A-