Cuphead, a run-and-gun side-scroller that was just reconfigured for the Nintendo Switch, looks like an incredible game at first glance: It’s packed with bouncy challenges, an old-school mentality and a retro-art style like none other. In fact, it appears to be something that kids would love.
And in a way, it’s all of those things … except when it isn’t.
The Cuphead story centers around two fun-loving youths: Cuphead and his brother, Mugman. These two animated and anthropomorphized bits of drinkware look like they were pulled right out of a 1930s Fleischer Studios cartoon. And their world is chock-full of that kind of hand-drawn art style and charm.
Against the warnings of their guardian, Elder Kettle, the rambunctious youngsters slip away to the Devil’s Casino to try their luck at a game of dice. You might think that the gambling establishment’s name would have been enough to keep them away, but nope, the two tea-brained guys dive right into a game of craps and soon find themselves in hot water.
After losing a big bet to the Devil himself, the only way the boys can pay off their soulful debt is to go out among the other residents of Inkwell Isles and collect the “soul contracts” of a number of runaway debtors. Old Elder Kettle soon gives the boys the ability to shoot zaps from their fingertips, and off they go to capture those indebted delinquents and give the Devil his due.
From there, it’s off to dozens of battles with exotic cartoon foes who populate broadly colorful and stylized movie “stages.” You face off with animated vegetables, robots, genies, mermaids, flowers, ghosts, bottles of booze, giant cigars and more. You name it, and there’s probably some kind of wonderfully animated version of it in this game, wearing a big toothy grin on its face as it chucks everything from rubber balls to mud balls to eyeballs your way.
The goal is to out-maneuver and dodge all the many, many things flying at you while you (and a friend, if you play in local co-op) shoot back at the character’s tummies, noggins, balloon-like arms and other vulnerable soft spots. Of course, with all of the game’s incredible animation swirling and moving around, the desire to simply sit back and look on in awe can be as defeating as the objects falling on every side.
And that’s really the largest hurdle to leap with this game. It’s tough! It may not be agonizing or cruel, but as the stages become increasingly difficult, the challenge can quickly move way past the abilities (and reflexes) of a bedazzled kid who picked this title up because it looked so cool. The matches may only last two minutes or so each, but in the thick of things the colorful 2D foes show no mercy.
That said, there are plenty of positives to note here, too. The game’s 1930s cartoon styling is indeed incredible. The game mechanics for the Switch—in handheld or joycon mode—are nicely responsive. And needed clues to move toward victory are always present. If you’re patient enough to figure out your foes’ drop-a-bomb-and-chuck-a-pumpkin patterns, it’s very rewarding to finally beat them at their own game.
The accompanying soundtrack of jazzy tunes and bouncy melodies is also a joy to be immersed in. As for the cartoony Devil story I noted above, it’s certainly present here and worth noting again for anyone who might be put off by the spiritual framework of the story. That said, it’s also not quite as dark and depressing as it sounds. And when you get to the end of the soul contract collecting trek, the game—like the ’30s Fleischer Studios cartoons it feels birthed from—offers a solid moral lesson about doing the right thing and making good choices.
All in all, Cuphead is classic, classy and incredibly challenging. So the choice then comes down to this: What’s your gaming cup of tea?
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.