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Hand-animated 'Cuphead' game delights in 'The Delicious Last Course'

The villainous Mortimer Freeze, having a whale of a time.
Studio MDHR
The villainous Mortimer Freeze, having a whale of a time.

After five years, celebrated video game Cuphead has another offering: The Delicious Last Course. The original game won legions of fans with sumptuous animation hand-drawn on paper in the style of 1930s cartoons, complete with a roaring big band soundtrack. Now, after a Netflix show, a comic book series, and a few middle-grade novels, the game has new downloadable content that's just as gorgeous, imaginative, and brutally difficult as before.

Tough-as-nails crockery

If you've been playing Elden Ring over the past few months as I have, you know what it's like to fight the same boss a hundred times. The surging joy you feel when overcoming a challenge that initially seems impossible. Beating Elden Ring is a badge of honor to gamers.

Cuphead, initially released in 2017, is a run-and-gun platformer that's just as punishing and rewarding. It follows two walking, talking pieces of dishware, Cuphead and Mugman, who gambled at a casino and lost their souls to the devil. Always one to bargain, the devil indicates that they can stave off damnation by collecting "soul contracts" from bosses that range from a pair of boxing frogs to a giant mermaid who transforms into a snake-haired medusa.

Boss Esther Winchester demonstrates the power of her vacuum in just one of her many phases.
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Studio MDHR
Boss Esther Winchester demonstrates the power of her vacuum in just one of her many phases.

If that sounds surreal – that's very much the point. The game emulates the lunacy of 1930s cartoons, and even replicates production techniques of the era. Cuphead's animators spend years drawing each frame on paper before their drawings spring to life in glorious technicolor gameplay. Stir in a frantic score recorded by a real life big band orchestra, and you've got an aesthetic feast unlike any in the business.

Returning to form

The game's popularity led to a lackluster Netflix spinoff show – which features digital animation trying to pass itself off as 1930s technique. With predictable plots and half-baked humor, the show didn't make me laugh once in three episodes. I can safely say that Cuphead is much better as a video game inspired by cartoons than as an actual cartoon.

Blessedly, we've finally got more game to enjoy. After five years and plenty of painstaking labor, Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course is available to download. It adds a new area, new weapons, new charms, and a new playable character, Ms. Chalice, who first appeared as a damsel-in-distress in the original game.

Ms. Chalice and Mugman square off against an adversarial chess knight.
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Studio MDHR
Ms. Chalice and Mugman square off against an adversarial chess knight.

Get ready for another loony premise: Cuphead and Mugman met a ghostly Ms. Chalice when they rescued her from a vase in a mausoleum. In The Delicious Last Course, Ms. Chalice finds a way to regain her corporeal form by feeding an "Astral Cookie" to either Cuphead or Mugman – temporarily swapping bodies with them. She introduces the pair to Saltbaker, a burly salt-shaker who is also a baker (naturally). Your goal is to complete his "Wondertart" recipe to permanently bring Ms. Chalice back to life by collecting baking ingredients guarded by five main bosses.

A kaleidoscope of surreal bosses

Each of the five main bosses are so arrestingly animated and visually interesting that it's worth trying and failing against them dozens of times just to soak it in. There's a cherry-nosed giant whose beard carpets the ground like snow. He'll open his mouth to reveal gnomes stirring a cauldron of goop to fling at you. During his next phase he rips off his beard and dons huge hand puppets to pummel you with.

Violent gnomes and geese await you in Glumstone The Giant's boss fight.
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Studio MDHR
Violent gnomes and geese await you in Glumstone The Giant's boss fight.

Another boss battle is a literal "dogfight." You have to balance on a small plane as a bulldog pilot flings bones at you. During the last phase, the canine's aircraft itself turns into a menacing enemy. Another fight pits you against a gang of bugs. It begins with a bow-tied spider who speeds around the map, leaving webbed bombs in your path. Defeat him and you'll face a fashionable firefly who dances to a gramophone that radiates painful lasers. The final phase involves an anteater who's so big you can only damage his snout as he tries to lick you to death.

While The Delicious Last Course has plenty of challenges – including an optional gauntlet of fights based around anthropomorphic chess pieces – playing as Ms. Chalice gives you a new way to beat them. Unlike Cuphead and Mugman, Ms. Chalice has a distinct double-jump, special dash, and invincible roll. You can play as her through the original game too, giving old players a new reason to dive in again.

I've never been the type to torture myself with video games. So when games like Elden Ring and Cuphead were released, I didn't expect to enjoy them, let alone get good at them. They're both great games, I just didn't think they were for me. I was totally wrong. Every minute is rewarding, and you can always learn from your mistakes to get better. The Delicious Last course offers even more of that scrumptious gameplay–and for $7.99, it's a bargain meal.

Cuphead, The Delicious Last Course was released today on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS4, and PC.

Kaity Kline is an assistant producer at NPR's Morning Edition and reviews video games for Join the Game. She tweets @KaityKline

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this review.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaity Kline