Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Four

Before I get to my reviews of King Dice and the Devil, I want to talk one final time about the difficulty of Cuphead. One last time, and when the DLC hits, I won’t complain about it at all. Cross-my-heart and hope to die!

The overwhelming majority of Cuphead players never made it as far as this review goes. I played this session of Cuphead on Switch, which doesn’t track global achievements, but a quick gander over at Steam’s Cuphead achievement percentages tells a somber tale. Steam, with PC gamers: the most hardcore of hardcore players. How did they fare? Well, as of this writing..

  • Only 54% of Steam Cuphead players have beaten every boss on Inkwell Isle I. This achievement unlocks even if you only win the fights on simple mode.
  • Just under 30% have beaten every Inkwell Isle II boss, which again, unlocks even if you use simple mode.
  • Just under 20% have beaten every boss in Inkwell Isle III under the same terms.
  • 13.8% of all Cuphead owners on Steam have completed the game on normal.

Yes, my #1 ranked indie game of all-time, Dead Cells, has these types of percentages as well. I’ve been accused of hypocrisy more than once. But, Dead Cells straight-up advertises its difficulty. It lists itself as a roguelike, which is a genre that wears its toughness like a badge of honor. Cuphead’s marketing doesn’t do that. Difficulty is NOT MENTIONED on its store pages. “Cuphead is a classic run and gun action game heavily focused on boss battles.” That’s it, then it goes into the graphics, sound, and features of the game. That it was designed to be incredibly hard is never brought up. Just looking at screenshots or even the trailers, you wouldn’t know. The trailer looks downright kid-friendly, if anything. One game clearly wears its difficulty, and the other lets players discover it on its own. Also, Dead Cells has patched-out many of its gates that it originally had. Studio MDHR have given no such hints they would ever consider such a move.

These are damning numbers. I get that we live in an era of digital hoarding, so not every owner is going to put in the time. But actually, the telling stat above is that over half of owners finished the first world. I think that constitutes a good faith effort and a want to experience the game in its entirety. Cuphead quitters all hit a series of walls, and when that happens, and one of two things happens. Either they’re frustrated and/or bored with the extreme difficulty, or they reach a moment where they say “if the game is this hard right now, there’s no way I’ll be able to deal with everything yet to come.” Cuphead is visually jaw-dropping. I’ve not met anyone who didn’t want it to be something they could experience in its entirety. People quit only out of losing patience or surrendering when they realize they’re out of their depth. And yes, I understand many will come back to it, but many more won’t.

One aspect I didn’t bring up in previous chapters: the mausoleums. I really just found them boring and not remotely challenging. If the three of them each had different play styles, I’d of liked them a lot more. But just being a series of parries? The only thing they were good for is unlocking parry-based achievements (one of which nets you an extra coin). I hope the DLC changes up the formula. This was, frankly, uninspired. I know they’re capable of better.

So, who benefits from these walls? Certainly not the players. Cuphead could easily have been a game for everyone. It’s not like the simple mode is completely toothless. Even those who finished the game via the softer difficulty could share tales of overcoming impossible odds. They have done so, in fact. Those who rise-up seeking greater challenges would have welcomed the regular and expert difficulties with open arms. Having played through the game twice, there’s not a single phase that was deleted from simple mode, NOT ONE, that couldn’t have had the challenge scaled back to accommodate lesser-skilled players. A slower projectile. A more telegraphed attack. A few less hit points. There were tons of obvious ways it could have been done. It wouldn’t have been that hard to identify and alter those attacks. NOT FOR EVERYONE, but for those who needed it.

This was not something unobtainable by the developers. Studio MDHR went to a lot of effort to create phases like Hilda’s moon, or Rumor’s Bee-52, or Djimmi’s pyramids. But, the overwhelming majority of players will never see them. No matter what Studio MDHR’s intentions for those gates were, it comes across like a bully holding someone’s lunch box out of reach and making them jump to get it. In other phases, they could remove bullets and slow them down, alter enemy movement, all kinds of things. They could have done that with the final phases they deleted. Why am I and so many others angry? Because they could have, but they didn’t want to, just because games in their day did it too. I’m going to guess the Moldenhauers wouldn’t think it was cool if a teacher was arrested for striking a kid in class with a ruler, and the teacher used the excuse “well, back during my childhood, teachers were expected to hit kids.” That’s nauseating, and it’s a good thing we, as a society, moved past that bullshit. I’m sure they’d agree with that, but, they made a game that uses that exact same “back in MY day” attitude. Not cool.

So yea, I still think the Moldenhauers, the whole lot of them, are completely misguided and wrong with their attitude over difficulty. They talk about it as if all humans are built equal. Yes, I’m aware that games of the NES/SNES era gated via difficulty. If you choose easy, the game abruptly ends and you’re told to man-the-fuck-up and select a higher difficulty. Guess what? Developers of the time were wrong to do that. They knew it, too, which is why gaming has largely (not entirely, but largely) moved away from that mindset. Difficulty is an accessibility issue, and one day, when they actually join the rest of the world in the 2020s, I hope they realize that and make games that everyone can enjoy. Gating based on difficulty is snobbery run amok. I mean, do you think someone who loves Cuphead enough to beat it blindfolded wouldn’t love it as much if other players could get the contracts in simple mode?

I hope Studio MDHR remembers that those who SEEK a challenge will always do so, and continue to escalate the challenge as far as a game will take it. They’ll do this to such a degree, once they’ve maxed out the game’s difficulty options, they’ll just invent their own, and beat, a game holding a controller upside-down, or without pressing specific buttons, or any number of other things. They have, in fact, already done it with Cuphead. They’ve beaten the game on expert with all perfect scores using only the peashooter, and yes, some have beaten it blindfolded. Does Studio MDHR really think THAT CROWD would not have bothered if Cuphead welcomed everyone? And an even bigger question: if there were players who said “I don’t want to play Cuphead if even those who need an easy mode are allowed to beat the game too”, is that even the kind of player Studio MDHR wants to cater to? If it is, nothing myself or anyone says matters, because that means Studio MDHR, frankly, wants toxic fans. That they want 100% of the fans money, but only 13% to ever get full enjoyment for it. Surely they’re smarter than that. Those people who whine about easy modes aren’t keeping anyone afloat, and the truly great players, the ACTUAL great professionals of gaming, don’t care if you stop gating levels, phases, and content based on difficulty. They do their own thing, and besides that, it’s more money for them because it grows the game’s fanbase, which is more fans to watch them annihilate games.

Studio MDHR really should watch this video by my friend Ian Hamilton, the world’s foremost expert on game accessibility, on why difficulty is an accessibility issue. You are NOT hurting your game. You’re only hurting players, for no good reason. You just shrink your fanbase and get the worst kind of word-of-mouth.

Look at Celeste! Adopted wholeheartedly by the hardcore crowd, but with settings and modes that make it accessible to everyone. That could have been Cuphead too. It could have had its difficult-to-chew cake and ate it too while still casting a much wider net. Why does it piss me off? Because I root for indies to succeed. Cuphead is a mega hit, but everything was in place for it to be the biggest thing to hit video games since Minecraft. The developers said “uhhh, while that sounds good, we really want to exclude a large portion of the population from being able to enjoy this thing we worked so hard on, because we’re stuck in the past. Hah, that should have been obvious by the art!”

Welcome to Hell!

INKWELL HELL

King Dice isn’t just one boss fight. He’s ten boss fights. They’re not exactly mini-bosses, either, but actually a small step above that. Each has their own arena, with all the pomp & circumstance other full bosses get. When you defeat them, a bell rings and A KNOCKOUT! appears on the screen, just like other bosses. The big difference is they all are single-phase battles, even the Man of the Hour himself. Instead of drawing them randomly, you’ll be presented with a slow moving dice numbered only one through three. With practice, you can master the timing to assure you get to the desired spaces, three of which will actually grant you an additional hit point for this entire sequence (one per a group of three). The same bosses appear on the same spaces every time while the hearts are randomized.

I found that waiting for the number I wanted to disappear was the right time to jump, then I’d hit the parry on the way down and get the number I wanted. It takes some practice, but after a while, I could get on the space I desired every single time.

In any given King Dice run, it’s actually very unlikely you’ll face all ten possible fights. If your timing is true, you can face as few as three out of the nine not-so-mini mini-bosses before facing off against King Dice in trial by combat. This is the ONLY TIME I’ll excuse Cuphead for the lack of balance in different “random” phases. Not all of King Dice’s soldiers are equally difficult, and some are so easy that it gives you room to breathe. BUT, you actually now have control over which ones to fight, and that control is given to you through mastery of a mechanic in the game. THAT’S HOW YOU HANDLE unbalanced difficulty. You don’t leave it to blind chance. You put it in the player’s hands. So, let’s look at these ten bosses, which I’ll count among the pantheon of normal bosses.

BOSS #18: Tipsy Troop
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Depictions of alcohol in cartoons in the pre-Code Hollywood days.
IGC LIKES: Second only to Djimmi in terms of visually striking backgrounds.
IGC DISLIKES: I can’t believe this is the first boss sequentially, since it’s SO HARD!

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This is the only boss this sequence (besides King Dice himself) that I felt wasn’t easy enough as its own thing to be a World One boss. You’re actually fighting three characters with three individual attacks at once.

  • Ol’ Ethan is whiskey on the rocks. He tips over and spills across the floor, which causes damage until it evaporates. This is the one aspect of the Tipsy Troop I couldn’t clock no matter how many times I played them.
  • Ginette (clever) is a martini who releases little olive bats that shoot their eyeballs at you. The bats can be shot down, but some of their shots can be parried.
  • Rumulus, a surly bottle of rum that suddenly pukes out its contents which fly out of the screen before coming down in a single waterfall above you.

It’s a lot to keep track of. Thankfully, each box has its own hit points and they will be knocked out one at a time. The most problematic, Ol’ Ethan, is right in the front and thus right in the path of even errand bullets. I’m actually fine with how this is handled. It’s late in the game. If I can’t deal with this, I might as well quit. My one idea.. not a knock, an idea.. is this would have been a lot cooler if the three bosses were positioned above you and you had to ping them one at a time, like Dr. Kahl’s Robot. You can’t really select which one you’re fighting because the martini is standing right in front of the rum.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: There’s so much going on with this battle that I feel bad people don’t have a single moment to take in the absolutely haunting background. It’s SO eerie, with characters who appear and vanish, so much so that the first time I played it, when I barely caught a glimpse of the painting phasing the depicted characters in-and-out, I had goosebumps. For real! Like almost every King Dice fight, this battle actually had legs to it and there’s a lot of ways they could have expanded upon it. I’ll never stop wishing Inkwell Hell was a world with ten bosses instead of the “roll the dice” thing they did instead. I get it’s a tribute to Gunstar Heroes, but these designs are so amazing. The Art of Cuphead (notice how I mention it every chapter of this review) notes that they deliberately exaggerated the knockout poses more than other bosses to make up for the limited time you get with King Dice’s minions. I have a hunch that Studio MDHR regrets not expanding these characters, at least on some level.

BOSS #19: Chips Bettigan
STATED INSPIRATIONS: The Yellow Devil from the Mega Man franchise (this thing).
IGC LIKES: A classic gaming tribute done properly.
IGC DISLIKES: That they never state this is modeled after Amarillo Slim, aka the Babe Ruth of professional poker. HE LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE HIM! It’s a well established fact Amarillo Slim was made of betting chips. DUH!

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Chips was inspired by Mega Man’s yellow devil (and not Amarillo Slim, grumble, I wonder if the artist Googled “poker player” and got him, or maybe a young Doyle Brunson), but thankfully, fighting him is nowhere near as tedious. While his head is the only vulnerable part of him, he doesn’t fling himself one chip at a time from left to right and vice versa like those groan-inducing battles the Blue Bomber has to deal with. It looks like that actually was in the cards, going off early concept art of this fight. Instead, Chips passes clumps of his body across the screen in different arrangements before reassembling and leaving you a chance to fire. You can even shoot the head section when it’s not connected to the rest of the stack. Very nicely done.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: THIS is how you do a tribute to a famous battle from a classic franchise. You make it better! Chips Bettigan is the idealized yellow devil battle. Those are moments to dread in Mega Man, not so much the challenge but the sheer mind-numbing tedium of them as you dodge one chunk of it after another and wait for the nanosecond you actually get to shoot it. Chip’s fight is never boring. One thing about Cuphead that is beyond dispute: no game has ever done tributes better. Fitting as the game itself, the whole thing, is based on paying tribute.

I figured the booze and smokes earned this a T rating. Nope, Cuphead is rated E.

BOSS #20: Mr. Wheezy
STATED INSPIRATIONS: The Goddess of Spring (1934), pre-code cartoon smoking imagery.
IGC LIKES: That they actually reworked part of the original Brineybeard fight into this battle.
IGC DISLIKES: Another stage so visually busy that it gets hard to keep track of everything.

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You’ll notice an ongoing theme with the King Dice mini-bosses is they often rely heavily on busy visuals in lieu of, you know, actual gameplay challenge! Ironically, this is a fight completely neutered by the smoke dash (and it won’t be the last King Dice mini-fight the smoke dash wrecks either). There’s two platforms and a gap between them that a constant stream of indestructible cigarettes travels upwards from. Wheezy will spit between one to three fireballs at you that travel in a loop de loop pattern across the screen, very similar to Boaty McBoatface’s attacks during Captain Brineybeard. After firing his shots, he’ll turn to ash and begin teleporting to the other platform. You now must jump to the other platform while avoiding the cigarettes. If you have the smoke dash, you don’t even have to bother timing your jump here. It nerfs the fight completely and makes this the easiest of the first group of King Dice battles.

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The wall of cigarettes was originally not part of this fight. The actual attack pattern for it (sans the cigarettes, presumably it was bubbles or something) was designed for the Boaty McBoatface portion of Captain Brineybeard’s battle. The team felt it didn’t mesh well with the rest of Boaty’s abilities, so they removed it from Shootin’ and Lootin and looked for a boss it made more sense, which is how it became part of this battle. I love that. It’s like those people who waste no part of the animals they hunt, right down to the organs and bones. It’s that can-do spirit I love about indies, because I think most studios would have just junked it as garbage code. I mean, look at the recent Grand Theft Auto “Definitive” collection!

BOSS #21: Pip & Dot
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Tetris (the background), Betty Boop’s Hallowe’en Party (1933)
IGC LIKES: Probably the most intense of the King Dice minions (in a good way).
IGC DISLIKES: Again, this seems like it had all the makings of a spectacular FULL boss.

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The sentient dominoes are my favorite King Dice boss. A white knuckle, never stop moving, think on your feet battle with fine-tuned balance that plays wonderfully. As soon as the fight starts, the ground becomes a treadmill that will have sections of spikes to jump over. The dominoes themselves move up and down while unleashing two types of attacks. They’ll spit out diamonds (based on Space Harrier apparently), that bounce around, some of which can be parried. They’ll also release birds that fly across the top of the screen before traveling down the wall and dashing at you. The birds take twenty hit points (in comparison, Pip & Dot take 600 hits points), and honestly, you can ping them to death if you wish but you can just as easily ignore them. You can never take a moment off this fight, but it’s never unfair. Awesome.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This is one of the rare Cuphead concepts that went straight from the drawing board to the game with minimal alterations. That’s kind of amazing since this is the highlight of the King Dice bosses. Maybe not visually, as I think some of the others are much more outlandish and vibrant. But, it’s incredible how they got it right with little-to-no tweaking of the concept. It’s really something. And just so we’re clear, it really was beautiful.

BOSS #22: Hopus Pocus
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Prest-O Change-O (1939)
IGC LIKES: Awwww look at the bunny wabbit! And the smoke dash. Love that smoke dash!
IGC DISLIKES: Say it with me: I wish this had been a full boss.

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ANOTHER battle that the smoke dash nerfs almost completely. It makes me wonder if the developers were counting on players swapping off the smoke dash and onto the extra life charms, which come at a steep cost of weakening your bullets. But, of course, without the smoke dash, fighting Weezy, Hopus here, or especially one boss still to come, would be a major pain in the ass. His main attack is encircling you with skulls, leaving on a thin area to escape out of. If you have the smoke dash, you can just teleport out of it, lickity split. If not, you actually have to, you know.. go out the way you’re supposed to. It’s a lot harder to do so when the “exit” is at a diagonal angle. Additionally, he’ll drop card suits on you, one of which can be parried. This IS a really tough boss, but the smoke dash is the best item in the game for a reason.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I love how animated the rabbit is. It’s so damn creepy that it could have easily been placed on the Phantom Express and nobody would have batted an eye. The exaggerated, almost smeared character model when he attacks is the stuff of nightmares. While Cuphead does pay tribute to the 30s/40s era of animation, I love that it didn’t anchor itself to any one style. It’s a love letter to an entire era, and nothing went unrepresented. They saved that for disabled gamers. SORRY, I said I’d stop. (Crosses Heart)

BOSS #23: Phear Lap
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Dynamite Headdy
IGC LIKES: How quick and easy it is.
IGC DISLIKES: The foreground.

I’m really not a fan of blocking the screen as a means to add challenge. On that note, look at this picture below. No, not the horse. The other picture. The one where you can’t see a lot of the screen.

Wow. That kind of thing happens a lot when fighting Phear Lap (named after Phar Lap, the most famous racehorse in the history of New Zealand that, like many great athletes, spent much of its time coked out of its gore before dying of arsenic poisoning). That’s a shame, as this is basically the last “traditional” shmup level (there’s one more, but it’s weird), and it wouldn’t be a bad little fight without this foreground shit. Phear Lap throws presents at you that explode into horseshoes, some of which can be parried. There’s skeletal jockeys running underneath you, the blue ones of which will fly up out of their horse like missiles. Even with the foreground issue, which is unforgivable, this is probably the most simple boss, assuming you actually can see the blue jockeys.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I get that they were trying to do a multiplane camera thing that a lot of cartoons after Disney’s The Old Mill (1937) used, but, video games aren’t a passive experience, like watching a cartoon. You’re playing a cartoon, and it’s just cheap and lazy to block the screen. It’s taking the challenge out of the players hands, especially when random elements factor in. I know they worked really hard on the look of this specific boss’s background, and it IS gorgeous, but come on. If you needed more challenge, speed up the boxes and the projectiles they throw out, because they were slow as shit.

BOSS #24: Pirouletta
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Wardner (Sega Genesis)
IGC LIKES: If you have the smoke dash, she’s a free pass to King Dice.
IGC DISLIKES: The hardest of the ten if you DON’T have the smoke dash.

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The roulette table/ballerina is basically an upscaled version of the gumball machine from the Baroness Von Bon Bon fight. Instead of constantly spilling out a rain of balls to avoid, she’ll move left and right a few times before beginning to spin. If you don’t have the smoke dash equipped, you have to parry one of the four chips on the screen and hop over her, and I imagine it’s very challenging since she’s quite spry and zooms left and right at a high speed. If you have the smoke dash, it’s a cinch. Activate the dash when she’s near. The balls are also easy to clock. If you have smoke dash equipped, you’re sitting golden.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I’m sure I sound like a broken record with the whole “this fight is nerfed by the smoke dash” thing, but that’s up to the developers to prevent that, not the players. If I have the option to cheese the fight, I’m going to take it. It’s why I wish these King Dice mini-bosses had been expanded. Because one phase where you can utilize the dash doesn’t completely clip a battle’s harder edge if it’s only part of a bigger picture. All ten of these fights could have been expanded upon. The characters certainly lend themselves to it. It’s still a lot of fun to do battle with Pirouletta, and I was shocked at how many times I blew an easy pass by mistiming the smoke dash. Okay, maybe she’s not totally nerfed, or maybe I just fucking suck at this game.

BOSS #25: Mangosteen
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Treasure’s mascot Melon Bread.
IGC LIKES: Memorable design that’s SO creepy.
IGC DISLIKES: This is THE battle that had legs (ironic since it physically is just a floating eight ball) but it’s over before you can blink.

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For whatever reason, everyone loves Mangosteen. I do too. It’s such an imaginative, skin-crawling creature designed to unnerve you. And what little battle there is against it works really well. He shoots projectiles from his mouth (complete with otherworldly Bifröst-looking spot before the shot goes off) while sentient cue chalks hop around at you. My main issue is simple: this fight is a total breeze, as Mangosteen doesn’t shoot very much and the the chalks are easy to get a feel for how they work. If not for the spectacular visuals, I’d think a lot of people would actually think of this as one of the lesser battles in the entire game. Instead, it’s considered one of the most memorable.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Did you notice that the 8th of the King Dice battles is the eight ball? That actually was the original plan: every position would be represented by a number. The only leftovers from that concept are the Mangosteen battle and the Pip & Dot fight (both have two pips, totaling four, and they’re the fourth King Dice boss). Either way, Cuphead’s gameplay is a lot better than I ever gave it credit for, but one thing I never denied is the sublime character designs. No game in history, not even the most iconic first entries in famous franchises, has had more unforgettable character designs than Cuphead. Special note: Mangosteen’s puking death animation is the most grotesque and disturbing in the game. I LOVE IT!

BOSS #26: Mr. Chimes
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Super Mario Bros. 3, Rampage
IGC LIKES: Totally original concept for a shmup fight.
IGC DISLIKES: Extraordinarily slow and dull battle.

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I admire the originality here. A shmup mixed with a game of concentration. Well, that’s certainly different. Actually, I think this would have worked better as its own battle. I know I’ve said that about every Dice-boss, but the difference here is the other eight battles also work perfectly well as they are. They’re super fast-paced, white knuckle stuff. Mr. Chimes feels like someone threw the breaks on. Match a pair of cards, chip a little health off, match another pair, rinse, repeat. As its own level, this might have been fine. But, it doesn’t fit in with the other eight, and so it’s not fine. Hell, I’m not even entirely sure it would be fun even as its own thing, but as a member of this order of bosses, and the last one nonetheless, I consider Mr. Chimes the worst of the Dice Mini-Bosses.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I always admire when any developer experiments. This is one of those “you can’t know if it’ll work until you do it” situations, and it’s not like the fight is a total abortion or anything. Had they done something like this in any of the previous three worlds, who knows? Maybe Mr. Chimes would have been remembered as one of THE great Cuphead fights. Instead of that one King Dice fight everyone wants to avoid because it takes forever and isn’t all that fun to battle. “Where’s the Rampage tribute?” Does this help?

BOSS #27: King Dice
STATED INSPIRATIONS: The “Dice Palace” stage of Gunstar Heroes, Dick Tracy, The Joker, Cab Calloway
IGC LIKES: Uh.. I guess the satisfaction of beating this section? Maybe?
IGC DISLIKES: What a gigantic letdown.

This is the fight the game built up to for hours now? THIS? It’s not the final boss, but the Devil’s right-hand man has been THE villain of the game. He’s who Cuphead and Mugman bet their souls against. He’s who assigned them to go get the debtors contracts. You had to work your way through three worlds and now as many as nine mini-bosses in this stage alone to get to him. What’s the battle? One attack: he has an army of playing cards march at you, some of whom can AND MUST be parried, as the cards march for quite a while before the attack stops and switches hands. That’s it. That’s the epic battle. It takes 30 to 40 seconds to beat. I mean.. fun attack wave, I guess. But seriously, womp-womp.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I guess the battle with King Dice fits in with the “series of mini-bosses” thing, but playing Cuphead, I imagined this as an incredibly epic battle that I would built to and keep getting better and come up just short and keep working at it, like all other bosses, until I finally had that moment of victory. Instead, I defeated King Dice on my very first time reaching him when I beat Cuphead in 2019. I played terribly when I did so, but because I’d built up bonus health during All Bets Are Off, I won anyway in a battle that lasted only 35 seconds. That should have been GLORIOUS! After all, I just scored a first-try victory over the penultimate boss of one of the hardest video games of the decade. But, I didn’t cheer. I didn’t jump out of my seat. I was so caught off-guard that the fight was already over that I just kind of sat there dumbstruck, before finally saying “that’s it?” As his own self-contained thing, King Dice is as good as any of the better mini-bosses of All Bets Are Off. But given the build-up, this is one of the biggest wet farts of a let-down in gaming history. If this was their idea of a joke, it wasn’t a very funny one. Well, maybe a little funny.

BOSS #28: The Devil in “One Hell of a Time”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Hell’s Bells (1929) Red Hot Mamma (1934), Fantasia (1940)
IGC LIKES: Maybe not the hardest boss, but still a worthy and epic conclusion to Cuphead.
IGC DISLIKES: Fittingly, Cuphead goes out with a boss that exemplifies the issue with unbalanced randomness.

At long last, we’ve reached Cuphead’s finale, and what a finale it is. Once you’ve defeated King Dice, you can talk to the Devil himself. He presents you with an offer: you can hand over the contracts and work for him, or you can fight him and free all the people who you’ve already beaten into a bloody pulp in your effort to clear your gambling debts. Gee golly, mister, what a heart-warming story that was! Personally, I’d of negotiated and asked if I could allow Rumor Honeybottoms to go to hell but free the rest, but that’s not an option. It’s yes or no. Technically, you beat the game if you take the Devil’s offer, and even score an achievement in the process. The credits roll with a somber piano melody in an attempt to guilt you, which doesn’t work on me, being the soulless cunt that I am.

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“Welch” is such an ugly term. Let’s just say.. I’m screwing you.

But, then, when you return to the title screen, it plays the Cuphead theme backwards. Okay, that’s eerie as all hell. MAKE IT STOP! I’LL FIGHT HIM GODDAMNIT! Thankfully, choosing to serve the devil doesn’t delete your file or anything, and it can be undone as soon as you start the game again without any penalty that I’m aware of. So, onto the actual battle. This is it, everyone! Welcome to the last boss!

PHASE ONE – DEMONIC AGGRESSION: First off, the entire opening phase of the fight has these little purple demons that run along the bottom in regular intervals. They’re easily dispatched with just 3.5 hit points whether you’re playing on regular or expert. To put that in perspective, the standard pea shooter does four damage per bullet, while the roundabout does eight damage. Even the weakest gun, the seeker (or chaser, I guess that’s it’s actual name. My bad) takes these little buggers out in two shots. As for Beelzebub, he has six randomized attacks, three of which are variations of one primary method.

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TRIDENT MAGIC: The Devil will cast one of three spells that send projectiles flying around, one of which will always be parriable. One involves four balls that ricochet around the room. One is four flames that spin around a central fifth one that can be parried. The sixth is a hexagon of fireballs that eventually begin to heat seek the player one at a time. I often took damage from these phases before I even knew what hit me. Sometimes they spawn right on top of you. These are, to say the least, not equally balanced.

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SERPENT (Clearly more like a Chinese Dragon): The Devil stretches his head out, which curls up and down from either the left or right side of the screen, going the full length of the screen. While there are spots to duck under, it’s an illusion. When the attack ends, you’ll take damage when he straightens out. The only way to assure you don’t take any damage is to run to the opposite side of the screen as far as you can, but make sure you keep an eye out for the purple demons that never stop spawning the entire first phase.

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SPIDER: The Devil detaches his head and crashes down upon you from the ceiling. You’ll want to dash out of the way of it. This is the toughest attack to cause damage to, as it moves too fast to really lock onto it, and you have to be dodging out of the way anyway. The amount of times it’ll fall from the ceiling is randomized too, as it could be between three to five times, so you can’t go back to shooting the head area of the primary devil if it’s only the third or fourth bounce. A lot of bosses have the “crash from above” attack, but the Devil, fittingly, has the toughest one.

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GOAT: This seems to be the most common attack the Devil utilizes. He’ll make a goat face and stretch his arms out, which then shoot out across the floor and clap together in the center of the screen. The timing is so weird for this, to the point it almost feels like it’s randomized. It’s the gaming version of a change-up pitch in baseball. It catches you totally by surprise. The best strategy is to use the dash when you jump to give yourself hangtime. It’s the hardest “quick jump” in Cuphead to clock, but it is awesome. Oh, and the purple demons have uncanny timing for being on the screen when this specific attack happens, so be extra careful.

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After you do X amount of damage, the Devil’s skeleton sheds his skin and jumps into a pit. Apparently, in the original release of Cuphead, you could just NOT follow him into the pit and use Seekers or other guns to shoot the hitboxes for the Spider and Dragon forms that remain active and off-camera, resulting in a victory. Yikes. This is why, if you’re an indie developer, you should instruct your play testers to cheese the shit out of your games. I mean, sure, they should play it straight, but every third or fourth run, they should be cheesing it like they’re the Noid and it’s the 90s. Give them a two word instruction: “BREAK IT!” The Devil glitch has long since been patched out, but it’s some neat trivia and, again, there’s educational value in this for indies. Even the most well-produced games can have the easy, obvious stuff slip sometimes.

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PHASE TWO – NOW HE LOOKS LIKE A SPORTS MASCOT: Okay, so not the most intimidating devil I’ve ever seen, but indeed, this is the final form. There’s five platforms to stand on, and his eyes are the weak spot. For the rest of the battle, flaming poker chips will periodically fall from the ceiling. Satan has two attacks now. When his eyes merge to make him look like a cyclops (no, this doesn’t count as fighting the cyclops in Rugged Ridges you jerkoffs), he’ll unleash an axe that swirls around you. This is deceptively hard to clock. In the other, he’ll show a bat bomb in an eye, then turn his head so the bat can exit his ear. The bomb is parriable, and trust me, YOU HAVE TO! The explosion if it detonates has a massive range.

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PHASE THREE – YOU DIDN’T NEED THOSE OTHER TWO PLATFORMS ANYWAY!: Phase three begins when the devil winces. The furthest left and right platforms will be removed from play (if only politics would do that) and be replaced with fat demons who spit skulls across the screen, some of which can be parried. Imps also start flying around, though I honestly never noticed them as this is just a completely batshit phase. The flaming chips from before are now even more likely to fall on one of the platforms you’re standing on. This is far and away the busiest phase in all of Cuphead. There is SO much going on. But, there’s hope, especially if you’re using the Spreader.

Every single one of those spikes I shot instantly hit.

Just cheese it! If you activate your special move with the spreader between the eyes, you’re scoring a ton of damage all at once. You can shoot the fat demons down, but their attacks are easy to miss, and some of them can be parried. Also, the imps fly in from above, but you’re already shooting above you, at the Devil’s eyes, and they seem to get taken down without effort as a result of that (they only have 3.5 hit points, like the purple demons in phase one). Even with the cheese, this is still an extremely tough battle. There’s just so much shit going on. But, after a little bit, the devil winces and..

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PHASE FOUR – OH GOD, THIS IS *SO* AWKWARD: The Devil starts crying. So perfect. Folks, this is the final phase of Cuphead’s adventure. The demons bail. The imps bail, and all but the center platform disappear. It’s just you, the now-weeping Prince of Darkness, and those damn chips that keep falling from the ceiling. The Devil’s tears are parriable, but it’s risky (they hurt you if you screw up the timing), and there’s really no need to get fancy at this point (unless you’re somehow short of three parries for the scorecard). This final phase has well less than half the hit points of all his others from this battle. Just jump out of the way of the chips while angling back onto the platform and pump bullets into him, and that’s it. You just beat one of the hardest games out there. And it feels.. so.. amazing.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I’ve done a LOT of bitching over this four part review, but I have to tip my hat to Studio MDHR for probably the most poetic finale they could have possibly done. After all the pain Cuphead inflicts on players.. the anguish, the frustration, the anger, the heartache, the downright unfair at times torture.. it all ends with the game crying. Standing ovation over here, Studio MDHR. That was delightful. And yes, it did make it worth it. It’s probably my favorite ending to any game I’ve played since starting Indie Gamer Chick.

I WAS WRONG ABOUT CUPHEAD. SO VERY, *VERY* WRONG

Yea, I know I just said that exact same thing about Shadow of the Colossus. But, I never denied Shadow’s greatness. I put it on my all-time Top 10 list because that first play-through was mind-blowing, but subsequent play-throughs had lost the magic of discovery and the suspense of what was still to come. It took me years to accept that the game still had value outside of that. I had actually planned to do a feature called “Shadow of the Colossus – The Game After the Game” with it. But instead, I turned on Cuphead again. I knew now in my heart of hearts that I had gotten it wrong, and I needed to verify this. And I did. After over four years, I’m big enough to admit it..

I was wrong. So very, very wrong. For all of its problems, and those problems are numerous, Cuphead is one of the best indie games ever made. It really is something very, very special.

I ended up beating this a 3rd time gathering media for this feature. Huh, maybe I will go for expert mode when the DLC hits.

Sometimes, a game can be frustrating and maddening, and then bring it home with elation and joy. That is absolutely fine! Sometimes it’s okay to just take in mind-blowing sights and sounds while you do battle with frogs doing Ryu and Ken cosplay. That’s why we play games to begin with. The difficulty thing will always bug me, at least until Studio MDHR stop being elitist pricks about it. But I can’t deny what they’ve accomplished here. The controls? Well, once you remap the buttons (seriously HOW IS THE DEFAULT CONTROL SCHEME SO WRONG? I ADMITTED I WAS WRONG! NOW YOU DO IT TOO, FUCKERS!), the controls are responsive and spot-on. The storyline is simple but delightful. The characters are unforgettable. Those fights are the stuff of legends, and that ending? It’s the chef’s kiss. And I didn’t want to believe that, because I was mad a game kicked my ass, and yea, I admit, that’s shameful. Cuphead doesn’t suck, and doing a four part review for a game I already reviewed three times prior should say it all.

Cuphead is one of the all-time greats. And I’m sorry it took me this long to figure that out.

Cuphead was developed by Studio MDHR
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation Network, Steam

$39.98 ($19.99 per copy) lost 713 lives in the making of this four part review.

Cuphead is, at long last, Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

At least until the DLC hits..

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Three

Welcome back to the fourth annual Indie Gamer Chick Cuphead Review. Thankfully, the worst is mostly over. There’s three bosses in Cuphead I consider to be actively “bad” and you’ve already fought two of them. Upon finishing the second world, you still have nine bosses (one of whom is actually ten separate mini-bosses) and two really good Run & Gun stages. Of what remains, I only consider one lone boss to be actively bad, and another to be one that starts well enough but ends with a colossal “meh” that sours the whole experience. The rest is pretty fun. So actually, the really good stuff in Cuphead starts in..

Inkwell Isle III

RUN & GUN #5: Perilous Piers
STATED INSPIRATION: Small Fry (1939), Educated Fish (1937)
IGC LIKES: Very imaginative take on the seaside trope.
IGC DISLIKES: Extreme difficulty.

For my money, the toughest of Cuphead’s traditional levels. When I look back on my time with it, or watch clips of myself beating it, I think to myself “how did I ever struggle so much with Perilous Piers?” But, when I went back to get extra media for this review, the stage absolutely laid waste to me. Again. Without exaggeration, I lost more lives playing this level than all other levels in Cuphead combined. This is one tough stage.

Through most of the level, flying fish randomly pass across the screen, some of which can be parried. This is one of those stages where Seeker is SO helpful. On the other hand, the little barnacles that spit out spiky balls remind me of the stumps from Treetop Trouble: too spongy, even if you’re using more powerful weapons. They’re not even that difficult to dodge, so it’s just needless busy work. If they’re spongy so that you can’t just sit back and ping them to death without having to deal with the spikes, it begs the question “why even make them destructible at all?” It makes more sense to have them be fixtures that you have to time to avoid.

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One of the most memorable set-pieces from Cuphead’s traditional levels are the giant crabs that you hop across. Remarkable that a game based almost entirely around boss fights managed to avoid the trope of fighting a giant crab. These indestructible decapods are the closest you get to that. What I really love about the crabs is this is one of the set pieces they absolutely nailed the pacing on. This segment doesn’t go on forever and it’s probably simplest and easiest part of the whole stage. Hop-on, admire the visuals, switch crabs a couple times, grab the coin, and move on. Quick and fun, just the way I likes it!

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This is where Perilous Piers gets teeth. You have to work your way across a series of platforms and hanging crates, often by parrying off buoys (some of which are so far away you have to mid-air dash at them) while avoiding a giant lobster that claps lightning at you. Why lightning? Wouldn’t just splashing water at you make more sense? This section and the next are what destroyed me during my run. I easily lost more lives here than I did against more than half the bosses. It looks so unassuming, and when I recapped what it consists of, it seems like this shouldn’t have kicked my ass to the degree it did. But, trust me, this is about as brutal as Cuphead gets. BUT, it never gets boring, even in failure. Nicely done, MDHR.

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Finally, you hop across a series of tentacles holding up platforms, then ride a giant octopus to the finish line. If only it were as simple as that sentence. The octopus has a gem attached to its head, and there’s a series of rocks in the way of your path to the goal. You have to parry the gem to get the octopus to blow up the rocks, and all the while, shrimp are being launched at you (some of which can be parried) and an oyster is shooting bubbles at you from behind. Again, it doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s so much to keep up with. You can’t just continuously parry the gem, as it only activates when nearby a rock. You’re auto-scrolling right this entire time, with projectiles coming from both sides, while trying to keep the Octopus from crashing and sinking. A fitting conclusion to a level I think I lost more lives to than any other video game level. I liked Inkwell 2’s R&G stages more, but this wasn’t bad at all.

RUN & GUN #6: Rugged Ridge
STATED INSPIRATION: Aztec Adventure, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Castlevania (Franchise), Giantland (1933), Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936)
IGC LIKES: The most visually striking of the six traditional levels.
IGC DISLIKES: Heavy reliance on trial-and-error “one more step per life” gameplay.

During this last session, I realized I never played Rugged Ridge in any of my three previous times picking up Cuphead. I have no idea how I missed it the first few times around, since I very much preferred the Run & Gun stages to the bosses (and, in many ways, still do). But, having now played through it twice, it turns out I was missing out on the weakest of the six traditional stages. Though, weak for Cuphead is still pretty good.

I feel Rugged Ridge is too much of a “trial and error” stage. Die, make it past the thing that killed you, die. Rinse. Repeat. You start by battling mountain goats that throw boomerang-like pickaxes at you, all while standing on giant scales. I never found out if the scales can kill you if you stand on them too long. Let me check..

(Public domain music plays).

Nope. The scales apparently only exist to throw you off balance while you battle these goats. Well, that explains it, since I certainly would have been killed by them if they were lethal. I mean, everything else killed me. I got my revenge though: I broke this level somehow.

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There’s a couple of these mountain lions.. in this case, lions made out of pieces of mountain.. that blow you backwards and take forever to destroy. One of them is positioned next to a pit, the other placed in a courtyard designed to push you backwards into fast-spawning Satyrs. I’ve never been a fan of “wind” in games (it was my one major knock on Gris, so much so that my entire intro in that review is dedicated to how much I hate it). This is the nit-pickiest complaint in this entire feature, but I hated these mountain lions. They’re not particularly challenging, soak up bullets, and can feel free to blow me in a way besides the way they actually do.

Speaking of coins, I kind of like that once the coins are gotten, they’re gotten. If you missed any, they’ll be the only ones left when you replay it. There’s forty total coins. Thirty are in stages, one you get in the game’s tutorial, four are hidden throughout Cuphead’s overworld and five are given to you by NPCs. My only complaint is I wish there was more emphasis on hidden coins. There’s not a whole lot of excuses to explore the overworld.

In an apparent effort to squeeze every possible gaming trope into Cuphead, there’s an elevator where you fight an ever-spawning army of mud monsters and little baby dragons that The Art of Cuphead suggests have a tie to Grim Matchstick. Well, yea, I could tell. These are your only chances at a parry in the stage. Every other bullet they fire is parriable, but it requires you to not shoot the dragons. If you do, you’ll miss out on your three required parries. What is it with Studio MDHR and limited parry chances involving dragons? Is this some kind of in-joke? Also, I had the biggest bitch of a time grabbing the coin that was along this path, and when I finally got it, I felt like an idiot because it’s actually absurdly easy. This whole section is fine. Difficult, but not too difficult.

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If you have the spread gun equipped, you can cheese the next section. Walls pop up (they’re apparently another homage to Contra III), but walking next to them and blasting them at point-blank range will kill them before they have a chance to shoot at you. You’ll want to do this, because the little drops of oil they spit out are hard to dodge. In addition to these and the other mountain lion, these Satyrs shoot up out of the ground, then dash off to the left or right. If it’s the left, chances are you’re already in front of them and they pose no threat. But, they’re easily dispatched even if they head in your direction. It’s almost like they gave you a free pass for this section. I remember thinking “huh, that’s ominous.”

Oh shit.

Allegedly, the earring tips off some relation to Brineybeard. Cousins, perhaps?

In direct tribute to the Mecha Dragon from the first part of Wily’s Castle in Mega Man 2, you now race a cyclops to the finish line of Rugged Ridge. You have to make harrowing jumps across narrow platforms (some of which are orbited by indestructible flames) while avoiding contact with the one-eyed beast. The platforms are placed for maximum challenge, and the flames are placed in exactly the way you’d expect the world’s biggest dickhead to place them. I’d be very impressed if someone aced the Cyclops chase on their first attempt. God, I wish this was a boss, but in fact, this is the lone “mini-boss” in Cuphead you don’t kill. It’s simply a chase, and when you cross the finish line, you’ve finished the last of Cuphead’s platforming stages. Well, assuming you do this one last, which is a big assumption since, if you play the stages in the order you pass them on the map, this unlocks before Perilous Piers. Eh, play this last and end the Cuphead’s Run & Gun experience on the perfect note for the stages: exciting, memorable, and wishing the mini-bosses were full bosses.

BOSS #11: Rumor Honeybottoms in “Honeycomb Herald”
STATED INSPIRATION: Honey Woman (the unused Mega Man 9 boss that became Hornet Man), Darkstalkers, Ants in the Pants (1940), Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), Cobweb Hotel (1936)
IGC LIKES: That I never have to play this boss ever again now.
IGC DISLIKES: Every aspect of this part of the game. It’s the worst boss in Cuphead.

This is it. The boss I needed the most lives to defeat. One that took me five hours to beat during this session of Cuphead. What’s insane is, after beating Rumor Honeybottoms and only scoring a B+, I had to continue to fight it to reach my “A- minimum” goal on every boss.. and immediately won a second fight. Only, I got a B+ again. I lost the next attempt, but finally got past it with my desired A-. In theory, that means I “got good” at Rumor, since I won 3 out of 4 matches. In my authority as someone who can say they’ve won four times against her on Regular mode: Rumor Honeybottoms is the most boring boss in the entire game, and the most unfair.

PHASE ONE – SECURITY BEE:  The Rumor Honeybottoms fight presumably takes place immediately following the Grim Matchstick fight. That was a horizontal auto-scrolling battle. This one is a vertical auto-scroller, but with the same basic set of problems. The randomized platforms can absolutely screw you. In theory, they should keep you thinking on your feet. In reality: this is pretty much the most cramped battle in the entire game, which would make this difficult enough if it weren’t scrolling. But, the battle starts harmlessly enough. The idea of the security bee goes with the “bees as booming 9 to 5 business culture” that falls totally flat as this is one fight so busy you can’t take in the background. You have to focus on the platforms, since huge gaps in them will often appear, and all over. The gaps can even be in the dead center. Security Bee throws bombs that explode into six spikes. Half the spikes can be parried, but you have very limited space to do so. Worker bees also float by with suitcases, but they’re easily dispatched. This isn’t the worst part of the worst fight, so enjoy it while it lasts.

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PHASE TWO – A WHOLE LOT OF BEE S: Phase two has the queen attack you three different cycles. Which attack goes first is random, but the attacks will always follow the cycle’s order from there.

  • MISSILES: Rumor appears in the center of the screen and her head falls to the bottom, like a wrecking ball. She then spits missiles at you that zoom around half the screen in an S or Z pattern. It’s the hardest to clock and the attack that the randomized platforms can.. and will.. absolutely screw you the most on. I hated this attack. I hate this boss.

The randomized platforms can leave some downright absurd patterns. Look at how few are on Cuphead’s side of the screen in this shot. A massive gap between the player and the next platform above them, plus missing platforms on the side. It takes away the glory of finally winning when victory often comes down to getting favorable RNG lottery odds.

  • SPHERE: Rumor conjures a pair of pink energy balls that can be parried off of. This is the easiest of the three to avoid and a quick way to charge your cards.
  • TRIANGLE: Rumor will create triangles that always spawn right on top of where you’re standing and force you to move right away, or else suffer damage. The triangles then spit parriable bullets. Again, sounds great, until you realize this is the most difficult layout for parries in the entire game. Sometimes you’ll go to score one only to instead land on a platform and take damage. Plus, since rumor is taking up space, your ability to dodge out of the triangles is limited, especially if the Honeycomb Lottery from Hell decides to not spawn platforms to jump to. What a miserable stage.

Not exactly the most tightly designed boss in any form or fashion. When given a favorable order of attack cycles, speed runners can easily knock out Rumor before she can even transition to the final phase. Although exceptionally skilled players can phase-jump multiple bosses in Cuphead, Rumor is the only character that many novice players have, by total luck, managed to score a victory before the final phase starts. Hell, even *I’ve* had moments where I died during the second phase and my jaw dropped as I see I’m actually, technically, well over halfway through the final phase before she even turns into the airplane. Yikes!

Every aspect of the actual battle with Rumor is made completely unfun and tedious by the randomized platforms. You can’t really form a strategy, since it’s practically inevitable the floors will suddenly stop spawning near you. It’s like the match with Grim Matchstick on steroids. There’s nothing entertaining about it. Since this is the last major instance of auto-scrolling, I’m going to say that I hope they avoid this in the DLC. I’m certain Studio MDHR had the best of intentions with this setup, but it doesn’t work. It’s not the fun kind of difficult. It’s just frustration with no redeeming value. You don’t feel joy when you beat Matchstick or Rumor. You feel relief. Oddly, the majority of Cuphead never feels like a traditional punisher. This isn’t Super Meat Boy. This isn’t 1001 Spikes. It’s not Celeste. This might be the most notable accomplishment of Cuphead that nobody talks about: it defies the sub-genre it technically belongs to. Cuphead is a punisher that never feels like a punisher. EXCEPT for the Matchstick and Rumor fights. Those are punishers, and not the fun ones. All pain and no pleasure, like one of those days where your dominatrix’s heart isn’t into it. Not that I would know anything about that…………WHAT?

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PHASE THREE – GET IT? SHE’S A B-52 NOW! IT’S FUNNY BECAUSE SHE’S A BEE!: What should be an epic final form still doesn’t land at all because the fight still sucks. And that’s not even getting into how inelegant this battle is. Rumor’s bullshit sawblade attack is one of the biggest GOTCHA!s in the game, since there is absolutely NO WAY to see it coming the first time around. Or, several times after, really. It’s not set-up with a proper telegraph (and there’s NO point in doing this kind of game without a telegraph), it fully extends too quickly, and it covers over half the screen. It’s just a dick move, the shitty icing on the most disgusting cake in all of Cuphead. And this is all in addition to the still randomized platforms. I died just as much falling to the bottom of the screen as I did from the saw. The one shining light is this phase should go quickly, as you can ping a lot of damage off phase three while you’re still in phase two. Congrats, you’ve made it past the worst boss in a good game I’ve ever played. This was the absolute rancid shits. The worst they could have done. Ugh, horrible!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Rumor Honeybottoms is the one boss in Cuphead where I think the difficulty is ALWAYS of the “this is just frustrating” type. Even Grim Matchstick, as terrible as he is, has the parade phase, which is unlike any phase in any boss I’ve played, and totally in service to the character. Rumor is interesting and ALWAYS frustrating. That’s not a good thing, because that’s the type of difficulty that gets boring the fastest. In gaming, ideally you want to challenge players in a way where they think they’re getting closer, and where the body count isn’t the point, but rather surviving the stuff that keeps killing you. With Rumor, it feels like the body count is the point. Where every aspect of the challenge was designed by the world’s biggest dickhead. You never think “ugh, just one more time” with Rumor. You think “OH CHRIST I HAVE TO KEEP GOING AND I WANT IT TO BE OVER!” But, the good news, dear reader: this is it. She’s the last of the “bad” parts of Cuphead. Even the most annoying of the bosses still to come don’t override the fun factor.. well, except the ending to Dr. Kahl’s Robot.

BOSS #12: Captain Brineybeard in “Shootin ‘n Lootin”
STATED INSPIRATION: Bluto, Felix the Cat in “The Goose Who Laid the Golden Egg” (1936), King Neptune (1932)
IGC LIKES: Squint and you’ll swear you’re playing a Popeye game and not.. uh.. THAT Popeye game.
IGC DISLIKES: This really should have been a world two boss at the very least, or even the final boss of Inkwell Isle I.

Another iconic fight, and in my opinion, one that should have been in world two. I don’t know how they came up with the order for Cuphead’s bosses, but it’s all wrong. Like, hugely, historically wrong. The story I hear constantly (literally just heard it again as I’m typing this) is players hitting a wall in world two and throwing in the towel. If Studio MDHR had moved Baroness Von Bon Bon and Grim Matchstick to late in world three, while moving Brineybeard and Werner Werman to much sooner, I think a lot more players would have stuck it out to the end of Cuphead. Few owners of this game have actually beat it.

In fact, I’ll take it a step further: Brineybeard’s placement is significantly out of whack. He should have been the final boss of world one. It’s inevitable that a game based entirely around bosses would have a few scaling issues, but the degree of which Studio MDHR bungled it is stunning. “But if a boss made them quit, doesn’t it stand to reason they’d of quit at that boss no matter what world it was in?” NO! That’s just wrong. You expect any game to get harder as you go along, and people are a lot more likely to press on through difficulty if the end of the game is in sight. But, fighting extremely difficult bosses before the mid-point of the game is demoralizing and makes you fear how bad things will get. Yes, there’s going to be players who freak into acing difficult fights (my sister beat Djimmi on her very first try, and I beat King Dice the first time I ever reached him when I first beat Cuphead in 2019 DESPITE horribly shitting the bed in the battle), but on the whole, most players seem to agree that Brineybeard is too easy.

PHASE ONE – KILL HIM MR. TAKO!: What makes the battle with the pirate stereotype interesting is you have to shoot up at him. There’s no elevated platforms, so you’re forced to either hold down your aim-lock and fire diagonally, or jump A LOT, which is probably what makes this battle feel longer than it actually is. Briney will start every fight by firing bullets out of his octopus. Some of these are parriable, and in fact, there’s no boss that you can charge up your special attack faster on. Of course, you have to watch out for the ever-present barrel during this match, which crashes down on you whenever you pass under it. The barrel sticks around for the duration of the entire fight. The octopus gun stops when you reach the final phase. This is the only non-shmup fight where I could fire off three fully-charged super weapons over the course of the battle, mostly owing to these bullets. Even on expert mode, I could do it.

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PHASE TWO AND THREE- UNLEASH THE KRAKEN.. AND SEADOGS.. AND THE SHARK: After pinging enough damage off Brineybeard, he’ll start to summon various sea creatures to lend whatever qualifies as their hands. The seadogs jump onto the right side of the dock and quickly scuttle to the left, but can be killed easily with a few bullets (apparently their collars are a tribute to the Sega Master System title My Hero). The giant squid pops up in the center of the screen and inks the camera so you can’t see what’s going on, but he’s also easily dispatched with bullets. Finally a shark will dive onto the dock from the left side of the screen, but you get ample warning it’s coming. This phase goes on for quite a while, and seeing multiple of the same attack isn’t rare. After a little bit, a third phase will start which adds the boat spitting out cannonballs across dock. In Simple Mode, this IS the first phase, before Brineybeard starts shooting you with the octopus. It’s weird how different the simple and regular phases can be handled. Just wait until the next boss. I’m extremely impressed by the balance in the random difficulty. This might be the most evenly balanced any set of randomized attacks are in the entire game.

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PHASE FOUR- BOATY McBOATFACE: Eventually, the boat will have all it can stands and it can stands no more. It pops up (if you watch closely, you can see Brineybeard go flying into the water in the background) and reveals it’s a whale-like monster. It shoots fireballs at you that loop from right to left. After a bit, it charges up a gigantic beam that holds on the screen for a while. Remember, the overhead barrel is active this whole time and can still crash down on you. But, the catch is this is one of the few “super shot” attacks by a boss that can be parried. If your timing is true, you can bounce across this beam and charge-up a super shot. The ship’s uvula is the weak point, and it makes for a cartoonishly delightful finale to one of my favorite Cuphead bosses. Studio MDHR were wise to focus on this encounter during the marketing.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Brineybeard was one of the characters that got the lion’s share of pre-release footage and hype. So, I find it kind of bizarre that the actual fight happens so uneventfully, early in world three. It doesn’t feel like a battle that should take this long to get to. It’s not an event by time you reach it. It’s just another boss to check off. That’s a shame, because Briney is a treat to fight and the ship losing its shit is one of the great moments of the entire game. Again, I haven’t the faintest clue how they determined which bosses go where, but besides the first two and final two bosses, they got it all wrong. If the first world ended with the captain, or the second world opened with him, I think a lot of Cuphead quitters would have pressed-on. After a boat flings its captain off and has its uvula shoot lasers at you, who knows what they’ll come up with next? It makes you wonder if Studio MDHR had any clue at all or if they’re the biggest hacks who lucked into an amazing project since George Lucas. I guess we’ll find out with the DLC, but so help me god, if they changed it so Brineybeard shot first.. well, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.

BOSS #13: Werner Werman in “Murine Corps”
STATED INSPIRATION: The Barnyard Battle (1929) Mickey’s Rival (1936)
IGC LIKES: One of the more visually striking and twisted finales of any boss in Cuphead.
IGC DISLIKES: Uh.. why is the simple mode arguably harder than regular mode?

Yea, you heard me: for whatever reason, Werner Werman is possibly more difficult to beat in simple mode than it is in regular mode. As a reminder, like most other bosses in Cuphead, simple mode is missing the entire final phase, because players who use the easy mode developers chose to include must be punished for doing so. Only, the second phase of Werner is actually a lot tougher on simple than it is on regular. It’s so weird! Even worse: Werner is among the cinchiest bosses in all of Cuphead and very easily should have been a World One boss. Maybe. Actually, I got a mixed reaction to this when I posted it on Twitter, with several friends and followers saying they had a bitch of a time beating the rat.

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PHASE ONE – CAN OF WORMS: Werner scoots back and forth in his tomato can tank while either firing bombs at you or catapulting junk at you. The bombs must be avoided completely, and when they hit the ground, they explode in fire trails that go left and right. The catapult offer two projectiles that can be parried, though the position of the parriable objects is randomized. Eventually, he’ll fling two springboards out that you must parry to launch yourself off of in order to avoid his charge. This phase is so simple and basic, even on regular mode, that I can’t believe this is a world three boss.

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PHASE TWO (SIMPLE) – THIS IS EASIER?: Actually, once you get the pattern down, it’s not so bad. Werner emerges from his tank with a cherry picker and two flame throwers attached to it, and now the walls are lined with sharp bottle caps. In simple mode, Werner moves up and down AND left and right while firing bursts of flames. You have to time when to switch between the upper and lower platforms. When Werner is shooting along the top platform, you can actually stand on his vehicle and fire up into him. This is one of the fights that took me the longest time to beat on simple, but when the time came to fight him on regular, I shredded him.

PHASE TWO (REGULAR/EXPERT) – NO, THIS IS EASIER: For whatever reason, Werner doesn’t move left and right in regular mode. Instead, he remains in the center of the screen and rises up and down while firing his torch across the top and bottom platforms. The “added challenge” is that the bottle caps on the walls activate and randomly stretch out. There’s apparently no logic that dictates which caps are the ones that extend. I’ve had entire battles go where one never even came close to me. The balance is totally out of whack.

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PHASE THREE – KATZENWAGEN: The menacing cat that you’ve seen periodically peeking in on the battle emerges and swallows Werner, and begins probably the easiest final phase since the first two bosses. The cat will swipe with either its left or right paw, but you have more than enough time to dodge out of the way. Every time he swipes, the banging of the paw causes pieces of debris to rain down from the ceiling left to right or vice-versa. After a while, he’ll also unleash the ghosts of mice, who shoot balls of energy at you that split into two when they hit the floor, though most of their initial shots can be parried. Fitting for a a battle with a rat, this is one of the most cheeable battles in Cuphead. If you have spread equipped, you’re really golden, as you can simply jump in front of the cat’s face and fire your super shot, and all eight bullets will score an immediate hit. I’ve taken the cat down in just a few seconds several times. Even on expert, it’s absurdly easy. Maybe the easiest finale in Cuphead, actually. Visually, it’s among the most amazing, but it’s so easy that it’s probably the biggest letdown in Cuphead.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I’m as far removed from “professional” gaming skills as possible, but even I can consistently beat Werner’s second and third stages combined in under thirty seconds with no effort. Thus you have a world three boss that could have been one of the first three bosses. Don’t get me wrong: it’s the last time a boss is this big a push-over, but I firmly the reject the notion that it’s okay to insert a cinch battle as a cool-down late in the game. If people need breaks, the last time I checked, game controllers have a big ole pause button right in the middle.

BOSS #14: Dr. Kahl’s Robot in “Junkyard Jive”
STATED INSPIRATION: Dr. Wily (Mega Man), Dr. Robotnik (Sonic The Hedgehog), Gunstar Heroes, Mickey’s Mechanical Man (1933), Modern Inventions (1937)
IGC LIKES: The concept of systematically shooting down a boss, part by part.
IGC DISLIKES: That the battle ends on the laziest idea in the entire game.

Far and away the boss that most of my readers cite as the hardest (and worst) in the entire game, this shmup battle is infamous for having one of THE “what were they thinking?” moments in all of Cuphead. I seem to be better at shmups than I realized (to my credit, I have beat Ikaruga without cheating, though that was nearly twenty years ago), and in my first time actually beating Cuphead, I only needed six attempts to take down the Robot, which was the last contract I needed. This time around, I fared a little worse, but still won the battle after only eight attempts. But, if you’re not wired for shmups? Yea, this is going to be brutal.

I put in far too much effort trying to get a quality shot of all three weapons firing at once.

PHASE ONE – PIECE BY PIECE: Dr. Kahl’s Robot (which I erroneously credited as being inspired by a Superman cartoon, something the Art of Cuphead never mentions) starts by forcing players to destroy three sections of the body, with three completely different attack points that all fire independently of each-other. Each segment introduces a different “penalty attack” for blowing up. This boss is going to shit the bed like it’s on an all Metamucil diet, but let it be said, the shmup boss with the worst idea in Cuphead also has the best idea in Cuphead. Perhaps Studio MDHR practices video feng shei or something.

THE HEAD: The robot fires a laser from an antenna on its head that lingers on the screen for a while and takes up a TON of real estate, thus limiting your ability to dodge other attacks. I strongly suggest focusing your efforts on destroying this first. Upon its destruction, the robot will start firing a spread of nuts, bolts, and screws at plays until the phase ends.

THE BELLY: The robot unleashes a wave of four drones that fly back and forth around the screen in an S pattern. As soon as you blow up the head, head to the bottom and blow this up. After being destroyed, it’ll unleash gigantic bombs that, when you shoot them down, still blow-up in still-deadly explosions that must be avoided. Keep a distance and you’ll be fine.

THE CHEST: Leave this alone until you have to blow it up, as it provides players with a means to charge their power shot. It unleashes slow moving drones that can be disabled with a quick parry. Even if they fire their full-screen vertical laser beams, you can still disable them with the parry. The “penalty” for blowing up the dock these launch from is the Robot starts using its hands, either by thrusting them from the left side of the screen (then shooting bullets as they retract) or using a magnet that draws players towards it. You really don’t want this happening while you fight the rest of the robot, and by saving it for last, you should only have to deal with it once. Blowing up the chest last also puts you in the position for the final portion of the phase. Believe it or not, you just finished the easy part.

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THE HEART: After all three sections are blown up, the heart will pop out of the chest cavity. Fire at it while dodging the three penalty attacks until it’s dead. Phase over, and if you’re playing on simple, level over.

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PHASE TWO – USE YOUR HEAD: The robot’s head flies off and will pass back and forth until you shoot it down. It’s one of the shortest boss phases in Cuphead (by design instead of by cheesing transition between phases like other bosses). While it can be a pain in the ass if you try to shoot it down normally, there’s an easier solution. By the end of the first phase, you should have a fully-charged power shot. Save it for this phase, position yourself directly across from the head as soon as you blow up the heart, and when the head launches, activate the big bomb. While it won’t take the head down instantly, you’ll only need a few more bullets to end the fun of Dr. Kahl’s robot and enter the worst phase in the entire game. Oh, and the belly torpedoes from earlier keep flying in at a faster rate. Do what I said and they’ll stop too.

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PHASE THREE – YEA THEY COMPLETELY RAN OUT OF IDEAS: Welcome to the moment where Cuphead’s design team gave up. The finale of Dr. Kahl, now riding the robot’s head in a homage to Dr. Wily, is him holding up diamonds, which spam the screen with bullets. Why diamonds? Unclear. This is a lazy bullet hell with emphasis on HELL. There’s two attack patterns, but the concept is the same: move out of the way of bullets (some of which can be parried, though it’s random chance if you’ll be able to reach them or not) and electrified walls that you must quickly avoid, or else they will cut off your path (oh and you can’t shoot through them). This section is over half this battle. It doesn’t really change-up. It’s just a spam of bullets, a brief break as he switch diamonds, then another spam of bullets, all while avoiding walls. Seriously, this is the end of the battle, and it goes on (in my best Smalls voice)..

It’s sooooooooooooo boring. Do you mean to tell me the same team who came up with some of the most imaginative and inspired character designs, bosses, and attack patterns in the entire history of the medium couldn’t think of a better thing to do with a goddamned giant robot? Hell, this could have been fine, even as a finale, if it went, like, fifteen seconds. One burst with the blue diamond, two bursts with the red diamond. But OVER HALF THE BATTLE? Fuck off. It’s one of those things where it goes so long that it becomes boring and you just want it to be over, and then it goes even further past that and you actively begin to hate the entire battle for making you do this. Plus, there’s not a lot of room to maneuver AND there’s the occasional foreground elements that block your view and make it even harder to follow the bullets. I’ll actually defend the opening segments of Junkyard Jive. It’s an inspired idea and an incredible visual. Maybe my favorite design of any boss in the game. But this back end of the battle sours the fight and the whole game something awful. Not only is it not fun, but it just makes players angry. What were they thinking?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I’ve not met a whole lot of fans of the giant robot fight. I can’t imagine I’m alone in thinking the opening section is among the most clever uses of the shmup mechanics as any in Cuphead, but the only thing people talk about with the Dr. Kahl fight is the pain. The finale is supposed to be a tribute to chaos emeralds in Sonic The Hedgehog. I guess I’m not versed in Sonic lore, but I can’t remember which game in the franchise featured Dr. Robotnik lazily spamming the screen with bullets. I have a hunch there was supposed to be more to the battle than what happened, but this is one of the few parts of Cuphead that has no “deleted scenes” that I could find info on. I can’t help but wonder if the final phase was meant to be shorter and they padded it out. Either way, congratulations: the worst of Cuphead is over. What’s left might still be difficult, but never to the point that it feels uninspired, lazy, or boring. I hate Dr. Kahl’s finale, especially because I know Studio MDHR is capable of better.

BOSS #15: Cala Maria in “High Seas Hi-Jinx”
STATED INSPIRATION: Olive Oyl, Betty Boop, Moth and the Flame (1938), The Rescuers (1977)
IGC LIKES: One of the more fun shmup stages.
IGC DISLIKES: Even professionals hate the randomized nature of this stage.

Apparently, Cala Maria is the level that Cuphead pros.. not an occupation I imagine pays well.. dread most. If you don’t have to worry about making “perfect runs” you won’t find High Seas Hi-Jinx as annoying as they do (apparently it was even worse before the 1.1.3 update, where you had far fewer parry chances). In fact, the concept, the huge variety of attacks, and overall character design are downright inspired. I don’t really have a exact favorite battle, but Cala ranks near the top of my list. A great way to end the shmup stuff.

PHASE ONE – THE (NOT SO) LITTLE MERMAID: Cala Maria, who can only be shot in the head, has completely randomized attacks that are stackable with each-other. I’d like to note that this is another one of those “see, they CAN balance the difficulty for randomized attacks” situations that makes it so I can’t give those bosses where there’s highly-desirable random attack cycles a free pass. Of the six ways Cala can hurt you, only one combo is really of the “aww shit” variety. That ain’t bad.

  • GHOST PIRATES: Cala burps out three ghosts that home-in on you and dart in a very fast straight line once they finish emerging. By itself, this isn’t bad. When combined with other attacks? It’s among the hardest attacks to dodge in all of Cuphead. It’s absolutely uncanny how often I had perfect runs ruined by this. Far more than the stun-locking fuckery to come.

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  • GIANT FISH: Cala sinks under the water, and when she returns, she’ll have one of two fish. If she has a yellow fish, she’ll shoot an electrified dolphin that heat-seeks you and lingers on the screen for quite a while. If she has a red fish, she’ll shoot a series three of spreading shots at you, some of which can be parried. After each fish attack is completed, it’ll wiggle loose and return to the water, causing you damage if it makes contact on the way down. Red fish give you chances to charge cards, so maybe they’re too desirable, but both are tough.
  • SQUIRTY McSQUIRTER: Yes, that’s it name. I didn’t know that when I made the Boaty McBoatface reference above. Anyway, it’s a sea horse.. in this case a normal horse that hangs out in the sea, who follows underneath you and squirts a stream of water that’s harmless by itself but it pushes you up into whatever other attack she has going. If you randomly draw the combination of Squirty and the Ghost Pirates, you’re in big trouble.
  • BOMBSHELL BARRY: A turtle that fires off bombs that explode into shrapnel in eight directions. Despite the fact that this thing’s attacks hurt you and the horse’s doesn’t, I’d much rather draw Barry over Squirty. It’s worth noting that both can be killed, though you have to take your focus off Cala Maria in order to do it. For Barry, it’s not worth it. For Squirty, you might want to at least think about swapping to bombs and taking it out.
  • THE PUFFER GANG: Cala Maria raises an army of puffer fish that float vertically. At least some of these things can be parried. I don’t know what the RNG odds are, but this is the only one of her attacks that seemed like it happened every single match against her.

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PHASE TWO – SHE DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO BOINK POSEIDON IN ATHENA’S TEMPLE: Two eels do a stranger danger thing to Maria, and she turns into Medusa. The previously nuanced fight becomes really simple at this point: an army of eels spam the screen with bullets, some of which can be parried. The eels actually can be shot down, but I’ve found it to be neither helpful nor detrimental to do so. Just keep focusing on her head. The difficulty isn’t merely the bullets, but the fact that she can now turn you to stone, and as it fills the entire screen, there’s no way to avoid it. She’ll fire off this once before the eels start shooting to give you a heads-up she can do this now, and you have to button mash to revert back to normal. The first time I played this, I was so pissed that they chose to do this, but I can clear it without taking damage a lot easier than I can dealing with the seahorse from earlier.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode.

PHASE THREE – BRING ME THE HEAD OF MEDUSA: This is where they might have taken the whole “turn to stone” angle a little too far. After you cause enough damage, Cala’s head will break off from the body and enter a narrow tunnel. Despite what you’d think from the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the coral lining the tunnel is not lethal to the touch, but you must still avoid the walls themselves. Maria will now drop little skull bubbles and continue to stun-lock you. There’s also spiky barriers that you have to avoid. The bubbles and the barriers would be challenging enough, but getting stun-locked (which seems to be 100% unavoidable) forces you to quickly hit 22 input commands (that’s what the Cuphead wiki says) before you unfreeze. A memorable conclusion, but one that can be randomly unfair. That’s why this is among the least favorite battles among pros.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Besides a couple mini-bosses during King Dice’s stage, this is it for the shmup portion of Cuphead. In total, there’s five of these levels, all which are, for better and for worst, among the most unforgettable moments in the entire game. All of them have some high-quality aspects. When I first played Cuphead, I was totally baffled by their inclusion. I fully admit that I went into the game with the wrong mindset. I thought I was signing up for Contra/Gunstar like shenanigans. Shmups are one of those genres that I rarely seek out, but when done right, I have an amazing time. In my ongoing #IGCvSNES initiative, I have three Parodius games ranked in the top 25. As of this writing, I’ve played nearly 200 games for that project, so yea, I really like a well-done shmup, especially when they defy convention with original ideas. Cuphead brought the goods there, and then some. I’d be willing to pay $59.99 for a Cuphead sequel/spin-off that was composed of 15 to 20 levels of this type of action. It’d be first in line, and I’d be as excited as I’ve ever been.

BOSS #16: Sally Stageplay in “Dramatic Fanatic”
STATED INSPIRATION: Samurai Showdown III, Final Fantasy VI
IGC LIKES: One of the most non-conformist boss concepts I’ve ever experienced.
IGC DISLIKES: One of those “middle of the pack” fights where the execution isn’t anywhere near as brilliant as the concept.

Sally is probably the highest-concept boss of Cuphead. A drama queen.. literally.. whose battle is represented as a complete life-of play. A wedding (which can end tragically if you play it right), a family, and the afterlife. While the actual mechanics of the battle with Sally are among the most conventional in all of Cuphead, it’s how it’s presented that makes it unforgettable. While this plays like any boss in any game, it never feels it.

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PHASE ONE – WEDDING DAY: Despite her smaller stature, Sally might be the most space-invasive boss in all of Cuphead. In phase one, her primary attacks are to do twirling jump kicks at you, or to teleport and crash down on top of you. Additionally, she’ll jump up in the air and throw a fan that sticks in the ground, further cutting off your space. Finally, she’ll blow kisses at you, which are a chance at a parry. While she seems easy, she has an uncanny knack for hitting exactly the right move when you make the wrong move.

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SECRET PATH – WEDDING CRASHER: Till death do you part, indeed. Sally is the final boss (at least as of this writing) who has a secret path. When she blows the kisses at you, you can you parry off the hearts and onto one of the two cherubs on the side, which will lower and signal you did it correctly with a subtle chime. Do it to both and the chandelier will crash down on Sally’s husband at the alter, killing him. A weird glitch (maybe it’s not a glitch?) I discovered right before publishing this review is that, if you cause enough damage to Sally after you activate the final cherub but before she teleports to go mourn her husband, you will actually skip the entire second phase and go straight to phase three.

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PHASE TWO – LIVING THE LIFE: In the normal pathway, you transition to Sally’s house, where she continues to throw jump kicks or stick her fan in the ground. The kisses are gone now, and in their place, she opens her umbrella and drops remote-controlled mice that run across the ground, up the wall, and across the ceiling, at which point they’ll drop down on you once you cross their path. This whole time, her unholy offspring will drop bottles out the windows. Weirdly, there’s no ways to score a parry during this portion of the battle. In the SECRET PATH version of phase two, Sally apparently turns to religion to cope with her dead husband and the phase transitions to a nursery. The battle plays out the same, but the baby with the bottle is replaced with a nun who throws crosses in your direction, every-other of which can be parried. No matter which path you choose, you will ALWAYS be cramped this phase.

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PHASE THREE – ACTING GODDESS: The only time in Cuphead where the art style changes, this as an apparent tribute to rare stop-motion films of the 1930s. Sally lowers from the ceiling dressed as a goddess. In the normal path, she has three attacks. In one, a meteor lowers from the ceiling. It’s not very hard to miss, and upon shooting it, it opens to reveal a parriable star. She can also call a tidal wave, and if you don’t have the smoke dash equipped, you’ll need to use the meteor’s star to parry over it. Finally, she’ll call lightning down, which comes in groups of two, three, or four. If you took the SECRET PATH, this is one of the spongiest battles in all of Cuphead. I believe all the hit points you skipped in the first path carry over here, where the husband joins her, eating grapes like Caeser while her unborn child utilizes a new attack: rolling fireballs at you.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode.

PHASE FOUR – JUST CALL ME ANGEL OF MOURNING: Sally takes a bow in one of the most difficult short phases in the game. Her parasol acts as a heat-seeking top that you have to constantly jump over, and all the while, an angelic Sally flies overhead, pumping her fists in gratitude while the audience throws roses that are lethal to Cuphead’s touch, though some can be parried. This phase is the same whether or not you took the secret path, but the background characters change. A pretty underwhelming conclusion to one of the more conservative, traditional-feeling battles in all of Cuphead. But one with no respect for personal space at all.

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The entire Sally Stagehand sequence is one of my go-to examples for dressing-up something that feels sort of “been there, done that” otherwise. Sally is that rare Cuphead boss that feels like she could be a boss in any other game, at least based on how she fights you. But, they took her attack cycles and staged them (no pun intended) in a way that makes a pretty run-of-the-mill fight still an unforgettable experience. It’s something a lot of developers need to think about when creating their games. Not everything you do has to be original from a video game aspect to still leave a lasting impression if you implement it creatively.

BOSS #17: Phantom Express in “Railroad Wrath”
STATED INSPIRATION: Final Fantasy VI, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Lonesome Ghosts (1937), The Skeleton Dance (1929), The Skeleton Frolic (1937) Swing You Sinners! (1930)
IGC LIKES: The eerie, macabre tribute to a time when cartoons were out of fucks to give when it came time to “think of the children.”
IGC DISLIKES: That I said I didn’t have a favorite battle. Upon reflection, actually, I think this might be my favorite.

As a kid, I had a VHS recording of a special called “Disney’s Halloween Treat” that I pretty much wore out. At a certain point, they stopped airing it on TV, even though it was basically the greatest clip show in TV history. My point is, while I’m not particularly a fangirl of the era of cartoons Cuphead pays tribute to, I do happen to have much love for the shorts that aspired to scare. Phantom Express is a loving tribute to that, and in my opinion, the best stage in Cuphead. There, I said it. What’s really weird about that is, each of these mini-bosses that makes up this stage are extremely basic, consisting of one attack each (except the finale, which has two), like they’re made to prep you for the fight against King Dice.

PHASE ONE – THE BLIND SPECTER: This whole battle is fought on a train car with two switches you can can parry to switch between three positions on the track: left, center, and right. But, you’re not the only one who can activate them. Railroad Wrath’s first two phases have a squadron of jack-o-lanterns that fly by and drop bricks on the switches, which could lead to you being maneuvered directly into taking damage. The bricks can be parried as well, which you can use defensively, or you can shoot down the pumpkins. Sometimes, you might even use the pumpkins and their bricks to switch your position so that you can focus on whatever mini-boss you’re shooting. This all starts with the Blind Specter. Apparently inspired by the hand demon thingy from Pan’s Labyrinth, the Specter bounces eyeballs at you. The eyes can be shot as well. It’s a pretty spongy opening, but it’s a suitable intro.

PHASE TWO – THE CONDUCTOR: God, this game is gorgeous. I’ve said it before, but has there ever been a more fun game to watch than Cuphead? Hell, give Studio MDHR Dragon’s Lair and see what they do with that. Anyway, the Conductor will always start in the center car and slam his massive hands down. From there, the head will move around randomly (though never in the same car twice in a row). Despite the girth of his hands, even if you’re not under the head, there’s actually a safe spot on the rail car no matter what position you’re in. I’ve had entire fights against this thing without ever paying any heed to what position on the track I’m sitting on. What a bonehead.

PHASE THREE – THE LOLLIPOP GHOULS: I’m not sure what lollipops have to do with the theme, but they sure look like monsters straight out of a 1930s horror cartoon so I’ll zip my lips. This time, there’s one situated to the left and right, and randomly, one of them will fire a gigantic blast of electricity across to the center car and back. Even if you’re under the one that’s about to fire, you can stay safe by staying close to the wall (as seen in the above picture). For this phase, the jack-o-lanterns are replaced with ghosts that heat-seek you. When you shoot them down, they drop pink skulls that can be parried, but also activate the rail car’s controls. It’s a lot to keep up with. I find the seekers useful for this battle, even if they do less damage. Use the other gun for whatever Lollipop you’re under, then switch to seekers to ping the other from a safe distance, and to also knock out the ghosts before they get too close. Fun fact: the twins are the boss that underwent the fewest changes from conception to release. They were happy with the design from the start, and rightfully so.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode.

PHASE FOUR – OFF THE RAILS: The damn train starts running for it, which seems like it would be slower than, you know, going like a train. This is one of the more fun final phases, though frustrating too as there’s some minor visibility issues due to the speed of the action (huh, I guess it is faster). You have to parry off the train’s tail to open its firebox, which shows the train’s exposed heart. This is another battle I found the seekers to be preferable, as the heart is quite high off the ground, the train doesn’t remain stationary and readjusting your position for a clean shot is frustrating. Jumping to reach it is also often impossible. The Seeker was MADE to fight this train. But, the nose shoots rings of fire that have to be jumped over if they land on the tracks. Also, when the firebox is open, it rains fire down upon you. The only thing keeping this entire fight from being *perfect* is how tough it is to see both these attacks in the heat of battle (pun intended if you laughed).

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Probably the best thing I can say about Cuphead is that it has actually stoked my interest (waits…….. moving on) in the source material that inspired these incredible characters. Not just the Phantom Express, but the whole cast of Cuphead. They’re all so vivid and, exaggerated as they are, they feel alive and playful. Perhaps that’s Cuphead’s greatest success. It’s astonishing how fast this game is becoming a major media property. There’s even going to be a Cuphead show on Netflix. I hope when this is all said and done, Studio MDHR doesn’t forget where its bread is buttered. I absolutely think they should keep this style, make it their studio signature, but explore other characters and genres.

Once upon a time, I never thought I’d make it past this point in Cuphead. But, when I finally did it, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my gaming life. I even had to wipe tears. That was 2019. Here I am, closing out 2021 with the most in-depth review I’ve ever done. CLICK HERE for the final part of Cuphead: The Definitive Review

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Two

Welcome back to Indie Gamer Chick completely losing her mind and deep-diving a game that she already reviewed three previous times! In part one of this feature, I reviewed Inkwell Isle I. If Cuphead scaled properly from there, I think it’d be talked about as one of the greatest video games ever made. But, it’s not in that discussion, even among some of its biggest fans. Why? Well, the big problems start in the game’s second world.

INKWELL ISLE II

RUN & GUN #3: Funhouse Frazzle
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Dynamite Headdy, M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
IGC LIKES: One of the best “anti-gravity” stages in gaming history.
IGC DISLIKES: Perhaps leans too heavily into trial-and-error gameplay.

Both of Cuphead’s second world Run & Gun stages feel like they could be final levels in other games. The monstrously difficult Funhouse Frazzle is overwhelming when you first enter it. I’m a huge fan of anti-gravity platforming. In fact, I selected XBLIG all-star Antipole to be included in the 2013 Indie Gamer Chick Bundle for Indie Royale. Cuphead takes gravity-swapping to an extreme, but it’s still a LOT of fun!

Right at the start of the level, you’re given a warning to switch gravity now, or be run over by a parade of cars that’s far too long to simply leap over. You have to parry the switches, and there’s this weird little delay that follows as the gravity changes. A wall is launching these traffic jams at you, and you’ll have to swap back and forth between the floor and ceiling before you get a chance to attack it. It’s one of the most intimidating intros to any stage I’ve ever experienced. At this point, Cuphead is done easing you into bosses or stages. And remember, there’s no simple mode for any of the Run & Gun levels. It makes me wonder if perhaps they should have been a little more gentle in introducing the anti-gravity mechanics.

I haven’t talked about the different guns in the game yet. The more toxic element of Cuphead’s fanbase shames players for using the heat-seeking bullets, but I find they work really well for some bosses and pretty much all the Run & Gun stages. They do the least damage of all the bullets, but for sections like the wall above, you’ll regret not having them equipped. They free players to focus on avoiding the various objects and projectiles being thrown at them. Meanwhile, I never used the charge gun once during my entire Cuphead run. I used the Spread/Roundabouts for all but a handful of bosses, while on levels I’d usually do spread/seekers. As for the special items, I’ll get to that in Part Four, but let’s just say that once you have smoke dash, you might as well ignore all other non-guns.

The majority of my lost lives in Funhouse Frazzle were the result of the brutal introduction to the stage. Once you get past that initial section, the rest of the level plays out in a way that’s almost conservative, at least as far as Cuphead goes. From here out, the challenge comes from simply picking the right spots to swap back to either the floor or the ceiling and making sure to clear the gaps while you’re at it. You don’t even have to engage the tuba guys pictured here, even without the heat seeking guns. Just avoid their blasts, clear one final wall, and you’re good to go. Funhouse Frazzle does lack in big-time set pieces, but as a concept-type stage, it’s unforgettable and one of the best Run & Gun segments in Cuphead!

RUN & GUN #4: Funfair Fever
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Ringling Bros. Circus posters, the Super Mario franchise.
IGC LIKES: Excellent series of set-pieces and high-concept platforming sections.
IGC DISLIKES: The final section of the stage goes a bit too long.

The best of the six traditional levels of Cuphead, Funfair Fever is an absolute delight to play and experience. Like the best levels in any game, it combines a series of memorable set-pieces with a scaling challenge, pitch-perfect timing and placement of enemies and obstacles, all while squeezing as many possible tropes out of the theme as possible. Unfortunately, it does slip a little towards the end, but it still pulls off being the most consistently dazzling of Cuphead’s limited traditional jaunts. Level designers of the world: take notes. This is the good stuff.

The level starts with a sentient trampoline running back and forth, which you must use to bounce over walls and avoid, or possibly parry off-of, balloons. There’s a risk/reward element to the balloons: if you ignore the non-parriable ones, they’ll float by you. If one is in your way, you can shoot it, but doing so unleashes a hail of bullets that might be even tougher to avoid. There is one issue: the trampoline is shown to have teeth jetting out of the side, or possible spikes. Either/or, but regardless of what they are, they’re drawn in a way to signify something sharp and dangerous, which suggests you MUST keep from touching the sides of the trampoline. In fact, doing so doesn’t damage you, but rather just launches you into the air. This might still result in damage if there’s a balloon overhead, but why include those teeth at all if they don’t hurt you? It’s so misleading, especially in a game meant to be ultra-difficult, where everything hurts you. This won’t be the last time this becomes an issue.

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Next is the truly inspired dunk tank section. You navigate a series of platforms, each of which is attached to a target. Along the way, you hit walls of toys that must be shot until they stop refilling. The catch is the final wall is shooting balls this entire time that will drop the platforms upon hitting the targets. It requires quick reflexes, precision platforming, and use of your dash to get past this part of Funfair Fever. Some of the balls can be parried, but otherwise, you have to keep track of the placement of the projectiles and plot which platforms will be safe. Every part of this is well done. They even wisely made the final wall not be unbearably spongy. This is an area so inspired that I wish they’d made a boss battle based around it.

Along the way, you’ll have to face a magician that’s a direct-tribute to Magikoopa from Super Mario World, along with clowns balancing on balls that are pretty easy to get past. This leads to the first of two mini-bosses: a sentient 30s midway-style arcade machine. So cool. This actually makes me wish Cuphead had taken a crack at vintage pinball machines. I bet they could have come up with some imaginative designs (fans of pinball, check out The Pinball Chick!). Anyway, the machine fires off a shotgun that causes duck targets to rain from the sky. The battlefield for this fight is cramped by a previous wall you had to scale over. It’s really well done. Another mini-boss I wish had been turned into a full boss.

Finally, the stage ends with a bit of a whimper as you scale a few platforms and then make your way across a series of platforms where every-other one moves up and down. You have to shoot down sentient pretzels (truly the most evil of all snack items) and avoid squirts of ketchup, mustard, and relish that look suspiciously like the flames of an iconic game boss. Indeed, the giant hot dog is a direct tribute to Bowser from the original 1985 Super Mario Bros, only there’s no axe to kill it. Instead, you have to ping it until it dies. This whole section goes on forever, and while it’s intense at first, by time you fight the hotdog, it’s long since stopped being white-knuckle and just became an overly long slog. Cut it by a third and it’d been an satisfying cap to one of the best levels in the history of video games.

BOSS #6: Baroness Von Bon Bon in “Sugarland Shimmy”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: The Cookie Carnival (1935), Somewhere in Dreamland (1936), Moose Hunters (1937), Kirby’s Dreamland, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, Candy Land
IGC LIKES: Tons of eye-candy. Hah, get it?
IGC DISLIKES: One of the most RNG-heavy battles in Cuphead, and not in a good way. Absolutely should have been a world three boss.

One of my biggest complaints about Cuphead is how Studio MDHR completely, totally screwed up the difficulty scaling. There’s two world two bosses that belong in world three, which is incredibly fitting as there’s two world three bosses that really are easy enough to have been world two bosses. Baroness Von Bon Bon (named after Baron Von Blubba, the time-out skeleton from Bubble Bobble) absolutely should have been a battle that happens much later in Cuphead. She’s one of the most difficult bosses in the entire game. Being the 6th boss is ridiculously under-valuing how damn hard (and miserable) battling her is. It’s inexcusable, and the poor placement makes her one of the worst fights in the game.

PHASE ONE THROUGH THREE – CANDY MINIONS: The fight with Baroness Von Bon Bon opens with three randomly-selected mini-bosses, one of which doesn’t ever appear in simple mode. The order will be different every fight. What’s really bothersome about this arrangement is the five bosses are most certainly not equally difficult. A few are much easier than others, and one in particular is significantly more difficult. On top of all this, environmental elements get added with each passing boss. The second phase adds small, easy-to-miss jellybean soldiers running across floor, some of which can be parried. The third phase adds the Baroness firing a slow-moving trio of clouds at you, the pink-portion of which can be parried, though I have no clue why they bothered with that since it’s nearly impossible to pull off without taking damage. Depending on the order of minions you get, the hazards of the arena can easily become too much to keep-up with. They went so far overboard with this fight that it’s almost shocking.

I’ve decided to breakdown the mini-bosses in the order of least difficult to most difficult.

LORD GOB-PACKER: The Pac-Man-like evil gobstopper is easily the simplest-to-defeat of the Von Bon Bon’s five mini-bosses. It slowly stalks you around with one of its children (two in expert mode and none in simple mode) not far behind. Even if you’re not using the smoke dash, it’s just a matter of keeping a distance on it and firing upon it whenever you can. Seekers or Roundabouts are especially effective for this battle. You can breathe a sigh of relief if you draw the jawbreaker.

SARGENT GUMBO GUMBULL: A close second place for “easiest Von Bon Bon mini-boss” that only loses by virtue of it actually becoming a really hard fight if you draw him third on regular. He has the simplest pattern of all the candy mini-bosses, mindlessly running back and forth. If you don’t have the smoke dash equipped.. seriously, go get enough coins to buy it and put it on. I can’t imagine fighting this thing without it, since it allows you to pass from one side to the other without taking damage. On simple mode, you can easily leap over it with the platform. On any other mode, it rains gumball continuously on you. The biggest factor for why this becomes a difficult fight is the sheer amount of projectiles it spews becomes especially overwhelming in phases two and three, when you’re having to watch out for the hard-to-spot jellybeans.

KERNEL VON POP: Nobody likes candy corn, so it’s fitting that it’s the middle-of-the-pack mini-boss here, neither desirable nor frustrating to get. It sticks to the edges and occasionally cuts up and down the middle of the screen. You simply have to avoid it and the tiny, slow-moving corns it drops. It’s not exactly difficult to avoid, and I’m only putting it ahead of the gumball machine because it moves faster and has a slightly more randomized pattern. If players remember to avoid the center of the screen when it’s moving along the top, they should be fine.

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SIR WAFFINGTON III: I spent the longest time calling this the “chocolate bar” but no, it’s supposed to be a waffle. That’s butter its wings are made of, not filling squirting out (that’s what he said!). Either way, this battle has teeth. It flies in a somewhat unpredictable pattern, and occasionally breaks apart into eight pieces that fly out before returning to the mouth. This is the definitive “crowding your space” mini-boss, since I often found myself pinned against a wall when it began to launch its attack. Even if you get cramped, you can avoid the pieces individually, but it requires absolute precision timing. As tough as this is, it’s also the best, most-balanced of the five mini-bosses.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode. Though this is a rare instance where you’re better off.

MUFFSKY CHERNIKOV: The only of the five mini-bosses that never appears in simple, and there’s a reason for that. Beating this cupcake is no piece of.. um.. some kind of easily obtainable frosted snack item. In fact, I’d actually make an argument that Muffsky here is the single most difficult phase in all of Cuphead that isn’t a secret phase. Far worse than anything any other boss throws at you, including King Dice or the Devil, with only Djimmi’s optional secret phase being harder. I’ve only successfully defeated it twice, ever. Once was during my fight against it on Xbox One that ended in total victory. This mini-boss leaps around the stage at fast velocities before attempting to butt-stop you. When it lands on the ground, not only is it seemingly invulnerable to your shots, but it creates tidal waves of cream that make the floor deadly. The waves are so low in visibility (in a stage that already has frustratingly small, deadly elements running across the floor) that they’re hard to track and easy to miss. You have to jump to avoid them, which puts you right in the path of the cupcake, who flings himself back up, often right in your direction. I hate this boss. It’s so imbalanced. I don’t know what they were thinking, but the little shockwaves of icing went too far.

PHASE FOUR (SIMPLE) – CUP HUNT: The Baroness has two completely different ending phases, depending on which difficulty you’re playing. In simple mode, after dispatching the final mini-boss, she pops out from behind her castle and begins firing clouds at you, the pink portion of which you can score a parry off of. While this is going on, the jellybeans are still running across the floor. It’s not an incredibly complex fight, but I found it to still be very difficult, even for a “simple” mode. This is one of those fights where equipping the spread gun bites you in the ass, since it requires you get close enough for the shorter-ranged bullets to hit. The clouds can be shot down, but it takes several hits to do so, and being in close proximity might not leave you with enough time. The only way I could successfully beat this phase was to throw on the Seeker and cheese it by standing back and letting the bullets slowly ping her to death. It’s especially frustrating because the bullets chase down her bullets and the jellybeans too. But, I went ahead and played ten complete rounds against the Baroness on simple. The “stand back and shoot the seeker” method carried a 100% success rate with absolutely no effort needed. That officially qualifies as cheese in my book.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode.

PHASE FOUR (REGULAR) – HOLY CRAP, NOW THE CASTLE IS CHASING ME: If you’re playing on regular or expert, upon beating the third mini-boss, the castle comes to life and starts chasing you. Suddenly, this boss fight becomes an auto-scroller where you must keep running left while avoiding obstacles and still figure out a way to shoot the Baroness. The creepy bitch THROWS HER HEAD OFF at you, which heat-seeks you for a bit before pausing to linger and block your movement before heat-seeking you again. Oh, and the the castle itself spits out giant peppermints, but at least you can parry off those. This whole section is far too spongy and goes on so long that it renders what should be a memorable “holy shit!” moment into a fight that’s actually a little boring. A miserable conclusion to one of the poorest-balanced bosses in the entire game.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: How the hell did this make it past play-testers in one of the most extensively play-tested indie games ever made? Seriously, I know the team at Cuphead is capable of better. NO, I’ll take it a step further: I know they’re smarter than this. I know they are because, throughout the entire game, they deleted several concepts that were speced-out and often even programmed because they knew it threw the balance off. Apparently, even this fight had some major deleted content, including having the jellybeans begin jumping (oh FUCK OFF for even thinking about that!) and a sixth mini-boss that would have paid tribute to the red arremers from Ghosts ‘n Goblins (these things). How could they show restraint in keeping those things out of this battle but still manage to make such a frustrating fight? To put it in perspective, I’ve beaten Cuphead twice now, and the only boss I died fighting more times than the Baroness is Rumor Honeybottoms from Inkwell Isle III. In fact, I’ve actually have lost more lives to the Candy Bitch over my two full play-throughs of Cuphead than I have to King Dice and the Devil COMBINED! Yet, this is considered the first boss of the second world? No. Just…………………………………. no.

BOSS #7: Beppi the Clown in “Carnival Kerfuffle”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Beetlejuice (1988), Super Mario World, Dynamite Dux, Koko the Clown
IGC LIKES: A memorable boss fight with four distinct stages.
IGC DISLIKES: One of the most cheesable stages, especially with the spread gun.

One of the iconic fights of Cuphead, the crew at Studio MDHR struggled with the design of Beppi more than most of the game’s cast of characters. In fact, the Art of Cuphead shows several possible designs that range from traditional terrifying clowns to slightly more terrifying clowns to “what the HELL is that?” surreal clowns (also terrifying). This is one of the few fights in Cuphead where every phase is a distinct form with unique attacks and play styles. Is Beppi fun to fight? Yes, but some weirdly exploitable portions of the game make it too easy to cheese as well.

PHASE ONE – BUMPER? I BARELY KNEW HER!: This is one of the most invasive phases of any boss battle in Cuphead. Beppi shuffles along in a bumper car, but the way he does it is so erratic that you can’t ever get a comfortable feel for safe distance. When you think he can’t scoot any further, he does. When you think he’s going backwards, he goes forward. Eventually, he’ll zoom forward and you have to jump over him, but while you do this, there’s shooting gallery duck targets passing above you that are lethal to the touch. Some of these can be parried, and all of them only take a single hit to render safe. This is actually one of the more intense opening phases of any boss in Cuphead. Even in replaying it, I was caught off-guard by how hard to clock this whole sequence is.

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PHASE TWO – BALLOON FIGHT: Beppi becomes a giant balloon animal machine that unleashes dogs upon you, some of which can be parried. This would be one of the easiest phases of the game, if not for the fact that a roller coaster becomes part of the fight at this point. You can parry off the nose of the front of the coaster, but you still have to dodge seats occupied by crash test dummies. Weirdly, the back of the coaster looks like it would also be lethal to the touch, as its covered in spikes. But, it doesn’t hurt you. DON’T DRAW SPIKES IF THEY’RE NOT GOING TO HURT YOU! This is real basic game design stuff, people!

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PHASE THREE – A HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR: Bring on the cheese! If luck is on your side, you can park yourself right under Beppi and unload bullets directly into him with minimal fuss. There’s two attacks here: if the horse is green, it’ll cough up horseshoes that travel in a sine curve at you. This usually includes one that can be parried. If the horse is yellow, a fast moving row of shoes will shoot out, stop, then drop straight down, leaving a small safe zone for you to avoid them. The roller coaster remains active for the entire fight, but you can see when it’s coming if you watch for it to climb up the hill in the background. Just stand under the horse and pump it with bullets. This is one of the easiest and most embarrassing phases in all of Cuphead.

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PHASE FOUR – CAROUSEL OF DEATH: One of the most visually striking finales of Cuphead, the carosuel is also surprisingly difficult. Even if you are using spread and cheese it by using your special attack in the center, which results in all eight bullets immediately registering a hit, the carousel is spongy enough that it takes quite a while to beat it. The roller coaster goes significantly faster this phase, so much so you’re really only safe by leaping across the chairs. But, Beppi also spits out baseball-throwing penguins (a nod to the Chargin’ Chucks from Super Mario World), which prevents you from getting into a rhythm on the swings. I can’t imagine how hard this would have been without the cheese of the spread shot. Compared to the previous two phases, this is maddeningly difficult, and also epic as all hell. One of the great finishes to a battle in the game. If only they were all this amazing.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This is a boss that Studio MDHR had to work quite a bit on before they got it to the point that they liked the look, personality, and set-pieces. For all the numerous problems Cuphead has, they never settled for “eh, good enough” when it came to their character design. Even if it caused delays in getting into the meat of programming, they kept experimenting with the appearance until they got it where they LOVED it. Beppi is the prime example of that, and the final result is an unforgettable boss. There’s a lesson to be learned there for indie developers: the game itself might not come out the way you want it to, but it’s going to be your name on it. Work it until you’re VERY happy with the end product. If you’re settling for “that’s fine, I guess” it’s time to rethink things.

BOSS #8: Djimmi the Great in “Pyramid Peril”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Darkstalkers of all games (the sarcophagus section), any game where you fight an evil version of yourself.
IGC LIKES: The best of the shmup levels, and one of the most memorable boss fights in gaming history, with five distinct phases (the most in the game).
IGC DISLIKES: RNG luck rears its ugly head again. And my sister beat this on regular on her very first try ever, which is SO annoying because I’ll never hear the end of that.

The battle with the genie is probably the best stage from a technical standpoint in all of Cuphead. While I’m not sure it’s the most fun to do battle with (honestly, I don’t have a favorite boss) and perhaps goes a little too long, Pyramid Peril is the complete Cuphead package. The artistry on display here, from the character design to the memorable set-pieces, the music, and even the background combine to form a truly wonderful experience.. provided you get the right RNG. And you don’t just totally cheese several of the phases. Or you don’t attempt to beat the nigh impossible secret fifth phase. Okay, wow, Djimmi has a lot of “ifs” doesn’t he?

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PHASE ONE – TREASURE TRACKERS: The genie unleashes one of three random attack styles on you. Such as the worst random elements of Cuphead, these three patterns are not equally difficult. The swords are the most desirable in my opinion. They’re the largest and easiest to to avoid, as they come out and take a formation before heat-seeking in your direction. Another wave has the chest simply spam the screen with small pieces of junk, some of which can be parried, though the pieces might be too far away and with too much clutter between you and them to reach. Finally, miniature cat sarcophagi open to reveal heat-seeking cat scarabs, one or more of which will be parriable. The junk/cat waves are very problematic in how much crowding they feature and how much luck you need to even be granted a clear path. I’ve seen professional players have perfect runs ruined during these phases (granted, on expert. Still counts..)

PHASE TWO – PUNCTURE THE PILLARS: This is where the genius of Cuphead’s design really shines. You’re still fighting a boss here, yet the stage transitions to a vintage shmup area where you have to shoot your way through walls. Only the bricks with faces can be destroyed, and you also have to dodge bouncing spinning blades while you do it. The faces, still being part of the boss, count towards damage, so if you use bombs, the overkill damage carries over to the main fight. If there’s a column with two faces and you blow them both up, you essentially do double the damage to Djimmi for that section. This allowed me to beat the third phase in literally five seconds yesterday. Whoa! Hey everybody, look at me! I’m a speed runner! Next thing you know, I’m going to be mainlining Red Bull and hocking shitty gaming equipment from a shady sponsor on Twitch.

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PHASE THREE – SAR-COUGH-AND-CUSS: If you don’t totally cheese your way past this phase, you can cheese it in other ways. A series of mummy-ghosts will float out at three different speeds while Djimmi is now basically a formless slug who occasionally shoots out bullets shaped like Saturn that are actually his eyeballs, because gross. You can switch from bullets to bombs, linger towards the top of the screen relatively close to Djimmi and cheese your way through this phase without taking damage.. sometimes. I’ve heard some players can pull this off 100% of the time, but I take damage every 3rd or 4th attempt at it, which still means this is a safe and effective strategy in at least two-thirds of the runs. I think it’s a matter of whether you get in the right rhythm for when the mummies spawn versus when you’re actually firing the next bomb. If not for this trick, this wave would be really hard, but the trick is there, so it ain’t.

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PHASE FOUR – CUPPET: Cuppet is certainly one of the more memorable encounters in the entire game, so much so that I sorta hope it returns for a traditional platforming-based boss fight in the DLC. Hell, that would be an interesting DLC pack, no? Take the five shmup bosses and turn them into platform encounters, and maybe remix a few of the traditional bosses as shmups? That idea is all yours, Studio MDHR. Anyway, the ability to totally screw with the Djimmi ends here. Cuppet shoots you with bullets, some of which can be parried, and all the while the genie’s hat floats aimlessly around, causing crowding issues and occasionally unleashes waves of bullets. The fight gets surprisingly intense here, as you always feel like you have very little room to maneuver. The intensity combined with the menacing laugh of Djimmi when Cuppet starts firing at you assures this is a phase you’ll never forget.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode.

PHASE FIVE – YEA, HE’S HUGE NOW: The final phase of Djimmi is almost as visually striking as the Hilda’s moon phase, but this is a lot more difficult, as the genie spawns three Illuminati-style pyramids that unleash deadly waves across the screen. It’s a solid concept, but problems abound. One issue is that Djimmi fires an almost-invisible series of ring-bullets. Why did they make them so transparent? I didn’t even realize what was pinging me at first on a multi-thousand-dollar 4K TV when playing on Xbox. The first time I actually beat Cuphead, it took me several rounds before I even realized I was being shot during this section. In a game that put such a high premium on mind-blowing visuals, it’s jaw-droppingly stupid to have any projectile (in a goddamned shmup stage nonetheless!) be so transparent that you can easily miss it in the heat of battle. Once I knew what to look for, it’s a matter of sticking to the center, avoiding the death rays, and hurling as many torpedoes as I can charge-up at it. Thankfully, this phase is over quickly.

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SECRET PHASE FIVE – I REALLY SHOULDN’T HAVE DONE THAT: If, during the transition between the third and fourth stages, you shrink down to the smaller plane as Djimmi scans you to find the inspiration for Cuppet, you’ll actually skip the fourth phase entirely and go directly to finale, only with a twist: a miniature Cuppet will now clog up the center of the ring of pyramids. You know, that area where you were relatively safe when you beat this without the secret phase? Not only does he clog it up, but he fires bullets in addition to all the other attacks of phase five. It turns a fairly balanced finale into likely the hardest phase in all of Cuphead. Every-other bullet fired by the mini-Cuppet is parriable, though in almost thirty attempts, neither Angela nor myself could score a single, solitary parry off this. There’s no comfort zone and every single area you can maneuver is now a tight squeeze. I’m not ashamed to admit: I couldn’t beat the secret phase. It’s a nice bonus though. You know, if you’re a masochist.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I didn’t realize how deeply flawed Djimmi was until I really dove deep into the nuts and bolts of this battle. Pyramid Peril has more problems than an algebra quiz. Yet, it’s a sequence nobody who plays it will ever forget. A big part of that is Studio MDHR’s imaginative “anything goes” attitude with characters and phases. But, I have to also call attention to the incredible backgrounds of all the Cuphead battles. The battle with Djimmi is a tribute to the 1930s Fleischer Studios “setback” backdrops for their Popeye cartoons. They could have easily cheated and did the thing in CGI, but instead, they used real models and photographed them just like artists from nearly a century ago did. A lot of things frustrate me about Cuphead, especially the snotty attitude of gating via the easier difficulty that’s just about as shittiest a thing I’ve seen a developer do in my ten years of IGC. But, I admire the fact that nobody at Studio MDHR took any shortcuts making Cuphead, when they could have in multiple different ways. It’s commendable, even if the studio is populated with more dicks than the national convention for the American Association for the Advancement of Persons Named Richard (the AAAPNR, annual dues are $75 and include a quarterly newsletter, though it’s mostly full of dicks too).

BOSS #9: Wally Warbles in “Aviary Action”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Yoshi’s Island, Earthworm Jim
IGC LIKES: The most conventional of the five shmup levels, until it’s suddenly not. Absolutely twisted finale. Fine-tuned difficulty balance.
IGC DISLIKES: Final phase, twisted as it is, also totally ruins a great level.

One of the stranger levels in all of Cuphead. Apparently, one of the least memorable too. Nobody talks about Wally Warbles, and this in spite of the battle having some damn shocking macabre imagery and an up-tempo theme that includes a sample from Ride of the Valkyries.The fight literally ends with two EMT birds salting and peppering Wally’s possibly dead body, an unforgettable visual, yet this isn’t one of the top discussion points of Cuphead. What happened here? Maybe it’s too traditional, until it’s suddenly not.

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PHASE ONE – SCRAMBLED EGGS: Wally usually starts by shooting comically large bullets from his fingers before he starts coughing up eggs. The eggs have to be dodged from the front and back, as they break into three smaller portions against the wall. Oh, and during the first two phases, chicks (as in baby birds, not me) fly across the screen with goddamned nails tied to them. Seriously, this is one twisted stage. It’s also as conventional as a shmup gets. Though it never feels like it, I suspect that’s why Wally is one of the “forgotten” Cuphead bosses. If, during this phase, you replaced Cuphead with a spaceship and Wally with a.. er.. larger spaceship.. would you even think of this as a Cuphead boss? Perhaps this was too conservative and Studio MDHR should have focused on more character gags. I dunno.

PHASE TWO – PULLET HELL: I’m far too proud of that pun. Give me a moment to pat myself on the back. (ahhh, that’s the good stuff) So, yea, after X amount of shots, Wally loses his shit and starts spamming the screen with feathers. As far as lazy bullet hells go, this isn’t bad. No, I can’t explain why this is okay while in Part 3 of this review I’m going to absolutely skewer Dr. Kahl’s Robot for doing the same thing. Well, maybe I can? #1: this is more creative. Dr. Kahl’s Robot involves the mad doctor simply hold up a diamond that generates the bullets. This is a bird that’s so angry it’s shaking all its feathers off at you. That’s more in the spirit of this battle than the Dr. Kahl setup-payoff is. #2: They’re also larger and easier to dodge bullets. #3: The section doesn’t go on as long. The bullet hell in Dr. Kahl’s stage goes for nearly half the battle. So long that it stops being intense and simply gets boring. #4: The lazy bullet hell (and let’s face it, this shit IS lazy) isn’t the finale to Wally’s battle. Dr. Kahl’s is, and combined with the length of the spamming, it makes winning feel less victorious and more a sense of relief that it’s finally over. That’s why it’s not fun there but it is here. Okay, so I could explain why it works here. The best bits in games are the ones that are in service to the setting and characters.

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PHASE THREE – WILLY WARBLES: God, this thing is so creepy. But, again, the conventional shmup design of having a shield around the enemy and having to carefully aim to get your shots in works so well here. Not only that, but as the eggs spread outwards and you have to weave your way in and out of the shield, it NEVER stops feeling intense and awesome. I also like that all of his shots can be parried, though at no point in Cuphead did I have more instances where I both scored a parry AND took damage than during this phase. It’s so weird. How is that even happening? Shouldn’t the act of being shot be the end of the bullet, thus no parry, or the act of scoring the parry also be the end of the bullet? One or the other, gang. I’m going to guess this is a glitch that never got patched out, but it happened several times.

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PHASE FOUR – THAT’S SO DARK IT LEAKS HAWKING RADIATION: (rubs eyes) Yea, so a mangled Wally is being stretchered out by two EMT birds, and the level totally shits the bed here in terms of feeling fair. Wally, the two EMTs, and even Wally’s heart are shooting you, but there’s little room to maneuver and get your attacks in. It’s the issue with the giant moon in Hilda’s stage, amplified: you have to spend forever getting back to this section only to quickly die over and over again trying to figure out where the bullets are coming from and how you can dodge them. But this time, there’s an even larger variety of attacks. Heck, I often took damage that I didn’t even know where it came from. Every time I’ve beaten Wally, I felt like I got lucky that I didn’t die right before the final point of damage came in. It seems like it’s meant to be a finale that forces the use of bombs, but perhaps they would have been better off limiting the final phase to Wally’s coughing-up of his own bullet-spitting heart and having players shoot it while dodging the pills from the EMTs without all the other crap. The heart gag is brilliant and original! The whole phase should have been built around it!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Yea, Cuphead has an issue with closing the deal on their fights, but I appreciate the anything-goes attitude. As far as visual gags go, seeing the EMT birds begin seasoning Wally is so damn funny that I almost forgive how sour a note the fight ends on. One of the amazing things about Cuphead nobody talks about is how smart the decision was to have fights end with a boxing bell and the dramatic “A KNOCKOUT!” graphic instead of having a typical gaming death animation. I mean, those happen too, but the moment you win is a MOMENT, and Cuphead does that moment even better than Shadow of the Colossus.

BOSS #10: Grim Matchstick in “Fiery Frolic”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Mega Man 2, Contra III: The Alien Wars, Woos Whoopee (1930), Mickey’s Fire Brigade (1935)
IGC LIKES: Fun personality? Eh, screw it: there’s nothing redeeming about this fight.
IGC DISLIKES: Randomized platforms. The fact that I had several rounds that only had two chances to parry.

The other boss that’s so hard that it should have been moved to world three, and in my opinion, one of the worst bosses in all of Cuphead. An auto-scrolling nightmare with totally randomized attacks and more issues than Time Magazine. It’s not merely a slog to fight, but I think it’s just really badly done overall. In order to get high grades at the end of fights, one of the conditions is that you must score three separate parries over the course of the match. But, I had multiple battles with Grim (named after Snow White animator Grim Natwick) where only two chances for a parry ever happened over the course of the fight. You can’t do that, Studio MDHR. If parries are so fucking important, you have to give players more chances at them. There should be something parriable every round. Inexcusable. This boss is total crap.

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PHASE ONE – HOW EXACTLY IS THIS A “FROLIC” HMMM?: This miserable battle opens with Grim shooting laser eyes at you. This could be the only part in the entire match where you have a chance to score parries, BUT, he might only shoot the lasers twice at you. From there, he’ll spit meteors at you and jab his tail up into the playfield. After this, what he does is randomized, and it leaves open the possibility he’ll never fire the lasers again and stick to the meteors. Even though one of the conditions for a perfect score is scoring three parries, it’s not even that rare for a match with Grim to only have the two parriable shots fired. I had several times where I played good (well, good for me) but I’d been at a disadvantage in the score because the game never presented me with the opportunity for the final parry I needed. It pisses me off so much because I actually cared this time whether or not I got high scores on the bosses (my mission this session of Cuphead was to score at least an A- on every battle). And there were multiple other instances where they could have very easily programmed other parry opportunities in phases two and three. What an absolute brain fart on their part. The randomized platforms also often have unfair alignments, and the stage moves just fast enough that you can be absolutely screwed.

PHASE TWO – MATCHSTICK MARCH: This WOULD be the most interesting part of the battle, since there’s nothing quite like it in any other game, but again, it’s a pain in the ass because of those randomized platforms. The flames marching across the bottom will periodically fling themselves up at you. They could have easily made the occasional one pink. I mean, it would make total logical sense and reward fast-reflexes. Not sure how that didn’t happen, especially since you could totally be fucked on your grading after the first phase. Seriously, I’m not letting it go. It makes me mad. Anyway, this is probably the best part of the fight, since I’ve never experienced this type of action in any game. It’s inspired. I wish the rest of the fight hadn’t been completely unlikable.

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PHASE THREE – HEY, WHERE DID THOSE OTHER HEADS COME FROM?: Grim is now three-headed and constantly spits fireballs at you. The fireballs break into four directions if you accidentally shoot them, which is sort of inevitable. After a while, the middle head will throw on a mask and spit a flame across the middle of the screen, and I’m sure it’s because I suck at video games but I never saw this coming. A big reason for that is this phase takes place in a really dark lightning storm, and since you have to focus completely on making your jumps, you can’t really pay attention. The first few times you fight Grim, it feels like a GOTCHA! but at this point I’ve come to expect that shit from this fight. The third world somehow opens with an even worse battle, which is the only thing that keeps Grim Matchstick from being the bottom of the barrel of Cuphead’s otherwise epic bosses. And again, any of those bullets Grim fired could have easily been a parry chance. Grrrrr. SERIOUSLY HOW DID THEY FUCK THIS UP SO BADLY?

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: In theory, the only way to 100% for sure prevent the Grim Matchstick battle from shorting you on enough parries to earn a perfect score is to deliberately play poorly until the third parry is earned. Um, yea. When was the last time a truly great action game penalized players for excelling? The obvious answer is to not force players to score parries, but I actually like that idea. I just think, for something that they put such a high premium on, they really needed to include more chances at them. Not just in this fight, but several others. The good news is, this could easily be fixed with a patch. I mean, the overall fight can’t. It’s boring and bad as a concept, except the second phase. But, at least they can take away the frustration of playing perfectly and still only getting an A instead of an A+ because the damn dragon only shot twice at you instead of three times.

Click here for Part 3 of Cuphead: The Definitive Review! I head to the biggest world in the game: Inkwell Isle III, where I’ll face two more Run & Gun stages and seven bosses.

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part One

“Four times? You’re reviewing Cuphead a fourth time? Are you whoring for page views or something?” #1: Yes. Always. #2: in nearly 4,000 days as Indie Gamer Chick, with over six-hundred indies reviewed, there had been only one game I got wrong that I flipped my review status on without a single patch being applied: Terraria, which I did almost immediately. That one was easy to flip. I was annoyed by all the glitches. I was annoyed by the crashes and lagging while playing multiplayer. Then, as soon as I hit publish on the review, Brian and I turned it back on to “finish our projects” and “get it out of my system.” Twenty hours of playing Terraria later, we both realized that I might need to rethink things, and I did.

Cuphead is now the second time I admit I got a review wrong. Which is really fucking sad when you think about it since I wrote THREE previous reviews of it.

I needed a little more than a couple days to flip on Cuphead, a game that I thought I detested. In fact, took me four years to realize I never hated it so much as I hated the unfair aspects (that are REALLY in the game) that mostly happen late in the game and thus feel fresh when the time comes to do the writing. That and the fact that the final world is gated from players who choose the simple option the developers included. If Cuphead hadn’t told me “not good enough” when I got to the end with having finished all the bosses on simple, I probably wouldn’t have touched it again, given it Approved Status, and moved on.

But, I was a little.. a lot.. okay, extremely pissed that a tentpole indie game locked people out of the ending (and loads of other content). I rejected the universal argument of the developers and its superfans that “Cuphead couldn’t have an easy mode! It would have gone against the spirit of the game!” That’s seriously dumbest argument I’ve ever experienced as IGC. Cuphead DOES have an easy mode! Saying the easy mode for the bosses of the first three worlds should lock you out of the finale would be like arguing a car can’t have breaks because that prevents it from moving forward, which is all a car is supposed to do. Well, that’s just a stupid way of thinking, but locking players out of the finale of Cuphead is arguing that it only exists to create an extreme challenge. That the tribute to golden age cartoons, incredible attention to detail, and masterful direction are completely meaningless because the only point of Cuphead is to be hard. They probably didn’t mean to make that point, but by using difficulty to gate-off large amounts of content and thus defining Cuphead by its difficulty, Studio MDHR chose to make every other aspect but the difficulty of the game completely meaningless. Uh, Whoops?

My first time playing Cuphead, I beat all the bosses on SIMPLE. I didn’t consider myself especially skilled enough to beat the game on the game’s terms. The second time, I didn’t even try. The third time, I did beat Cuphead, and I admitted I’d gotten a lot wrong. I conceded that I really liked the shmup levels, and those moments of victory after suffering through dozens of defeats were some damn-potent happy thoughts. But, I still insisted I didn’t like the game. And, at the point I walked away from it after the end credits rolled, I believed that was true. Even when I ended up having talks with friends where they noticed I had a warmness about it I previously lacked. Then, my kid sister/future Spielberg-of-her-generation Angela, in the middle of a 30s/40s animation kick, picked up Cuphead last week to take a look at how a modern tribute to that style would work. I don’t watch the “video game awards” or whatever the fuck they’re called on TV, so I asked “hey, whatever happened to Cuphead’s DLC?” on Twitter. Everyone replied that Cuphead’s DLC had been dated finally literally the night before. June 30, 2022. Wait, that’s Indie Gamer Chick’s 11th Anniversary! I watched the trailer, and I became excited. And then this conversation happened in my head:

Me: Wait, why I am excited for Cuphead?

Brain: Because you love Cuphead, you fucking idiot.

Me: I…….. do love Cuphead! Oh. My. GOD!! I love Cuphead! Wait, I do? That can’t be right!

So, I loaded Cuphead up on my Nintendo Switch this time (the previous three sessions having taken place on my Xbox One) and set a new goal: instead of simply beating the Devil, I would get at least an A- on every boss AND collect every coin in the game, thus requiring me to beat all six Run & Gun levels as well. This time, I knew what to expect. All the surprises were gone. I’d gotten good at Cuphead, and with or without the Jiffy Pop hands that my Parkinson’s disease is starting to cause, by God, I’m going to beat this fucker good this time. How’d that go?

Well, if I’m doing another Cuphead review, I’m doing the most in-depth review on the game ever written, so that I never have to do another write-up about Cuphead ever again.. until the DLC launches.

Nobody can complain this time. I scored a 100%!

I’m breaking it into four parts. One for each world in the game.

INKWELL ISLE I

RUN & GUN #1: Forest Follies
STATED INSPIRATION: Contra III, Gunstar Heroes, and Donkey Kong Country
IGC LIKES: Simple layout, clear targets.
IGC DISLIKES: Lack of big set-pieces.

Forest Follies, the first Run & Gun stage, will never get credit for being one of the all-time great opening levels in video games. That’s a shame, because it is an all-timer, yet nobody talks about it. A big reason for that is people think of Cuphead primarily as a boss rush game. The six “normal” levels are treated as after-thoughts in the game itself, and thus fans do as well. That’s borderline tragic, because all six levels are rich in gameplay and properly pay tribute to genre-defining titles like Gunstar Heroes and Contra. I’m a big fan of those games, and I think that’s a big part of why I was so drawn to the Cuphead’s Run & Gun stages, even when I wasn’t admitting to myself I loved the overall game.

Like any great intro level, Forest Follies is the perfect introduction to Cuphead’s platform-and-spray mechanics. The enemies are basic and can be clipped with a single bullet. The coins are easy enough to fetch. The parriable objects are practically set-up for you to bounce off. All set in a gorgeous level that feels like you’re taking-on actual cartoon characters from the golden age of animation. It’s one of the few times you can assign the word “basic” to Cuphead, but this is a basic level. Just, one done really well.

Each of the Run & Gun stages has at least one distinct “mini-boss” that makes you sort of wish they’d expanded it into a full boss fight. The acorn maker is the only one in Forest Follies, and one of the few in Cuphead’s Run & Gun stages that doesn’t feel like an event. It feels like a wall (Cuphead is full of those too) that you shoot through. This is as big a “set piece” as Forest Follies has, and if it’d been a little more epic, I think Cuphead’s intro stage would have to be in the discussion for best video game levels of all-time. It’s certainly among the best intro levels, even if nobody will call it that.

RUN & GUN #2: Treetop Trouble
STATED INSPIRATION: Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Mickey’s Garden (1935)
IGC LIKES: How perfectly the developers captured the spirit of their targeted inspiration: Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. The final platforming stretch and the battle with the giant beetle are among the best platforming sections in all of Cuphead.
IGC DISLIKES: The climbing section is a slog. The randomized lady bugs are annoying.

The second level is where Cuphead’s Run & Gun stages get teeth. From here out, the Run & Gun stages are all essentially as difficult as late-game levels in other titles.

Dealing with the woodpeckers would be tough enough without these lady bugs bouncing around. The randomness of which ones can be parried is especially annoying given that there’s a coin that can only be gotten via a parry. It’s one of those things that is wonderful in theory, but in practice, they really needed to rig the RNG so that there is one pink bug constantly bouncing around where the coin is. The stage is challenging enough without having a chance of missing the coin.

The climbing section goes too long and is made a bit annoying by how spongy the enemies are. You can forgo finesse by equipping the heat seeker. The trees soak up too many bullets no matter what you use, so you might as well cheese the whole thing. The left-right-left style of climbing gets pretty old. This is one of the weaker segments in all of Cuphead’s traditional stages.

Then, inspiration hits. Hopping across the leafs that are being held up by bugs makes you think they’re going to sink under your weight. Instead, semi-random fireballs kill the bugs, which make the platforms drop out under you. This is the type of memorable twist on traditional platforming that can only really work this well in a game that puts such a high premium on art and style. It’s really something special.

Finally, the mini-boss, a giant dragonfly, really hits all the marks of what you’d want in a battle that caps off this section (and indeed, the whole level). Unlike the climbing section, you absolutely need finesse and precision here, and the result is one of the most memorable and satisfying bosses in any platforming-shooter. In fact, like many of the best platforming sections, this part was so good it probably could have been turned into a full-on boss battle for the main game. If you could somehow combine this boss with Forest Follies, you’d have one of the great stages in gaming history.

BOSS #1: Goopy Le Grande in “Ruse of an Ooze”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Dragon Quest, Balloon Land (1935)
IGC LIKES: Imaginative battle that encapsulates everything magical about Cuphead.
IGC DISLIKES: That I fought this boss second instead of first.

I’m using the incredible book The Art of Cuphead for discussing the order of the bosses. In ten years, I’ve never recommended any book on gaming more, at least until my own book comes out. Yes, I’m writing a book. It’s titled Indie Gamer Chick: Everything I Learned Telling People Their Games Suck, and it’s coming out in 2023. Anyway, while I fought the Root Pack first, this was meant to be the first boss. I think of them as co-first bosses. The Root Pack all remain stationary and fire projectiles at you. Goopy has no projectiles and instead educates players on a moving target.

PHASE ONE – LITTLE GOOPY: Goopy bounces around and occasionally throws a giant, inflated punch that you can easily duck under. It’s a really simple attack pattern that eases players into the boss battles. Combined with the Root Pack, these fights are probably as good a job at introducing players to the world and concept of Cuphead as possible. I really can think of no flaws with these encounters. With first bosses, keep it simple, stupid.

Goopy blinks before throwing his big knock-out punch, just like Mike Tyson in Punch-Out!! This was supposed to originally be a series of punches, just like in Punch-Out!!, but it had to be cut. However, they kept the famous “Tyson Blinks at 1:30 telegraph” in the game.

PHASE TWO – BIG GOOPY: After a few hits, in a homage to A Boy and His Blob, Goopy flips a jellybean in his mouth and becomes huge. The fight is still the same basic concept: let him jump over you, duck to avoid his punch. Everything is heavily telegraphed, so there’s no GOTCHA type gameplay. The genius of this fight is it gives the illusion of being more difficult, while in reality, it’s just mildly changing-up its attack pattern but uses the medium and art style to make the change-over spectacular looking.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode. The battle ends with phase two. Besides the fact that players are gated out of the final world, the worst issue with simple mode is it gates players out of entire sections of fights. That’s strange to me, because it’s not like they couldn’t make adjustments to make these phases easier. The ways it could have been done are self-evident. That’s one thing I hate about Cuphead that I’m not letting go of: it doesn’t merely tell players who are of lower skill levels that they suck, but also they’re not even deserving of seeing some of the great set pieces in the game. It’s such a snotty, elitist attitude towards game development. They can use the excuse that it doesn’t “hold your hand” or “games in MY day” were like this. Yea, well lots of stuff was different IN YOUR DAY, but we ain’t in that day anymore. Difficulty is an accessibility issue, and it’s unethical to gate large portions of your game out for those who can’t handle higher difficulties in a game that ALREADY HAS ADJUSTABLE DIFFICULTY! Sorry, it’s just a dick move, and if you didn’t want people playing on lesser difficulties, you should have not included it at all. Welcome to the 2020s, where if you don’t give a shit about less-abled people, or in the case of Cuphead, you punish them for taking advantage of the options YOU included, you will be called out for being the complete assholes that you apparently are.

PHASE THREE – GOOPY’S TOMBSTONE: This is one of the best end-of-encounter forms in Cuphead. You’re still following the same basic principle of something moving back and forth, only now, instead of it being lethal to the touch, there’s timed attacks to avoid. Originally, this was going to feature two of the little blue goopies from Forest Follies. Smart move taking them out, as it would have massively thrown-off the difficulty scaling. This is one of the few instances where the team at Studio MDHR got a boss fight absolutely perfect.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Apparently, Goopie is the boss that changed the most from the concept phase. In early trailers, you could see Cuphead battling two at once. Other ideas that didn’t make the cut were Goopie using Rock-Paper-Scissors-based attacks, and a closer tribute to the Tyson fight from Punch-Out!! than what remained in the game. The developers had to give up a lot of ideas, but the restraint they showed is something a lot of first timers wouldn’t do. It’s really remarkable.

BOSS #2: The Root Pack in “Botanic Panic”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Woody Woodpecker, The Jungle Book (1967)
IGC LIKES: The perfect introductory boss. The idea of secret phases within boss battles.
IGC DISLIKES: That there’s not more secret phases in Cuphead. Sal and Ollie are kind of forgettable in their designs, especially compared to the ultra-creepy Chauncey the carrot.

Really, this is the first boss in Cuphead, and the team couldn’t have possibly done better. Who says perfection is unobtainable? Okay, so it’s not TOTALLY perfect, as I’ll get into below, but seriously, this is an all-time first (or second) boss. The stated goal was that every phase would train players in an essential aspect of controlling Cuphead. In your typical game, this is done through seasoning the first level with elements. “Hey look, there’s a block with a question mark on it. Perhaps you should jump up and hit it!” It’s game design 101. Then, for bosses, you apply what you learned in the levels in battling them. But, in Cuphead, it’s assumed most players will battle the bosses first. Educating players in the heat of combat is harder than you think. It’s truly astonishing Studio MDHR created a boss that retains just enough of that Cuphead challenge while also functioning perfectly as Cuphead’s instruction manual.

PHASE ONE – SAL SPUDDER: All three Root Pack characters remain stationary, and you simply have to ping at them while dodging their attacks. For Sal, it’s jumping over four projectiles while he attacks (three in simple mode). The last one is always a worm that can be parried. There’s three cycles of increasing velocity, to give players a chance to get a sense of Cuphead’s hangtime and get into a rhythm for how to jump over projectiles. Besides maybe randomizing the order of which projectile can be parried, I can’t think of anything that they could have done better here.

SIMPLY OFF-PUTTING: This portion of the fight is missing if you choose simple mode. Because why would players who need an easier experience need to learn to dodge left and right?

PHASE TWO – OLLIE BULB: From jumping over projectiles to avoiding them by left to right movement. This is also the first example of giving players a tight squeeze to deal with, which will be a common theme throughout the game. I do have a major knock on this fight: the pink teardrops come in too fast to parry, even on Normal mode. I think I successfully did it once in all my attempts. Of course, if you beat Sal too fast or missed one of his worms, this is your last chance to get the three parries you need to get a perfect score.

“What part of this was inspired by the Jungle Book?” The carrot’s eyes. I’m not pulling that out of my ass. The Art of Cuphead book specifically says it was inspired by Kaa the snake. Which technically means it could have also been Hiss from Disney’s Robin Hood as well!

PHASE THREE – CHAUNCEY CHANTENAY: This is one creepy boss. While the other two Root Pack members are kind of forgettable, nobody will ever forget the creepy design of the finale of this encounter. This section is designed to get players used to the idea of multiple different types of projectiles coming at you at the same time AND firing while still moving. It’s really well done and makes for a truly exciting climax to one of the best intro bosses in gaming history. Of course, it could have played out very different. Then, the game was patched and suddenly it could play out very different!

SECRET PHASE THREE – CHAUNCEY CHANTENAY & HORACE RADICHE: Horace was one of the final attacks that was speced-out and deleted before the game went gold, and was so close to complete that Studio MDHR could patch it back in. So they did. If you do not shoot Ollie during his phase, he’ll vanish without crying, essentially skipping that entire phase. Doing this causes Horace Radish to spawn during the finale phase. He’s basically a homing top that you must jump over while also avoiding all of Chauncey’s attacks. It’s not a huge difference, but it makes the fight a more true “sum of all parts” finale.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT (HAH, NO PUN INTENDED!): Even though I’m flipping Cuphead’s ultimate verdict and conceding it’s one of the best video games ever made, indie or otherwise, I have a LOT of things to complain about, hence this comprehensive review being done so I never have to talk about the game again.. until the DLC hits on June 30. But, one aspect of Cuphead I don’t take any major issue with is The Root Pack. My one knock on it: that I think the pink teardrops during Ollie’s phase should have come in at lower speeds to make scoring a parry more reasonable. Otherwise, this is basically the perfect first boss for this kind of game. They nailed it! Maybe I’d make Horace a permanent addition to the third phase since he completes the “educate players” angle of the fight, but I’m happy they patched him in and won’t complain. Hell, the time between the main release and the DLC gives me hope even more deleted content will be re-added to the game. The Root Pack has another deleted member: Beetrice Lutz, who would throw her children at Cuphead. Come on, you gotta put that back in!

BOSS #3: Ribby and Croaks in “Clip Joint Calamity”
STATED INSPIRATION: Street Fighter (franchise)
IGC LIKES: Most of the attacks and phases are fine-tuned and well balanced.
IGC DISLIKES: The final phase too heavily factors in RNG luck.

Cuphead changed a lot during its conception, and no fight exemplifies this more. Originally, every boss would have seen Cuphead fight it with different types of attacks. They wisely abandoned this for the sake of uniformity. Had they gone through with that plan, this fight would have been VERY different. Originally, lifebars would drop down on the fight and it would have felt much closer to the series they were paying tribute to with this battle: Street Fighter. Walking away from those plans didn’t hurt Clip Joint Calamity, but other issues cropped up that I can sink my critic teeth into. It’s a memorable fight, but also the first one where I can really get into the meat of the issues that keep Cuphead out of the conversation of “best game ever made.”

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PHASE ONE – BATTLE TOADS: The two characters alternate fire attacks. Ribby (the shorter, plumper one) shoots Ryu style fireballs, some of which can be parried. Croaks spits a series of fireflies that drift down at you. The fireballs must be avoided (or parried) but the fireflies are easily dispatched with a few bullets. In fact, they have four hit-points no matter which difficulty you play. When you get enough damage, this is one of the bosses where the transition between phases can still hurt you: the pair split apart, and Ribby must be lept over to avoid damage. Pretty basic stuff, nothing too intense.

PHASE TWO – FAN OF FROGS: Croaks turns into a fan and blows you towards Ribby, who claps energy balls that bounce towards you. It’s one of the easier attacks to avoid in Cuphead, The weird thing is, in simple mode (and Expert), the fireball attack from the previous phase also becomes part of this phase. Either way, it’s not too difficult to get the hang of the timing, even when you’re being pushed left by the current from the fan.

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PHASE THREE – CUPHEAD, YOU IGNORANT SLOT: For the first time in Cuphead, RNG luck overrides player skill. After having to dodge the machine spitting a few coins at you, the handle lowers and can be pulled by performing a parry on it, which starts the reels. The slot machine features three attack waves that are determined by a pull of the handle. The three waves are NOT equally difficult. The more desirable one is getting three snake heads (I thought they were frogs), which creates a series of platforms that must be jumped on. In regular mode, getting the timing down for these is a cinch (in expert difficulty, I kept messing it up). The other two modes are butt-clenching madness. Spin three tigers and the machine spits out a series of platforms that have balls bouncing up and down that must be jumped through. If three bulls are spun, the platforms will float in the middle of the screen with pillars of fire that randomly will go either above or below the platform. Oh, and the sides of all these “chips” are lethal.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I get that it’s a slot machine and it’s supposed to be random, but maybe for the sake of difficulty and consistency, they should have gone with the illusion of randomness while rigging the machine so a player experiences every wave. The really weird thing is, when I beat Cuphead the first time, I never got a “desirable” series of chips during the final wave. Then, when playing on Switch for this review, I got a double snake-head, which led to a fast knockout and a perfect score. Even weirder: when I went back to get media of the other waves, I kept getting the snake heads, to the point that I wondered if the Switch version removed other waves. I got a lot of crap from the “git gud” crowd with Cuphead, but it’s telling to me that so many bosses can be beaten by gittin’ lucky instead. For a game defined by extreme difficulty, how tightly designed can it really be when you can have entire runs determined by random chance?

BOSS #4: Hilda Berg in “Threatenin’ Zeppelin”
STATED INSPIRATION: Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Contra: Hard Crops
IGC LIKES: Wonderful introduction to the shmup fights. The RNG factors are well balanced and equally difficult.
IGC DISLIKES: There’s no reason to hold-off on giving players bombs until Inkwell II.

Cuphead including shmup levels was jarring as hell to me at first. It’s one of those genres that I didn’t realize how much I loved when I first reviewed Cuphead. It felt like a party crasher. I later came to realize the shmup levels are the most consistently solid and balanced stages in the game. And also I’m apparently really good at shmups, as I could take these down with the fewest attempts. It all starts with Hilda Berg, whose design came from a power-up in the game Alex Kidd in Miracle World of all things.

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PHASES ONE, THREE, AND FIVE – BLIMP CHICK: Throughout the fight, tiny Zepplins will fly in and shoot projectiles at you. Blue ones fire single shots, every fourth of which will be a pink bullet you can parry. Green ones shoot four bullets. The zepplins can be shot down easily, but players might be better served avoiding them and their bullets to focus on shooting the boss. Hilda herself will laugh at you, with giant HA bullets flying at a high velocity. She’ll also eventually generate a large tornado at you. When you’ve done enough damage, she’ll launch herself at you, leaving behind a sequence of stars that transitions to the second and fourth phases of the fight.

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PHASES TWO AND FOUR – WHAT’S YOUR SIGN?: Once Hilda floats through the cloud of stars, she’ll transform into one of three constellations. In simple mode, the order will always be Taurus in the second phase, then Gemini in the fourth. In expert, it will always be Gemini in the second phase, then Sagittarius in the fourth. Weirdly, standard mode is where random chance factors in, with Taurus always being the second phase, but the fourth phase could be either of the other two forms. Remarkably, Gemini and Sagittarius are well balanced, which eliminates the RNG factor during the battle. It’s why I can’t excuse Cuphead when luck and desirability of other random phases factors into other battles: because I know Studio MDHR is capable of balance.

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PHASE SIX – CURSE OF THE MOON: One of the most scary and imaginative character designs in Cuphead, the giant moon is an unforgettable finale to the first shmup level. It’s also one of those moments where trial-and-error will inevitably factor in. When the face is inside the moon, you’ll have to simply avoid a series of stars that fly across the screen (some of which can be parried). When the face opens up, the space you can work with is cut in half and a parade of UFOs will march across the top of the screen. Keeping yourself in front or behind the lethal beams of the UFOs has a huge learning curve to it. For most players, they’ll make it to this final phase and perish several times before they get it right. It’s a bit frustrating, since this is by far the best portion of the entire battle, and getting there can be a slog after a while.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This is one of those stages where I wonder if the developers wouldn’t have been better off creating a separate “checkpoint” mode. As I’ve said in previous reviews, gamers are great at rising to the challenge if that’s what they’re into. I’ve seen people who beat games blindfolded, for God’s sake. But in longer stages like this, where the difficulty escalates to a massive degree during the end sequence, it turns a great game into a bit of a slog as you inch back towards the section that keeps owning you. Yea, we get it: difficulty is the point. But sometimes that backfires and turns something amazing into something tedious. Checkpoints do not hurt Cuphead’s integrity in any fashion. All the lack of them does is gate out lesser skilled players and make it clear: you’re not welcome here. It’s so mean-spirited.

BOSS #5: Cagney Carnation in “Floral Fury”
STATED INSPIRATIONS: Aztec Adventure, Ghostbusters (Genesis), Swing You Sinners! (1930), Flowers and Trees (1932)
IGC LIKES: A perfect finale to Inkwell Isle I and one of the great boss fights in gaming history.
IGC DISLIKES: I’m not a jazz person and I can’t believe THIS is the theme that made it into Smash Bros. Ugh.

One of THE icons of Cuphead, the battle with Cagney Carnation was heavily inspired by several plant-based bosses in gaming history. It’s more than simply the juxtaposition of a cute, wholesome flower that suddenly screams at you and then looks like the most evil thing that ever eviled. It’s a boss that checks every box of the Cuphead experience: crowded, relentless, and maybe just a little too reliant on RNG luck. Unlike a lot of bosses, Cagney really only has two phases. But, the variety of attacks in the first phase makes it one of the more intense battles in all of Cuphead. Hell, in around fifty attempts at beating it on expert mode, I only made it to the second phase twice. Twice! They might have gone a little over-board.

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PHASE ONE – I’M PRETTY SURE CARNATIONS ARE A DIFFERENT SPECIES: No matter the difficulty, RNG factors heavily into the battle. When he becomes a machine gun that fires seeds into the air, one of the seeds is capable of scoring a parry on. Whether or not you’ll have a safe chance at scoring that parry is total random chance based on where it’ll fall or if other hazards have already spawned that will prevent it. Another luck-based attack is Cagney’s full-screen stretch. If he does this across the bottom lane, you should have a few moments to cleanly, safely plug away bullets without having to move a muscle. It’s still safe even if he chooses the top lane, which requires you to duck below it. But, this attack might not even happen at all. I had several battles where he never fired it once.

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PHASE TWO – SERIOUSLY, THAT’S CLEARLY NOT A CARNATION: RNG factors into the second phase as well. At the start of this portion of the fight, the bottom channel become deadly, and the fight moves completely to the three floating platforms. Cagney only has two attacks here: spitting projectiles and having spikes emerge from the three platforms. The projectiles are easy enough to avoid, and occasionally one will be pink and thus able to score a parry on. The spikes are problematic. He targets two at a time, and you only have a brief moment to get to the safe platform. Where RNG truly factors in is if you’re already on the correct platform. Especially if you’re using the spread gun and on the front platform. It’s essentially giving players an extended period of not having to do anything. Almost all my most successful runs against Cagney involved the sheer dumb luck of not having to dodge the spikes. For a game that demands players “git gud” it’s stunning how often players are able to walk away saying how lucky they got. But, for all my bitching here, this was seriously one of THE great matches in Cuphead. Bravo, Studio MDHR!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This is another boss that went through tons of changes over the course of development. This includes concepts like having all the seeds be parriable. I wish I could try that version of the fight. In fact, Cuphead was demoed several times over the course of its development at trade shows like E3, and I’d love to have access to those early demos. Maybe Studio MDHR should consider doing a collector’s edition of Cuphead that includes all the deleted content in playable form. They’re the developers of a game that has become a source of inspiration for a new generation of developers, and having access to those early builds would be very educational.

Click here for Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Two, where I’ll venture into Inkwell Isle II. The overwhelming majority of Cuphead owners never make it past this world. Why is that? I have the answers.

Donkey Kong (Game Boy)

Donkey Kong, aka Donkey Kong Game Boy, aka Donkey Kong ’94, aka Donkey Kon-go.. okay I just made that last one up.. is one of the few original generation Game Boy titles that still holds up today. Barely. I actually prefer it to Mario vs. Donkey Kong on the Game Boy Advance or any of the Minis spinoffs that proceeded it after MvDK failed to light up the sales charts. Do you know why Mario vs. Donkey Kong failed, at least in my opinion? The misguided choice to use Donkey Kong Country style rendered graphics instead of cartoonish pixels. No clue why they chose that. Especially since it really needed to differentiate itself from the Country series. And no, morphing into a shitty Lemmings knock-off wasn’t the way to go about it. The formula for Donkey Kong ’94 was perfectly fine. This is a very good video game. Also, I was kidding. It’s those shitty Lemmings stages that killed Mario vs. Donkey Kong. Nobody liked them. Nintendo turned the series into being about them anyway. To quote the name of the watering hole with a black hole in the bottom of it: well that sucks.

Well.. that sucks.. because it’s got a black hole. Get it? Sorry.

I’m really only reviewing this because when I was bitching about how bad the arcade original aged and/or suggesting that Nintendo would be well served to remake it and Donkey Kong Jr. with additional levels, people said “but Donkey Kong ’94!” quite loudly. Even though Donkey Kong ’94 is nothing like the arcade Donkey Kong. This is actually one of the few retro games I grew up with, and the only black-and-white Game Boy title I had besides Pokemon, which I had for the Game Boy Pocket I pestered my parents for and received a mere month before the Game Boy Color came out. And BOY were they happy with me when they found out the device they just bought me was already obsolete. I believe Donkey Kong was a throw-in “buy a Game Boy Pocket and get any Greatest Hits title for free” deal and it looked neat to me. And then I didn’t actually play it until much later. Which is weird because Pokemon Red certainly didn’t withstand the test of time. Donkey Kong has. It does so by the skin of its teeth, but still, it’s fine. (Side note: Donkey Kong cost $3.99 while Nintendo has the balls to charge $9.99 for the old black & white Pokemon games. That’s worse than the Switch Tax!)

This remake of the original final board of the arcade Donkey Kong is neutered by the backflip move. You can seriously beat it in under 10 seconds.

Donkey Kong ’94 gets off to a truly bizarre start as it immediately recreates the four levels from the arcade game. Fine idea, except all the special moves at Mario’s disposal are there from the start instead of being earned as the game progresses. To say this nerfs the difficulty of them is an understatement. Using the handspring-jump-power-jump combo, you can shoot right up the iconic barrel-hopping stage or the pie-factory in no time flat. I’ve had a harder time getting a locker open at the gym than I had with the first four levels. From that point forward, the game moves on to 97 new levels, the main mechanic of which is picking up a key and carrying it to a door, with every fourth level being a direct encounter with Donkey Kong himself. At this point, Donkey Kong becomes one of the most clever and consistently fresh platform-puzzlers of all-time.

And one of the most toothless. Free lives are so abundant that by time I finished level 1 – 8, I had thirty lives. THIRTY! That’s after I got killed a couple times getting myself reacquainted with the controls. Speaking of which, movement seems stiffer and less responsive than I remember it being. I honestly don’t know if that’s due to the tired and true nostalgia drunkenness that I’m normally not vulnerable to or if the emulation of Game Boy on 3DS isn’t spot-on. The only other Virtual Console games I’ve got are the first three Game & Watch titles. It’s completely possible that the controls are identical and this is one of those instances of “gaming has come a long ways.” Which is not to say the controls are crap or anything. I just had trouble getting the timing of the handspring triple jump correct. Too much trouble for it to be on me. I mean, I did beat Cuphead (suck my asshole). Doing the backflip was a bit trickier too.

Sorry there’s not better pics. One of the best parts of modern gaming is the ability to take screencaps and clips easily. I’m spoiled by it. I can’t ever go back. Anyway, count the free lives here. There’s as many as eight, actually. You get one for the 1up, as many as two for the time you have remaining (which gets you a free life for every second you have left after four stages are completed.. it even rounds up doing that.. and as many as five for getting the hat/purse/parasol combo and winning them in a bonus game. That’s batshit.

Well, my family is on-board with this whole Indie Gamer Chick thing, and it so happened we had access to an old school creamed-spinach and pus colored-screen Game Boy, and they tracked down a copy of Donkey Kong ’94. They had to pay $100 for it, but they got fourteen other games with it. I popped in the cart, and the difference was immediately clear. On the very first stage I could spring myself straight up, not once failing to pull-off the triple jump, or any backflips for that matter. Then I switched back to 3DS and the timing window was again much smaller. I had Brian and CJ give it a try too. It wasn’t just me. It was clearly an issue with the emulation. This won’t hurt 90% of games, but if there’s a sequence that has relatively small action-timing windows, you might have trouble getting the hang of it.

So, weirdly enough, while Donkey Kong ’94 is a well-designed (if insultingly easy) action-puzzler, I’m struggling to recommend it on 3DS. I still do, because it’s just plain stupid fun, but I think gamers deserve stronger emulation. While nothing is announced yet, I have to believe some sort of option is coming for Switch. I’ve been playing a LOT of commercial emulated games lately (Castlevania Anniversary Collection, Switch Online’s NES library, Arcade Archives, SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, etc) and I’m used to emulators with cleaner emulation and more bells and whistles. The effort is not there on 3DS Virtual Console. Moreover, Donkey Kong ’94 served as the launch killer app for the Super Game Boy accessory and showed off the capabilities of the device, but none of those color palettes are present here. You get two screen options: black and white or the kava-based-diarrhea greens that the original Game Boy was famous for. None of the more vibrant Super Game Boy colors are here, even though they’re presumably in the game’s code. One thing about Virtual Console: it NEVER went the extra mile (except StarTropics of all games, where the “dip the note in water” shit was digitally recreated).

It’s time for a new commercial Game Boy emulator. I’d even pay extra for it. Or I would have, but considering how hot the NES library started and how much it’s gone to hell over the last couple months (Donkey Kong 3 and Wrecking Crew are the only two new games coming in July), at this point I wouldn’t pay $20 extra a year for the subscription-based service to add Game Boy to the library unless the opening lineup was really good. I’d have no faith that the games they’d add every month would be ones people would actually want. I have their shoddy NES library track record to go off of. Like, seriously, who got excited over TwinBee? Wait, you did? Go stand in the corner for ten minutes and think about what you’ve done.

The map is functionally useless. You don’t move on it. You can’t replay extra levels. It’s just a built-in break between stages.

But, Donkey Kong is good enough to stand on its own even with timing issues. It’s a quick game, too. You can complete most of the 100 levels in under a minute. The most involved puzzles aren’t more complex than “activate lever when enemy is on gate, causing enemy to fall to different platform, allowing you to ride it.” Really, what stands out about Donkey Kong is how fine-tuned the timing is on so many gameplay aspects. You can touch special icons that allow you to place bridges or ladders or single-block platforms that disappear after a short time. But, if you use them right, they always last long enough for you to get whatever part of the puzzle you’re doing without feeling too rushed. The same with the key in each stage, which you pick-up Mario 2-style. If you’re not holding it, it resets to its starting position after a few seconds. But, some levels require you to toss the key around or place it on conveyors. It never once felt like there wasn’t enough time. This is a very polished game in terms of gameplay, if not presentation.

I have no clue why Nintendo even bothered with a lives system, since the game practically hand-feeds you extra ones like you’re fucking Caesar or something. Maybe they thought their fans in 1994 would be unaccustomed to using their brains. I kid. If the game was a punisher, I’d get it. But it’s not. I actually have a theory: I think the special moves weren’t originally in the game. Weirdly enough, Donkey Kong ’94 is the turning point in Mario’s evolution. This is first game where he can be considered a full-fledged acrobat. Before DK ’94, his abilities were limited to running and jumping, with everything else requiring a power-up. Donkey Kong ’94, and not Super Mario 64, is the game that introduced Mario staples like the triple-jump and the backflip. Which is awesome in theory. In execution, you can use them to circumvent so much of the puzzling and platforming that it saps a lot of the design logic out of most stages. Like, seriously, it’s crazy how many stages you can spot the elaborate puzzle intent and then completely ignore it. I literally can picture the puzzle designer laying out the steps required to get the key to the door, then seeing someone just do a tumbling act through the level in seconds, leaving them in tears. I can’t help but wonder if these were last second additions that weren’t all the way thought-through, like the running jumps in Super Mario 2 that weren’t part of the original level conception of Doki Doki Panic.

My theory is that Super Mario 64 had began development by time Donkey Kong ’94 was nearing completion. The jump to 3D was going to be a radical enough change without Mario suddenly having all kinds of new abilities related to his leaping. With no other Mario platform games planned between 1994 and the launch of the Nintendo 64, I think Nintendo shoehorned the gymnastics into Donkey Kong at the last second as a way of prepping Nintendo fans for the acrobatics coming within the next couple years. I have no confirmation of this, but it makes sense to me. Donkey Kong was going to be tied to the highly anticipated Super Game Boy with a big marketing campaign, and Nintendo fans being generationally loyal, would be familiarized with the moves, eliminating some of the learning curve of Mario 64.

Or they just thought it’d be fun. Either/or.

The Donkey Kong encounters are the best stages. Each world has at least one that’s simply based around getting to the platform next to Pauline. The final one of each world involves picking up barrels and hitting DK three times. They’re always fun. DK Junior even cameos in some, proving my theory that Mario is NOT the villain in Donkey Kong Jr.

And yea, pulling off a backflip to skip a ladder or a platform and get higher faster is fun. And the “ta-da” style arm-raise Mario does when pulling off the triple jump is just plain adorable. But those moves also cripple the game’s difficulty. I’d go so far as to call Donkey Kong ’94 the easiest Mario game.. well.. ever. It’d probably be a great game to ease young children into more complex thought-process gaming, but even my father, who has taken up gaming in his early 70s as part of his regime to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, made it to the game’s fifth world in around two hours with a maximum stockpile of lives. This is only his fifth game he’s playing to the end. It’s too easy. It’s worth mentioning he had fun with it, and so did I. But I also finished Donkey Kong ’94 in about two hours and with 99 lives left. There’s something spectacular here, and I really wish they’d go back to this style of Donkey Kong or Mario vs. Donkey Kong and drop the boring Mini stuff.

Really, there’s two great lost Nintendo series: Mario vs. Donkey Kong (of which Donkey Kong ’94 launched) and Punch-Out!! I can’t see either coming back. One has been turned into a snore-fest Lemmings knock-off, and the other is a game about punching ethnic stereotypes in the face, which is still fun for the record (take my word for it: slugging a Frenchman wearing a beret is totally worth the fine and probation) but not kosher in 2019. Then again, you’d think the idea of Lemmings being suicidal and directionless would also not be considered politically incorrect. You guys know that’s a bullshit urban legend started by the Walt Disney company, right? It’s not true. Lemmings don’t jump off cliffs.

They jump into deep fryers only.

We call them Chicken McNuggets in America.

Donkey Kong was developed by Nintendo
Point of Sale: 3DS

$3.99 said Mario vs. Donkey Kong is worth the $6.99 on Wii U if you still have one in the making of this review.

Donkey Kong is Chick-Approved, but as a non-indie is not eligible for the IGC Leaderboard. Stay tuned for the Retroboards.

Tetris 99

I was born twenty days before the Game Boy released in the United States. I missed the whole national Tetris craze. Older fans are sickened by the fact that I’d never played the Game Boy Tetris until right before I wrote this sentence. Apparently I’m supposed to be nostalgic for a game that was shat out into the world the same month I was. My first experience with Tetris was a Disney-themed N64 game that was.. alright. It wasn’t no Pokemon Puzzle League, that’s for sure. It wasn’t even a Super Puzzle Fighter. Hell, there was a $10 PS1 drug store budget rack game called Puzzle Star Sweep that nobody remembers or talks about that I put a lot more time into. Probably the best $10 I ever spent on a game before modern indies became a thing.

You can still get Puzzle Star Sweep on PSN for your PlayStation 3, PSP and Vita. It’s the best well-puzzler you’ve never heard of.

I never understood the Tetris obsession. It seemed to come and go like the gaming version of disco. The way people spoke of it, they might as well have been describing events from the bronze age for as far in the distant-past as it seemed. And then when I was seventeen and in the middle of a ten-month, twenty-hour-a-day World of Warcraft bender, I got Tetris DS. It was the sole interruption of probably my worst gaming addiction. Which was sort of like giving a heroine addict methadone, really. It had fun theming (based around Nintendo properties) and I ended up running out my DS’s battery a few dozen times. I’d probably make my DS top 10 if I did such a list. But then Tetris sort of faded away for me. I later got it for PS3, but the thrill was gone. And the recent comeback to relevancy via Tetris Effect meant nothing for me because it’s not epilepsy-compatible. Also, the whole battle royale fad has not been my thing. If Tetris 99 hadn’t been free with my Switch Online subscription, I’d probably never bought it for a variety of reasons. Among them, the special effects are just flashy enough that I can only play it in portable-mode with the back-lighting turned all the way down. It’s not exactly convenient for me. Had I not been insanely bored the night it came out, it might have sat on my Switch, unplayed and unloved.

Here I am, 1,000 games and over seventy-six hours of gameplay later, left in awe. And probably legitimately addicted. My family has, without hyperbole, staged two interventions on my use of this game. Finally, I made a deal with them: let me play my thousandth game, and then I’ll delete it permanently and finish up this review. This review that I’ve been in the process of writing for seventeen days. Really, all I need to say is this: Tetris 99 is the killer app for Switch Online, and the best game on Nintendo Switch. Yep, better than Breath of the Wild or Mario Odyssey. It’s absolutely incredible. And, unlike a lot of battle royale games, you really do need to be good to finish high in the standings. It took me around 60 games to grab my first victory, but when it happened, I literally screamed myself hoarse. It helps that the win came on the heels of the greatest come-from-behind victory in the history of gaming. Well, at least for me.

I won that game. By time I erased Tetris 99 from my Switch, I’d won forty-six more times to go with it. Maybe my love of Tetris 99 has to do with the fact that I’m finally good at one of these fucking BR games. But really, it’s because the idea is just so good. Basically, all 99 players try to throw garbage blocks at each other by stringing together combos while throwing down doubles, triples, and Tetrises. And also doing these things called T-Spins that I never fully got the hang of. Probably the biggest weakness out of the box with Tetris 99 is there’s no instructions and players are left to figure out what exactly everything means on their own. Perhaps this was a nod of the head to those NES era douchebags that never stop bitching about how games back in their days didn’t “hold hands.” Then again, those same players keep coming to me asking how to play the game. Heh.

There really should have been an option to remove the flashy special effects. Not just for epilepsy but because, satisfying as it is to see the shots hit other players, it’s distracting. The same goes for the targets pointed at you. The lines should have been transparent. If a lot of players are on you, you can’t see the bottom of the well.

In a nutshell, Tetris 99 is exactly the same Tetris you grew up with. The seven primary shapes are all back with no newcomers. You move the blocks with the left D-Pad while using the analog sticks to target players to receive whatever garbage blocks you earn. Using the left stick, you can target specific players. But there’s 98 besides yourself and that process will be slow and clunky and should only be used late in the game, if at all. Like, don’t even look at the left-stick until you’ve made at least the top 15. Instead, focus on the right stick. It does a focused-target on one of four groups. Flicking up targets those closest to being knocked out of the game. Flicking left will hit a random person and is only really useful if you’re trying to fly under the radar or trying to shake-off those who are targeting you only because you’re attacking them. Flicking down targets people attacking you. You’ll want to use this one the most if you’re taking a defensive stance. It was my primary play-style. And flicking right will target players who have badges. And my apologies to Blazing Saddles, but you’ll need some stinkin’ badges.

Badges by far seem to confuse players the most. Here’s how they work: you collect a badge every time you knock a player out. If multiple players contributed to knocking the player out, they receive a half-badge. The more badges you have, the stronger your attack power, and the more garbage you send to your opponents. When a player carrying a ton of badges gets knocked out, the player who did it gets all the badges they collected plus one. The badge system was created to assure a player can’t coast under the radar and have any chance at winning during the end-game if they’ve not been aggressive at all. Winning without a single badge, which requires you to win by only knocking out the final player, is the rarest of victories, one that the player would have to be a virtual God among OF COURSE I’VE DONE IT!!

Also, just to be clear: badges do not carry over to the next match. But, I suspect that the auto-targeting at the start of each match might be in part based on how players did in the previous match. Perhaps the top-finishing person of the 99 gets all the targets. Over half my matches I finished in the top 10, and in a remarkably strange amount of matches, I would start with over 20 targets painted on me before the first block dropped. People on my timeline consistently said they’d never experienced anything like the sheer amount of targets I normally got. One time it was fifty-two bullseyes I had painted on me before the first block even started falling. Fifty-two! Usually when people want to throw that much garbage at me, I’m talking about Hollow Knight.

What I love most about Tetris 99 is that this relatively simple setup allows for diverse and complex strategies. You can play aggressively, but risk putting a target on yourself. You can fly under the radar until the herd thins out, but then you risk reaching the end game with no attack power (most of my 2nd – 4th place finishes were a result of this). Tetris was already a game that required quick-wits and improvisation, but Tetris 99 compounds that by having to train yourself to glance over at remaining opponents and quickly, accurately decide how to go about attacking or surviving. Games can swing wildly. I’ve gone from the bottom of my well and in firm control to dead in seconds just by one poorly timed mistake by myself that an opponent on their last rope capitalized on, and vice-versa. Now granted, I have a lot of friends and fans who put a lot of time and hundreds of rounds in Tetris 99 and couldn’t get a win, and I got 47 so I’m pretty proud of myself. But, I should have had a lot more, and I blew it. In 1,000 matches, I probably finished 2nd place over 100 times, easily. I was very much the Jerry West of Tetris 99.

I call this “getting Sarah Huckabeed.”

All is not well in Tetrisville. Besides the fact that the rules and attack patterns are not entirely clear, there’s some horrific glitches that stunt the game’s potential. One in particular can potentially block valid attacks. I preferred to take a defensive posture when I played, focusing on those attacking me. However, sometimes I’d knock-out players who were targeting me, only their target would remain painted on me for the remainder of the game. When using the “attackers” target, if nobody is attacking you, the game defaults to a random target if you manage to hit anything higher than a double. But, since the game believed I was still being targeted, those combos would go to waste since there wasn’t really a player to attack. This glitch has started happening constantly. Like, one out of every four matches. It forced me to move off my defensive stance and instead target random people, since taking an aggressive stance against badge-holders is a good way to get knocked out early. This glitch has been there from the start and there’s no word of a patch coming. It needs to be fixed. Like, now.

(Can you tell I focused on this just to have a Second Chance with the Chick excuse for Tetris 99 so I can play it more? Too obvious?)

Check the circled player who was KOed in 89th place on the right side of the screen. That target should have gone away. But, because of the glitch, the target stayed. If you don’t realize this is happening, you will waste a LOT of garbage blocks. This glitch is not a rarity. It constantly happens and it needs to be fixed.

Beyond that, my biggest complaint is the lack of advanced stats. Like, I’d really like an official number of how many times I finished in the top 10. I can’t tell you exactly how many games I finished 2nd place in, or how many games I won only holding three badges or whatever amount of badges. I would have liked more advanced stats on my scoring too. I had to do the math myself to figure out how many Tetrises I averaged per a match (I finished averaging eight Tetrises a match, off 73 total lines a match). But it would have been way neat if Tetris 99 told me how many lines I averaged per victory, along with how many doubles/triples/Tetrises I needed to achieve those. Besides seeing some absolutely bat shit videos of people who put my skills to shame, I have no clue where I really stood in the grand scheme of things. My ego could have been boosted (or severely wounded) with some online leaderboards. Or, maybe some extra modes. There’s no single-player options (though data-miners have allegedly found the spot for them), or an option to play “traditional” Tetris without the ability to hold blocks. As I neared the end of my time with Tetris 99, I wanted to see how good I really was at it by not holding blocks while the other 98 players presumably did. I did pretty good. I had one game where I finished 10th and another where I finished 2nd. Hell, now I regret the thousand-games promise. I really wanted to see if I could pull off winning without using the hold. This is going to eat at me.

Of all the pop-culture shit this effect could have reminded me of, the one that kept popping in my head was Mr. Destiny.

Anyway, Tetris 99 is awesome. It’s free if you have the subscription to Switch Online. If you don’t, Tetris 99 justifies the cost by itself so much better than the (very limited and not growing fast-enough) NES library you get does. A lot of people consider Tetris to be the best, more pure video game ever made. Tetris 99 is an imperfect spinoff of a perfect formula, but it’s also the most compelling online experience I’ve had since Rocket League. Above every other argument I can make, the best one is that I didn’t grow up with Tetris. It wasn’t important to gamers from my generation. And yet, here we are in 2019, and I’m telling the world that a Tetris game is the best reason to own a Nintendo platform. It’s one of the ten best games I’ve ever played. And, in all the years I’ve played online games, winning at Tetris 99 is by far the most exhilarating. That counts for something.

It might also be a Russian plot to destroy productivity. Let’s not rule this out.

Tetris 99 was developed by Arika
Free with a Nintendo Switch subscription

If you lost to, or beat, someone named Cathy, it was probably me.

Tetris 99 is Chick-Approved but is not an indie and ineligible for ranking on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Good thing probably. It’d be #1 if it were.

Shephy

I can’t believe Shephy is a honest-to-God contender for the worst game I’ve ever reviewed. It makes no sense. It’s a harder-version of Solitaire with sheep, so I should have liked it. I mean, I like playing with myself.

Um, let me clarify that statement. I like playing with myself with sheep.

I mean, I like the idea of playing with myself with sheep.

No wait, I mean to say while helping breed sheep.

With each other, not with me.

I don’t think this is coming out right.

So yea, Spephy is based on a 2013 physical card game that is allegedly popular in Japan. I was tempted to buy a physical copy to compare for this review, until I saw how much is being charged for it on Amazon. Nearly fifty-fucking-bucks! Outrageous. Anyway, I say allegedly popular because it’s actually not a very good game, mechanically speaking. Think of it as a cross between Solitaire and a punisher. You start with one sheep card and are dealt five “event” cards. Event cards either help you to multiply your sheep or force you to kill or downgrade the ones already in “the field.” Over the course of the game, you have to combine the cards in the seven-cell “field” into higher ranking cards. You have three rounds to eventually get a single 1,000-rank sheep card onto the play-field.

And it has to be the 1,000 rank card. If you run out of rounds and have seven 300-rank sheep cards (the second-highest card you can get), you’ve lost the game even though you actually have 2,100 sheep represented on the play field. Even though the point is you’re supposed to be competing against a rival herd of sheep that reaches exactly 1,000 after you’ve played round three. So you can get a higher number sheep in your flock and still lose to a lesser amount of sheep based on bullshit rules. Fuck that. We already have that in America. We call it “The Electoral College.”

Let’s face it: most people are going to see this picture and buy the game based on it. Hell, *I* bought it based on this pic. At least I have reviewing the game as an excuse. What’s yours?

Dumb concept and design is sort of the order of the day. There’s a card you can get that forces you to destroy seven different sheep cards on the play-field. The play-field which is exactly seven cells large and can’t get bigger. So yea, there’s a game over card. You must play every card in every round. There’s three exceptions to this: there’s the meteor card that kills three of the cells’ worth of sheep, but it’s removed from the game after its first use. There’s a sheepdog card that allows you to discard any card in your hand. Finally, there’s a card that lets you remove any card in your hand from the rest of the game so that it doesn’t show up in later rounds. That sounds great, until you remember that there’s a card that is an instant loss. So, no matter what, you have to use one of the two discard cards on it, and since the sheepdog card is only delaying dealing with it for another round, the only logical thing you can do is wait to draw the “remove from the game” card and apply it to it. It’s a prime example of why everything is wrong with Shephy: it’s just not a thoughtful, tightly designed game.

And there’s far too many over-powered negative event cards to overcome. In about 25% of the games I played, my opening draw of five cards either was dead on arrival because no matter what card I played, my lone sheep would die, or I had one card I could play just to get to the next card and then I was dead. Twenty-five percent! That’s a lot of stillborn games over the course of the ten hours I put into this. Yea, sometimes you can have that happen in Solitaire as well, but only 0.25% of Solitaire games are unplayable and 8.5% to 18% are unwinnable. Now yes, there’s a running gag with me where I have remarkably bad luck when relying on random-chance in games I review, but even considering that, being dead with no possible opportunity to use strategy at least once out of every four games is kind of shit deal. And stuff like the instant-death card only serves to emphasize how little consideration strategy or complex game theory factored into the design of Shephy. The same problems apply to the positive cards. There’s one card that allows you to select one of the sheep cards in the field and place three sheep cards one-rank lower than the chosen card into empty cells. There’s then a card that allows you to replace existing sheep with ones a rank higher than their current one, excluding all sheep of the highest rank you have. So, if you have a 10-ranked sheep, you’ll get three 3-ranked sheep, which you can then turn into three 10-ranked sheep. These two cards were made for each other, to the point that using them together is basically the only plausible strategy for them.

Yea, I figured out the world belonged to sheep when I found out how popular Twilight was. By the way, Shephy’s tutorial is the worst I’ve ever seen for a physical-game-to-video-game adaption. I had far more questions by time I was done with it than answers.

Usually, I tend to review video-translations of physical games that were solid games to begin with. This is the first one I’ve played where the original game was so bad that it had almost zero chance of winning me over as a video game. For the digital port on Steam and Switch, extra modes were added that change the gameplay or the win/fail conditions. But, you’re still using the same base game, which was broken to begin with. The seven “stages” of the story mode somehow remove even more options for strategy or individualism. One of the stages tasks you with starting with a 1000-rank sheep and eventually making your way towards having a single 1-rank sheep on the field. Certain cards are eliminated from being part of this game, and the concept sounds alright. Well, actually, no. Because the game also eliminates the third round. There’s only two cards that allow you to get lower-ranked cards, and one card that can become a copy of any card. There’s seven sheep ranks. So, the actual means to get to the victory are already in place and unshakable: you have to use those 3 cards together over the 2 rounds. The only strategy is in keeping the cards that wipe out all the sheep from, well, wiping out all your sheep. But there’s almost no strategy involved in that. You’re at the mercy of just getting the cards in a specific order that will allow for the one and only one specific method of winning. That’s awful game design.

This is one of those rare games where I have nothing good to say about it. Even the user-interface is beyond atrocious. Show of hands, who here has played Solitaire? It’s a game responsible for millions, if not billions, of wasted productivity hours. And it got there by having a simple interface. Click the card you want, drag it over to the card you want to place it on. Shephy is based on Solitaire, so there’s no way they could screw up the controls, right? Wrong. You can’t do the most obvious thing, clicking the card you want, dragging it to the cell you want or the card you want to use it on. Oh no, you have to left-click the card you want, click the cell or card you want to apply it to, then press the up-arrow on the keyboard to make the move.

Are you fucking kidding me?

This is a pic of “Challenge Mode”, which is exactly like normal mode only the game doesn’t end once you have one of the 1000 rank cards. It ends after three rounds. There’s no online leader-boards, but now that I think about the highest you can possibly get is 7,000. I only played this mode once and my score was 5,006. I think I’m okay with that.

Oh, and while learning the game, you’ll want to know what each card does. But the text is really small, so  you’ll want to zoom in. That should be as easy as using the right-click on a card, right? Nope. You have to right-click a card, make sure it’s highlighted in blue (sometimes it doesn’t do it), and then press “V” on the keyboard. Why not just allow people to highlight a card with the left-click and then use the wheel or the right-click to zoom? So yea, they didn’t optimize it for PC play. It’s actually sort of remarkable how badly they botched what should have been the most self-evident control scheme they’ll ever encounter in their development careers. This isn’t a complex real-time-strategy game or some kind of stat-driven RPG where a complex series of button-commands are called for. It’s a crappy game of solitaire that has pictures of sheep humping on some of the cards. How the fuck do you screw that up?

So that’s Shephy. A terrible video game port of a terrible card game. The fact that there’s extra modes added or that the developers went above-and-beyond crafting a bat-shit insane story for this mess would normally be admirable, but here I find it sort of annoying. Why were they writing an elaborate story line to go along with this instead of optimizing it for PC? I can’t blame the video game developers on the game play mechanics, since those are what ultimately doomed Shephy, but there’s no excuse to not tailor the control scheme for use with a mouse. But, ultimately, gameplay is king. Shephy is at best frustrating. At worst, Shephy is as sleep-inducing as counting some sort of fluffy bovid animal.

Shephy was developed by Arc System Works
Point of Sale: Steam, Switch

$4.99 would have rather been spent on a video game adaption of Lamb Chop’s Play-Along in the making of this review.

Keeping this review (relatively) sheep-pun free is one of my proudest achievements. You’re welcome.

SteamWorld Heist

SteamWorld Heist is the long-awaited fourth entry in the Ocean’s Eleven movie series. This time, George Clooney’s ragtag group of professional thieves break into Valve’s headquarters to steal Gabe Newell’s tankers full of bacon grease. Okay, so the actual story is a ragtag group of space robots looting other space robots, but really, the first idea needs to happen.

I’ll give this to Image & Form: they have balls. Big, huge, brass balls that go “clank clank clank” like you’re listening to James Harden practice 3-pointers. SteamWorld Heist is not a sequel to their critically acclaimed mining time sink SteamWorld Dig. It’s a completely different style of game, with a new set of characters and new gameplay mechanics. It’s set in the same universe and features a quirky cast of sassy robots, with the same graphics style and same smooth play controls. Once again, if I played the game in a vacuum with no knowledge of indie gaming and was asked “who made this?” I would have guessed Nintendo without hesitation. The guys at Image & Form are very, very good. And this time around, they took even more care (this from an indie developer who has imposed a strict “no releasing games needing patches” policy) to provide a longer, more layered and complex experience.

Huge thanks to Image & Form for only providing screenshots with QR codes, branding, and the duel screen stuff. We wouldn't want anyone to get a good view of what the game looks like, would we?

Huge thanks to Image & Form for only providing screenshots with QR codes, branding, and the full view of the 3DS. We wouldn’t want anyone to get a good view of what the game looks like or be able to tell what’s going on, would we? At least this picture has the robot I nicknamed “Ron Howard” on the right.

So why didn’t I like Heist as much as Dig?

Before I continue, I should note that SteamWorld Heist is one of the best indies of 2015 and goes far to stake SteamWorld’s claim to the most unsung awesome indie franchise award. Heist stands on its own as a good game, and if I had never played Dig, I wouldn’t be so weirded out by the radical departure Heist makes from the established formula.

But weirded out I am. Because SteamWorld Dig was a relatively fast-paced title that took the time sink formula of XBLIG top-seller Miner Dig Deep and gave it a point. SteamWorld Heist, on the other hand, is a turned-base real-time action strategy game, or TBRTASG for short. Which is both a crappy acronym and a mediocre opening rack to have in Scrabble, with GRABS, GARBS, and BRAGS being the best words you can make on your opening turn, none of which are really that good. Turn-based games are inherently slower and more methodical, so I wasn’t expecting the kind of thrills I got from Dig. Actually, I’m impressed that Heist lends itself so well to playing on 3DS. Turns go by relatively quickly and stages are short enough that if you only have 10 minutes to kill, you could probably knock out any stage in the game with time to spare. The action revolves around how you aim and fire weapons yourself, giving the game an almost Worms-like feel to it. In fact, I hope Image & From is planning a versus mode for Heist when it hits consoles. It would be like Transformers, only you can tell the robots apart.

Having said all that, being fast-paced for a turn-based game is still relatively slow. The more deliberate pace can be exhausting. Whereas I had trouble putting Dig down, I could only do one-hour sessions of Heist before pretty much any other activity seemed at least 10% more appealing, and I needed a break. Even the promise of opening up new characters, weapons, and upgrades wasn’t enough to give it that “just a little bit further” quality that makes some games so memorable and successful. Like Dig, the story didn’t really stick with me at all. In fact, taking the game from the old west setting and sending it into space comes dangerously close to jumping the shark, and the characters are all of the cookie-cutter “lowest common denominator” variety. Probably great for both little kids and their child brains and also Nintendo fans whose brains are merely stuck in child mode. I kid.

I, of course, am NOT a little kid. Which is why I would never give up on a boss for being too difficult and change the setting to "easy". I swear. STOP LOOKING AT ME WITH THOSE ACCUSING EYES!

I, of course, am NOT a little kid. Which is why I would never give up on a boss for being too difficult and change the setting to “easy”. I swear. STOP LOOKING AT ME WITH THOSE ACCUSING EYES!

Actually, I don’t know if SteamWorld Heist would hold your average kid’s attention. I had a couple of kids who played Dig and liked it a lot give Heist a whirl. It didn’t hold their interest at all, with one outright calling it boring. He’s wrong (and got a lump of coal from me for Christmas, serves him right), it’s certainly not boring, but I can’t stress enough that fans of SteamWorld Dig are by no means certain to love Heist. Whereas I think Dig could have appealed even to gamers who are not fans of the mining genre (which is a rarity given the blind hatred directed at those), I don’t think Heist would be as welcome to people who shy away from turn-based games of any type. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what my gut tells me, and my gut never steers me wrong. It also never fails to remind me when I ignore it, especially when we eat Mexican.

From a gameplay perspective, Heist is a very solid game, and the shooting mechanics are hugely satisfying. Again, think Worms in terms of how damn good it feels to hit those last-chance desperation shots that ricochet a couple of times and manage to find their mark. Heist is full of moments like that, those “I can’t believe I made that shot!” moments that make games like this worth playing. There’s even an incentive to come close but miss, in the form of collectible hats you can shoot off enemy heads that I can already visualize the achievements attached to when this hits consoles. It kind of makes me bitter that I played this on achievementless 3DS, since I shot more hats off than failed Abraham Lincoln assassins. And the huge variety of weapons and characters assures that the firefights themselves never become boring. As far as action gameplay in turn-based games go, Heist ranks near the top.

Someone call for a sponge, because Cathy's chair needs another clean-up.

Someone call for a sponge, because Cathy’s chair needs another clean-up.

But, I had a lot of complaints. I don’t like how movement and moves are represented. Instead of using a grid, the game draws color-coated lines (which will probably earn Image & Form the ire of colorblind gamers) to show the maximum distance you can move on a turn, or the maximum distance you can move while still being able to fire a weapon. That works fine for the turn you’re currently on, but I never got a good enough feel for movement, even after 20+ hours, to be able to plan the next few turns out. Since movement stats can change depending on your characters and what you equip them with, stronger on-screen visuals showing spacing would have made the game so much smoother. I can’t help but wonder if Image & Form avoided having a grid because they didn’t want the slower, dorkier stigma grids bring with them. Heist is certainly aimed at all ages, but kids might associate grids with math class or something.

My biggest complaint by far is how bland the levels are. I’m guessing this is mostly due to the levels being procedurally generated. Yes, the system put in place sets limits on how the levels can be laid out, assuring that certain things are in certain spots no matter what, and it’s commendable when a developer creates a really good random generator. As opposed to when they don’t. But, when you rely on randomness, you lose an elegance of design. The action in Heist would lend itself beautifully to levels designed around combos and making the movements and the actions puzzle/logic based. But, because randomness determines a good portion of where enemies are located, where loot is located, etc, you lose that higher-intelligence that I still feel can only be done by human hands. Some games are simply more suited for randomness. Spelunky was. Downwell was. Hell, even SteamWorld Dig was. Heist I don’t feel is. The irony of procedural generation has always been that, because of the limits you need to impose on it to make it work, it ultimately makes all levels feel kind of samey. Which seems to go against the point of making levels random in the first place.

Oh, and by the way Image & Form, I respect the shit out of you guys but you can’t advertise a game as being randomly generated..
Steamworld 1

And then immediately back off that and say “no no, they’re really handmade! Sorta!” when someone like me complains that randomly generated stages are a detriment to a game’s potential.

Steamworld 2Which didn’t really bother me. It just made me laugh, in the same way a desperate used-car salesman says “no no, you don’t understand, it’s supposed to make that horrible noise.”

Of course, the real reason for procedural generation is that with it, you can claim “endless gameplay” and “never the same game twice”, padding out a game’s “replay” and giving gamers “more value for their money.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG!! Because Heist does no such thing. The story unfolds the same, and replay is tied directly to a game’s adjustable difficulty that rewards you for playing on hard, not whether the levels are the same each time you play them or not. Frankly, I didn’t realize the levels were changing during runs where I shot poorly, died, and had to restart. It’s not like Spelunky, where I can say “oh neat, the shop is right by the start of stage 2. That totally makes up for the fact that the damsel was behind seven fucking bombs worth of rock in stage 1!” I’ll take fifty amazing, intelligent levels over endless ones that are good at best, and bland at worst.

The problem is there’s an expectation on how much game a certain amount of money should get you. SteamWorld Heist is $20, and many gamers feel that for that price tag, you should get 40 hours worth of gameplay. But I paid $15 for Journey and got four hours out of it, and it was four of the best hours I had playing a video game. Strip out the random levels and SteamWorld Heist would have been good for 10 to 15 hours, easily. I put over twenty in it. As it is, it’s really fun, but I feel the ceiling was lowered because instead of giving us the best levels human beings can make, Image & Form took a lot of care and effort to create a system that can make the best levels a soulless computer can make. You can get away with that if you’re a fast-paced, white-knuckle score-a-thon, but not something like this. If not for the fact that the action is hugely satisfying, the variety of weapons are so fun, and the game has more charm than nearly any other indie franchise, I think people would remember this as a letdown. I loved SteamWorld Heist. It’s in my top-fifty as of this writing. I just know the potential was here to like it more, and I didn’t. Which is a shame. Then I could have ended this review with a cheesy line like “the only Heist involved stealing my heart.”

Which I just figured out a way to do anyway. HA!

SteamWorld logoSteamWorld Heist was developed by Image & Form
Point of Sale: 3DS eShop

igc_approved1$16.99 (Launch Price, normally $19.99) noted the irony that I negatively compared Heist’s attempt at doing random levels to better examples like Spelunky and Downwell, yet SteamWorld Heist outranks both of them on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard in the making of this review.

A review copy of SteamWorld Heist was provided to Indie Gamer Chick. All games reviewed at IndieGamerChick.com are paid for in full by Cathy. On December 11, 2015, a full copy was purchased. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.

SteamWorld Heist is chick-approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Tiny Galaxy

Update: Apparently Tiny Galaxy did get a lot of play testing and feedback, with the developer being made aware of many issues that I brought up in this very review. The problems with the game can be chalked up to a first time developer. Being made a first time developer doesn’t change the quality of a game, so I’ve edited out my (mistaken) belief that developer Arcane Pixel got no proper feedback in the making of this game, and left the rest of the review up.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t hunt bad games for the sportiness of it. Why would anyone these days? The novelty of saying “this game sucks” fifty-different ways gets old quickly. A bad game is almost never entertaining in the same way a bad movie is. There are exceptions but most really awful games are just painful to try to squeeze any entertainment value out of. I also recognize that there are real people with real feelings behind every bad game. Take Tiny Galaxy for Wii U. Developer Taylor Hajash is a really nice guy. He was one of the developers who gave copies of his game to people who donated to the Epilepsy Foundation on my 26th birthday back in July. Nice guy. Big heart. To know him is to like him. Not the kind of person anyone would want to tell “your game isn’t very good” to.

I get no pleasure at all saying that I could not think of a single game I’ve ever played on a Nintendo platform worse than Tiny Galaxy. This game is atrocious. The idea is you walk along round planets and jump between them to locate three stars that open up an exit. So, maybe like a 2D Mario Galaxy mixed with a Super Meat Boy-like punisher that is full of lots and lots of saws. Sounds fine, I guess. But, Tiny Galaxy fails in nearly every way a game can. It looks ugly. It controls badly. The camera (in a 2D platformer mind you) sometimes can’t keep pace with the action. The camera is slow to switch positions when you jump between planetoids while the controller’s transition is not, and trying to keep track of that is like trying to rub your head and pat your belly at the same time. The camera’s spinning makes the game legitimately nauseating to play. The menus seem to have no visual indication of what levels you’ve finished. The levels are at best bland. At worst they’re infuriating and unfair. There’s no checkpoints so when you die, you have to start the stage over. I couldn’t even bother trying to make it out of the first world of the game. Not for a lack of effort. I put about an hour into this, but my will to subject myself to this became non-existent as my anger grew that this game made it to the marketplace.

Even images from the marketplace infuriate me. Don't put branded pictures on the marketplace page. Put them anywhere else, but on a page that has the game's title, don't cover up anything, even a black blank screen, with branding!

Even images from the marketplace infuriate me. Don’t put branded pictures on the marketplace page. Put them anywhere else, but on a page that has the game’s title, don’t cover up anything, even a black blank screen, with branding!

And finally, Tiny Galaxy costs $5.99 That’s $1 more than even the most expensive Xbox Live Indie Games. That price actually got me a little angrier because I could see a parent confusing this for a child-friendly game and instead it’s a punisher that feels very rushed (which likely wasn’t the case here) and, frankly, very lazy. I mean, how fucking hard is it to make it so a completed stage has a checkmark on the level select screen? Edit: Apparently the developer would have had to start over from scratch to do this. Then start over from scratch I say.  Tiny Galaxy feels unfinished. It should never have been put up for sale in this state, especially at $5.99. Not that any price would be good for Tiny Galaxy. A price really doesn’t make a bad game better. It just makes it cheaper.

There were no bad intentions with Tiny Galaxy, and I find it heartbreaking that Taylor is throwing in the towel. I usually try to be funny and keep it light, but here I just feel very unhappy with this whole mess. Unfortunately, I can’t just not review it. It’s a game that costs real money. More money than many other indies that had a lot more effort put forth. It’s not that Taylor didn’t try hard, but it certainly feels as if corners were cut. Perhaps he expected to hit a home run on his first game. Game development usually doesn’t work this way.

It’s not up to game critics to soften the blow. We only owe developers fairness, and nothing else. If we aren’t completely straight with how we feel about a game, it’s our readers that we screw. I saw this when I played Super Comboman last year. I watched a lot of YouTube videos of people playing it, who clearly hated the game, had NOTHING positive to say about it, used dodgy weasel-words to describe the flaws, and then told people with a straight face that they should go buy it. Who the fuck does that help?

Game critics are obligated to give their personal opinions straight to their readers. If you’re a good critic who cherishes the readers or viewers you have, that sometimes means being a little heartless. Not malicious, and I do admit that when I first started IGC and I had no clue what I was doing, I could be mean. But sometimes, there’s just no nice way to serve your readers while being fair to developers. If I used weasel-words to soften the blow for Taylor, people might walk away from my review under the mistaken impression that I was on the fence about Tiny Galaxy’s quality. I’m not. I tried to find something nice to say about Tiny Galaxy, and I went blank. It didn’t crash, I guess. It didn’t become sentient and crawl out of my TV like that girl in the The Ring and try to eat me or something. That’s literally the best I can say about it. I genuinely can’t imagine anyone enjoying it on any level. Since this review was first published, I’ve had people say “I did like it!” Yea, well some people like to self-mutilate too, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that either.

Taylor: don’t quit. Imagine how awesome a story it will be if you create something spectacular, after Tiny Galaxy. Imagine the inspiration you could serve to developers who have struggled. Besides that, you’re a nice guy. And gaming could use more of those these days.

Tiny GalaxyTiny Galaxy was developed by Arcane Pixel Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo eShop

$5.99 was the Swawp Thing Pixel to the Arcane Pixel in the making of this review.

Adventures of Pip

A good rule of thumb for making an indie game is “have a gimmick.” Something about it that stands out against the crowded indie field. Especially if you’re a retro-platformer, a genre with roughly the population of China and the GDP of Grenada. Even if your game does stuff that other games have done, you can make it far by dressing that up in different, novel ways. Take today’s game, the Adventures of Pip. There are a lot of games that allow you to switch between characters on the fly, going back to Castlevania III nearly 25 years ago (or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if you want to count a crappy game). On the indie scene, Trine is probably the most prominent example. It’s been done so many times that it frankly should be a little stale. Pip isn’t stale at all. It’s a perfectly decent platformer that brings nothing new to the table. But it does what it does with so much charm and happy moments that you would swear you’re sitting at an entirely new table.

So the idea is you have a kingdom where the wealthy are fully developed 16-bit characters, the middle class are 8-bit characters, and the poor are single pixels. That whole point is mostly unexplored, though. Probably a good thing, since most games that try in earnest to tackle class-based subject matter do so with subtly on par with that delivered by the Enola Gay. Really, the plot is evil queen kidnaps princess. To Pip’s credit, the writing is sharp and almost immediately laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, it’s so good that I feel the developers sort of blew it in a different way. It’s one of the few traditional platformers where I actually gave half-a-squirt about where they were going with the story direction, but the setting itself never receives enough consideration or a satisfying payoff. It’s not fair to do that. Imagine if other stories were told like Pip’s is.

“And then Dorothy landed in a magical land of Oz, which was populated by magical scarecrows, talking humanoid lions of questionable fortitude, and witches who react to water even more dramatically than your cat does when you try to bathe it.”

“Wow! That sounds exciting! And then what happened next?”

“Um, they walked somewhere. The end.”

Maybe the developers realized that nobody really plays a platformer for plot and just filled it with absurdity for their own laughs. It’s possible. I’m not really prone to cynicism so I would never say something totally baseless like the whole haves-and-have-nots thing was tacked on to give some sense of topical relevance and lure in more delicious Kickstarter money. That would be irresponsible. I’ll just say the writing is funny and the setting has no point and goes nowhere.

That's........... racist? I think it might actually be racist.

That’s……..… racist? I think it might actually be racist.

Pip’s gameplay centers around fairly routine platforming tropes. The hook is switching between the three different forms of Pip, each with unique traits. The single-pixel Pip has a floaty jump, launches higher off springs, and can get under narrow passages. 8-bit Pip is much faster, can swim, and can wall-jump. And by-fucking-God does the game milk that to the point that all that’s left of the wall-jumping cow is dust, blood, and swollen udders. 16-bit Pip can’t wall-jump, can’t swim, can’t jump off the springs, moves slower than shit.. seriously, was this some passive-aggressive retro fan’s way of saying they think the 8-bit era was vastly superior to the 16-bit one? Oh yea? Well, 16-bit Pip breaks blocks with his sword. So that counts for something!

Oh wait, you can later buy the block-breaking ability for 8-bit Pip from the shop, leaving the 16-bit version unique in its ability to push blocks. Ooooh, he can push blocks while the more primitive versions can do more way cool things. At this point I’m surprised the main villains wasn’t named “Queen GeniSnes” or something.

It’s actually all cooler than it sounds on paper, and the way the transition is handled between forms is a little clever and lends itself to some above-average level design. Nothing particularly noteworthy, mostly due to uninspired enemy design and world themes. Come to think of it, that’s another area where the story sort of fails the gameplay. The idea was the Queen has stolen the ability to “de-rez” the population, turning some of the rich 16-bit jerks into pixels. Which, again, if the idea is poor people = hardworking and noble, while rich people = worthless and entitled, shouldn’t that technically mean the evil witch is the hero? Yet, the stages themselves seem like they’re supposed to look 16-bit through-out. It never actually dawned on me while playing the game, but really, how come the stages and enemies themselves didn’t take advantage of the whole classic gaming v 8-bit v 16-bit stuff? For fuck’s sake, the villain’s name is Queen DeRezzia! There’s an old saying: in for a penny, in for a pound. I’m not entirely sure Tic-Toc-Games was all-in with the gimmick. They didn’t even work it in to the boss fights. They could have done it two ways with them: start the bosses at 16-bits and have you beat them back to Atari-like levels of detail before ultimately slaying them. Or, they could have gone the opposite route, with the bosses starting primitive and becoming more sophisticated as you did more damage to them.

The end of the game has an over-reliance on wall-jumping, which is where it starts to feel they ran out of ideas. This is one of the few indies I've played where removing levels would have almost certainly bumped it up the Leaderboard.

The end of the game has an over-reliance on wall-jumping, which is where it starts to feel they ran out of ideas. This is one of the few indies I’ve played where removing levels would have almost certainly bumped it up the Leaderboard. Despite all that, this was probably the easiest time I’ve had earning every available trophy in years.

Yea, I’m sure that would have been a lot of work, but it would have made Adventures of Pip a lot more noteworthy and memorable. And it sort of needed it. Because what’s here, while fairly fun and well executed, is a little bland and generic at times as well. There’s nothing in Pip you haven’t seen in a platformer before. I can’t stress enough, the game plays really well. Good controls, good level design (except a single dick move supreme hidden villager placement worthy of a slap upside the noggin for some smug developer), and good writing. It’s a little long. I think Tic Toc could have safely shaved off ten stages and lost nothing, but otherwise Adventures of Pip is a good game. Fans of platformers will like it. So why does it feel like it’s less than the sum of its parts?

I think it’s because the best thing Pip does that no other game does is purely aesthetic. That it had this idea about a world where three different eras of gaming art lived together, but left it all on the player character. Really, you could have inserted any gimmick besides the 8/16-bit stuff in its place and Pip would have been no different. Change it to Pip is a human (8-bit) who switches between a penguin (single pixel) and, I don’t know, a dragon or something (16-bit) and it’s still the same game. A very good game, just like it is now, but nothing changes. If the environment, the enemies, the stages, the puzzles, and the bosses also continuously shifted between the different resolutions, I guarantee you the game gets more word of mouth than it does now.  It becomes unique and noteworthy. As it is now? It’s just a decent game that has a neat idea that’s under-realized. If the developers hadn’t shown any talent, it wouldn’t bother me so much. I almost never call out a game for being under-ambitious, but I sort of have to here. To not do so would be an injustice to those who made the game, because I think they left something on the table. You guys are way more imaginative than this. I want a sequel that proves me right. Adventures of Pip is fun, but it doesn’t live up to its potential. Which, according to my father, makes it the me of video games. Oh thanks Dad.

headerAdventures of Pip was developed by Tic Toc Games
Point of Sale: PSN, Steam, Wii U eShop, Xbox One

igc_approved1$14.99 brushed her teeth with a bottle of jack in the making of this review.

Adventures of Pip is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

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