Avenging Spirit (2022 Release Review)

I had never heard of Avenging Spirit until two months ago, when I completely lost my mind and started running through Game Boy games alphabetically. When I got to Avenging Spirit after roughly 100 other games that started with “A” (Christ, there’s a LOT of Game Boy games), I looked at the cover art and I barfed in my mouth a little bit, thinking of how bored I was about to be. Good lord, look at this and remember someone got paid in real money and not McDonalds coupons to come up with this:

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Wow, that looks like a video sleeping pill, right? Just a run-of-the-mill shooting game with a gangster theme. Yea, no, Avenging Spirit is a high concept (well, as far as 1991 goes) cartoonish platformer where you actually play as a ghost who has the capability of possessing every non-boss enemy. Hot damn, congratulations, Jaleco box art designer! It takes a true dedication to being terrible at your job to take an eye-raising concept like this and make it look like off-brand Dick Tracy packaging. Bravo. Golf clap. I’m guessing they saw exactly one screenshot of the ghost possessing one of the old-timey gangsters with a tommy gun and based the cover art on that. I know it has nothing to do with anything, but this is a seriously fun, original concept (at least for its time) and it might have had longevity or even franchise potential if it had found its audience. That box art is a sin against gaming.

This guy right here. He’s one of the first batches of enemies you encounter. The entire Game Boy port cover art.. THE ONLY port this game ever got.. is presumably based on this one character, in a game about a ghost possessing over a dozen different enemy types, most of whom are NOT themed around prohibition era gangsters. Unreal. I mean seriously, for all infamy that Mega Man or Phalanx get, I have to call THIS the worst, because this commits the worst possible sin: it makes a great game look boring.

I loved Avenging Spirit. I was so caught-off-guard by how good it was that I ended up teary-eyed. I love being caught off-guard by an under the radar classic game that’s crazy insane fun, and Avenging Spirit is seriously one of the best games on the Game Boy, and I’d never even heard of it. Now, during that play session, several people replied with things along the lines of “oh yea, well there’s an arcade version, and it’s even better!” This is why you never listen to fans. The arcade game is fine. It’s fun. It’s playful and quick and awesome. Oh, and it certainly looks better than the Game Boy game, but big deal. An X-Ray of a ruptured skull looks better than a Game Boy game. But, the Game Boy game is just the stronger game.

The boss fights are typical of a game like this, with predictable patterns, but hey, the classics are classics for a reason. They work.

The hook of being able to possess any enemy has been done a million times since, but it works in Avenging Spirit because each enemy is totally unique. Some have better weapons. Some have better jumping. Some are not desirable, others highly desirable. It can turn the feeling of the game from Metal Slug-like to a kung-fu type of experience. Contra? Strider? They’re all here, and it’s such a joy to play through. The mechanic works so well that even the crappiest enemies to possess are still fun to mess around with and discover their different abilities.

Look the ghost! He’s so happy, and he’s going to.. uh.. possess bad guys and end their lives. Actually, in this picture he looks wasted.

Here’s the catch. On the Game Boy, you can swap out of the enemies. That mechanic is missing in the arcade version. Once you possess someone, you’re in them until you die. If you get stuck in an especially worthless enemy (and some are), you have to deliberately kill yourself to get to swap. I didn’t realize this at first and kept checking and rechecking the control scheme, certain I missed what button you press to exit the ghost. Ugh. I get why the arcade version is done this way. You can only spend so much time outside of a body. The ghost’s health drains, so you’re incentivized to jump from body-to-body as quickly as possible, but really, it’s a mechanism to cause you to run out of life faster and force players to cough-up more quarters. You have unlimited continues, at least on the difficulties played-through (easy and normal) to take the edge off, but still, the arcade version lacks that one last angle that put the Game Boy version over-the-top as one of the true greats of that platform. The arcade game is merely a fun time and short of being tear-inducing awesomeballs.

PROTIP: before entering ANY door, make sure you’re on a character who you’d want to fight a boss with, because when a boss fight starts, you’re stuck with whatever body you’re in. Even if you die.

Mind you, that’s literally the only thing that makes the Game Boy port superior. The arcade game is perfectly fun as well. Everything about it is unspectacular but decent enough, which I think is actually the point. It allows the possession gimmick to take center-stage without any distractions. The level design is decent. The controls are decent. It runs through every cliché of the genre. It SHOULD be tired and grow old quickly, but it never gets boring or “been there, done that” because you keep switching the play-style. It’s also a super quick game. You should easily be able to finish it under 30 minutes, and the three hidden keys you need to get for the true ending are easy enough to find since there’s no time limit and you can explore freely.

There’s NO balance between the different enemies. Some are worthless. Some are overpowered. There’s really not a lot of middle ground. My favorite was the ninja, who has ranged weapons, good speed, and ultra high jumping.

Plus, Ratalaika Games (yes, the company that was going to do the Indie Gamer Chick Collection of XBLIG classics, which fell through because it just wasn’t going to be economically possible to scrunch that many games from that many developers together) has done a pretty good job packaging it. It costs $2 less than Hamster’s Arcade Archives releases and features save states and rewind, plus the US and Japanese ROMs. They even created an easier-to-use “home experience” if that’s the route you want to take, or you can play the unmodified arcade ROM, with dip switches and everything. Yea, I wish the Game Boy ROM had been included, but I’m still stoked Avenging Spirit has a place in modern gaming. Hell, maybe this will be a best seller and it can finally become a franchise with new releases. Wouldn’t that be sweet? Maybe they’ll even get the box art right this time. Sorry, I’m not letting that go. Putting that cover on this game is so stupid that it’d be like putting Alfred Molina on the cover of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Avenging Spirit is Chick-Approved.

Avenging Spirit was published by Ratalaika Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox

A review copy was supplied for this review. Retro re-releases are the one and only exception to the “pay for everything I review” rule.

“I should have been on the Raiders of the Lost Ark poster! Do you know who I am? I am Doctor fucking Octopus!”

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – The Delicious Last Course

CUPHEAD: THE DEFINITIVE REVIEW GUIDE – PART ONEPART TWOPART THREEPART FOUR

This isn’t going to come as an incredible shock to you, but Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course is worth $7.99. For that money, you get six new bosses, a King Dice style single-phase mini-boss, and five single-phase mini-bosses where your guns don’t work at all and you can only win via parrying. You also get new guns that are the most powerful in the game, new charms that actually made me move off the smoke dash for the final boss, a new character that comes with totally different skills than Cuphead or Mugman, and a secret item that, once you finish messing around with it, basically activates God Mode. It’s a lot of content for eight bucks. As much fun as I had.. and I had blast.. I’m still somehow a bit disappointed. For DLC that took almost five years to make, I guess I was hoping more. Maybe a couple new Run ‘n Gun stages. At least one, right? Nope. No new Run ‘n Gun stages. Maybe more than one new shmup stage? Nope, just one. The best.. and worst.. thing I can say about The Last Delicious Course (doesn’t that sound better than Delicious Last Course?) is that I wish Studio MDHR had spent the last five years just making a sequel, because the content we actually got is spectacular.

The King of Games and the five battles against bosses themed like chess pieces are basically all fun, but some of them are pretty weak too. I beat two of them (the Bishop and the finale, the Queen) on my very first ever attempt playing them. For a game like Cuphead, you really don’t expect a mediocre player like myself to be able to do that.

I suspect they feel the same way and probably have buyer’s remorse that they announced DLC like four years ago. Maybe I’m wrong, but I get that vibe out of Cuphead D.L.C. All the heart from before is there. The bosses are creative (though the whole “you’ve never seen transformations like this” left me expecting much more grand set-pieces than what we got). Yet, after a certain point, I got the “we’re holding back a little” vibe out of it. But, at least you get a lot of value. Turning this $19.99 release into a $27.98 release basically gives you the easy mode-without-penalty everyone has wanted for five years now.

THIS IS CUPHEAD’S REAL EASY MODE

After beating the DLC, I started a new file where I used only Ms. Chalice for everything I was allowed to use her on (only Cuphead/Mugman can do the Mausoleums). I figured I’d need about 200 lives to beat the entire game with her. I actually did it with only 98 lives. Why’s that? Well, Ms. Chalice gets one extra hit point. That’s huge. It can be even more than that with her Super Art II, which is a shield that doesn’t go away until you take a hit (well, unless the game glitches out, and this DLC is glitchy as all hell). She has a shorter standard jump, BUT, she also has a double jump. The double jump by itself nerfs multiple levels and bosses. In fact, multiple coins and challenges in the Run ‘n Gun stages are completely annihilated by just that double jump.

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Ms. Chalice’s parry is tied to her dash, and sometimes this can cost you. She springs-upwards if you score a parry, which can send you into another projectile’s path (this happened to me tons of times), but it also makes probably over half the game’s parrys easier to score. Combine her abilities with the new guns in the game, like the over-powered Crackshot pictured above, and this IS the Easy Mode Cuphead has been begging for. If you want to start over from the beginning, you must beat the Run ‘n Gun stage Forest Follies and Mausoleum I in order to get to the Ms. Chalice charm and the over-powered DLC guns. I’ve created a guide on how you can start a new file and quickly get them.

WHO THE HELL PLAY-TESTED THIS SHIT?

The Delicious Last Course is glitchy as all hell. With the new charms and abilities that grant you extra life, I had planned on at long-last getting A+ scores on every boss. I worked hard to charge up the Cursed Relic into the Divine Relic and was all set to kick ass. Well, so much for that shit. My first match using the Divine Relic, the game said I scored a 0 in life, and like the careless manure farmer, I completely lost my shit. I replayed the level, did more or less as good, finished with three life again, and that time, it gave me credit for it. Huh? And that’s just one of many weird issues. During the very final boss of the DLC content, I used Ms. Chalice’s Super Art II for the extra shield. BUT, between phases, the shield stopped working. ONLY the animation for the shield was still there, as if it was working. But, it wasn’t. You can’t use Chalice’s Super Art II a second time until the first one breaks, yet, here it is.

I mean, they ONLY had five years of development time. Which was the time the Black Plague killed half of Europe. I guess that’s fitting since an actual plague hit during development. Maybe they took a lot of time off to spend that sweet, sweet Netflix money.

The thing that royally frosts my ass about these glitches is Studio MDHR had five fucking years to get it right. FIVE! That’s over twice as long as the Dreamcast had in North America! That’s more than the entire lifespan of the Wii U. Think of all the games developed for those consoles, and remember this is just DLC.. a third of one game.. and yet I triggered these glitches on literally my very first attempt playing. So, these glitches, that myself and other players were constantly bumping into, somehow didn’t get noticed over a five year development cycle? Are you fucking shitting me? It’s so shameful. AND NO, I’m not advocating for crunch or angry that it took so long to come out. I’m angry that, even with all time, easy-to-trigger glitches were left in. Next time, Studio MDHR, hire people that suck and don’t tell them how to play the game. Just watch them play, and take notes.

According to the rules of Cuphead, having your life reduced to zero means you (checks notes) ah yes.. DIE! Well, clearly I didn’t die. This is a victory screen. So, yea, what the fuck, Studio MDHR? And if this is “not a glitch” and there’s a penalty for actually using the items, then you need to explain the rules of your items better. Of course, this is the same company that tells people to “git gud” while never once advertising the game as super hard on any store page. Explaining shit? Pssh, they’re “old school.” As a reminder, old games came with instruction manuals.

What I figure must have happened was their play testers were just too good at Cuphead and didn’t take damage. The classic indie “I forgot that other people are going to play this and they will not have spent the last five years devoting their entire life to this and thus are likely to not play it as well” situation that I’ve seen over and over again for the last eleven years. Yea, games get glitchy, and yea, games get patches. But, these were not like some weird, obscure thing. They were right there, SO EASY to trigger, and yet in five years they never got found. It’s inexcusable.

CUPHEAD IS STILL FUN

Assuming a Cuphead sequel ever hits, and they’ll probably need another decade at the rate they develop games, there’s a good chance I won’t be able to play it anymore. I have early onset Parkinson’s Disease, and on the table for me over the next decade, assuming I still have enough control over my fingers, is the loss of my reflexes. This could very well be my personal Cuphead finale. It’s been a long, strange, rambling journey. It was the announcement of this very DLC that made me realize that I never actually hated Cuphead. That I actually kind of loved it. Once I got over my anger at its snotty “git gud” attitude and the the fact that its studio is filled with douchebags who have no consideration for game accessibility, I realized that, when I beat Cuphead for the first time, it was one of the best times of my gaming life. And finally, the DLC is here.

And they still don’t do enough with the map screens. It took me like five seconds to find this coin.

The Delicious Last Course is fun. I don’t think the bosses are as mind-blowing or over-the-top as a lot of people were promising. Lots of reviewers talk about the six new bosses (eleven with the chess pieces) like they’re a cut above the previous bosses, but they’re not. They’re just new bosses. They’re on par with the previous ones, and the best thing I can say about them is none of them stand out as bad, though I found one to be underwhelming, and there was a phase or two here and there that was kind of boring. I didn’t love the shmup battle. I didn’t love the ice guy. But, I didn’t hate them, either. $8 for this set might be one of the best values any DLC set has ever had. I just wish the effort had gone to a full-blown sequel instead. Now, onto the definitive review..

INKWELL ISLE IV

The King of Games Battles

 

The King of Games is what replaces the Run ‘n Gun Stages and especially the Mausoleums in Delicious Last Course. It’s a series of five boss battles where guns and charms don’t work (except Ms. Chalice’s charm) and you must parry to win. You can start the DLC here, if you wish (and you should since the coins are tied to these battles). The encounters happen between the full bosses.. maybe. Sometimes it lets you do more than one battle, or lets you even choose which battle you want to do, before kicking you off and disappearing for a while. This is also the only section of the DLC where content was cut from the game. There was to be a sixth battle featuring the King himself, and the code for this battle still exists within the game. While Studio MDHR annoys me with their shitty attitude towards accessibility and the fact that they released such a glitchy product even with five years to work on it, the one thing they have my full faith in is, if something gets cut, it got cut for a reason. I’m going to assume the King’s battle must have sucked, because the other five battles are pretty dang fun, even if some are super easy to beat.

Boss #29 (King of Games Battle #1): The Pawns
Apparent Inspiration: They remind me of the ants from old Disney cartoons.
IGC Likes: That such a simple premise is still very exciting and intense.
IGC Dislikes: That there’s no scores for these battles.
Malice of the Chalice: Ms. Chalice has a significant advantage here.

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The pawns are the only of the chess fights that doesn’t feel like a boss, which is fitting, I guess. They leap down at you, and you have to avoid making contact while hitting a parry on their head. Even the pieces you defeat will return to the top to continue jumping down, and if you miss one, you have to wait for the other seven to cycle through their leaps before you get another crack at it. All of the chess battles feel like they were made with Ms. Chalice’s parry dash specifically in mind. In fact, this is the only one of those battles I actually beat using Cuphead, and that was only because I was bound and determined to ONLY use him at first with the DLC, but I gave that shit up. When you play as Cuphead/Mugman, hitting a parry also means throwing yourself into the sky and exposing yourself to the pawns, but Chalice can hit her parries low to the ground. Studio MDHR should have gone to Hasbro and offered to have them sponsor Ms. Chalice, because she absolutely Nerfs™ these battles.

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: While I mourn the loss of the Run ‘n Gun stages, I’ll be damned if the chess stages aren’t a fun idea and keep what should be a stale formula fresh. It really helps that this opening battle is surprisingly intense. The rate and angles that the pawns jump down at you made me have a few close calls, and I even had a “died on the last one” a couple times. Granted, once I realized the chess battles were made for the chick, I’m like 6 for 0 with Ms. Chalice in this battle, but still, a nice opening sequence. This is probably the weakest of the chess battles in terms of play value and it’s still pretty dang good. A lot more fun than any of the Mausoleum stages. Like, it’s not even close. Great idea this was.

Boss #30 (King of Games Battle #2) : The Knight
Apparent Inspiration: Horace Horsecollar, Ken from the Street Fighter series, A Knight for a Day (1946)
IGC Likes: The only of the five chess matches that I’d classify as difficult.
IGC Dislikes: Unlike the other chess battles, this one feels like it could have been expanded into a full boss battle. Oh, and you can cheese the hell out of it.
Malice of the Chalice: You practically MUST use Chalice. I never came close with just Cuphead/Mugman.

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By far.. BY FAR.. the chess piece that gave me the most trouble, the Knight is easily the deepest of the chess battles. First thing’s first: just use Chalice. The Knight battle feels like Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! franchise as a platformer, where counter-attacking is key, but most of those attacks are too high of a risk if you have to do the parry with an angled jump. The knight has three attacks that he telegraphs, and one that comes with no warning if you stand too far away for too long. Keep a medium distance. If he pokes his head out of his helmet, he’s going to do a big sweeping motion. If he kneels down low, he’s going to dart across the playfield. If he does an upper-cut, it’s a fake out. You can also score a hit when he taunts you, but it’s high risk. On the plus side, if you take damage, you have enough time to score two or three free hits before you stop blinking. You have to parry the pink plume to get him. Awesome battle!

Food For Thought: This is the last instance of “I wish this had been a full battle” I’ll have to deal with in a long time, but I’ll give credit to Studio MDHR: when they had a good single-phase concept, they ran with it. Most of the King Dice mini-bosses and all DLC the mini-bosses are really fun. Yea, I wish they’d been expanded into bigger rights (well, I could do without with the other Chess fights) but I’m happy we got what we got. Never pad anything out just because someone like me is going to bitch about it. Seriously. I know I’m sending mixed messages here, but excellent less is always better than uninspired more.

Boss #31 (King of Games Battle #3): The Bishop
Apparent Inspiration: Catholics. About damn time we get some representation in games.
IGC Likes: A totally unique concept that works within the Cuphead formula. Oh, and I finally joined the “beat a boss the first ever time I faced it” club. Take that, Angela!
IGC Dislikes: That Angela beat Djimmi the Great on standard on her first attempt, which was a much higher degree of difficulty, the show-off.
Malice of the Chalice: This is the one chess battle where you need Chalice the least, though she still has a slight advantage due to being able to parry from the side.

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The Bishop is a one-of-a-kind battle in Cuphead. While you do still have to directly attack him, the major mechanic of this fight is extinguishing the candles he lights. You just have to touch them instead of parrying them (surprised they didn’t work that out), and blowing them all out renders the Bishop vulnerable again. It’s a great idea, and it works. Maybe all this Cupheading has just made me awesome because I aced it on my first attempt. It wasn’t the only one I beat on my first attempt (I also totally lucked into beating the queen as well), but it’s not totally toothless as I died in my rematch with it the second time around. It’s a fight that’s tailor made for close encounters, and once I got over the shock of glorious victory, I have to admit, it’s quite fun.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I don’t think Studio MDHR is lacking for good ideas. Each of the chess matches is memorable, and the creepy-ass Bishop is particularly memorable. You don’t expect to see religious iconography in games like this, but you really don’t expect it to be a boss, in a church setting, with crosses and everything around. I admire the guts of it. Just think: Nintendo would have demanded this be altered not even ten years ago. We’ve come far.

Boss #32 (King of Games Battle #4) : The Rook
Apparent Inspiration: Peg Leg Pete, classic Game & Watch games.
IGC Likes: Every aspect of this battle; that they drew Betty Boop as a guillotine, which as I’ve stated before, is the ideal form of execution.
IGC Dislikes: That this character design wasn’t used on a standard boss.
Malice of the Chalice: Ms. Chalice has a significant advantage here.

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While the Knight is probably the most well-rounded of all the chess matches, the Rook battle is my personal favorite. I love EVERYTHING about this fight. I love the character design. I love the heads. I love that he’s just ignoring you and sharpening his axe. I love the macabre vibe of it all. It’s also a satisfying battle. This is by far the most old school of all forty Cuphead bosses. Like someone took a spinning-plate/juggling-type LCD game (such as Nintendo’s Game & Watch Fire) and turned it into a boss fight. And it works wonderfully. This is as close to perfect as any mini-boss gets. Awesome death animation too.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I’m not a game developer, but I’d think that there’s a lot of inspiration to be had from the Rook. It takes very old-school gameplay and makes it fresh and exciting in 2022. What makes it feel so epic is the sheer scope of it. Of course, it’s a bit of smoke and mirrors and not really that different from how old 8 bit games used to dress up the bosses to make them look larger. Unlike a lot of the larger-than-life Cuphead bosses, you can see the seams here. What you’re really fighting is just a wall that launches projectiles, and if you bounce the projectiles back at the wall, it counts as a hit. The Rook is just an animation happening in the background. But, it all comes together to make a fight that feels so much larger than it really is.

Boss #33 (King of Games Battle #5) : The Queen
Apparent Inspiration: Alice in Wonderland (1951)
IGC Likes: Another different kind of battle, and another “haha, first try” moment for me.
IGC Dislikes: Oh hey, just like the King Dice sequence of mini-bosses, the chess matches go out with a whimper.
Malice of the Chalice: Ms. Chalice as an advantage in this battle.

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Studio MDHR kind of sucks at mini-boss finales. Okay, that’s not totally fair. It’s not like the Queen here, or King Dice from the original build, are crappy to fight. They’re just underwhelming. Here, you have three cannons that sway back and forth, and you have to parry the fuses to shoot a cannon at the queen. She occasionally sends stacks of lions at you, but the real challenge is she has one of the hardest “make it rain” attack patterns in the game. Once you beat her, that’s it for the chess pieces. Beating the Bishop on my first try made me feel excellent. Here? I felt like I had lucked out. Like King Dice before her, I said “that’s it?” Well, there’s a boss rush for an achievement, but otherwise.. that’s it.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Yea, they were out of ideas. Wait, wouldn’t it have made more sense for you to shoot cannonballs at the Rook, which is a castle? And wouldn’t it be more fitting as a tribute to the Queen of Hearts to have her send heads at you (“OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”) that you have to bounce back at her? Now I’m wondering if I’m onto something. Granted, she wasn’t meant to be the final boss. You know, I pulled this out of my ass because these “Food for Thought” sections I pigeon-holed myself into doing can be tough to write after thirty-three bosses (and I’m writing this on my 33rd birthday. Meta!) but now I think I might be on to something. I’m pretty sure I’m not on something. Unless somebody put something in my water. Let’s not rule this out. Next!!

ANGEL & DEMON: THE HIDDEN MINI-BOSS

Sigh. So, I used the order from the Cuphead Wiki to face the bosses, and they have the Angel & Demon listed last, so I assumed it was some kind of final-final-final special boss. It makes sense! Look at the background! And there’s a thing that looks like the Devil! HE WAS THE LAST BOSS THE FIRST TIME! But, no, this is a special single-phase mini-boss hidden in the game. Before I get to the six primary bosses that the DLC added, let’s review this fight.

GETTING TO IT

There’s a group of three mountaineers, and if you talk to them, they’ll not-so-covertly provide you directions. Next to the Howling Aces battle is a graveyard. Use the center tombstone as a guidepost for each direction.

Like, see how it says “UPRIGHT” in the text? Starting from the center tombstone, you’d go up and then right, and then click that tombstone. Now, repeat the process from the center tombstone for the directions the second and third place mountaineers give you, and you’ll unlock this boss.

What does this do? Well, you can buy an item called the “Broken Relic” from the DLC shop for one coin. Winning this fight.. and it’s no slouch, even for a mini-boss.. changes the Broken Relic into the “Cursed Relic” which is going to be a pain in the ass for you if you want to use it. If you equip it, you only get one hit point to beat bosses with, and it randomizes your guns. Every time you let go of the fire button, use an EX shot, or dash, your gun changes. It’s crazy hard at first, but, it slowly gains more power as you beat more bosses.

If you beat this and want to rematch it, just hold down both triggers in front of the center grave.

Once you’ve beaten enough bosses (there’s a whole scoring system. Consult the Cuphead Wiki on it here) it becomes the Divine Relic, which is basically every charm in one, though the guns are still randomized. It’s insanely over-powered, but by time you get it, you shouldn’t really need it anymore. Anyway, onto the fight.

Boss #34: Demon & Angel in “One Hell of a Dream”
Apparent Inspiration: The battle going on without the soul of all of us.
IGC Likes: The most challenging, original of the mini-boss battles in the game; that it’s a deleted phase from the original game being repurposed here.
IGC Dislikes: That I actually did this boss last, and also the achievement is a reference to Castlevania II, which means operatives from Microsoft will kick in their door and shoot their dog. If they do not have a dog, one will be provided for them. They’ll name it Mr. Tiny, and he’ll be the lost lovable little good boy that ever graced this Earth. They’ll bond with it and learn things about their own capacity for love they never could have imagined. At this point, operatives from Microsoft will kick in their door and shoot the dog. Sorry, this is the established penalty for using “It’s a Horrible Night to Have a Curse.” Rules are rules.
Malice of the Chalice: Ms. Chalice is actually, in my opinion, at a disadvantage here.

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This is one of those “rub your belly and pat your head” bosses. I knew a guy who could do that while whistling, the freak. The idea here is, you will ALWAYS face the Demon, and if you turn around, the Demon and Angel will swap places. The Demon’s attacks will always hurt you. The Angel’s attacks will always pass harmlessly through you. It doesn’t sound very complicated, but holy crap, is this a balancing act. There’s also a platform that moves across the bottom that’s suspended by a lightning bolt that causes damage. Being an idiot, I didn’t notice the lightning bolt and thought the bottom caused damage depending on how you were facing. Once you get used to this, it’s fairly simple. I didn’t get used to it and only won by equipping the heart ring and parrying extra hearts and barely squeaking out wins. Awesome fight though. Fun fact: the Angel & Demon are, along with Goopy from Inkwell I, the only bosses that don’t attack you with minions.

Pachi-Pachi, one of many deleted bosses, though some of them, or their proposed attack patterns, were apparently reused for the DLC. A giant vampire bat was also completely finished and included in early demos and also is a no-show here. I’d thought for sure it was coming.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This was a deleted phase from the original build’s finale Devil fight. Well, thank god they cut this from there. This is INSANELY difficult, and it’s only because of how short it is that I managed to pull off a victory. Still, Cuphead cut a lot of content and I was hoping the DLC would restore that, or add extra phases to the existing bosses. As far as I can tell, they didn’t. That’s a shame. There’s some full-fledged deleted bosses that made it far in development, including a sentient Pachinko machine meant for the King Dice fight. No clue why they didn’t add that back in, or Jelly the Octopus, or the Demon Bat. The sad part is, this after-thought bonus fight is actually one of the highlights of the DLC, because there’s no battle quite like it.

Boss #35: Glumstone the Giant in “Gnome Way Out”
Stated Inspiration: The Old Man of the Mountain (1933), Pitfall!
IGC Likes: Seamlessly fits in with the feel of the Cuphead bosses.
IGC Dislikes: One of those “difficult by having busy visuals” situations.
Malice of the Chalice: Ms. Chalice has a major advantage over the first phase only.

Glumstone is basically the icon of Cuphead’s DLC. He was part of a graphic novel released in 2020, and is even featured in The Art of Cuphead book that I used so heavily for the Definitive Review up to this point. We had to wait a LONG time for this fight, which makes me wonder if Studio MDHR wouldn’t have been wiser to just add one boss at a time, for like $2.99. I’d pay that much for each fight, easily. Maybe they could just create an arcade-like Cuphead experience where they release a new boss whatever they finish one. I mean, why not? You don’t need a story for this stuff.

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PHASE ONE – VAPE MOUNTAINS (HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE TO THE SMOKEY MOUNTAINS): Glumstone’s opening stage takes place on a series of platforms that move up and down, sometimes into the path of geese. You also have to watch out for gnomes that spit fireballs at you or climb up the platforms. The base is covered in spikes too, so stick to the platforms. Occasionally, he’ll also grab a bear and just bring it across the playfield, like the shark in Brineybeard’s fight, only it’s slower and a lot easier to dodge. Glumstone’s primary attack is opening his mouth and blowing clouds at you. If you’re not in close range, only Chalice will be able to reach all of them, as neither Cuphead nor Mugman can jump high enough to reach all of them. It’s a fun phase but easy compared to what’s coming next.

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PHASE TWO – HANDBALL: See, even giants play with themselves using hand puppets. Wait, I didn’t mean it like that. I mean they play with their balls. NO, STOP! I mean they toss their balls back and forth. I mean with puppets. I mean, with their hands. Oh Christ, this is coming out all wrong. What I’m trying to say is the giant bats its ball back and forth while you watch for bulges underneath you. I mean little men coming at you while a bigger guy keeps tossing to himself. It’s a phase and it’s really hard. I mean to beat.

You know what? Screw it. Moving on..

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PHASE THREE – IT’S NOT A TUMOR!!: I guess it’s supposed to be an ulcer but it looks more like cancer to me. Maybe if you just wait Glumstone out long enough he’ll die of natural causes. It’s a nice idea, since there’s like a million cartoons that do this gag, but it’s kind of underwhelming as a finale because it goes from feeling epic in scale to kind of small. But, the Pitfall! tribute is nice, and the difficulty balance is spot on. It’s clear why Glumstone got the lion’s share of pre-release hype. It’s the best of the bosses, besides Chef Saltbaker himself. In short: fun boss. Kind of a meh ending.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Glumstone was one of those “on the drawing board a long time” bosses that makes Cuphead work so well. The magic of the art style is there’s dozens of cartoons that use a gigantic character, and Glumstone looks like all of them while somehow also looking like none of them. The ability to borrow liberally from this era and come very close without directly copying any character make for a wonderful resource and it’s awesome someone did such a good job of paying homage to it all.

Boss #36: Moonshine Mob in “Bootlegger Boogie”
Apparent Inspiration: Ants in the Plants (1940), Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941)
IGC Likes: Recycling deleted concepts from the original build.
IGC Dislikes: The Anteater has a bit too much sponge.
Malice of the Chalice: Chalice has a major advantage in phases one & two and a significant disadvantage in the phase three.

Featuring not just one but two deleted concepts from the original build, the Moonshine Mob was the first boss I fought when I started up the DLC. Yet, it feels like a fight that could have been part of the base game, right up until a delightful (and for some, infuriating) twist at the end of the third phase. Bootlegger Boogie is the ideal DLC experience: it feels like it could have been there all along, yet it twists your expectations ever so slightly.

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PHASE ONE – SPIDER MOBSTER: This is one of the deleted ideas.. kind of. Originally there was a shmup level where you fought the “Flying Gentlemen” which was a spider in a top hat that looks kinda vaguely like the Spider Mobster. This is one of the more fun phases, as it’s actually quite busy, yet it’s super easy to get the hang of. There’s three different channels attacks can happen on, and success and failure will largely hinge on switching back and forth between them. The spider has four attacks.

♥Coppers using bug spray will occasionally walk out and shoot at you, some of which can be parried, though the angles to score one are quite tough.
♣He’ll sometimes pull out a button and drop bombs on the stage that explodes about a second after you pass them. These are a cinch to trigger and avoid the damage.
♦He’ll use an old-timey phone to call in “toughs” to walk onto the playfield and attack you. The flies will camp in the background and give you ample warning before walking out and are easy to kill.
♠His hardest attack by far is kicking a caterpillar at you that ricochets off the walls. This attack doesn’t happen in simple mode.

It’s a pretty good phase. One of my favorites of the DLC.

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PHASE TWO – LIGHT BUG: The Light Bug is one of the earliest concepts for a stand-alone boss that didn’t happen. The attack pattern is, more or less, the same as it was as a prototype. The Light Bug dances back and forth on the second plane while six beams of “sound waves” circle around you. There’s a warning of when one set of three is going to change into an attack. Green is safe, yellow means “shit’s about to go down, yo” and red is dangerous. The attacks only happen briefly and once you get the hang of it, avoiding the attack is easy (and if you do it right, the Light Bug herself won’t be close to you when you switch between levels).

This is where the crackshot becomes very valuable, as you don’t need to take aim and can focus on avoiding the beams. For the musically inclined, you can also use the music as a cue for when the attack will happen. There’s also cops and moonshine barrels running back and forth this whole time, and some of the barrels can be parried. I think I only scored one parry off a barrel the entire time. But, another fun phase!

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PHASE THREE – ANTEATER: Probably the most visually striking of all the DLC bosses, the Anteater’s arrival feels so damn epic. It’s a shame the actual battle becomes quite tedious. You get a chance to score some early damage on the real final boss at the start of the battle, but then the Anteater makes his move. He’s only vulnerable from his tongue. Ms. Chalice’s parry dash is almost worthless here, as the Anteater will take turns doing three to five trusts with his mouth on one side of the level, eventually sticking his tongue out across the screen. The tongue can be parried, and if you have the whetstone equipped, this battle goes a lot faster. In theory, you can time it with Ms. Chalice, but I never could.

Eventually, he’ll retract his tongue and unleash a brawl between a cop and a hoodlum that bounces around the screen like the caterpillar from earlier, only it takes A LOT more bullets to kill. He’ll then switch to the other side and repeat the same attack. After two hours, give or take, he’ll finally die. This would be a fun phase, only it takes FOREVER to finally score the knockout. Only, it’s NOT the knockout.

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PHASE FOUR – SUDDENLY SNAIL: A banner drops down and the Snail declares KNOCKOUT sounding like Edward G. Robinson. The Anteater collapses and the final phase begins with the Snail shooting relatively quickly at you, though many of his shots can be parried. This is the fastest phase in all of Cuphead, and when the Snail dies after just a few shots, the real announcer clears his throat before declaring KNOCKOUT in a nice touch.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: I think this is pretty much it for the deleted content that got reworked into the game. It’s nice that they found a place for the “The Light” boss that was one of their earliest plans. What strikes me most about Moonshine Mob is how incredible Studio MDHR is at the big concepts, awesome set pieces, and even pitch-perfect timing of humor. Moonshine Mob has a few issues, especially the Anteater phase, but it’s so imaginative that you can’t forget it.

Boss #37: The Howling Aces in “Doggone Dogfight”
Apparent Inspiration: Street Fighter, the dog from Tom & Jerry
IGC Likes: Lots of fresh ideas that makes an otherwise ho-hum design unforgettable.
IGC Dislikes: The most unreasonable condition for unlocking a secret phase in the game.
Malice of the Chalice: Ms. Chalice is neither at an advantage or disadvantage for this battle.

Oh, I get it.. they’re dogs in a dog fight. As in airplanes. They’re not owned by Michael Vick. Right before I finally started to type this section of the review, I was informed there’s a secret phase. I spent the next four hours trying to get it, gave up, and had a tantrum. Then, a friend’s kid told me “use the Lobber” and I got it on my first try. Grumble. After all that effort, the DLC’s lone secret phase wasn’t remotely worth the effort. What a waste of time. Stick to the main path, where an otherwise generic theme becomes an unforgettable encounter.

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PHASE ONE – UNLEASH THE DOGS OF WAR: Hughes Canteen, the NPC that taught you about the airplane in Inkwell I, is your pilot. You stand on a plane that will go left and right depending on how close to each edge you stand. It’s actually very intuitive. There’s an alternate control scheme just for this level, but stick to the default because it works wonderfully. Using this setup, a bulldog pilot will fire slow-moving heat-seeking fire hydrants at you while other dogs rain tennis balls down on you. Occasionally, the bulldog will bail to either shoot you with giant yarn balls or throw boomerang bones at you, some of which can be parried. A nice little phase, though keeping up with the tennis balls is a pain in the butt, and sometimes the timing of them and the yarn attack conspire to screw you.

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PHASE TWO – YANKEE YIPPERS: Four dogs circle around you and throw letters at you, many of which can be parried. If you take your time before picking them off, you can easily charge your cards up during this phase. The dogs don’t take many hits at all, and the crackshot is especially useful here. This whole phase is over and done with in a matter of moments and you move on to the ultra-memorable finale. That is, unless you want to open the secret phase and ruin the best part of this entire boss.

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IF YOU WANT TO UNLOCK THE SECRET PHASE: Don’t. It sucks. There’s not even an achievement attached to it or anything. But, if you’re into completing stages, you’ll want to use the Lobber. The idea is to damage the dogs just enough that the exhaust from their jetpacks turns grey. There’s an audio cue as well. If you kill even one, you’ve missed out on it. Once all four of them are on the grey smoke, their Mom or whatever she’s supposed to be will collect them and the secret final phase will begin.

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PHASE THREE – SHINOOK PILOT SALUKI: One of the best phases of Delicious Last Course, the battle against the Persian Greyhound (clearly the snootiest of all dogs) is truly a spectacle. It starts with mad scentists type of lasers that reminds me of something that would be used to fight Mighty Mouse. After a couple shots of that, the screen will rotate 90 degrees, and the controls along with it, and the Saluki will drop dog dishes on you that you have to jump over. The screen will go upside down after that. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually a fairly simple battle, and it can even end by shooting the lasers and not the dog itself. It’s not much of a boss, but the gravity effects stand out and turn the mundane into something special. Of course, you can shirk all that and do the pathetic secret phase.

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SECRET PHASE – THE WORLD’S MOST BORING DOGS: After all the hard work I put in trying to unlock this, all the Secret Phase was is a completely basic, generic, overly long sequence of dodging shit. There’s nothing novel or challenging about it. It’s really awful and quite lazy and I’m so disappointed, especially for the amount of time I put into getting it. All the gravity effects that make this so memorable? They’re gone. The charming lasers? Gone. All you do is dodge pineapples (some of which can be parried) and the fire hydrants from the first phase. What a crappy thing to hide.

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DOG FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Like the Rook battle, The Howling Aces take bland, basic attacks and make them exciting by adding unique ways of tackling them. The airplane following your movement works, and I’m a sucker for gravity effects in games. If not for those things, this would be a very boring boss, as the secret phase proves. I’m not in love with the theme, and honestly, I kind of wish what they had done was merged the shump and platform sections. That’s the one thing Cuphead hasn’t done yet with its own formula. It’s probably impossible due to how it loads, but it’s all that’s left.

Boss #38: Mortimer Freeze in “Snow Cult Scuffle”
Apparent Inspiration: The Snowman (1933), Lullaby Land (1933), Darkstalkers
IGC Likes: Probably the most conventional of all the DLC bosses.
IGC Dislikes: My least favorite of the primary DLC bosses
Malice of the Chalice: Ms. Chalice has a minor advantage in the second phase, but otherwise this is a fight more suited for Cuphead/Mugman.

Of the six DLC bosses, Mortimer feels the most like he belonged in the original game. He’s also probably the most middle-of-the-road of the five non-shmup bosses. It’s not a bad fight by any means, and it has some wonderful sight gags, but this is also the battle that I found to be the dullest. Get ready for some temperature based puns that would make the writers of Batman & Robin blush with shame.

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PHASE ONE – CHRIST, WHAT AN ICEHOLE: Mortimer has three ways of attacking. Apparently he’s a flasher, as his most common method of attack is pulling out is opening his cloak to unleash tiny little ice monsters that spike themselves into the ground before coming to life and giving chase. It’s really tough to judge their trajectory while in flight, but once they land they’re easy enough to take out. He’ll usually then just slam a giant whale into the ground. If it hits the ice monsters, it’ll knock them out of the game in an adorably hilarious gag. Finally, he’ll shoot cards at you, which can sometimes be parried. Dull phase, really.

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PHASE TWO – SNOW MORE MR. ICE GUY: One of the hardest middle phases in the entire game, the Snow Monster is fast, aggressive, and specializes in crowding you in. He has a wide range of attacks, and between those he might turn into a snowball and roll or leap back and forth across the screen. If the obstacles from his previous attack are still active, it’ll be difficult to dodge. He’ll also slam the ground and cause ice blades to poke up from the ground.

By far his most common attack is turning into a fridge and shooting ice cubes at you. When the cubes land, they break into smaller cubes. If the starting cube is large, it’ll have two break sequences. They’re easy enough dodge, but it’s when he quickly transitions to the rolling attack that this phase becomes a pain in the butt. He’ll also close the fridge attack by launching evil popcicles at you, some of which can be parried. When you do enough damage, a series of platforms appears that takes you to the finale. The Snow Monster took me longer to complete than almost any second phase and probably should have been the last phase.

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PHASE THREE – OKAY, SNOWFLAKE: After climbing up the platforms, you reach a rotating set of five platforms for the final form of Mortimer. The giant snowflake finale has an attack that never once hit me. He shoots out.. like.. a ghost that circles around the outside. I don’t even know if it can damage you or if it’s just a few seconds of getting free attacks. His other attacks are more dangerous. He’ll launch buckets at you, some of which can be parried. After they hit the wall, the buckets turn into three moons that you have to dodge. He’ll also shoot ice cream cones from four directions at once, or launch his eyeball at you. The eyeball has beams that you must also avoid. A decent finale to an otherwise ho-hum battle.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Mortimer is the only of the four traditional bosses that feels like he could only belong in Inkwell III. The other three would fit in more as Inkwell II battles, with Moonshine Mob being on the fringe only because of the Anteater section’s sponge. There’s something about this particular fight that feels climatic or end gamish. Then again, a lot of people insist to me that I’m crazy for thinking Brineybeard belongs in Inkwell I so take that with a grain of salt.

Boss #39: Esther Winchester in “High-Noon Hoopla”
Apparent Inspiration: Clarabelle Cow
IGC Likes: Hey, more shmups is a good thing! One of the most jaw-dropping character transformations in the game.
IGC Dislikes: Probably among the weaker of the shmup battles.
Malice of the Chalice: Chalice has a significant disadvantage here.

I’m so disappointed that there’s only one shmup section in the DLC. I want an all-shmup Cuphead sequel more than I want to live into my 80s. While Esther isn’t among the best of the shmup encounters in the game, she’s still a ton of fun to do battle with. Fun fact: this was the boss that I needed the most lives and time to defeat in the DLC, and by a wide margin.

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PHASE ONE – REAL C.O.W. GIRL OF SHMUP MESA: In the first phase, you have to switch between and upper and lower area. Esther’s primary method of defeating you is by having one of the most visually busy sections of the game. She fires oil out of guns that crosses halfway across the screen before doubling back and coming back at you as snakes (wait, I get it.. snake oil! See, I thought it was ink). Her only other direct attack is to lasso a cactus that will block the entire channel she’s on.

The real challenge comes from vultures that drop dynamite into the playfield. The dynamite explodes into five separate explosions of three, then two (four and then three on Expert). AND while all that’s happening, a horse will fly across the screen and spit cactus balls at you, some of which can be parried. You can shoot the horses down, but you give up parry chances. There’s just a ton of stuff to keep track of here and it becomes overwhelming.

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PHASE TWO – HEY NOW, THAT’S NOT THE CODE OF THE WEST: In a sort of opposite of one of Djimmi’s attacks, Esther pulls out a vacuum and beings sucking loot up, and you along with it. After dodging all the debris, she’ll then bend over and launch safes onto the playfield. When the safes hit the ground, they explode into the loot she previously collected, some of which can now be parried. It’s a basic dodging type of stage that goes quickly, and once you defeat it, this wholesome boss suddenly takes a turn at the corner of Dark and Macabre.

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PHASE THREE – 😶 : The cow gets sucked into the pressure cooker and turned into hot dogs.

HOLY CRAP, THAT’S TWISTED!

Once you pick your jaw up off the floor, this is easily the simplest phase of the whole stage. She starts running backwards and launching steaks at you (my god) that take a sharp circular pathway, and some of which can be parried. While this is going on, you have to dodge cans of beans which can extend outwards. You can see which way the cans face and attempt to dodge them. The difficulty comes from the sheer speed, as this is a fast moving area. Not bad though, and an unforgettable visual.

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PHASE FOUR – A REAL SAUSAGE FEST: The final shmup phase of Cuphead has you now fighting an entire can of hot dogs (do hotdogs come in tins like that?) with two giant arms extending from it. The arms scissor back and forth, but there’s safe spots where no dog is that you can pass safely through. While this is going on, the can shoots waves of chili peppers at you, one of which can always be parried. Resist the temptation to chase one down if it’s not in front of you and focus on dodging the arms. It’s pretty spongy but a wonderful ending to my surprise favorite type of Cuphead levels.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Oh this food isn’t thinking anymore. I killed it.

Boss #40: Chef Saltbaker in “A Dish to Die For”
Apparent Inspiration: Pinocchio (1940)
IGC Likes: An amazing finale that’s more epic than the Devil fight. The twisted attacks are shocking in their visceral violence. I love ’em!
IGC Dislikes: That there’s no more battles left.
Malice of the Chalice: Ms. Chalice has a major advantage in this battle.

My Dad when people complain his chili is too spicy.

In what is the least shocking twist ever, Chef Saltbaker was a bad guy all along, and the battle against him is so mean spirited and evil that the smile never left my face. This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most memorable last bosses in gaming history. Well, except that it gets easier as it goes along. Seriously, the first phase is a frantic dodge-a-thon, but while the visuals remain striking throughout, the actual battle gets kind cinchy.

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PHASE ONE – CASUAL CRUELTY: All the items are you’ve gathered from defeating the five primary DLC bosses? Yea, the Chef murders them in cold blood with a smile on his face. It’s violent and gruesome and FUCKING AWESOME! Like all professional chefs, this guy is just 100% pure evil. He has four attacks: shooting limes that hover over you, sugar cubes that bounce at you (some of which can be parried), cookies that bounce at you, and strawberries that rain down upon you. None of them are hard to dodge on their own, but the attacks can and do stack. And, while this happens, there’s a fire that jumps from the floor to the ceiling and is super easy to lose track of. One of the most intense and brutal phases in the game.

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PHASE TWO – SALTED NUKES: Yea, this is the most visually awesome sequence in the entire game. It’s so awesome. Here, you shoot four pepper shakers that crash into Chef Saltbaker and progressively crack him. The pepper shakers shoot projectiles, some of which can be parried, and leafs rain down from the ceiling from time to time. The fire from the previous stage is back as well. I highly recommend the crackshot for this battle. When you’ve done enough damage, you’ve earned a break with one of the easiest and quickest phases in any boss fight.

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PHASE THREE – WHAT SLUGS HAVE NIGHTMARES OF: This phase seriously lasts like ten seconds, if that. Two salt things that look kind of like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man dance up and down. It’s an easy pattern that you can dash under. There’s a saw blade on the ground too but, yea, this is a layup and a break between the real finale of Cuphead. Take a breather, plug these guys with a couple shots, and move on.

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PHASE FOUR – TOO MUCH SALT IS KNOWN TO CAUSE HEART ATTACKS: This is it! After beating the salt dancers, the floor starts to break apart and two lethal-to-the-touch columns of salt spring up. Most importantly, a series of platforms start to appear. If you don’t have Ms. Chalice’s double jump, this section is so much harder. After a few seconds of jumping from platform to platform, the Chef’s heart will appear. You have to shoot it, and apparently it can be parried too though it doesn’t seem necessary to killing it. It’s a bit of a letdown for a finale, especially with how epic those first two phases were. But, that’s it. Unless there’s even more surprise DLC or a sequel coming, this was the final phase of Cuphead.

Thanks, Elias!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Thank you, everybody for following me on this weird little journey I’ve been on with Cuphead. From a game I thought I hated (it’s actually the choices made by the developers I disliked) to now being ranked #3 (as of this writing) on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. I didn’t think the DLC was good enough to bump the ranking ahead of Dead Cells or Axiom Verge, but I still had a blast. To everyone who read the over forty thousand words of this five-part review, I appreciate it. Go, play some Cuphead!

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

To all my readers, thanks for the support over the last eleven years.

Angela, you are the light of my life.

Mom & Dad, thanks for all the video games you got me as a kid.

Leslie Meyers, Amanda Lange, Jim Bevan for their contributions to the trivia.

William, my best friend.

Brian, who got me into this game reviewing stuff.

Dave Sanders, you’re the coolest guy I know.

Jordi, you’re incredible.

Dash, you’re a dang cool guy.

Everyone at Indie Gamer Team, you’re all my friends and I love you so much.

Aki, Mac, Andrew, Jon, Ryan, Elias, Michelle, Saud, & Dillen

Friends like Arlyeon, Bob, Dillen the Pickle guy, too many guys named David, Chris, Kris, and Christopher. I have too many friends. I need to finish buying that island off the coast of Bermuda that I can stage death tournaments and make you all compete for my love and affection.

Hunter, for helping us unlock the Howling Aces secret phase.

Studio MDHR, thanks for making a great game and being douchey enough to give me tons of material.

The Cuphead Wiki, for all the help.

If you’re really read this far, you’re weird.

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge (Review)

What’s an indie game?

It’s the most common question I’ve been asked over the last eleven years. Here’s my new answer: a game that’s not a AAA game.

I couldn’t find any place else to place this food for thought, but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is *quintessentially* an indie franchise. From its origin as an underground comic to today’s game. I mean, the 1990 motion picture was, for nearly a full decade, the highest-grossing independent film of all-time (finally knocked-out by the Blair Witch Project in 1999). “What’s an independent film?” Good question. Here are some indie flicks Turtles did better than at the box office: Terminator. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Evil Dead. Lost in Translation (Angela’s personal favorite movie). “THOSE AREN’T ALL INDIE FILMS!” Well, you say “tomato..” That’s kind of the point of this review.

I’m not being cagey. The thing is, there’s no such thing as an indie game, even though there’s obviously such a thing as an indie game. It’s something that makes perfect sense, as long as you don’t actually try to define it. It’s like how there’s really no such thing as a continent. I mean, why does Asia and Europe, a massive, continuous strip of land, count as two? Why does Australia count as one but Greenland doesn’t? Because a continent is something we just made up that’s a completely arbitrary definition. And we made up the concept of an indie game. In reality, your independence to make a project is completely arbitrary, which is demonstrated by this actual conversation that took place this week with a longtime follower of mine.

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge SHOULD NOT count as an indie game.”

Why not? Both the studio and the publisher meet the criteria. They’re small, self-funded, and even DotEmu’s parent Focus Entertainment isn’t THAT big. Plus, my moles within the project tell me that TMNT’s IP holders Viacom and TMNT’s IP gatekeepers Nickelodeon shot down NO ideas. They had full creative control.

“No they didn’t.”

Yes, they did! The game we got is basically exactly what they pitched.

“Could they have done a cut scene where the Turtles walk in on April O’Neal having a threesome with Shredder and Casey Jones while Splitter sits in the corner jerking off? No? Then they didn’t have creative control!”

That wouldn’t be true to the spirit of their concept at all. Why would they want to put that in the game?

“Why WOULDN’T they want to?”

He’s got a point. How else are we going to figure out if my suspicion that Shredder’s a kind, gentle lover is true or not? I mean, it’s obviously true. He made an army of robots to keep him company. That means the bad boy stuff is just an act and, deep down, he’s actually sensitive. We can change him, girls!

At this point, with the thought of Splinter jerking off now stuck in my head, I walked away. I don’t think my brain was ready for this. It took me hours and several jars of petroleum jelly before I was able to win the conversation.. really there were NO winners at all with this whole sorry mess.. by noting that no game on any console is truly “independent” of any and all limitations. You can view this many ways, but an obvious example is that none of the Big Three of Nintendo/Microsoft/Sony allow games that get slapped with the ESRB’s dreaded Adults-Only rating on their consoles. Even if DotEmu AND Tribute Games AND Nickelodeon AND Viacom all wanted that threesome cut scene, it wouldn’t have happened in a million years anyway.

Despite only being spiritually related to the Konami games, there’s callbacks aplenty! Like, the opening stage from Turtles in Time was “Big Apple: 3AM” and now it’s Big Apple, 3PM. Insert Captain America from Avengers “I UNDERSTOOD THAT REFERENCE!” here.

No, Shredder’s Revenge is indie because it’s exactly the game a fan of the 1989 arcade game would have made if they had the tools and ability Tribute Games had. I’ve been on a brawler kick as of late, and I think one of the unsung keys to the genre being modern and relevant goes beyond expanded move-sets and upgrades and replay incentives. No, I think there’s a key that people don’t talk about: PERSONALITY! Sight gags and visual jokes, and a vibe of “isn’t this all silly?” because it kind of is. Well, no brawler ever feels as self-aware as Shredder’s Revenge. The thing about that is, every gag feels like something that anyone would laugh about while playing the original game. “Wouldn’t it be funny if a foot soldier was behind the counter, like they’re working. But, it’s obviously not working, because the disguise is terrible, because it still looks exactly like the exact same soldiers we’ve been wasting for decades now?”

The story mode for Shredder’s Revenge is loaded with “secrets” and by secrets I mean we just found all the hidden fetch quest stuff laying around on our first play-through and only had to replay one level once to get something we missed. It’s like an Easter Egg hunt for the world’s most dim-witted kids.

This is the Ninja Turtles fan game that isn’t a fan game, and it’s everything you’d want in a TMNT game and more. It’s something that only could be indie, because when AAAs do fan service, it always feels like the laziest chumming of the waters. “DID YOU KNOW IF YOU LISTEN CLOSELY, YOU CAN HEAR A VOICE FROM THE STAR WARS CLONE WARS CARTOON CALL OUT TO REY IN RISE OF THE SKYWALKER?” Pandering. Patronizing. Like I said, chumming the waters. It takes no effort or no creativity at all to pull off. Calling that “fan service” is fucking insulting, because there’s no work involved. It’s SELF service, because it only works if the person watching makes it work.

The boss fights are the most perfect element of the game. They’re all fun EXCEPT the last one, which is both a let down as a concept and the only fight that I considered to be kind of boring. SPOILER: it’s Super Shredder again. FUN FACT: in the Secret of the Ooze movie, Super Shredder was played by future professional wrestling world champion “Big Sexy” Kevin Nash. DID YOU EVER REALIZE: That Shredder handly defeats the Turtles in combat but still basically kills himself in both Turtles movies? It’d be like if Lex Luthor defeated Superman in back-to-back movies only for both films to end with Lex turning himself into prison afterwards. Kind of anti-climatic, Lex!

Shredder’s Revenge is the way fan service should work: with craftsmanship and a methodology that assures the service feels fresh to those it caters to. DotEmu could have just as easily did a ROM hack of Turtles in Time, like they did for Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap that turns pixel art into cel animation, while also bringing back the original cartoon cast (like they really did with Shredder’s Revenge) and it would have still been celebrated by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fans. But, that would have only been fresh for those who hadn’t played the original 1992 game. No, this required effort, and a vision, and the determination to do right by fans and not just make them smile for one brief, fleeting second as they say “wow, that sounded like Samuel L. Jackson calling out to Rey! He was Mace Windu! That’s a Star Wars Jedi! I know Star Wars!” Cool. Wouldn’t it have been a lot cooler to see all those Force Ghosts help? But, that would have been a LOT of work, and required direction and set-up and.. eh, fuck it, why bother if people are going to squeal just hearing his voice? I mean, that’s the attitude, right? Why bother? Well, Tribute Games bothered, because they actually care about their work.

I know the #1 appeal in my reviews is when I go full-on scathing, but I just don’t have anything major to complain about with Shredder’s Revenge. Excellent play control. Fun graphics. Rockin’ soundtrack. It had a few glitches, including one that stun-locked my turtle in his damage animation mid-air, but I hear that’s going to be patched-out. So, yea, nothing to complain about. Okay, maybe the voice work from the original cast feels a LITTLE phoned-in, but otherwise, this is kind of the perfect retro revival.

No, Disney could never have done TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge. Nobody could have, except indie developers. Someone who approached this project and this IP with the attitude of “we could get away with the barest minimum of effort, but we’re not going there. We’re all-in!” I can talk about how, for two incredible hours, my sister, my father, and myself cheered, and giggled, and laughed, and screamed, and slapped celebratory high-fives as we made our way through the game’s story mode. I could mention that I’m not remotely a TMNT fan, grew up after its popularity had long since declined, but I was having a jolly old time alongside two people that knew even less about the franchise than me, so really, this game works FOR EVERYONE. I could talk about all the added moves that assures you never get bored with the combat, or how this is the very best example of Konami-style beat-em-up bosses EVER done. But, everyone else is talking about those things, and the incredible personality, and all the sight gags, and all the extra added content to pad out the run time for those who want more than two hours for their $24.99 (I finished the story mode perfectly satisfied and have no intention to go back, unless DLC hits).

Instead, on this, the first day of my eleventh year reviewing indie games, I just wanted to use this review to say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is a shining example of what the indie game development community can do with long dormant game franchises. And just think.. the best is still yet to come!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #6 of 301
Top 99.1 Percentile of All 631 IGC Indie Reviews
Top 98 Percentile of All 301 IGC-Approved Indie Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge was developed by Tribute Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, Steam

$22.49 (normally $24.99) did ten back flips in the making of this review. GO NINJA GO NINJA GO!

THANK YOU ALL FOR ELEVEN INCREDIBLE YEARS! Here’s to the next eleven!

Dawn of the Monsters (Review)

No, just because I like Power Rangers and Super Sentai doesn’t mean I like Godzilla. I’m not a Kaiju person in general. I just never thought it was all that interesting. Get back to me when they have Godzilla fight five teenagers piloting humongous robotic animals that combine to form an even more humongous robotic warrior. As far as Kaiju games, I’ve never really played one I enjoyed. I had Destroy All Monsters Melee for Xbox and I honestly don’t think I touched it again after my first hour with it. So, I probably wouldn’t have even thought to pick-up Dawn of the Monsters for myself. But, WayForward sent it to me as something I could do while I recover from knee surgery, and I said “eh, why not.” I regretted the decision at first, but after a few levels, I was hooked.

No, this won’t make any sense in still screenshots. Watch the trailer.

Dawn of the Monsters doesn’t have any official Kaiju license, which I sort of feared had potential to steer the game a little too much into generic territory. Thankfully, a decent enough plot involving humanity’s last stand against behemoths held my attention well enough. The gameplay is where it’s at, though. A very unconventional 2D brawler, you choose one of four Notzillas, then lumber through ruined cities while chaining combos against a variety of other giant monsters. There’s no jumping, so you’re limited to blocks or parrying attacks that are usually signaled by enemies having a twinkle in their eye. But, a sinister twinkle, because.. you know.. evil.

The world building goes so far beyond what this genre asks or requires of games. You have to admire the borderline obsessive attention to detail.

It works, and if you’re better than me, you’ll probably be able to utilize the set-up more efficiently than I did. I’m not really that good at these things and my timing is getting progressively more out of whack. For those of you without a sense of timing or finesse, yes, you can also button-mash your way through things. This would actually probably be a good game to play with kiddies, who can handle enemies by drumming the controller as well as you can while you’re intricately chaining combos along. I always imagine beat-em-up developers would see me playing their game and throw up their hands in disgust. “Why not change things up, Cathy?” And, I would. Sometimes I’d use one of the two types of super moves. Rage attacks are done via filling up red bars under your health meter and can be used three different ways by each character. Plus, every character has a “Cataclysm” super duper move that does massive, screen-wide damage. I called this the FUCK YOU move. It always satisfied.

It’s not all just walking right and punching monsters. Sometimes you have to dodge environmental hazards. Here, it’s tidal waves. Sometimes it’s lightning strikes. Sometimes it’s columns of volcanic fire death. If enemies wander into them, they die too. I wish they did more with this stuff.

The big hook for Dawn of the Monsters is, upon completing every level, you’re giving a random choice of upgrades to select from based on how well you did. There’s three different types of upgrades (literally types I, II, and III) that give you special benefits PLUS boosts in offense, defense, and two boosts in two other random attributes. Once you’ve selected a boost, you can pay extra to re-roll the four stat-upgrades until you get a stat sheet you find suitable, and any old boosts can be sold for money. It’s a hook both makes the game more addictive and also causes the majority of issues it has. Levels consist of a series of “arenas” where enemies spawn until the game assigns you a score for that particular batch of enemies. Once the first enemy of each batch is defeated, you really need to keep the hits coming.

Most of the time, if you get an enemy’s health low enough, you’ll be prompted to perform an “execution” on them, which restores some of your health. One of the boosts I liked to use on especially difficult stages was one that doubles the health bonus you get for executions.

That’s because Dawn incentivizes combos above all else, and if you lose the combo between the first enemy in a batch and the last one, at least in the latest stage you’ve unlocked, you’ll almost certainly get a less than perfect score. Not always, but often enough that, if you’re playing a stage in dire need up upgrades, you might as well reset and start over if you score anything less than an S rating on any batch of enemies. Scoring all S ratings and never losing a life on a stage earns you an S+ rating for the entire level. When you earn an S+ on a level, of the four random upgrades you’ll get to choose from, three will be from the highest level up to that point, with a final one being a level below that. Also, once you’ve earned an S+ on a stage, you can replay the stage as poorly as possible. It won’t matter, because the upgrades will be the same: three from the top tier, and one from a tier below that.

This is the type of rage-inducing flaw that makes people hate these type of set-ups. Of the three top-upgrades I was randomly dealt here, two of them are the same exact one (the two turtles with the castle on their back). They really needed to rig the drawing so that this type of thing doesn’t happen. The running joke with me is I have bad luck when it comes to RNG elements, so your mileage may vary, but I had this happen many, many times playing this. Even worse: I would never use these specific upgrades. You can sell them, but you can’t purchase boosts. There’s only nine in-game upgrades that slowly unlock in the store, and I never had to really save-up for them. I finished the game with over six figures in unused currency.

Since the upgrades are totally random, and since *I* found the majority of upgrades useless, this will inevitably lead to players grinding stages they got an S+ on over and over and over until the game randomly spits out at least one desirably upgrade for each of the three types. The combo-meter causes one other problem: we’re dealing with slow-moving, giant fucking monsters here. Sometimes they just don’t walk onto the screen fast enough to actually keep the combo meter going. Through no fault of your gameplay, you could lose your combo and thus any potential for that highly desirable S+ rating. The combo meter is so central to high scores that I played the majority of levels using a giant crab monster that has the unique ability of spawning an NPC. The NPC’s hits keep the combos going, and it can cover one side of a screen while you cover the other. EVEN WITH THIS, sometimes the enemies would presumably get stuck behind the destructible buildings off-screen that you can’t see, at which point you can kiss your score goodbye. If this happens late in a stage you’ve been perfect in up to that point, call yourself a Phillip’s Head because you’ve just been screwed.

Mind you, at this point, I had bought EVERYTHING in the store, including every skin that only changes the shading of the four characters, and I was still bleeding money and left with tons of boosts I had no use for. They could eliminate grinding by letting players spend currency on specific boosts. Charge a ton for them! Who cares? You don’t want players to grind and risk boring them.

It’s so frustrating, especially since it’s such an obviously bad way to handle scoring. Do you know what the game didn’t seem to incentivize? Not doing the same moves over and over again. I found the best load outs were ones where the game dropped items randomly from smashing buildings (doing so helps fill your rage meter anyway) while also sucking life from your enemies. I beat the final boss with almost a full health bar because my vampire attributes were so high AND I had boosties equipped that helped fill the FUCK YOU move’s meter faster. But, I had to replay the first level of the final world (which I S+ed on my first attempt) around twenty times to get that load out through random chance. It would make a lot more sense if perfect gameplay was rewarded with one choice out of a bigger catalog. Hell, it’d sure make the game a lot more fun and less grindy. I needed over thirty hours to beat the game, a third of which was grinding old levels that I’d S+ed. It never got outright boring, since the combat is so cathartic, but it got dangerously close to it after a while.

The five bosses are fine. This one reminded me of Doomsday, and even does the Doomsday “grow extra bone spurs as the fight goes along” thing. Of course, the game ends with a boss rush before the final-final boss, which was NOT something that was a great idea after I had been left grinding for hours trying to get three acceptable boosts.

If that sounds like a deal breaker, it’s not. I had a blast with Dawn of the Monsters. Which is genuinely surprising to me, since I normally don’t like slower beat-em-ups. Here, the slowness is in service to the theme. You’re playing as characters who are bigger than buildings. If they moved like guys in rubber suits, the illusion that you’re a colossal beast fighting other giants would be broken, something they risked by using the starkly-broad cel-shaded look. But, the speed is Goldilocks levels of just right and it combines with the striking visuals to be one of the most OOMPHful, immersive brawlers of the 2020s so far. You don’t even have to like the source material. I don’t. But, for all its warts, Dawn of the Monsters just scratches that itch for a cathartic, violent old school brawler with new school upgrades. Maybe not quite GODzilla, but more like Really GOODzilla.

Dawn of the Monsters is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #28 of 300
Top 96 Percentile of All 630 IGC Indie Reviews
Top 91 Percentile of All 300 IGC-Approved Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Dawn of the Monsters was developed by 13AM Games
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, Steam

$29.99 made her monster grow in the making of this review.

A early review copy was provided by WayForward to Indie Gamer Chick. Upon release of the game, a copy was purchased by Cathy out of pocket. All indie games reviewed at Indie Gamer Chick are purchased. For more on this policy, read the FAQ.

Black Widow: Recharged (Review)

Black Widow: Recharged is not what they said at Disney when they buried the hatchet with Scarlett Johansson. It’s another entry in the Atari Recharged franchise that takes old games and makes them all look the same now. Like Centipede: Recharged, it’s downright criminal that they’ve taken one of the most visually striking games from 80s arcades and turned it into an extraordinarily bland-looking Geometry Wars knock-off. Now granted, Black Widow looks closer to its vector graphics original than Centipede: Recharged did, but there’s something ugly about these Recharged games that I think is hurting their sales in the same way nobody would buy a perfectly delicious apple if it had a skull & bones pattern on it.

The dark white lines are barriers you can’t cross over. It’s the catch of Black Widow that makes it one of the more effective twin-stick shooters. Not so fun are the crappy exploding bullets I have in the picture that have no range and are sooooooooo slow.

Gameplay is king, and I like Black Widow’s remake. I didn’t at first. It had to grow on me. The single-life set-up returns, meaning if you die, game over. That’s not how Black Widow (or Geometry Wars, for that matter) played. It’s a bizarre choice for all these Recharged games and contributes to the niggling sensation that these would have been better off as a collection of games, because none can stand on their own. It’s not like you have a health meter to protect you, either. You’re always one errand projectile, enemy or cheap spawn away from death. Hypothetically, that would make things more intense, but really, shit gets so busy after a couple minutes of playing Black Widow: Recharged that death most often just caught me by surprise. It didn’t feel anything like Centipede, where I was slowly overwhelmed. It felt like “I got it, I got it, I got it, crap, I’m dead.” The dirty little secret of Centipede is that those moments where you’re slowly watching your game bleed-out are, in fact, the best stuff in the game.

Like Centipede: Recharged, the extra challenges did nothing for me here. I’d rather had a mode with three lives and the possibility of earning extra lives, which is apparently not an option. The one-life-to-live thing feels like a hardcore challenge mode, yet it’s the the main mode for this entire franchise. I don’t get that at all, since that hammers-home the feeling that these are mini-games, not stand-alone titles.

BUT, make no mistake about it, Black Widow: Recharged is still a quality game. When shit gets cooking, it’s incredibly thrilling to watch your score climb. Most of the items are fantastic. Most of them. The exploding shots that have no range directly led to my death so much that I actively avoided them as much as I could, only picking them up if another item was on-screen that I could immediately pick-up afterwards to clear the screen out. The inclusion of bombs helps a ton, and the way they work is smartly implemented: you clear out a wedge of the screen instead of the whole thing. Just make sure you aim it right, since there’s a second or two delay between the time you press the button and time it fires. The main issue with Black Widow is it just doesn’t out-class the original 1982 arcader. If Atari had combined all these Recharged games into a single package and called it “Atari Recharged” AND THEN offered each new game as a $9.99 DLC add-on, that would have been smart. Didn’t these guys learn anything from Power Rangers? You’re so much stronger together than (sold) separately.

Black Widow Recharged is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #198 of 299*
Top 69 Percentile of All 627 IGC Indie Reviews
Top 34 Percentile of All IGC-Approved Games
Please Note: A positive review is a positive review. Being among the bottom tier of IGC-Approved games still means the game is IGC-Approved.

*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Black Widow: Recharged was developed by Adamvision Games (Published by Atari)
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, Epic Store

$6.69 (normally 9.99) asked why spiders need money in the making of this review?

I’m heading on vacation! See you in a couple weeks!

Centipede: Recharged (Review)

I’ve never been the biggest Centipede fan, yet it’s the golden age arcade game that I’ve reviewed the most variants of. Granted, that was all in a single review, with one follow-up eight years later. I think I was counting on modern gaming to spruce up an iconic game that I never “got” for lack of a better term. Bad Caterpillar is still the standard bearer, but we have a new challenger: Atari themselves. They recruited indie developer Adam Nickerson to revive the Pede (and other games in their lineup). The result today is Centipede: Recharged, and it’s my favorite game in the franchise’s history. Which isn’t saying much, but it’s genuinely a quality game. One that both feels like it would fit in with other arcade games of the 80s, while also feeling so slow and deliberate enough that it’s decidedly modern, maybe too much so for fans of twitchy shooters. What a truly bizarre remake. It’s like how you hear John Tyler, who was President of the United States in 1841, has a living grandson today, in 2022. Not great-grandson. GRANDSON! His son’s son is alive, today, over 180 years after his grandfather became President. It’s just so weird, but not as weird as this game.

Geometrypede.

All the Atari Recharged games use vector-art style line-drawings. I’m not sure this was the best choice for Centipede, which stood out in the 80s largely on the strength of its uniquely pastel-colored playfield. It differentiated itself from a very crowded field, but the remake looks like any other Atari Recharged release. Plus, the game opens with this ghastly green/purple scheme that makes it look like it’s advertising tickets for the Charlotte Hornets. If any game called for something truly unique, it’s Centipede. I’d love to see it done like the Link’s Awakening remake, or claymation, or even some really bonkers-looking form of cel shading. All of the Atari Recharged games, with the exception of Missile Command, use the same basic engine, menus, and look alike. Consequently, none of them have their own identity. They all feel like they’d be better off in a collection instead of as individual releases.

Weirdly.. VERY weirdly.. the one game that can legally include the iconic Centipede DELLLEP DELLLEP DELLLEP sound effect doesn’t use it, or anything that sounds like a modern version of it. What a horrible oversight. Seriously, patch that shit in, Adam/Atari! It would be like a Mario game without the jump noise: it’s distracting when it’s NOT there!

As for the gameplay, this is a slower, more survival-focused Centipede. Like all the Recharged games, the main mode is an endless game where you only have one life, and as soon as you die, the game ends. Your mission is to go as long as you can, scoring as high as you can, to try and land a prestigious placement on the online leaderboards. In addition to an extra-wide playfield, you’re given a variety of power-ups dropped by the spiders that crawl in from the sides. They’re mostly fun to use, but you’re fully dependent on them due to how weaksauce your base gun is. It’s limited to having one bullet on-screen at a time. Centipede: Recharged picks up speed quite quickly, which thus renders the base gun slow and worthless. This is especially true when dealing with the mushrooms on screen. You can’t ignore them, since they’ll pile-up in the player’s area of the screen and block your path. Then the scorpions leave poison mushrooms that cause the centipedes to dive-bomb down into YOUR portion of the playfield. Eventually, you’ll just be overwhelmed. Most of my games ended when I simply ran out of room to maneuver. Frustrating as it is, it’s definitively arcadey, more-so than the other Recharged games.

Everything about Centipede: Recharged is just north of average. Like, an overgrown toenail above the line.

I prefer my arcaders a lot more white-knuckle than Centipede: Recharged is, but, it’s fine. It’ll get you an enjoyable hour or two, or more if don’t think the optional challenges are kind of lame as fuck, like I did. Really, what holds back Centipede: Recharged is, after an hour of playing it, you come to realize that your best games come down to getting lucky item drops. I mean, you still have to PLAY well once you get them, so it’s not an entirely luck-based game. But, if you keep getting the wrong items during a round that you’re playing well, you’re eventually going to be overwhelmed faster than you deserve. You’re limited by how fast you can clear out the scorpion’s toxic mushrooms, and that requires the right items. Luck also factors in with the enemies. If the scorpions leave the mushrooms directly behind a row of ten other mushrooms and you don’t get an item that can clear mushrooms quickly, well, you’re just plain fucked, yo. It really needs to juice-up the base gun to push this above just barely decent (but still decent, can’t stress that enough). This was never going to be a great game anyway, but with a faster gun, players would get peed-off a lot less.

Centipede: Recharged is Chick-Approved
IGC Leaderboard Ranking: #198 of 297*
Top 69 Percentile (nice) of All 627 IGC Indie Reviews
Top 33 Percentile of All IGC-Approved Games
Please Note: A positive review is a positive review. Being among the bottom tier of IGC-Approved games still means the game is IGC-Approved.

*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Centipede Recharged was developed by Adamvision Games (Published by Atari)
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, Epic Store, Atari VCS

$6.69 (normally $9.99) peed herself in the making of this review.

Praey for the Gods (Review)

Picture this: there’s a twenty-five-year-old stockbroker who has spent entire his lifetime watching sports. He’s never actually played sports, mind you. He just really likes them, and especially basketball. He throws on the critically acclaimed documentary series The Last Dance on Netflix and can’t put it down. He’s dazzled by the rise and fall of the 90s Chicago Bulls. This guy binge watches the series again and again. After his tenth viewing of it, the stockbroker announces to his stunned friends and family that he’s decided to become the next Michael Jordan. Although he’s never even picked-up a basketball, he’s decided that it’s his destiny to fill the gap left by Jordan.

An absurdity bordering on madness.

Praey for the Gods is like if that guy actually made it to the NBA. Sure, he didn’t even come close to being the next Jordan, but it’s nothing short of remarkable this.. this.. FUCKING LUNATIC.. made it as far as he did.

Taking this idea further, it would be like the stockbroker’s NBA game wasn’t even remotely close to Jordan’s, but he ultimately ended up a reliable role-player who would occasionally unleash in-game dunks that were more spectacular than any Jordan had in his career, and he had more nuanced ability to beat opponents off the dribble. What? That’s not what’s supposed to happen!

That probably doesn’t sound like the most flattering endorsement, but I did ultimately like Praey for the Gods. I’m not entirely sure it liked me, though. I’d heard of it when it had its Kickstarter campaign in 2016, but like so many ambitious indie projects that succeed there, it’d fallen off my radar. Then, as I was in the middle of a very public and well-publicized two-week-long Shadow of the Colossus marathon that even included a moment of sheer joy being retweeted by Fumito Ueda, I had dozens of people ask “have you seen Praey for the Gods?” Given that the marathon ended with me declaring Shadow of the Colossus the greatest video game ever made, Praey for the Gods was the logical choice for the next Indie Gamer Chick review. I’ve never seen any indie that did so many gameplay design choices that, at their base, seem perfect, but then the game works to chip away at its own perfection. The embodiment of the painter’s dilemma. How many brush strokes are one too many? I’ve never said “why would they do that?” with complete befuddlement more times playing any game in my twenty-five years of experience.

You don’t necessarily think of Shadow of the Colossus as “white knuckle” in the traditional sense, but it has its moments. Praey for the Gods is white-knuckle. The boss fights are definitively action-oriented and often feel straight out of alien invasion or super hero movies.

Praey for the Gods is so close to the look, feel, and aura of Shadow of the Colossus that it could have been picked-up by Sony and passed-off as an official continuation of the series. When it’s what you want it to be, it’s jaw-dropping in its scope and authenticity. Instead of some guy trying to bring the love of his life back from the dead, this time you’re the sole survivor of a clan.. possibility of all humanity.. who must restore life to a frozen wasteland straight-out of Game of Thrones. The endless winter isn’t the result of White Walkers (I said “are you fucking kidding me?” when they actually did show up, or something that looks a lot like them), but instead was caused by the manifestations of humanity’s sins: seven gigantic “Gods” that you battle as if they were the 17th – 23rd Colossi from Shadow of the Colossus. But, these are not majestic, primordial beings minding their own business who swat at you like an especially annoying housefly. They understand your agenda, and want you dead.

Remember the beams of light that rose from the final resting spots of the colossi you killed? Well, Praey for the Gods is the opposite: the next God you should slay is marked by a beam. But, while I tried to avoid these areas so I could do what the game asks of you (grind-up resources to upgrade armor, tools, and weapons), I’d just stumble upon the lairs of other bosses. I’ll never complain about Shadow of the Colossus being linear again.

The Gods are the highlight of the game. I had to often pause just to remind myself that, no, this is NOT really Shadow of the Colossus, because every fiber of my being said it was. The feel of scaling these behemoths is straight out of SOTC, and along with that comes the sensation of being hopelessly outmatched. The new twist is you’re not slaying them with an enchanted sword. Instead, thousands of years ago, humanity took their last stand against the Gods and managed to install their weaknesses: chimes attached to specific spots on their body. You must locate each boss’s bells and work them like sacred toilet plungers, scoring three full thrusts with them. When every bell is rang three times, you’ve won the battle. I was very skeptical of this twist, since stabbing the Colossi in the head with the sword was so viscerally violent that it often left my psychotic ass sitting in a puddle of my own self-generated vaginal lubrication.

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But, I actually like the bells better. In fact, I like a lot of Praey for the Gods better than Shadow of the Colossus. I like that, instead of wandering around the ruins of a long-lost civilization, the world of Praey is far removed from even that. The grandest structures are so old that they’re in complete ruins, while society itself seems to have been reduced a new era of cavemen. Like Shadow, you have to fill a lot of the gaps in with your head. This could have been a world where people never evolved past being hunter-gatherers, or it could be in the distant future. Unlike Shadow of the Colossus, Praey puts a much heavier emphasis on world-building. It sort of has to, when you think about it. You’re not breaking the laws of nature by bringing back a single dead woman. The WORLD is the damsel on the alter you’re trying to save. A world that reduced the last vestiges of humanity into creating cave paintings they hoped would someday guide someone, anyone, to be able to slay the banes of the planet. The developers had to assure players connected to the world, and to the long dead people who once inhabited it. By golly, they nailed it, because I wanted to learn as much as I could about it.

The world of Praey for the Gods has these giant, frozen people all over. What are they? Tributes to the Gods, or the island’s now-frozen former occupants? While you don’t exactly get the answers, there are some very subtle clues that, going off other reviews and comments, I don’t think a lot of people are picking-up on. Either the developers were too subtle, or I over-read it.

If these elements were incorporated into the game more like Shadow of the Colossus, I’d of liked Praey for the Gods a lot more. This is a world begging to be explored. It’s not empty. This time, the occasional enemy pops up. There’s puzzle rooms that earn you enhancements. Instead of hunting lizards, you collect idols, every third of which you find gives you the option to upgrade your health or stamina. And the ways you do it! This ain’t no horseback adventure. You get a glider that’s so fun to use that I found myself stupidly throwing myself off mountains into the vast unknown just because I knew the ride down would be exhilarating. You get a hookshot straight out of the 3D Legend of Zeldas that you can use to quickly scale some cliffs, or the Gods themselves. This is so inspired!

Sigh. Why couldn’t they have just left it at that?

I *love* the cave paintings. I got excited every time I found a new set of them. I don’t know what it is about cave paintings that stoke my imagination, but they are so incredible to look at in Praey that I always took a few minutes just to admire them. Love how authentic they look. I bet the guys who made this especially studied those found in South America, like Peru’s. They look the part. Now, whether you can actually understand the information in them is um.. questionable at best. I didn’t get the tip for beating the giant ground penis Colossi, shown here until after I’d already beaten it. “Oh, I see how this makes sense now.”

The problem is that Praey becomes an entirely different game, in an entirely different genre, when you’re not fighting bosses. Outside of the main event, Praey for the Gods becomes a rudimentary survival-against-nature game. A resource-gathering, item-crafting, busy-work slog. Despite the fact that I do my best to avoid these type of games, Praey’s take on it still almost, but never quite, won me over. You have to build and maintain tools, like axes, bows & arrows (including each individual arrow), cut down trees, hunt animals, cook their meat, upgrade everything, and juggle your limited (but expandable) carry capacity. This is hypothetically fine. But, even on the easiest setting, it’s fucking maddening how little use tools give you before they’re blinking red in your hand, meaning they’ve already worn out and lost their effectiveness. Thank God I wasn’t playing on a harder setting, where I guess they just plain break. But seriously, I’d fire a bow a few times and then it would break again. It’s the worst equipment degradation I’ve seen.

Your mileage will vary on how much you enjoy the treasure caves that are scattered throughout Praey, each of which contains puzzles that wouldn’t be out of place in the Legend of Zelda series. I really liked them. My Dad and sister, both of whom enjoy puzzle games just fine, were bored by them. Like some of the God battles, they can go too long and require a slow, convoluted process to solve. BUT, I found putting the required time into them always was worth it, as they pay off with huge rewards. Mostly armor upgrades, each of which technically eliminates your need to grind-up resources to upgrade your base armor.

And therein lies the biggest problem with Praey for the Gods. That all these incredible ideas are taken to overindulgent extremes, to the point that much of the game is just not fun. Hey, the crafting idea is great, and item degradation can work. For some people. I guess. I mean, the overwhelming majority of Breath of the Wild players bitch about it, many feeling it’s the turd in the punch bowl that keeps it from being the best Zelda ever. But it has fans too. It’s something to keep players occupied. But, like, show of hands: who wants to fire twenty or fewer arrows in Zelda and then have to use precious resources to repair your bow? Well, that’s Praey for the Gods. On easy, the weapons never completely break, and I still got so sick of having to stop every ten minutes to fix things that I just quit fucking doing it. I spent a lot of time hunting with a busted bow, because I just couldn’t be bothered. If I knew I was about to tangle with a boss, maybe I’d fix it. But, maybe not. Same with the hookshot. “Why would they do it like this? Were they having fun with this?” It’s so absurd that I wondered if the developers were deliberately trolling players, because it’s so obviously NOT fun.

The camera goes especially loony when ringing the chimes. If the colossi is flying, you’re likely to lose track of which way is up and down. Pro tip: you can turn off shaky cam in the options. Do it!

Praey for the Gods was made by three guys with minimal experience, at least going off their Moby Games credits. It’s astonishing that the game is as good as it is. But, everything was in place for this to be the greatest indie game ever made. Not missing from the game.. THERE, already in the game, ready for to leave you dazzled. Sure, yea, it’s also lacking a lot of nitty-gritty polish. Of course it is. Polish is often the result of a lot of grunt work from an army of artists and coders. Well, didn’t have an army at their disposal. I get how the professional critics can’t look the other way, but I’m Indie Gamer Chick. The overwhelming majority of games I play could be kindly described as “rough.” If I can’t deal with a little jank, I’d not made it this far as a critic. But, there’s so much fillers and busy work that can reduce the most captivating moments into a tedious exercise in patience. “Did they really need four chimes on this boss? Wouldn’t two have worked? At least on the lower difficulties? I want to move on!”

It wasn’t until I started writing this review that I realized I didn’t feel a sense of my beloved digital vertigo all that much during my time with Praey for the Gods (around 30 hours, give or take, though that included a TON of fucking around on my part). No clue why that is. Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t mind the graphics all that much. If you’re expecting the game to look cutting edge, even on PS5, you’ll be disappointed. Actually, when I was about halfway through Praey, I realized that nobody will ever be nostalgic for PS3/Xbox 360-era graphics. It’s not a “style” that will be deliberately mimicked by indie developers of the 2040s and 50s.

So, why isn’t this an instant classic? Why is it average when it could have been legendary? Because the three guys who made this had nobody hovering over them, telling them “no.” That’s a valuable thing to have. Sure, they had years of early access feedback, but having read through literally months of Praey’s user reviews, most of it is just white noise. BUT, the overly-quick weapon/tool degradation came up a lot. Their solution to this was apparently the easy mode that prevents full breakage. I think?! Maybe it was there and people were just playing harder modes (easy IS the default setting today). So uh.. how about just making that whole thing optional? The core of Praey for the Gods doesn’t require it. It’s just an aspect that hurts the game for all but a very, very small niche of players. But, they were married to this idea, and it stayed in to serve no purpose but annoy and frustrate players and distract from the main selling point. Maybe it was done to pad the gameplay time? Uh, fellas.. look at all those 0.5 – 1.9 hour-of-playtime user reviews. Look at the achievement percentages. Most people who buy this, or any game, won’t even make it 20% into the quest. Stop catering to these asshats demanding long games, because they’re not really playing games as much as they say they are! Was all this padding worth it? I don’t know, but I can’t imagine that 4 out of 10 rating from IGN felt good. 

I hope that didn’t come across like punching down, because that wasn’t my intent. Honestly, as much as Praey frustrated me, if not straight-up enraged me, I really did enjoy my time with it more than I disliked it. A 4 out of 10, IGN? Really? And to think, people bitched at me for being bored with Hollow Knight.

Shit like that was the story again and again with Praey for the Gods. There’s hunting in Praey. As in, shooting delicious animals with your bow. Hey, sounds fun! I like to kill and eat adorable lifeforms. But, I spent TONS of time aimlessly wandering away from places I knew a boss was while attempting to hunt animals for resources, and I was stunned by how hard it is to find those animals. I do feel like a dummy for not realizing until I was near the end of the game that you can shoot the birds down to get the feathers you need to improve your glider, but once I figured it out, an hour passed before I saw another. My axe was constantly wearing out from chopping trees down, but since I got sick of repairing it, all this did was leave me having to swing the fucking thing more, or search around for the saplings that you can just crudely yank out of the ground. Look, I like resource gathering. I really, truly do. But if you’re doing it, you gotta go all in. There has to be shit you can use everywhere. A lot of the stuff you need in Praey is just too spaced-out. In fact, I made it pretty dang far without upgrading my armor at all. Trust me, I would have killed every fucking woodland creature I crossed paths with. *I DID* kill every woodland creature I crossed paths with, because of course I did! WHO WOULDN’T? Yet, I killed so few that I still had my starting armor on during my 3rd boss fight. The only upgrade I’d done was to my boots, because I though it might help make trudging through the snow faster (it didn’t).

Most caves have fire pits set up for you (complete with bear skin nearby for comfortable napping, which restores vitals), but you have to bring your own wood. Meat is basically useless unless you cook it, and other resources (like the mushrooms in the pic) can also be heated to make them more potent. If you’re playing on easy mode, which I was, I came to realize that basically everything but meat and stamina-restoring potions were worthless. Anything that “keeps you warm” is stuff you only need to focus on in harder difficulties. You actually can’t die from the cold, but the cold can set up the circumstances for you to die.

And then there’s the bosses, the titular Gods. If you’ve ever wondered what Shadow of the Colossus would be like if the bosses weren’t sequential, wonder no more. With the exception of the first God, you can take the other six in any order (though the player is guided to one specific one). I really would have played by the game’s recommended order, but to my surprise, I kept stumbling upon bosses. I could have left the arenas, but.. well.. fuck it! If I’m there, I might as well take care of business, especially since there is no quick travel means. You can get down a hill fast with the glider, but the hookshot (especially before you upgrade it) isn’t exactly a reliable means of scaling. There’s no Argo to get you from point A to point B, and the randomly generated weather can further slow you down. The only way to return quickly to the starting castle is to beat a boss.

Not long after I defeated the first God and had begun to explore the land, I was hunting boars and rabbits when a terrifying roar was heard. I looked in the direction the animals looked, and then I nearly shit my pants. A future God I would do battle with was just sorta hanging around, well outside its lair. Well, that was awesome. Like I said, top-notch world-building!

The first couple I fought were really fun. Just, seriously, at that point, for all intents and purposes, you’re playing Shadow of the Colossus 2. Not an indie game that feels like Shadow of the Colossus 2. The real thing. Well.. maybe a prototype of the real thing. But, seriously, this feels like the game fans of Shadow of the Colossus have dreamed of for sixteen years that they know is never coming. It’s here. It’s real. It’s everything you’ve wanted it to be. Frightening, intense, suspenseful, and beautiful. Like, the first God starts, and it’s just like SOTC, where you get that sense of “wait, we’re starting THIS stuff already? I’m not ready!” But, the game doesn’t care if you are. That’s the point! Game on! Then you spend the next fifteen minutes running around just trying to scratch-out enough distance so you can get a good look at the thing and figure out how you can get on it. There’s no sword to shine a beam of light on the weak spot. There’s no voice of Dormin giving you tips on what do, either. There’s cave painting that you may OR MAY NOT find that offer tips you may OR MAY NOT understand on how to defeat the Gods. The only indication you’re given that you’re on the right track is, when you get close enough, the bells will light-up (it really needed to happen sooner, sometimes I was practically on top of them before they signaled).

While they really did do an amazing job with the world building, I have to logically question whether you could actually do cave paintings in a place like this, where the wall is frozen solid. If there’s a half-inch of snow, you can’t see cracks on a sidewalk. Inside caves are one thing, but how did THESE paintings survive this particular area for thousands of years?

The first three bosses I dueled felt perfect. But, the later ones suffer from being too multi-faceted. Too many steps are required, each one requiring too much trial and error. The boss that is sequentially meant to be 7th, but of which I stumbled upon 5th, pretty much broke me. First, you have to systematically break apart its armor by firing cannon-like flower seeds at it. THEN you have to use the hookshot climb onto a thing that hangs around its neck that functions as a base-platform, and from there go for the bells on its limbs, some of which requires even more armor breaking. The thing is trashing and attacking you the entire time, and you have limited stamina. There are items that restore health, but that didn’t help me, given that I found this thing by accident, and if I leave the arena, I’m not entirely sure what supplies I can find in this area anyway. Every time I activated one bell, I had to pretty much let go, glide to the ground, and begin to summit the beast anew. ALL the bosses are exciting, at least to start. But a lot of them just wear out their welcome.

When you reach the lair of the 7th God, you’ll be introduced to these flowers that produce explosive seeds. When you use the seeds, it’s mechanically programmed like pulling back on a slingshot. Thankfully, a flight-trajectory is mapped out clearly for you, but the aiming is VERY sensitive. Oh, and the game goes into super-duper slow-mode when you grab the seeds to shoot them.

I died several times, and I never shook the suspicion that I probably shouldn’t have been this far along in the game to begin with. In my own play-through, I never made it to the fifth bell (or the fourth, for that matter). I had been playing on my PS4 while my Dad and Angela raced against me on the PS5. I abandoned ship and joined them. It turns out, I wasn’t even close to beating this boss. During my rematch with it, I was horrified to discover that the head-chime alone is a multi-tiered clusterfuck of hard-to-dodge attacks just moving up its arms and getting to an area inside its head that requires even more self-inflicted armor breaking. That entire sequence felt like it belonged to an entirely different boss. I lost track of the time with it, since my family was alternating turns upon dying, but if the all-in fighting that God wasn’t eight hours by itself, I’d be surprised.

END GAME SPOILER WARNING NEXT PARAGRAPH ONLY

At least this time they made the arrows actually factor into boss battles. Flaming arrows, no less!

Spoilers: there IS a last boss after that, of course, and the finale is visually spectacular. But, it has the same issue: it just goes too long, to the point that you want it to be over. It’s so sad, because they really did create some of the most visually marvelous beings in gaming history, and the fights all START fun. The problem is, they’re so drawn-out that, instead of feeling triumphant, you’re likely to feel a sense of relief that you finally get to do something else besides fight this thing more. Dang. That also applied to the ending. I didn’t feel a tearful sense of accomplishment, like I did with Shadow of the Colossus. I was happy to be done with Praey for the Gods. I enjoyed my time with it fine enough, but I was VERY ready to play something else.

I get that they were aiming for the opposite of the docile creatures who were fine being left alone until you came along that Shadow of the Colossus had. But, their choices to make button mashing be part of the equation really hurts the battles a lot. The bosses THRASH TOO MUCH for what the game asks of you. (CORRECTION: THE BUTTON MASHING CAN BE DISABLED IN THE OPTIONS MENU) By the way, I’m doing my best to avoid showing any MAJOR details of any bosses, so the pictures really aren’t capturing the pants-shitting horror of seeing these things for the first time. The character designs are horrific, and I mean that in the nicest way.

END OF SPOILERS

What they SHOULD have done was taken some of the concepts they had for these bosses, divided them up more, and had more boss fights! Shadow of the Colossus proved that you can get away with the occasional prolonged battle, but like the Anakin/Obi-Wan fight from Revenge of the Sith, battles here go so long that they become boring. There’s just too many steps along the way. Granted, some of those steps are actually even more thrilling than any one moment in Shadow of the Colossus. At one point, I launched into the sky off a man-cannon, glided across the battlefield, then bullet-time hook-shotted into the fin of one flying boss, my family screaming with glee and throwing high-fives the entire time. It felt straight out of a big budget Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. But, because of limitations of stamina and the fact that I was only attacking the first of several bells, I had to repeat that same sequence several times, sometimes more than once to successfully hit a single plunger three times. The Colossi from Praey for the Gods try to shake you off much more frequently than Shadow of the Colossus bosses and require button-mashing to retain your grip, and I have Parkinson’s disease. Button mashing is getting hard for me. The thrill of launching into the sky, paragliding, and grabbing onto the boss losses its luster quickly when you’ve been doing it for a few hours.

CORRECTION 1/19/22: Praey for the Gods does have an option to replace the button mashing with holding down a button. And, in fact, I somehow missed Praey for the Gods’ dev team sending me that while I was playing the game. For the sake of fairness, I replayed two boss battles with this option turned on, and yea, it works well. It was pretty low on the list of my Praey for the Gods annoyances, so I’m not going to change the ranking for Praey for the Gods. But, you can (and likely should) disable the button mashing.

Unlike Shadow of the Colossus, the world of Praey for the Gods is populated with non-boss enemies. The first time I encountered one of the banshees, I learned something about myself I never knew: I could hop six-inches off the couch just using the muscles in my ass. Enemy counters are relatively rare, but I was greatly annoyed when they showed up during one particular boss battle that was hard enough without having to deal with these things too.

Praey for the Gods is that rare game that’s less than the sum of its parts. Unlike Shadow of the Colossus, I was invested in the story. I like the cave paintings better than the abandoned temples. I loved the eerie, frozen giants that litter the island of the game. I love that there’s mini-bosses and optional Zelda-like puzzles scattered around in caves that provide huge rewards in the form of better armor and swords. I like this game world a ton. Yea, the engine is a bit rough, and the controls are not intuitive (hey, neither were Shadow’s!). Sometimes, the camera would swing around and I couldn’t tell which side was up and or down. It’s way too easy to lose track of spacial awareness in the heat of battle. There’s some random cheapness. I hate that bosses sometimes attack with invisible shock-waves. I hate that, if you’re red-lining on health, the chick will limp like she has broken her leg, no matter what the logical damage to her body is. Honestly, I wish this game just showed more restraint than it did.

There’s three optional mini-bosses scattered throughout the game. You’ll want to find and defeat them, since they drop at least one valuable upgrade and tons of resources. The sword I nicked from this one didn’t wear out, which was so huge. Each has a single chime on their back that requires the usual three-full-thrusts. Make sure you save your progress by ducking into the nearest cave before engaging them. I went from doing well fighting one to instantly dead

Here’s a true story for you: I used to tease Brian about getting him a Porsche 911 Turbo. His dream car. I’d say “I’ll buy you one, but it has to be hot-pink with purple polka dots. IT’S STILL A 911 TURBO! THE COLOR SHOULDN’T MATTER!” If he’d finally concede that point, I’d keep it going. “It has to be an automatic instead of a manual transmission. IT SHOULDN’T MATTER! STILL A PORSCHE 911 TURBO!” Eventually, I’d drop the engine power down, and Brian would say “this isn’t sounding much like my dream car anymore, Cathy!” Well, that’s Praey for the Gods. I’ve dreamed my entire adult life about a Shadow of the Colossus sequel. Here it is! Unofficial, yet distinctively authentic. Everything in place for it to be the game of my dreams. Then, getting to the Colossi is a survival slog, a genre I don’t like at all. But, it’s fine! There’s still Colossi to fight! Oh, and they can be taken in any order, and you could stumble upon them when you’re really not ready to fight. It’s still good! I took them down anyway! “Of course, you could be stuck fighting one boss, for hours.” I can? I mean, I did that.. like.. once in Shadow of the Colossus. “Oh, you’ll do that more than once here. Oh boy, you’ll be stuck on bosses for half-a-day.” Oh. “You’re going to love grinding resources to craft each individual arrow.” You know, this isn’t sounding like my dream game anymore, guys!

And it’s not.

It’s just a rough, problematic indie game. But, it’s decent enough. I’m just crushed because, at one point, about halfway through Praey for the Gods, I thought it had a legitimate chance of dethroning Dead Cells to become the new #1 game on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Then it just slid so far downhill in the final half of the game, especially with the elongated boss fights, that it didn’t even crack the top 50. The final bosses came close to redeeming (and that finale, oh man, some INSANE moments). But, too much damage had already been done. Actually, do you know what Praey for the Gods reminds me of? A really amazing cover band that’s so talented, you’d listen to their album over the original. But, their album is full of the band’s originals songs that range from average to awful slop. It’s especially annoying because when they stick to the classics, they can belt them out like no other.

Praey for the Gods was developed by No Matter Studios
Point of Sale: PlayStation, Xbox, Steam

$29.99 thought the Gods must be crazy in the making of this review.

Praey for the Gods is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

 

Find Me (PS4/PC Review)

Even though the name violates the Google Rule (seriously, go Google as many variations of “Find Me” with modifiers like “PS4” or “REVIEW” and enjoy the map it will show you of where you’re at right now. Ugh!), Find Me was an awesome choice for me to start 2022. My goal this year is to be the Chick of old. The one who did almost 500 indie reviews in her first two years. Who was so brutal in examining indies, even the ones she liked, that developers would have to breathe into paper bags just by me announcing I had started playing their game. And the key to this revival is I’m going back to my roots. What the FUCK am I doing writing a four-part review for a game that sold six million copies? Why the FUCK is Indie Goddamned Gamer Chick playing sixteen-year-old Shadow of the Colossus.. FOR WEEKS.. and then doing some kind of masturbatory love-letter to it? What happened to the old Cathy? The one made jokes about lighting farts on fire while playing Xbox Avatar games she found next to the latest app that turns your Xbox controller into a vibrator?

Oh, excuse.. massage app. Sure, boss. Whatever gets you past the Evil Checklist. Wink.

“So many different ways to bludgeon a person!”

No, I’m going to mostly focus mostly on small, under-the-radar games that don’t have huge marketing campaigns. The type of stuff that feels like it would have been listed alongside those damn Avatar games and Controller-to-Dildo applications on XBLIG. Yea, that’s where *I* belong. I’m going to cuss and rant and rave and light my farts on fire. I’m throwing up both middle fingers. The Chick is back, bitches!

Oh my god, that was beautiful.

(WIPES TEARS)

Ahem.

Man, Kim Possible got really dark after I stopped watching.

Find Me will inevitably draw comparison to Limbo. That’s the fate of every game that has a shadow/silhouette, all-dark-except-the-large-soft-white-eyes protagonist. And no, it’s not an unfair comparison. If developers choose this art style, it invites that comparison. That’s just how this shit works, people. I’m so sick of hearing complaints of it from indie fans. I’ll take it a step further: I like that they look alike, because they don’t exactly play alike. Limbo’s platforming emphasis is on physics. Find Me relies more on precision. If Find Me gets an audience (and it’s not looking very likely, as it’s been out since early December but the majority of people who saw I was playing it had never heard of it) I’d have the perfect two games to explain that there IS a difference. Looking alike within the same genre isn’t playing alike.

For a seed planted at a game jam, Find Me has remarkably tight and responsive controls and some of the most intuitive jumping physics I’ve seen. That double jump? Perfect. One of the best I’ve ever seen, indie or otherwise. I’ve played games by seasoned pros who couldn’t get the movement, speed, and precision as fine-tuned as Find Me has. Sublime effort, everyone. The best thing I can say about Find Me is the controller will vanish in your hands. It’s a total non-issue, as it should be.

And it has a hell of a hook: light is lethal. Sometimes. My #1 issue with the game is a somewhat lack of consistency in that area. There’s four worlds broken into four “levels” each. In most of them, any light touching you starts to make your shadow sputter and vanish. This led to moments where you’re having to ride on top of an ambulance while avoiding lights from windows and neon signs, but the ambulance also has lights going towards the front of the cab that don’t hurt you. I only found that out when I over-jumped my target and was like “oh shit.. hey wait a second, why didn’t I bleed shadow?” Later, a level set at a space museum also has lights that don’t kill you, which made me heel-toe my way through that stage in a way that wasn’t particularly fun. It feels a bit like a GOTCHA, only instead of a death you can’t avoid, it’s not dying in a boring way that could have been avoided. So, is that a reverse-GOTCHA? An AHCTOG?

When light touches you, it’s not IMMEDIATELY lethal. You don’t have a visible health meter, but you become more transparent as you get closer to dying, and the shadow that you are sort of bellows out whiffs of.. uh.. shadow blood? I guess?

But, otherwise the concept of avoiding the light works really well, and the striking visual of how taking damage looks is memorable enough. You don’t have to really worry about dying in Find Me. You have unlimited lives, and this isn’t one of those games with a death counter that quantifies your ineptitude. Invisible checkpoints are generously scattered about, you respawn quickly if you die, and the challenge scales properly. It’s super-short. The entire game can be beaten in an hour or so. It’s a quick & dirty platformer with fun set pieces, rock-solid controls (seriously, can’t stress enough how great the jumping physics are), and a really nice “run away” conclusion where you have avoid being caught by a giant monster that’s also allergic to light. Except all the times it’s not allergic to light. You know, I could swear I just went over this with the protagonist. So Find Me is consistent in its inconsistency. Ugh.

I don’t know who this chick is, but she’s into video games, loves animals, and is deeply interested in NASA. Hell, give her a Mom who says “fuck” three times on average per sentence and it could have been my life story in game form.

The finale would be the highlight of the game, but after beating it with no issue on my first attempt, I wanted to watch Find Me’s ending again. On the second play-through, the monster somehow missed a lot of the light, even though I was flipping every switch. By time I reached the finish line, the monster had the smallest fraction of health left, but not enough to kill it. So I died and reset to the previous checkpoint, which reset the monster’s health to where it had been at that point, and spent the next fifteen minutes trying to manipulate it into enough light to finish it off, but I always came-up just short and was forced to restart the whole stage. It was at that point I noticed that the physics for the monster aren’t consistent. For example, at one point, a cable made of lights will break and swing down at it, which will cause damage to the monster most of the time. But, once or twice, the cable just passed right through it, which is probably what happened to me the second play-through. Or, any number of other random-chance elements, like where a checkpoint is, which if you die in that specific spot, you don’t go back far enough to turn on a switch that activates light that causes more damage. The developers might want to go back and fine tune this a bit, because it needs work.

One thing they got right that Limbo didn’t: they saved their super-memorable chase for the ending. Maybe Limbo opening with the giant spider sequence made it a game everyone knows, but that whole segment would have worked so much better as a climax. The team behind Find Me wisely ended their game with the closest thing their adventure had to that moment. It assures everyone who finishes it will keep talking about it. Though maybe not for the right reasons, at least until they fix it.

Mind you, none of that is a deal breaker, and again, I beat it the first time without incident. In fact, I only needed roughly an hour to not only see the end credits, but get 100% of the trophies (1 Silver, 11 Golds and 1 Platinum? Yea, those trophies ain’t what they used to be, are they?). There’s sixteen hidden story elements, one per a stage, hidden in the game. Well, “hidden” being relative, as a lot of them are just RIGHT THERE along the path you’re taking. But otherwise, there’s a lot of pretty decent platforming tropes, some decent rudimentary jumping-and-hitting-switches type of puzzles, all in a fun setting. I was never bored at any point playing Find Me. It’s not a bad little platformer at all.

The white shining thing in the center there is one of the story beats, and if there’s such a thing as an object to Find Me besides just going from point A to point B, it’s finding all 16 of them. It won’t be hard, trust me.

“Sounds great? So, what’s it about?”

Well, I thought it was about drug addiction. That was my read. I’ll go ahead and spoil it, since HOLY SHIT, do I have egg on my face. I had been distracted during the opening cinematic, so I didn’t see what was actually happening. But, the person you’re trying to find is you. You’re a girl and the game is living moments of your past. Well, actually it’s just generic (but fun) platforming stuff, but the collectables reveal moments of your childhood. Adopting your first pet. Getting into video games, which leads into making a game. Going to space camp. But at one point, you see the girl in the memories being loaded into an ambulance to frame that level of the game. I didn’t see how the game started, so I was like “okay, she overdosed, and Find Me is about finding the happy, enthusiastic person she was who had all the potential in the world before getting hooked on drugs. Then, the big demon at the end is her symbolically showing resolve to get better.” This really landed with me, as that was who I was before becoming hooked on opiates in my teens (four years sober now!). The game-loving, space-enthused girl in this game could have very well been me.

Nope, I missed the part where she got hit by a car because she couldn’t pull her head up from her video game.

Whoops.

What kind of a cretin stands on top of a pinball machine? THAT’S NOT A PLATFORM! IT’S A WORK OF ART! IT’S QUINTESSENTIALLY AMERICANA! God, I hope you get hit by a car or something!

Okay, so that’s slightly less thought provoking, but thankfully I checked before writing the review, because I had gone very, very deep into how much this resonated with me, and now I’m so fucking embarrassed. Golly. My New Year’s Resolution: PAY ATTENTION, CATHY! But seriously, if you want to kill an hour with some old fashioned platforming, nothing unconventional, a dozen easy trophies for your collection, you could do a lot worse than Find Me. Short and sweet, to the point, professionally done proof-of-concept from a group of girls who have a bright future in game design if they want it. Oh and with levels by the guy who made Serious Sam Double D XXL. The jokes write themselves.

Find Me was developed by (deep breath) Girls Make Games, Team Invenio, and Mommy’s Best Games
Point of Sale: PlayStation Network, Steam

$4.99 walked into the light in the making of this review.

Find Me is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

IN THE INTEREST OF FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m friends with Mommy’s Best Games owner Nathan Fouts. We don’t talk regularly or anything, but I’ve known and been friends with him for ten years now. I honestly, truly had no idea he was involved in this at all until I saw the Mommy’s Best Games logo during the end credits. But you deserve to know who I’m friends with if I review their games, so I needed to disclose that.

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.

Head over to The Definitive Review of Delicious Last Course!

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