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 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 bomb, she’s a free pass to King Dice.
IGC DISLIKES: The hardest of the ten if you DON’T have the smoke dash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every single one of those spikes I shot instantly hit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least until the DLC hits..

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Three

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

Inkwell Isle III

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

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

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

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

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This is where Perilous Piers gets teeth. You have to work your way across a series of platforms and hanging crates, often by parrying off buoys (some of which are so far away you have to mid-air dash at them) while avoiding a giant lobster that claps lightning at you. Why lightning? Wouldn’t just splashing water at you make more sense? The 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), too fast, 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 of controllers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Two

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

INKWELL ISLE II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Wait, why I am excited for Cuphead?

Brain: Because you love Cuphead, you fucking idiot.

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

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

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

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

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

INKWELL ISLE I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow of the Colossus: Slaying the Test of Time

Most of the this is spoiler-free. There’s a spoiler section I marked-off.

I don’t think it’s particularly mind-blowing to call Shadow of the Colossus the greatest video game ever made. It’s been called as much by people much better at this stuff than myself. Having just replayed it for a fourth time, I’m now totally comfortable saying that, yes, Shadow of the Colossus has no peer in gaming. It’s the GOAT: the greatest of all-time. It checks every box. It scratches every itch. Some titles do aspects of gaming better, but no game does so much of everything as well as Shadow of the Colossus. Is it my favorite game? Probably not, as Shadow of the Colossus didn’t tunnel into the pleasure center of my brain quite as much as my replay of Super Mario Odyssey did earlier this year. But, I think what Mario Odyssey accomplished (the ultimate perfecting of 3D mascot platforming) was much less significant than what Shadow of the Colossus has done: absolutely murder the test of time. Don’t get me wrong: I can totally get how someone would not like SOTC at all. A game that boils down to riding around a vast, barren map to fight giants in a series of jumping puzzles is not going to fire everyone up. I’ll even take it a step further: the concept of Shadow of the Colossus sounds boring.

WELL, IT DOES!

The PlayStation 4 re-release includes “filters” that allow you to do things like change the game to a nighttime setting. It’s smoke and mirrors as you’ve really just changed the shading and color palette, but it does undoubtedly make for some epic horse rides.

Take literally any flagship game, remove all enemies and goals and leave only the levels and bosses, and what would you have? Imagine the first Legend of Zelda on the NES. Now, twist the game by giving Link the sword AND the bow with unlimited arrows to start. Now take Hyrule, the exact same map and all nine dungeons, and then remove EVERYTHING from it. All traps. All keys. All enemies. All items. All locked doors but the entrance to Death Mountain. Make it so any place unreachable without items is now reachable via, say, a land-bridge or something. All hidden paths to bosses are also removed and replaced with a direct path, so you’re not warping around the dungeons but rather walking through a series of rooms until you reach the boss chamber. Thus, the only thing left in this new Legend of Zelda are the bosses in front of the rooms with each-Triforce piece. Any bosses that previously needed another weapon now can be beaten by the sword. Arrows can damage them, but the final blow must be struck with the sword. Oh, and the sword beam is also removed. Once you beat a boss and collect the Triforce piece, you’re returned to the starting screen where you got the sword & bow.

Are you picturing all this?

Good. Now, go get all eight Triforce pieces and rescue Princess Zelda from Ganon.

Does this game sound like something that would be fun to do?

In my youth, I never cared for sightseeing. Now that I’m in my 30s, I find myself taking time to just stare at things. I think that’s a big reason why my 4th replay of Shadow of the Colossus felt so grand.

Well, that’s the pitch Shadow of the Colossus makes to players. It sounds terminally boring. It’s Punch-Out if you had to walk around an empty city for five-to-twenty minutes between every fight (that won’t be the only time I compare Shadow of the Colossus to this). I don’t think I’d like Punch-Out if you had to do that. I’d certainly not go back to it just for fun. So, yea, Shadow of the Colossus is a weird pitch to gamers right out of the gate. Not only that, but the pitch comes with expressions and terminology that make it sound like some fart-sniffing art house thing.

“IT’S ABSTRACT!”

“IT’S SYMBOLIC!”

“IT’S MINIMALIST!”

“IT’S OPEN TO INTERPRETATION!”

These are things a lot of people do not like and want no part of. And no, it’s not just jock-sniffing dude-bros who scoff at that type of thing. There’s people who spend their whole lives grinding through Final Fantasy games or Zelda or Skyrim or any other big tentpole release who are simply not interested in “art house” games. Pitching them on the merits of such a title’s gameplay is particularly tough. Trust me. I’ve spent nearly three years now telling anyone who will listen that Gris, an artsy-fartsy indie that’s actually about overcoming grief and is just a touch pretentious about it, is also a truly fantastic platforming experience with rock-solid controls and outstanding level design (well, if you ignore the first level). Some people are just not interested in taking the risk because it looks like and sounds like something that would bore them. In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, it’s not so much the gameplay of fighting the Colossi that sounds boring. It’s how you experience it. The world of the Forbidden Lands is also given no backstory beyond being “cursed” and is filled with temples and glyphs in a language created for the game that means nothing. A lot of people just want a story and a game to go along with it. Remove the mysticism, spooky made-up language, and empty world and you’ve got Cuphead: a boss rush where a deity tells you to go fight larger enemies sold on the merits of its cutting edge graphics that is still never going to appeal as widely as a “mainstream game” but people just have to try it out. Nobody has to try Shadow of the Colossus. If anything, it’s almost unapproachable.

Well, I’m going to try. This is my pitch to those who have been holding out on playing Shadow of the Colossus.

#1: SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS IS *SO* SCARY

The Forbidden Lands of Shadow of the Colossus are my choice for the greatest world in any video game, with Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker a very distant second. It’s a world that’s so ancient that it’s actually primordial, but NEVER alien.

In “What Makes Horror Horrifying?” author Elizabeth Barrette postulates that horror is dependent on our evolutionary fight-or-flight response. The setting of Shadow of the Colossus assures you’re consistently in that state of mind. It has pitch-perfect timing of when to take the camera away from the player and show off the architecture of the area you just entered and let you know that you’ve arrived in the lair of a Colossus. You’re given a spooky musical cue that’s every bit as beautiful as it is foreboding. By time the beast has appeared, the player will have already been so affected just by the suspense that you’re going to need a moment to gather your wits.. a moment Shadow of the Colossus will rarely will give you. It’s something Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 wanted to accomplish but never quite achieved, and yet, a game that nobody would ever call a horror game perfected that sensation to a science.

Shadow of the Colossus will be even more scary for those people with more specific phobias. My irrational fear is of large bodies of water and sea monsters, called THALASSOPHOBIA. Shadow of the Colossus exploits this to perfection with a boss that I dreaded fighting so much I found myself staring at the water for a couple minutes, knowing that a battle would commence as soon as I jumped in. A battle I’d fought three times previous, that had no surprises left to offer. This fight is that scary for me.

It’s a misnomer to say the world of Shadow of the Colossus is totally empty. There’s some scattered wildlife, including lizards, birds, butterflies, etc. Sure, the game is devoid of big game animals (it wouldn’t have killed them to throw a few deer or bears or something into the mix), but the world feels occupied by more than just the Colossi. It creates this eerie unease that feels straight out of Silent Hill. Like any horror game, the first time you play Shadow of the Colossus will always be the most potently spooky. Until the moment the camera is taken from you, you never know when you might be entering the arena of a Colossi. Often, you’re clearly shown the battlefield ahead of time (which is also a clever way of letting players know they didn’t take a wrong turn on their way there), and it’s framed as ominously as possible. In fact, the best music in the game, in my opinion, are always the pieces of music that accompany those cut-aways that show off the lairs. Although the battle rarely begins when you’re not expecting it, it’s often more suspenseful than most games I’ve played that are actually designed to be scary. The gaming embodiment of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Bomb Theory. You can startle anyone for a quick jump scare, but suspense creates fear that lingers. I don’t know if Shadow of the Colossus is as suspenseful as the commonly held champion of gaming suspense: Silent Hill 2. But, that it’s even up for debate is a truly remarkable achievement for a game in this genre.

In reality, the 6th Colossus is one of the easier battles in the game. Yet, everything that goes into the battle makes it absolutely pants-wetting. The setting is so dark and ominous. The speed at which it moves is a touch faster than any previous Colossi. The camera pulls away to show that it’s closing in on you, which is one of the only times in any game I’ll allow cinematic design over game design. You’ll almost certainly have had a moment where you came inches from being splattered by its club. Again, the battle itself is among the most simple in the game, which is great! It proves it’s not what you do, but how you do it. Shadow of the Colossus is a great roadmap for aspiring developers everywhere.

Without ever once claiming so, Shadow of the Colossus is a legitimate contender of the scariest game ever made. More than once I screamed out-loud when I thought I had distance between me and whatever I was battling, only to see its weapon crash down upon me. Most impressively: none of the scares or tension rely on the story itself. You might find the god Dormin to be creepy, or be unnerved by “hero” Wander’s slow transformation into something other-humanly, but neither of those aspects come even come close to the chilling sensation of just swimming in a lake while a bird-like Colossus is perched in the background.. simply.. watching.. you. Even the one Colossus that doesn’t attack you, a different majestic flying creature that’s actually the largest in the entire game, moves with this ethereal locomotion that is so creepy that you’re certain to get goosebumps.

The second of the two “small” colossi is actually one of the scarier bosses. Instead of Hitchcock, it feels more like Leatherface or Jason Voorhees. It just doesn’t let-up, and the thrill of being chased by it as you desperately seek high ground NEVER cools-off for the entire opening-sequence of what is surprisingly a prolonged battle.

Then, you have the battles themselves. The imagery is often overwhelming and terrifying. This giant thing is lumbering towards you, and you’re so very, very small. If you find yourself directly next to one, you can literally feel the weight of its feet as they lift in preparation to crush you. At their core, action games are based around overwhelming odds, but no game makes you feel out-matched and under-powered like Shadow of the Colossus. Of course, once you figure out how to slay the beast, the opposite is true: you feel powerful and strong. This is accomplished without gaining stronger items, or being told by the game how you’re the hero of destiny. It’s simply a feeling of empowerment that overcomes you. That’s you’ve survived the horror, and it’s more satisfying than any actual survival horror game has ever been for me, let alone any action game.

Wow.

Shout out to the soundtrack. It’s not just the greatest in gaming history, but the greatest soundtrack EVER, period. The closest any movie comes to topping it is the original Star Wars.

#2: SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS IS *SO* VIOLENT

As a fan and practitioner of violence, I love video game violence. It’s just so much more.. legal. You’d think a game that involves stabbing the majority of your enemies in the head and then watching their life essence spurt out, Kill Bill-style would widely be considered among the most viscerally violent games ever. But nobody talks about how incredibly violent Shadow of the Colossus is. I’ve never been a person who did the whole sitcom-style “Body English” when I play games, where you pantomime the movement of the controller. BUT, when I play Shadow of the Colossus, I’m letting out barbarian-like screams every time I thrust the sword into the craniums of the my enemies. I’m not even sure why I’m doing it, except that I’m so immersed that I just instinctively yell. But, I’m not alone. Lots of people have that reaction playing Shadow of the Colossus. It’s so violent that it’s almost primal.

But, violence alone would get boring. Hey look, I love what Mortal Kombat has become. It puts a smile on my face that MK is now so grotesque that it makes even the most hard-assed among us become physically ill. But that’s violence that’s cartoonish. I mean seriously, when Cassie Cage knocks a person’s jaw off and then takes a selfie with it, you half expect Porky Pig to pop up and say THAT’S ALL, FOLKS! (Hey, Warner does own Mortal Kombat, so this might actually happen at some point!) After a while, it’s just kind of silly. I mean seriously, who gives a shit if Johnny Cage turns the corpse of his opponent into a ventriloquist dummy in a game where the non-fatality X-Ray moves would, in fact, kill you in several different ways. Cathartic? Maybe. Pointless? Oh yeah.

I don’t feel bad about killing Colossus #11, AKA this pathetic little thing. Even though it’s the only Colossi that literally cowers in fear away from the player at times. I found myself shouting “FUCK YOU FOR BEING SO SMALL AND DISAPPOINTING!” as I put my sword through its heart. I have a theory that I haven’t heard anywhere else: that Colossi #11 and #14 (the other smaller Colossus) were originally going to be a single battle where you fought both at the same time. Then, one of the many deleted Colossi that went far into development got removed at the last second and they needed to split the two up to keep the battle count at sixteen. My evidence: (1) they’re roughly the same size. (2) They look very similar. (3) The code name for the 14th Colossus was “Cerberus” which is the mythical multi-headed dog. #14 is NOT multi-headed, but maybe it metaphorically would have been if I’m right. The evidence against: (1) It has never come up after all these years despite tons of behind-the-scenes information about SOTC being put out there. If it were true, it sure seems like the type of thing they’d want people to know. (2) There actually was going to be a few other smaller Colossi that also got deleted. I’m still sorta leaning towards this originally being one fight against two Colossi, on the basis that it’s the only boss archetype the game is lacking. EDIT: Well, except fighting a clone of yourself.

In Shadow of the Colossus, the violence is nauseating for different reasons. You’re invading the space of creatures that want nothing to do with you, and you’re systematically ending their lives. Even fans of the game feel unclean when they hunt down what is basically a harmless cross between a flying serpent and a whale, shoot its air-sacks out one at a time, then mount it and begin stabbing it to death. The entire time, this creature never fights back. It has no attack. It’d be like if someone made a realistic whaling simulator, complete with old-timey harpoons. I don’t think I’d want to play that game. If the beasts of Shadow of the Colossus were more life-like, I think it’d have a lot less fans just because of how brutal the act of slaying is. You’re not performing cartoonish fatalities. You’re violently murdering things that have done you no wrong. Since that’s the object of the game, you’d think it’d be a massive turnoff. But, actually, it’s really thought-provoking. The symbolism of Wander being stripped of his humanity as he continues to slay these majestic beasts is among the most powerful metaphors any game has ever had. That image doesn’t work if Shadow of the Colossus isn’t amazingly, breathtakingly violent. And I mean that in a good way. Yet, nobody thinks of it as a violent game, and I think that should be a bigger part of the discussion.

#3: SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS ISN’T *THAT* UNIQUE OR WEIRD

Some people hear things like “minimalist story” and or “art” and think Shadow of the Colossus is so outside their wheelhouse that they could never get into it. That’s one of the more common complaints I hear. While that might still be true of you no matter what, let me postulate that Shadow of the Colossus is about as old-school-arcadey as any major sword-based action game has been in this century. You could skip every single cut-scene and still appreciate how stunning and rewarding the gameplay is.

Some of the boss fights, majestic as they can be, are downright cliched. “Welp, we’re fighting bosses. Gotta have one or two in the water. Gotta have one or two in the air. Gotta have a giant turtle. Gotta have a giant lizard that walks on walls..” I’m genuinely stunned there’s not one giant crab monster to be found. There would have been a giant spider, but it got deleted.

I’m not the first person to notice that the closest one-to-one analog with SOTC is Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! series. The comparison is much closer than it would seem. You’re a smaller person fighting a series of larger opponents. The entire object of the game is to study your opponent’s patterns and search for an opening to counter-attack. It’s not just a cutesy comparison, either. They really feel like very, very close cousins. The first time you take down any fighter/Colossi, it feels like a major accomplishment. As you get deeper in the game, the opponents become craftier and you have to rethink everything you think you know works. The final fights feature enemies so overwhelmingly destructive and seemingly invincible that you’re left feeling genuinely hopeless, to the point that any progress, even the act of just avoiding being damaged, feels like an accomplishment. While I’m not totally sure taking down the final Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus is as big a “HOLY SHIT, I DID IT!” moment as taking down Mike Tyson/Mr. Dream for the first time (but it’s certainly a bigger moment than beating Nick Bruiser from Super Punch-Out!! or Mr. Sandman from Punch-Out!! on the Wii), that final moment of world-conquering disbelief is almost unique to Shadow of the Colossus/Punch-Out. Not a “hooray, I beat the game!” moment, but rather “I can’t believe I did it!”

And after the game, you open up a time attack mode that eventually opens your eyes to different methods and strategies you’d never even thought of in the heat of those original battles. If Nintendo and Sony ever patch up their differences, I’d love to see a cross-over game, where Little Mac scales Colossi and punches them to death. And let Wander stab Super Macho Man in the head with a sword while you’re at it, fellas.

And, as far as minimalism goes, um.. didn’t most of you come from a generation where stories in games were absurdly simple? Giant Turtle Dragon kidnaps princess. Go save princess. Swine Wizard steals triangle and princess. Seek other triangle so you can save princess. I kind of love Shadow of the Colossus because it’s not bogged down in plot. It’s not a Final Fantasy or Metal Gear Solid exposition dumpathon. The storytelling of Shadow of the Colossus is so incredibly grounded in classical gaming storytelling that it’s curiously refreshing. After the opening cut-scene, there’s like three extremely short interludes between being given your next assignment of living mountain to slay, and you lose nothing by skipping them. The majority of the story is given at the start and during the nearly half-hour ending sequence (that includes the post-game credits). As a storyteller, Shadow of the Colossus is practically 8-bit.

#4: THE STORY OF SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS IS *NOT* OPEN TO INTERPRETATION (UNLESS YOU REALLY NEED IT TO BE FOR SOME WEIRD REASON)

**SPOILER WARNING**

This is probably going to be the most controversial point, but the story of Shadow of the Colossus is not as abstract as people make out to be. While some aspects of character backgrounds aren’t spelled out, the plot, the morals, and especially the ending really aren’t open to interpretation. You’ll find people digging so much deeper than they need to, maybe because they don’t like the implications of the ending. But what it all means couldn’t be more clear:

  • Wander had some form of love for Mono. Their relationship or background together is inconsequential. Shadow of the Colossus never says they’re an item. He could be some nobody who was creeping on her and being rejected by her right up until she died. Or he could be her boyfriend. Or he could be her brother and they’re doing the Targaryen Mambo for all we know. It doesn’t matter. What matters is he’s a character so overwhelmed with grief that it makes him a useful idiot for the fallen god Dormin.
  • Wander explicitly knows everything he is doing is wrong, immoral, and in defiance of the laws of man and nature. Dormin even laughs at how brazen Wander is in his wish to restore Mono. And, during the ending, Lord Emon, who is some kind of leader in Wander’s society, says “so it was you after all” (who took the sword), which spells out as clear as possible that Wander had been warned against all of this. Yes, Emon says Wander has no idea what he’s done, but he still was strictly forbidden from doing anything to begin with.
  • Mono was sacrificed for a “cursed future.” Some especially dense people take “sacrificed” to mean any number of things that are basically the opposite of, you know, being sacrificed! “She may have been sick! That’s kind of like being cursed!” Yea. Uh huh. In a game with a cursed land, and a cursed God, and a hero who becomes progressively more monstrous in appearance.. CURSED if you will.. the girl might have been put to death because she caught chicken pox or something. Christ, some people are so thick that it hurts.
  • Dormin speaks with both a male and female voice throughout the game, until it takes control of Wander’s body. At this point, only the male voice speaks. The female voice is never heard again.
  • This one is the ballgame for interpretation in my opinion: when Mono wakes up, she’s not surprised to be alive, nor is she frightened, scared, or disoriented. She’s not surprised to see Agro the horse. She’s not surprised by her surroundings, and this in a game where the reactions to everything are made explicit. Even characters who show up for like five minutes during the ending are able to emote at what they see. This is called attention to specifically: people react to things in Shadow of the Colossus! Mono coming back from the dead in a strange place she’s never been to after being killed by her own people invokes absolutely no reaction. Weird that.

Yea, yea, the ending originally was going to have her touch the horse and have all the memories of Wander’s battles with the Colossi implanted into her.. which makes no goddamn sense since the horse wasn’t there for eleven of the sixteen fights, but whatever. Deleted scenes aren’t canon, and if you want proof, why are there only sixteen broken idols instead of twenty-six, since there’s at least ten deleted Colossi.

  • The only part of the Shrine of Worship she glances at is the hole in the ceiling that Dormin communicated to Wander through.
  • She’s really not surprised to find a goddamned horned baby in the well. She calmly walks over to it and picks up the unholy abomination, barely even exams it, and continues up to the secret garden. I think any rational person would make the surprised Pikachu face for at least a second or two. Nope, it’s almost like she knew the baby would be there.
  • Her and Agro then calmly walk up the ramp around the well and through a door that was inaccessible to the player-controlled Wander, then scale another ramp and enter a peaceful garden that provides plenty of food and friendly, delicious wildlife to last a lifetime. None of this is a surprise at all to her. She walks in like she owns the joint. Which she does, because it’s her shrine made to worship her.

I’m poo-pooing attempts at fan theories that fly in the face of the evidence you’re given, BUT, there’s for sure lots of symbolism in Shadow of the Colossus. Agro’s forehead has a mark that’s a perfect outline of the sigil that Wander wears on his cape, the same sigil that is the weak point of the Colossi. And lots of little details, like how when the statues blow up after each Colossus is defeated, their heads always remain perfectly intact, perhaps symbolizing how futile your efforts really are. In the words of a critic much better than me, you might not have noticed these things.. but your brain did.

So, yea, that’s not Mono anymore. It’s Dormin, or at least the feminine side of Dormin, holding the first horned child in the line that will eventually lead to the events of Ico. Now, whether or not she’s also the evil queen at the end of Ico is left open to the imagination. Well, no, it’s really not. Seriously, how is this even a debate?

“Wow, there’s a baby with horns now, and that’s it, the game is over. I wonder if this is somehow connected to the director’s only prior game, Ico? You know, the one with the boy named Ico who had horns on his head? Horns that are in the exact same position, coming out the side of the head, as the horns on this baby? And that game had an immortal evil queen who is basically a shadow by the point you fight her.. CURSED if you will.. and if that’s true that means this is a prequel, which would explain the CURSED FUTURE prophecy that was the thing that kicked off the plot of the entire game. Oh, and she had shadows for minions and is practically made of shadows herself and there were shadows in this game that were controlled by Dormin at the start of the game and shadows that were surrounding Wander at the end of this game and he becomes a giant shadow and the giant shadow identifies itself as Dormin but only using the male voice when it previously spoke with a male and female voice at the same time. COULD IT BE A PREQUEL TO ICO? I need a few hours to wonder if there’s some kind of connection or if this is a separate universe, and I need that long because I’m dimwitted.

Nah, I have to be open to the possibility that there might not be any connection between this game and the only other game that the same director did even though a baby with horns is an incredibly specific thing to visually end the game on, especially when it never factored into the entire story leading up to the ending sequence, where Wander now also has horns on his head that are called specific attention to, meaning the entire point of the fucking story I was just playing through was the birth of a horned baby in this game by a director who only had one previous game and that game was about a child with goddamned horns on his head. The director had literally infinite options of what Dormin/Wander being sucked into the well could leave behind, and the director’s choice was to leave a baby in the well with horns just like the hero of his one and only previous game to be the ending.. the whole point everything was leading up to.. of his second game. I’m an incredibly stupid person and also slow but I desperately need people to think I’m more clever than I am. I needed time to think really hard in my thinkin’ chair, and after careful consideration, I’ve decided it could be a coincidence and it’s all open to interpretation, because I’m as thick as a concrete milkshake. Derpdederpderp.”

Christ. This is how people can be presented with mountains of evidence on the moon landing and still believe it was a hoax. I can’t help but laugh that an attempt at throwing fans of Ico a bone by making a game that is so clearly a prequel didn’t work because fans of Ico have their interpreter heads so far up their interpreter asses that they feel they have to interpret differently the very thing they clamored so much. One of those situations where people shot the moon and became so invested in the idea of symbolism and “minimalism” that they became stupid for it. It’s actually hilarious!

**END OF SPOILERS**

MUST GO FASTER!!

Where else does all this “open to interpretation” shit come from? Well, I have a theory. I honestly think it’s because some really misguided people have heard that “all art is open to interpretation.” Shadow of the Colossus is the follow-up to Ico, a game that had a lot less story than Shadow of the Colossus. THAT is a game that actually does require a lot of filling-in-the-gaps via head-canon, and it’s also a game that people said was art house. Then comes the director’s next game, where enough specific information was given to players that a clear story with a very clear ending that goes far beyond a winking reference is released, but it’s the same art style and the same “less is more” approach to development. So, it’s another game that’s “art house” and since these window-lickers read somewhere once that “art is open to interpretation” they think they need to “interpret” the meaning of the story when it’s blasted right in their witless faces: the director had made only two games, and both had a very uniquely-specific visual. Because director Fumito Ueda didn’t put a giant neon arrow with the words DO YOU GET IT? at the end, people label it “open to interpretation.” And since “all art is open to interpretation” and they desperately need to be able to call Shadow of the Colossus, first and foremost, “art”, if it’s not open to interpretation, why, that must mean it’s not really art, right?

If a game needs to be “art” to be special, I hate to break this to the “open to interpretation” crowd, but Shadow of the Colossus is fucked. Why? Because ALL VIDEO GAMES ARE ART! Even the ones you don’t like. Shadow of the Colossus might be damn beautiful to look at it, but it’s hardly unique. Seriously, there’s lots of great looking games. There’s lots of games with unique graphical styles. Having little dialog and most of the story unfold visually instead of with words is not something unique about it. It’s perfectly okay to say Shadow of the Colossus is art. It certainly is. But, its greatness is in what it accomplishes, not something as superficially shallow as “it’s art!”

I interpret this as a prequel to Chibi Robo. Seriously, this boss looks like the malformed ancestor of Chibi-Robo. CAN’T BE UNSEEN! YOU’RE WELCOME!

#5: I WAS WRONG ABOUT SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS. SO VERY, *VERY* WRONG

From the time I first finished Shadow of the Colossus at the age of 16, I firmly believed the game had nothing left to offer me. I’ve never been one of those people who replays games endlessly. In fact, until recently, I never replayed linear games at all. Scoring-driven arcade type stuff? Sure. Games based around levels and plot and surprises? I never saw the point. Games aren’t the same as movies. They’re a time commitment that you have to pay attention to. In 2012, on this very blog, I named Shadow of the Colossus one of my ten favorite games ever, while also noting I wouldn’t ever play it again. This was a couple years after the PS3 re-release that came bundled with Ico. I was 23-years-old when I wrote that and the idea that I would ever become a nostalgic-type was unfathomable to me then. In the nine years since I wrote that, I’ve replayed Shadow of the Colossus twice. We all make liars out of our younger selves, don’t we?

The me that existed in 2010 would never believe the me of 2021 would begin playing fifth run through Shadow of the Colossus immediately after finishing my fourth run, but that’s what I’ve been doing all week.

But, it was a safe bet at the time. My second play-through of Shadow of the Colossus lacked the elements that made it so memorable. The sense of dread when I entered new lairs. The sense of wonder when I’d see a new Colossus for the first time (or, in the case of the two small-fry Colossi, seething disappointment). The sense of accomplishment when I figured out how to slay each one. Replacing the sense of awe was a magnifying glass focused on the many, many problems Shadow of the Colossus has. The controls, no matter what scheme you use, are unintuitive and often frustrating. The AI for horsey Agro leaves a lot to be desired, especially for how much she factors into a couple of the battles. Colossi battles can be less epic and more an exercise in frustration in how much they shake you off. And finally, once you no longer have any surprises left from the appearances of the Colossi, some of them just plain suck. Or, if not full-on suckage, they’re not “epic enough.” Like, the gecko Colossi, Kuromori, feels like it’d be the boss in the Zelda dungeon where you get the bow & arrow from the big chest. It wasn’t that the game wasn’t fun anymore, but rather the best thing it had to offer, the joy of discovery, was gone. My 2018 replaying of the PlayStation 4 remaster seemed to reaffirm that: still great, but the thrill was gone.

The first time I played Shadow of the Colossus, I was absolutely terrified to swim from the shore to the ramp of the third boss. That sensation is never coming back.. unless they do a proper sequel, or a remake that adds all the deleted bosses they wanted. Originally, there was going to be 48 Colossi, which got whittled down over and over until there was sixteen. I’m hoping the PS4 port is the final one that doesn’t add deleted content back into the game.

Then, something weird happened: I got an itch to play Shadow of the Colossus following my review of the dumpster fire that was Drizzlepath: Deja Vu. My Dad and kid sister had played Shadow together earlier this year, without any guidance or hints from me, and I got see that sense of discovery and splendor in someone else. It was kind of magical to see. Of course, that could never happen with me again. Not with this game. But, when I started playing it, this time with the mindset of “I know what to expect, I’ve been down this path before, so this is just a visit to an old friend”, I found myself once again dazzled. That incredible music. Those awe-inspiring vistas. That eeriness of the architecture. It ALL got me again. Even the sense of dread when I found myself ready to jump in a lake that I knew had a sea monster in it, or the spectacle of Colossi who can’t even fit on screen no matter how much distance you get from them. It got me. It got me good.

It felt like I’d come home.

No, the fear factor will never be as strong as it was before. Hell, I can even jump in the lakes with the sea monster Colossi now without taking a few minutes to shit my pants first. Colossus #15, pictured here, was once a battle so overwhelming that it took me over an hour to figure out. Now, I can take this thing down in a few minutes without breaking a sweat. And yet, I’m still having fun. That means something.

And so it was, at long last, that I discovered that the greatness in Shadow of the Colossus isn’t a one-and-done experience. I came to terms with how the controls, far from perfect, nonetheless allowed the job to be done. I accepted that a horse wouldn’t exactly be a cunning strategist in the heat of battle. I allowed myself to forgive the 11th Colossi for being such a massive disappointment, mostly because I got to enjoy the act of stabbing it right through its disappointing little heart. Sure, no replay will ever top that first time you finally scaled the sixteenth colossus and gave it the old ancient sword lobotomy. But.. what game is that true of? I’ve thought a lot about that this week, and I’m kind of miffed at myself. I was calling out Shadow of the Colossus specifically for a thing every game is actually guilty of. What I blamed it for doing in 2010 I’d never blame any game for today. I guess that’s part of growing-up. In fact, Shadow of the Colossus, even if you never scratch far past the surface, withstands the test of time better than almost any game of its kind out there. It’s really something special.

“Uh, hey Dormin, she’s starting to have a little funky smell about her. Could you maybe stop the rigor mortis from setting in? While we’re on the subject, she’s not going to try to eat my brains when she comes back from the dead, right? RIGHT? Dormin? Why are you snickering, Dormin?”

Best of all, if you want it to be deeper, it can be. That’s where the true greatness of Shadow of the Colossus lays: it’s a fill-in-the-blanks game. It whatever you need it to be. Seriously, it does everything short of Colossi Basketball. If you want intrigue, mystery, and mythology, it’s all here. A truly chilling horror experience? Shadow of the Colossus certainly qualifies. A sword and archery adventure for the ages? Yep, that too. A fuck-around sandbox with tons of stuff to do and see? Actually, yea, and in fact it does that even better than I figured. Do you like geocaching? Do you like hunting games? Do you like treasure hunts? The extra features (white-tailed lizards, fruit, and the new-to-the-PS4-version “enlightenment” coins) cover ALL those too! Shadow of the Colossus is a white knuckle adventure AND a resourceful action-puzzler. Or do you want arcade-like challenges within a specific time limit? Yea, the time attack covers you there. All of this in a game that’s both decidedly modern while also feeling remarkable retro in how it’s framed. It’s this incredible series of juxtapositions, all in a game that nobody in human history has ever defended the rough control scheme of. Shadow of the Colossus SHOULD be boring. It SHOULD have aged badly. It should not be incredible after sixteen years.

Instead, it’s the greatest of all-time. At least that’s my interpretation of it.

Drizzlepath: Deja Vu (Review)

Drizzlepath: Deja Vu is the new champion of awful. The absolute worst game I’ve ever played in my entire life. It’s been a while since I reviewed anything that left me with nothing positive to say. It’s been so long that I forgot what that feels like. I’m confused. I’m sort of angry. I’m checking to make sure I didn’t have a psychotic episode and imagine the game. I pinched myself. I pinched others. I sawed off my pinky toe.. actually that one was just for fun. But really, this was such a waste of time. Not even that much time either. It takes well under an hour to finish Drizzlepath: Deja Vu, but it feels longer. It’s unreal how bad this game is. It’s so pretentious and unlikable in every way that you’d swear it’s deliberate. But, at least I can try to turn this into a positive and get my thoughts out on how, yes, Walking Simulators can be fantastic. You know, with actual effort.

I envy that ram, for it knows not the pain of playing Drizzlepath.

The insane thing is, this is the 4th game in a series. I’d not known that if my readers hadn’t alerted me. You’d think after four games, they’d know what they’re doing. The game starts with you being dropped in water, at which point, you walk in a relatively straight line until you have to double back a bit and turn a different direction. Then something kills you. Then you start at a different scene, and five minutes or so later you’re given one final thought on the meaning of life, and the game ends. There’s no action button and almost no interactive elements besides tiny visual gags that set-off the main hook of the game: “deep” philosophical commentary that comes across like you’re being stalked by a 14-year-old who actually knows dick shit but fancies themselves to be “worldly” and “enlightened.” On Switch, the commentary sounds like it’s coming through a microphone purchased at a dollar store, which tracks with everything else about the port. On other platforms, Drizzlepath: Deja Vu has one thing going for it: it’s nice looking. On Switch? It looks like a Wii game, and not even a good one. The audio and visuals are some of the worst I’ve seen. Here’s a pivotal scene from the Steam version:

ss_eba39d35510bb154067d22109decf9bb7da9ea9f.1920x1080

And as close as I could get to the same scene on Switch:

THAT is fucking embarrassing.

Now, normally I don’t give two squirts about presentation because gameplay is king, but with Drizzlepath: Deja Vu, that’s all it could potentially have going for it. There’s no gameplay! You walk down a path that’s walled-off. I managed to kill myself once by walking off a narrow walkway, but otherwise, there’s no puzzles or truly interactive elements. The full-of-itself commentary will play if you walk past certain moments. Like you might see a cabin and a shadowy figure standing in the door of it, and then that person slams the door before you get close. Early on, a character runs away from you. There’s animals, some of whom run from you, and others just sort of stand around. Sometimes a bird will fly overhead and the camera will auto-pan up to highlight them. Finally, a demon rushes you and the screen goes black before you begin a brief final sequence. But you don’t do anything with any of those things. You just observe and listen to the most droning commentary I’ve heard as IGC. Everything you need to know can be summed up by the fact that, instead of an action button, there’s a button that walks in a straight line for you. Yes, they actually added cruise control to a game!

The giant archer in the background has no connection to any other visuals or the glorified fortune-cookie commentary. Apparently Drizzlepath: Deja Vu is the 4th game in the series, and according to the Steam store page, it features nods to the previous three games in the franchise. Who knows if this or the other “WTF?” moments are those nods. They’re just random, confusing shit that show up and do nothing. What a truly unlikable game.

Ideally, a walking simulator makes the world compelling and interesting, or gives you some overarching point to it all. After all, people walk to GO PLACES and DO THINGS, so if you’re making a game that removes the entire reason we, as a species, walk, you’re just being lazy. It’s so unimaginative to just have you walk and “appreciate visuals” while hiding behind the pretense that it’s “okay, because it’s supposed to be relaxing.” Yea, but don’t we play games to relax in general? Isn’t that our escape from the real world, however you define it? If I want to veg out, I don’t just stare at a screen saver. I throw on Tetris, or I’ll even pop in Dead Cells for a run or two. But, you can make a breezy, low-thrills walking simulator WHILE STILL HAVING SHIT TO DO IN IT! Look at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. It’s 99% walking, but at least you have destinations and stuff to do at those places. For those developers who make games like this, that really are just “hey, look at this stuff”,  be honest: you intended to do more and just can’t be bothered. It’s okay. HEY, listen.. it’s okay. Shhhhhh. I’m lazy too.

This burger embryo basically ignores your existence. At one point, there was a deer (I think it was a deer) that ran away from me, which is the closest any of the wildlife comes to actually interacting with you.

A great walking simulator is not just a nature hike that’s occasionally (in the case of DP-DV, rarely) interrupted by weird things photo-bombing the scenery. You’re trying to create the illusion of freedom, so as to immerse the person in the world you’ve created. If you don’t have immersion, you don’t have shit. But, right at the start of Drizzlepath: Deja Vu, the illusion is broken when you encounter a look-out tower with an open door, but you can’t actually go up inside it because there’s a platform seven inches off the ground that you can’t step up on. I tried, and I tried, and I tried. I kept checking and rechecking the control menu to make sure I didn’t miss a jump or action button. I didn’t. Nope, it’s just something you can’t enter. This is it:

Now, being the thorough person I am, I checked to make sure I understood how walking works, just in case I’ve been wrong all these years. Experts agreed with me that, indeed, it involves lifting one leg and moving it forward before planting the foot attached to the bottom of the leg somewhere in front of you, so as to create a forward motion before lifting-up the other leg and also moving it forward, and the process repeats from there. This is how walking works, and it’s dependent on picking your feet up and off the ground. If you don’t pick your feet up, that’s a different thing entirely, with a completely different name. Sometimes it’s called shuffling your feet. Now, in this WALKING SIMULATOR, you are apparently not moving your legs up off the ground, because I could not enter this tower. The gate for the tower is a platform that’s barely elevated above the surface you’re standing on. So, what is being simulated in Drizzlepath: Deja Vu? Because it’s sure as hell not walking!

I want to do a satire of this game where I question how many tampons you’d need to clean up the blood rain. By the way, while this seems like it might be a cool visual, on Switch? Yea, not so much. Click here to see what it looked like when I played it. Warning: cringe-inducing deep commentary about the rat race included.

With no point, no action, and not even gorgeous visuals in the port I played, the only thing a “game” like this could have going for it is immersion. But that tower and that tiny step that you can’t take immediately took a torch to any potential I had to be immersed. From there out, it was just walking forward, occasionally being confused when random shit like miniature UFO balls show up, and then being left dumbstruck by the philosophical ramblings that are so arrogant and pretentious that they made me angry. The Nintendo store page says “you’ll take the role of a nameless man climbing towards a mountaintop in search of answers. Witness events as you explore, each gradually adding to the larger existential narrative..”

Here’s some examples of this, and you might want to set some easy listening in the background to soften your soul in preparation to receive this deep wisdom. Ready? Here we go..

We may choose to see the world in black and white. Yet, it is anything but!

Mind. Blown! You’re so right!

All live and die in cages of our own design!

That is some deep thinking, man! You must have access to the GOOD weed to put that so elegantly!

They say up to 60% of the human body is composed of water. Perhaps this is what draws us so frequently in its direction!

Dude…………….. DUDE! Duuuuude. Dude.

This has been Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey!

This whole thing is supposed to be “surreal or ominous” according to the Switch store page. It really just comes across like a student film by the kid in the class everyone else hopes they don’t get partnered with.

Actually, those are just the opening parts of these long-winded diatribes that are the most completely meaningless philosophical musings I’ve heard in any game. There’s no deeper meaning to be gleamed from this crap. It’s the most base and shallow philosophy. Someone who thinks they’re a free-thinker, man, but really just regurgitates stuff they’ve heard that they know is wise, even if they don’t totally understand it. With no context and little, if any, over-arching tie to the actual in-game happenings, it really just comes across as someone who thinks they’re smarter than you talking down to you.

In reality, Drizzlepath: Deja Vu completely betrays the concept that the game is about exploring existentialism. I’m going to guess they don’t even get what that should be about. If the developer understood it at all, the game would challenge cookie-cutter philosophy instead of just blankly stating it. Instead of the commentary reminding people the world isn’t black and white, existentialism would flip the script. Any well-adjusted adult knows the world is shades of grey, and existentialism would force you to say “am I totally sure about that. Oh God, WHAT IF I’M WRONG?” It’s about reflection and questioning, not reinforcing. But, who needs that shit? Just spew puddle-deep thoughts that make you think you sound smart, package it in the most lazy game imaginable, and put it on everyone else to find meaning in a product you couldn’t even be bothered to create meaning for. The only thing deep about Drizzlepath: Deja Vu is how full of shit it is.

Drizzlepath: Deja Vu was developed by Tonguç Bodur
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox

$5.59 (normally $6.99) can spit deeper than this is the making of this review.

 

Worse Than Death (Review)

I’m not a horror person in general. I don’t watch scary movies. I don’t play scary games. I’ve never locked myself in a bathroom and chanted BLOODY MARY. I’ve never bungee jumped. I know people say “that’s not horror.” WHY ISN’T IT? You’re tying a rope around your feet and throwing yourself off a tall structure. If the point is to be scary, isn’t that horror? If you want an extreme sport, go play hockey using samurai swords and a puck that’s on fire. Bungee jumping is horror: a simulation of something that should kill you, only you walk away without the dying part. And it’s not for me. None of it is. Maybe I was traumatized by walking past those creepy-ass Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark covers in book stores as a child, but I just never got into the genre.

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Worse Than Death mixes comic-style art with neo-retro pixel art. It’s a bit jarring. I never really felt like either style was specifically in service to the game. It’s just how it looks. That’s fine, I guess. I normally hate it, but I’ll let it slide this time.

There’s always exceptions, but it’s certainly not something I seek out or get excited about at all. But, as Indie Gamer Chick, I feel it’s important to wet my whistle in as many areas of gaming as possible. I’ve actually bought tons of indie horror titles over the years. Most of them I don’t even remember the names of, let alone ever get around to playing. In those rare instances where I do, they have to live on their gameplay or storytelling merits, and most are utterly forgettable. I have a hunch I probably won’t forget Worse Than Death, but for the wrong reasons. It’s one of those games where you think you get the twist ahead of time, and then when you realize you’re wrong and the game goes in a completely off-its-nut direction, you can’t help but laugh.

The inspection screens always use the comic book art style. I suppose that was out of necessity, because these screens would be incomprehensible pixelated vomit puddles with the large-dot, faceless characters. Still, it makes me wonder if the whole game should have been done like this. It’s perfectly good comic book artwork. I’d buy a graphic novel by this artist.

In Worse Than Death, a pair of besties arrive at their ten year high school reunion. You’re Holly, and you’re trying to convince your BFF, a Fonz-lookalike named Flynn (I typed THE Flynn, which he should totally roll with), to attend the reunion party. He doesn’t want to because everyone is a bit pissed that he wrapped his car around a tree and killed the their friend, Grace. Yea, that’s just the sort of thing people hate. I don’t even get why you’d bother to show up if you’re a known pariah. Like, these things ARE optional, you know? I’m not exactly an expert on high school politics or dynamics. I was home-schooled. I kind of wish I hadn’t been. I would have gone to school with future NBA star Jeremy Lin if I had attended, and he would have no doubt fallen in love with me. I shit you not, I could be Mrs. Lin right now! Well, actually, probably not, as the minute he signed with the Houston Rockets would have been the moment I’d of filed for divorce. Anyway, among the things I do know about high school is that class reunions aren’t legally binding. If two people didn’t want to go, I can’t imagine why they would. “So the plot can happen” is basically the answer, though there is a kinda, sorta unseen force that seems to have pulled them there, maybe?

Thankfully, the developer didn’t skimp on sound design. Eerie songs and spooky sound effects play throughout Worse Than Death. Channel your inner SNES fandom and PLAY IT LOUD!

Anyway, supernatural shit starts happening and bodies start piling-up, as bodies tend to do. I kinda figured this was going to be the “everyone is already dead and this is purgatory and/or hell” trope. It’s not, and which is the only spoiler I’m going to do. I’ll just say that the plot goes so far off the rails that you question if it ever belonged on the rails in the first place. By the final third of the game, and especially the ending, the story is absolute bat shit on a stick, and not necessarily in a good way. The more that was revealed, the less tense the atmosphere got, which made the jump scares less effective and everyone’s motives less consequential. People keep dying, but it never feels like it matters. It’s supposed to be about secrets and the damage they do, but the back stories are kept too vague, to the point that the destructiveness of those secrets feels somewhere off in the background. By the end game, Worse Than Death had long since ceased being tense or frightening and had just become silly. I went from totally on the edge of my seat to giggling at what a train wreck the whole thing had become.

Of the three hours and change we spent playing this, probably twenty or so minutes was spent trying to figure this fucking thing out. My sister, Angela, finally got it after she took a bathroom break that mysteriously required her to take her tablet and ask what the name of the game was again. Funny how that worked out. This “puzzle” was clunky as all fuck and probably should have been explained better.

So, I must have hated it right? Well.. no. While I feel Worse Than Death ultimately failed to deliver on the promise the opening chapters had, to the point that the end game felt like it was satirizing its own story by time the end credits roll, I still never lost interest in seeing where this was all going. It helps that the writing is razor-sharp throughout. Developer Benjamin Rivers clearly has a gift for making compelling characters and creating dialog that feels almost always authentic. Some of the tropes, like the school bitch or the aggressive bully, feel forced and unnatural. But the relationship between Holly and Flynn feels totally real and affectionate, with the slightest hint of apprehension (which, by the way, the end-game makes sense of with the only aspect of the story where the payoff DID work, and there’s even an after-the-credits gag that put a smile on my face). Maybe the plot is completely off its rocker, but the characters made me and my entire family stick it out for the full three hours or so of gameplay. That was nice.