Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection – The Definitive Review (Complete 13 Game Review + Ranking)

Well, everyone liked the Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium review, and the “definitive review” format has been getting praised. At long last, I finally got the retro collection review style correct. I’ve tried a few styles, but this one seems to be catching on. And what do you know? The perfect collection to test the format out just released.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection is a set of thirteen games released between 1989 and 1993. Well, actually, it’s nine different games. You get both the 1989 Konami coin-op Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the NES conversion Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. Turtles in Time includes both the SNES and Coin-Op versions, and then there’s THREE versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (NES, SNES, and Genesis). So, nine “base” games with four variations are part of this set, right? Actually, it’s even more complicated than that. Hyperstone Heist for the Sega Genesis is really more of a shortened remix of the two arcade games that eliminates the most satisfying attack (throwing the enemies at the screen) from Turtles in Time. And the three Tournament Fighters games are all made by different development teams and aren’t merely variations of one game. While the base concept, a Street Fighter type of game with Ninja Turtles characters remains the same, each of the three games were made by different teams at Konami. They use different engines. They have different rosters. It’s three completely different games that merit their own separate review. Thus, there’s really only two games that are truly variations of the same exact game, and that’s Turtles II for the NES and Turtles IV for the SNES. Like I said, this is a great game to test the Definitive Review format.

Look, Ma! No hands!

The set retails for $39.99. I feel that $4.99 is a fair price for a good retro game from this set, so the target is to score eight YES! verdicts, right? Well, not so fast. Unlike Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium, The Cowabunga Collection features a wealth of bonus material. I don’t mean like instructions on how to play the games or a couple common emulation features. In my opinion, retro sets have no excuse to not have detailed instructions on how to play the games along with the ability to use save states or rewind. But, Cowabunga Collection goes above and beyond what you’d expect in this type of retro game collection, and thus, I have to put a value on the extras.

EMULATION EXTRAS

Cowabunga Collection features save states and rewind, which are such must-haves that I’m just as likely to penalize a retro collection these days for not including them. That alone would have been enough to satisfy me, even if you can only rewind 30 seconds of gameplay. In my opinion, a minute or longer is optimal. But, they did what they needed to do, and that should have been enough. But the masters of retro gaming, Digital Eclipse, took it a step further with the greatest feature in the history of emulation. Those who remember me drooling over SNK 40th Anniversary Collection’s “watch a full gameplay video that you can stop at any time and join the game at that exact moment” will be happy to hear that feature returns for Cowabunga Collection. I know that it’s actually not that big a deal because of how emulation works, but it’s not as common a feature as I wish it was. To me, it’s practically witchcraft.

Watch the video, which is a perfect no-hit run no matter which game you play. Hit the PLAY GAME button at any time and you take control from there. It’s awesome. I love it.

It came in handy when I played the 1989 NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and went to upload media right before I started the infamous underwater sequence. After I finished uploading, I was horrified to see that the game didn’t pause from me using the system guide button. Seriously, I was actually close to penalizing the set for that. Dear game makers: whenever the guide button on any console is hit, pausing the game should be a gimmie. Anyway, I put myself in a position where there wasn’t enough time left for me to beat the stage. But, I was able to use the video to return to that exact spot, like nothing happened. Actually, I was in better shape because the video is a perfect run of the game, with no damage taken. All thirteen games include the video play-through with jump-in ability, and that alone is worthy of a bonus, but we’re just getting started.

While the removal of flicker and slowdown doesn’t save the NES version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the NO! pile, I’ll note that I played the Technodrome battle with the slowdown/flicker turned on and it was unplayable. I’m VERY happy Digital Eclipse did the right thing and gave people the ability to turn them off. Hell, in my opinion, THAT should have been the default setting and turning them back on should have been the thing that was optional.

In addition to having both the Japanese and US ROMs, all thirteen games have optional “enhancements” of various quality. They’re usually based around cheat codes that required button inputs, and how useful they are isn’t consistent. The NES TMNT offers flicker reduction and slowdown reduction. Neither are 100% perfect, but playing with them turned off, you can easily notice the difference. Turtles 1 is a game that spams the screen with enemies, and bosses like the Technodrome basically have slowdown going non-stop, which also makes the controls less responsive. You can eliminate those issues now in the first TMNT plus the other two NES games. Turtles 2 and 3 on the NES offer other options too, like extra or infinite lives and easier menu navigation. The arcade games offer both “God Mode” (invincibility and one-hit kills) and “Nightmare Mode” (lots more enemies). Turning both God Mode and Nightmare mode on DO make for quite the satisfying brawling experience. The Game Boy games are the least consistent. The first one offers only the ability to practice the bonus game. The second gives you the option for infinite lives and to change which level you start on. The third one offers you only the ability to turn-on a better map. Sure, I wish they had really amazing options for every game, but there’s something helpful that improves the overall quality of every game at least a little bit. Oh, and there’s online play for the two arcade games, Hyperstone Heist on the Genesis, and the SNES version of Tournament Fighters. For all the added emulation extras, I’m crediting $10 to Cowabunga Collection.

EXTRA MEDIA FEATURES

Any licensed game that’s not TMNT-related that appeared alongside a Ninja Turtles game in advertisements is treated like it’s in the witness protection program. Oh and since the LCD games are shown here, WHY DIDN’T WE GET THOSE AS A SUPER DUPER SPECIAL THROWN-IN BONUS? Would have been nice. I did a seven part LCD review series, 100+ games, but apparently nobody emulated the TMNT ones.

There’s a lot of extras in Cowabunga Collection. Hell, there’s so many that Digital Eclipse included the ability to search them in the menu. Dang. There’s boxes and manuals for all the home games from North America and Japan. Regardless of what console you’re on, you’ll see the Nintendo branding and seal of quality in all its glory, along with Sega’s branding on the Genesis game. They even have the arcade schematics too. There’s tons of ads from magazines and catalogs. Those can be weird, because if a Ninja Turtles game shared the space with another game from another IP, the other IP’s game is removed by blacking it out. Also included is every single cover for six different eras of Ninja Turtles comic books and still shots from four different Ninja Turtles TV shows (no Power Rangers crossover, sadly). There’s complete soundtracks and strategy guides for the games, and I actually did use it to help me finish the first NES game. There’s behind-the-scenes documents, and this is where the really good stuff is. Included in this section is stuff the IP’s “style guide” which is what IP holders send to licensees to show them how the characters MUST be drawn. Finally, there’s design documents for seven of the home games that show you concept art, portraits, sprites, storyboards, etc. If you can’t read Japanese, you’ll need to turn on the captions, and I’m not sure why translations weren’t set as a default but I’m happy they’re there. I spent over an hour sorting through the extras and never got bored. For all the media extra features, I’m crediting $10 to Cowabunga Collection.

THE ULTIMATE VERDICT ON THE COLLECTION

Really, only three of the games NEED the built-in strategy guide: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES), Radical Rescue (Game Boy, map shown in pic) and the SNES Tournament Fighters (to learn the special moves). But, I’m happy the maps were there. They really went all-out on this set.

Even though I’ve played most of the games in this set before, and in some cases, had already given my complete thoughts on them, I gave all thirteen games a fully clean slate. Only the Cowabunga Collection version of the included games counts for this feature. For those not familiar with my way of thinking of how retro games should be reviewed, I take NO historical context into account. I don’t care how important a game was to the industry, because that doesn’t make a game worth playing today. The test of time is the cruelest test of all, but every video game must face it. I might not be here if not for Space Invaders’ success, but I wouldn’t want to play it today. Not when there’s better options. Therefore, when I review retro games, every game gets either a YES! or a NO!

YES! means the game is still fun and has actual gameplay value when played today and is worth seeking out.

NO! means the game didn’t age gracefully and is not worth seeking out, and certainly not worth spending money on.

With $20 in credit earned and the value of a good retro Ninja Turtles game fixed at $4.99, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection needs to score four YES! votes to win my seal of approval.

YES!: 5
NO!: 8

indie-gamer-chick-approvedTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection is Chick-Approved. Having an official re-release of Turtles in Time for the SNES is a pretty amazing thing, but this collection has a few surprises as well. I didn’t expect to like the original arcade game, and in fact, I enjoyed my time with it a lot. I didn’t expect to like any of the Game Boy games, but two of them were acceptable time wasters. I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy the two hours I spent with Manhattan Project for the NES, yet here we are. Five totally solid Turtles games, emulated to perfection, plus a whole lot of bonus material, makes this a set worthy of purchase.

FINAL RANKINGS

How I determined the rankings is simple: I took the full list of games, then I said “I’m forced to play one game. Pick the one I could play the most and not get bored with.” That goes on top of the list. Then I repeat the question again with the remaining games over and over until the list is complete. Based on that simple criteria, here are the final rankings. Games above the Terminator Line received a YES! Games below it received a NO!

  1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (SNES)
  2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project (NES)
  3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Arcade)
  4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue (Game Boy)
  5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (Game Boy)
    **TERMINATOR LINE**
  6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES)
  7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (NES)
  8. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (Arcade)
  9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist (Genesis)
  10. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)
  11. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (NES)
  12. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers (Game Boy)
  13. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (Genesis)

GAME REVIEWS

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
for Nintendo Entertainment System
Released June 25, 1989

One of my major annoyances with TMNT-NES is how enemies spawn. In this screen, you can see the playfield is spammed with enemies to such a degree that there’s basically no way you won’t take damage. Enemies respawn if you walk off the screen too, which is common on the NES, but TMNT-NES is really weird about how scrolling works, so backing up to have room to fight might scroll the screen more and cause the enemy to respawn before you’ve even killed the original.

By far the most interesting game in Cowabunga Collection is the very first Ninja Turtles game. Don’t mistake that for being “good.” It’s not. TMNT-NES is a complete disaster. But, it’s a compelling disaster. I’ll give it that. Basically, everything that can go wrong does go wrong here. The most important thing is that it feels nothing at all like a Ninja Turtles game. Even with the Turtles and their signature weapons. Even with Bebop, Rocksteady, the Technodrome, and Shredder. I first played Ninja Turtles a couple years ago when I ran through almost the entire NES library, and I walked away with a niggling suspicion that this started development as a completely different game that was converted into TMNT as soon as Konami got the license so they could strike while the IP was red-hot. Apparently, it’s not true. There was no asset flipping or sprites from unused games. They just rushed this through and came up with enemies as fast as possible on the assumption that the Ninja Turtles fad could burn out at any moment. The hurried development shows. The complete lack of polish and unrelenting swarms of enemies that would normally make the NES chug like a freshman at homecoming are things that should never have made it to the final product. The Cowabunga Collection version of TMNT can muffle the slowdown and non-stop flicker (there IS still a bit of both, but nowhere near as noticeable now) but that only makes the terrible design choices of TMNT stand out more.

The Giant Mouser and the Technodrome are the only two boss fights that feel “epic.” The rest feel like fights against normal enemies. If anything, the Mouser fight feels like it’s straight out of Contra.

What annoys me most about TMNT-NES is that there’s a great game buried within this dumpster fire. Not MISSING from the game, but already in the game. Well, actually, this could have used a lot better level design in general, but the basic concept of how the levels work is very solid. I like the idea of traversing an overworld and searching sewers and buildings for the correct pathway to the end of each stage. New York City is maze-like, after all, so why not take advantage of that? I like that part. It’s the only good idea the game had, and even then they bungled it by having too many dead-ends and “red herring” buildings. Sure, there’s pizzas or items in them, but the way enemies respawn often isn’t designed with moving forward and backwards through the levels in mind. Often, you’re better off just running for it and not engaging the enemies at all. If not for the abysmal collision detection.. which is seriously among the worst in the history of video games.. the combat would be pretty satisfying. At least when you use Donatello. His staff is slow but has the most reach and causes the most damage. That’s right: getting poked with a large wooden stick is more lethal in the world of Ninja Turtles than being stabbed or sliced with sharp, pointy metal. If you think of this as Donatello: The Video Game, it works a lot better. With practice, you can even use his unique striking style to damage enemies behind you. Donatello is the man, and I only used the other Turtles if I had acquired a subweapon using them or if I didn’t want to take damage with Donatello. Hell, unless you have the other three Turtles loaded down with sub-weapons, the second-to-last boss, the Technodrome, is pretty much impossible to beat without him. You can’t disable the electric fork in the front with anyone else’s weapon. They don’t have enough range. What was Konami thinking when they green-lit this?

Oh you bastard. You bastard. There’s nothing I can say that others haven’t already said about the infamous underwater sequence. It’s every bit as bad as its reputation suggests. For my money, it’s the worst level in the history of video games. Not even the Speed Bike stage on Battletoads is this bad, because at least there the controls and collision aren’t awful. When you finish this review, go watch this video that explains how the awful collision ruins this stage. It’s truly jaw-dropping how badly coded this game is. You didn’t expect that from Konami games of this era. They were only months away from releasing Castlevania III in Japan when this came out, a contender for the best game on the NES.

For a set that’s loaded with extras, I’m a little more than ticked off that it was never explained anywhere in the game (the original instruction manual or Cowabunga Collection’s built-in strategy guide) that each turtle actually has unique special attributes. Leonardo does the least damage, unless his health falls below four bars, at which point it doubles. Because that’s how swords would work, or something. Raphael has the fastest weapons in the game but can’t do a down-thrust. Michelangelo can’t attack downward either and he has poor range, but like Leonardo, his attack power doubles when he’s under four bars of health. I feel like this is one of the great missed opportunities of the NES era. This isn’t a side-scrolling beat-em-up. It’s a full-fledged platforming adventure with labyrinthine levels. Assigning more unique abilities to each Turtle could have made for a more strategic, enticing game. But that’s not what Konami did. There’s really never a point when you’ll want to use a Turtle besides Donny, and that’s especially damning. Honestly, it feels like everything was put into making level one good, so that kids would rent it and pester their parents to buy it. Pretty much the whole game from level two onward becomes so unfair that I actively wonder why Ghosts ‘n Goblins became the poster child for mean-spirited game design when TMNT outsold it 3 to 1 and is nearly as unfair. For all the crap the dam level gets, that final stretch before you get to Shredder is straight-up bullshit. Then again, most TMNT owners never made it past level three from what I can gather, and 99.9% certainly never made it past the Technodrome.

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After level one, there’s just nothing really enjoyable left to do because TMNT-NES loses all semblance of balance. The enemies can be spongy, cheap, and too quick to respawn. Most of them have literally nothing to do with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise and feel like they’re unused character sprites from horror games or sci-fi games. Not badly designed or ugly character models, but I can’t imagine a child in 1989 understood at all why their TMNT game felt almost nothing like the show or movie or comic they fell in love with. I’m not even a Turtles fan myself, as it had already kind of dried out by time I was the right age for it, and even I’m like “what the hell are all these monsters from?” The answer is not from THE Ninja Turtles franchise. Hell, the Giant Mouser feels like a Contra boss. Speaking of bosses: after a couple hours worth of cheap enemy placement, swarming bosses, and unavoidable damage, I entered the final room with Shredder and beat him without cheating in ten seconds without taking a single hit of damage. If there had been someone in the room with me who had a trumpet, they would have played WOMP WOMP at that moment. Despite all the problems I have with Ninja Turtles, I feel like there really is a potentially great game here. While it never feels like a TMNT game, it always feels distinctly NES Konami-like. If you altered some jumps, tightened the collision detection, eliminated the time limit and changed how swimming works in the underwater area, adjusted the respawning, and gave the empty buildings an actual purpose besides being a wild goose chase for players, TMNT could have been one of THE greats on NES. Of course, what I just said is basically “if you change the whole game, it could have been a masterpiece!” By the way, this was the best-selling 3rd Party NES game of all-time. Go figure, right?
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #10 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
for Arcades
Released October 11, 1989

This came out exactly two months after I was born. There’s actually no value to that useless fact, but I figured I would share it.

Being a weirdo, I played the NES port before playing the arcade game. I’m famously not a fan of the Simpsons arcade game, and I thought I wasn’t of the TMNT arcade game. It makes sense, right? Same development team. Same engine. Same sense that the game was rushed to the market to strike while the iron was hot. Now, I’m racking my brain trying to figure out if I ever played the arcade game before. I’m not entirely sure I have, because I had a pretty good time with it. In stark contrast to the slow, plodding, extremely stripped-down NES game that somehow earned a reputation as a really good port, I actually really enjoyed my time playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game. A big part of that is that it breezes right on by at an astonishingly fast pace. Compared with the NES port, where after about twenty minutes, I felt like I was going to burst into tears every time I realized I wasn’t on the last level.

Yea yea, you’re supposed to play this multiplayer. Well, my family enjoyed doing the recent indie Shredder’s Revenge with me (yes, it’s an indie) getting them to play retro games is like pulling teeth.

The arcade game has only two major flaws. The first is that the handful of flying enemies feel like they have inaccurate collision boxes compared to the plane of existence you stand on. Lining yourself up to damage them is extremely frustrating. The fight with Baxter Stockman is particularly annoying, and after throwing drop kicks from every angle and hitting around one out of six times, the game gave me a mercy ruling and he just flew away. Wow. Thankfully, the issue with flyers isn’t a deal breaker. The bigger problem with TMNT Arcade is there’s very limited OOMPH! to the fight. Your attacks feel kind of weightless, and that drops this out of the realm of “best brawlers” because you need that sense of violence for immersion. So, it’s remarkable that I still had a good time.

The only truly putrid element of TMNT Arcade is the Baxter Stockman fight. It’s not just lining up to score a hit that’s a pain in the ass. He drops too many mousers, which require you to button mash to escape. It’s a terrible arena for the battle too. I hated everything about this fight. The only thing the NES port did better was this part.

But, I never got bored with the gameplay. Konami stretched a lot satisfying combat out of two button gameplay. Satisfying enough, in fact, that I opted not to simply spam the special attack that kills foot soldiers in one hit. This is before those type of attacks came at the price of a sliver of health, but I enjoyed using my basic attacks, and often did. That’s something that’s completely gone from the NES game. The moments where the bad guys attack from every angle don’t even frustrate, because it feels true to the spirit of the property. As far as licensed games from this era go, the original arcade TMNT has to be among the best at making the game feel like the IP. The bosses, especially early ones, aren’t the total sponges. TMNT Arcade’s bosses are basically the prototype for the “Konami Style Brawler Boss” that I adore. The last couple do get borderline spongy, but it feels climatic. Shredder’s one-hit instakill felt a bit “quick! Wring every last quarter out of the little bastards” cynical, but otherwise, I had a lot of fun with the 1989 TMNT arcade game, and I didn’t expect to at all.
Verdict: YES!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #3 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game
for the Nintendo Entertainment System
Released December 14, 1990

The Shredder fight is especially tedious. He clones himself, and you can only tell which is the real one by knocking his helmet off. At this point, the fake one usually hangs out close by the real one so that you accidently kill it, at which point another spawns. Oh and the instakill death ray is bullshit. At least here, it’s doesn’t feel like it’s trying to squeeze as many last-second quarters out of players as possible, I guess. Oh, and play the JP version if you insist on playing this, where the dropkick causes as much damage as the special attack, and the SP attack is easier to do.

Calling the NES port of the arcade Ninja Turtles “boring” is sacrilege to an entire generation that came before me, but I’ll proudly wear the blasphemer tag before I say anything nice about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game. It’s boring. Like, really boring. This is NOT a good port of the arcade game. I was stunned when I played the arcade game after playing this and saw how many more moves just hitting the attack button could do. In addition to the normal attack, Donatello could lift enemies up over his head and throw them, a fairly satisfying move. That’s gone here. In fact, I didn’t want to use basic attacks at all because the enemies tended to counter attack them too quickly. That left only two other options: the lone type of drop kick you get (the arcade version gives multiple) and the power attack that kills all the foot soldiers in one hit. Levels take a lot longer to slog through, and to really add insult to injury, they added two more levels that have some fairly cheap GOTCHA! type of hits. They also changed the fight against both Bebop & Rocksteady to a fight against the fly version of Baxter. Okay, fine, there IS one positive thing I can say: it’s easier to kill flying enemies in this version, but that’s on account of some very generous collision with them. TMNT 2-NES has overall bad collision detection, spongier bosses, and levels so long they could be called eras. You kids from generations before were far too easy to impress, because they turned a fun, fast-paced romp into a slow, plodding, padded slog.
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #7 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan
for the Game Boy
Released August, 1990

I genuinely go into all these games with as open a mind as humanly possible. Having said that, I’m floored I gave a YES! to Fall of the Foot Clan. I figured the second and third Game Boy TMNT games had a shot, but that there was no way in hell a first-gen GB game that was likely rushed through development as fast as possible to cash-in on the Ninja Turtle craze before it stopped being profitable had any chance of being fun.

Fall of the Foot Clan is a pleasant surprise on the same level as when you put your pants on and find a dollar bill in one of the pockets that you didn’t know was there. It’s not exactly cause for celebration but it’ll put a smile on your face. This early Game Boy release is one of the stronger third party GB titles from that early period, easily out-classing Konami’s first attempt at a Castlevania for Game Boy. It’s not exactly the most ambitious title. In fact, it’s so generic that they could have made this any IP and it would have felt the same. The Turtles have no variation between them besides how their weapons look, at least from what I can tell, and it’s not like the Game Boy can show the different colored masks. The gameplay is as basic as it gets. You walk right and enemies jump onto the screen and you whack them with your weapon. Occasionally you have to jump, but mostly, you just walk right. There’s no power-ups besides life-restoring pizzas. There’s an awful lack of variety in both enemies and the way they attack. Fall of the Foot Clan’s gameplay is as shallow as a mud puddle. Honestly, the levels often feel like LCD type action games with better animation.

What gave me the LCD vibe is how the enemies tend to attack in the exact same way. Foot soldiers jump in from the left and the right, slightly out of sync, so that you can smack one, then turn around and smack the other. This attack pattern is repeated almost non-stop throughout the game. Little robot enemies will buzz across the top before lowering down so you can smack them. You’re moving right. You’re jumping over gaps. You’re changing levels. But, the same attack pattern with the same enemies repeats over and over. I’ve never seen a non-LCD action game that mimics the LCD spinning-plate-style like this before.

But, I never got bored with it! It helps that the action is pretty much non-stop, plus this became the first TMNT home game with accurate collision detection. Enemies drop pizza slices in regular intervals, and if you want a little variety, you have an unlimited supply of ninja stars to throw at enemies when you duck, though they do less damage than your sword and I never really needed them. Fall of the Foot Clan is super easy and goes by quick, barely taking thirty minutes to complete the five-level quest on your first play-through. I was stunned that I even lost one life, which happened when I fought Shredder at the end of level four, which was the literally the only part of the game that felt like there was any type of nuanced challenge besides just full-speed-ahead attack. Has Fall of the Foot Clan aged well? Oh god, no. Is it still somewhat fun? Yea. This might be the worst retro game I’ve ever given a YES! to, but I never got bored and wanted to finish it. That counts for something.
Verdict: YES!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #5 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time
for Arcades
Released March, 1991

A major, game-defining aspect of Turtles in Time on the SNES is how easy it is to pull off the two special moves (throw at the camera and the repeating slam). The arcade game feels like it picks random times to work. Even the “hit both buttons to do a special attack that takes a tick of life off” move is SIGNIFICANTLY harder to do in the arcade version. It’s just not a fun game.

Before playing Cowabunga Collection, I’d already had plenty of experience with Turtles in Time. I had it when it was given a terrible facelift and called Re-Shelled back in the day. Years later, I ran through the SNES game during #IGCvSNES. There was this interesting phenomena while I did the SNES game: a lot of people noted that it far out-classed the arcade counterpart. Now, there’s people who insist the NES port of the original arcade game is better because it has (checks notes) two extra levels. Allow me to wave my hands around my head while saying OOOOOOH sarcastically. They couldn’t have been more wrong, of course. TMNT II: The Arcade Game on NES is terrible. But, when I started Cowabunga Collection, I once again started catching word that Turtles in Time was inferior in arcades. This time around, the buzz was spot-on. If anything, people understated just how bad Turtles in Time arcade is. It has better animation than the SNES game, and it’s also absolutely horrible.

When it comes to arcade games, there’s a difference between “fair hard” and “borderline scam hard.” Turtles in Time has so many cheap shots or enemies that interrupt your attacks that it feels like a scam. Yea, that’s the accurate term. If one of those redemption games that spits out ticket is rigged specifically to make players think they have a better chance to win than they really have, we call that a scam, right? Why not do the same for arcade video games, since the ultimate goal (trick players into paying real money to play) is the same? Turtles in Time has one goal and one only: suck quarters. The faster players die, the better. When you don’t have to put quarters into the game anymore, all it has left is to suck.

This might be Konami’s worst arcade game of the 90s. Talk about a major downgrade from the previous game. The play control often feels unresponsive. As a result, there’s NO oomph. Seriously, this might be the least OOMPHful 90s brawler. The violence feels like feathers doing karate moves on cotton balls. Pulling off the cool special moves is nearly impossible to clock. The swarming enemies interrupt your combos like it ain’t no thing. There is a slightly better variety in enemies in the arcade (and the annoying shield-wielding foot soldiers aren’t that bad here) but with combat that isn’t satisfying at all, what’s the point? The same issues with airborne enemies from the first arcade game return here, along with other issues with what plane you’re on. The out-of-sync enemy attacks that often don’t let you get-up was the final straw for me. Actually, it was the final straw twice, which shouldn’t even be possible! Cowabunga Collection’s “Nightmare Mode” stacked with “God Mode” made Turtles in Time fun. For a while. Then I got to the Neo Night Riders stage and the flying foot soldiers used their guns out of sync, so not only could I not fight back, but I couldn’t even get up. It’s amazing that they turned this piece of crap into what might be the best brawler on the SNES, but this feels like a prototype that wasn’t finished. It does have value as a case study for OOMPH, because the SNES version actually has it.
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #8 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Back from the Sewers
for Game Boy
Released December 1, 1991

Apologists for the game note that the perfect no-hits run in the video shows you don’t have to heel-toe it. I am so sick of the speed run argument when I complain about a game with pacing issues. The argument is essentially “if you spend enough time to become an expert at a game that already bores you, you can beat it faster.” Well, yeah. That’s usually how it works. But why would anyone want to become an expert at a game they find boring in the first place? There’s like a million games out there. I have better options than a 1991 Game Boy product tie-in that zero effort was put into to actually be fun.

They had more than a year of extra time to work on Back from the Sewers. So, how is it so similar to Fall of the Foot Clan? Actually, change that. How come it’s worse than Fall of the Foot Clan? I’m not going to call Back from the Sewers unplayable. It’s even worse than that. You CAN beat it, but in order to do so, you’re forced to play the game in the most cautionary, plodding, opposite of fun manner I’ve ever seen in any “action” game. Take the same basic enemy attack patterns from the first Game Boy game.. and I mean the EXACT SAME ATTACK PATTERNS, only with different character sprites. Now, have that sequence of attacks happen every time you scroll the screen a half step forward. On “normal” difficulty, the game spawns an absolutely comical amount of enemies that you have to whack with your comically short weapon, then take a step forward and repeat the process. The first game felt like an LCD game that with the limited amount of attack patterns that repeated throughout the game. Well, if that was a Game & Watch, this would be the B mode. The same game, only with the patterns happening at a faster rate. More ambitious level design based on zig-zagging through buildings or aircraft is undermined by enemies or turrets that fire so fast you’re basically forced to take damage. Who on earth wants to play a game where the only way to play well is to essentially crawl your way through it? Back from the Sewers? I think not. This belongs back IN the sewers, because it’s crap.
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #12 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project
for the Nintendo Entertainment System
Released February 1, 1992

I’ll get my only knock with Manhattan Project’s controls out of the way: it’s too easy to do the life-draining special move. I know that in previous games I complained that it’s too hard, but here I often went to jump to do a drop kick and ended up doing my special move instead. If I hadn’t had infinite lives on, I’d of game-overed just from accidental special move usage alone.

Dinosaurs do not show up at any point at all in this game. Absolutely shameful cover art. Reprehensible, really. If this was a new release, I’d give this a NO! on principle.

To say that I was completely taken by surprise by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III on the NES is an understatement. Here’s what I knew going into it. (1) It used a modified version of the Turtles II: The Arcade Game’s engine, and I hated that game. (2) It’s still the NES, so gameplay is limited to two buttons and stuff that can be done with 8 bits of horsepower. (3) The full-length gameplay video included was nearly two hours long. I could barely keep my eyes from glazing-over playing TMNT II: The Arcade Game and this was over twenty minutes longer. (4) It had a reputation for being insanely difficult. The most frequent thing I heard from players was that it starts fun but finishes with a thud because of prohibitive difficulty. Granted, they likely didn’t have access to the infinite lives that Cowabunga Collection allows you to apply. (5) Konami opted to save a few bucks by not going with the same special chip they used to make Dracula’s Curse possible. Of course, this set allows you to turn off flicker/slowdown inherit to the NES, but the point is TMNT 3 didn’t aspire to max-out the NES’s 1991/92 potential. That’s five completely valid red flags. For those reasons, I’d been dreading the time I’d have to spend with the Manhattan Project more than any other game in the set.

Given the limitations of the fighting engine and the 8-bit console, they kind of got the bosses perfect. This was especially surprising given how boring the bosses in TMNT II were. A big part of that is none of the bosses in Manhattan Project are too spongy. Just when you think they’re about to get boring, the blinking starts, meaning they’re almost dead. Each has a unique style and twist. Most importantly, they’re all fun to battle. Every single one, which is a feat no Turtles game, NOT EVEN SHREDDER’S REVENGE, has pulled off. Only this late-stage NES game. Well done! Outstanding! And one of the most unexpected, delightful surprises of my now five-year-long retro gaming adventures.

My fears were unfounded. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project was pretty awesome. It cleans up most of the things that killed TMNT II on the NES. Collision detection, first and foremost, is completely fixed. There was a couple weird instances involving Michelangelo where his weapon actually had more range than the graphics let on (specifically the “lift over head” move) but those were limited to him. Beyond that, this has some of the best combat collision of any game of this type on the NES. The controls are much more responsive too, and it makes the combat a lot more satisfactory. Plus, this time around, each turtle has their own unique special move. Raphael, who I usually avoid because of his teeny tiny weapons, actually has the best special move by far, a torpedo-like headbutt, and thus he became my primary character. Michelangelo, another turtle I usually avoid using, has a neat handspring kick that, with proper timing, can cause two hits for the price of one. Of course, they fixed the issue with the power moves coming at no cost. This time, whether you hit the move or not, using the special moves takes a tick of health off, and the game is ultra-stingy with the life-refilling pizza so you’ll want to space the special moves out. But, once you get down to your final sliver health, you get unlimited special moves, and with Raph especially, I was spamming them like crazy.

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Manhattan Project feels like it squeezes as much content out of the formula as two button gameplay on an eight bit console allows. Right up to the eighth and final level, it’s still introducing new enemies. The variety of foot soldiers rivals Shredder’s Revenge, a game released 30 years later. This is a seriously impressive effort. There’s even some unique stage ideas, like an area taking place on a conveyor belt where you have to brawl while jumping over lasers (or not jumping sometimes). I think it went a bit too long. Six levels that had mid-bosses would have worked a lot better, and in fact, the best levels were the ones that had mid-bosses. Two hours is a lot of time to spend with a beat ’em up this limited, though it never becomes fully boring. That’s probably because, unlike Turtles II, TMNT III feels like a labor of love. As for the notorious difficulty, well, some people say that you’re not really beating a game if you cheat and use infinite lives or save states or rewinding. I say, if that’s the only way a game can be enjoyable, so be it. Besides, it’s a brawler and even with one added basic move and unique super moves, it’s still gameplay as shallow as your mother in law’s contempt for you. It’s supposed to be cathartic. Yea, I’m happy I can beat Double Dragon NES if I really put my heart in it, but that also kind of nullifies the fun. You have to buckle down and play efficiently, even if it’s not as fun that way. Without the pressure of playing the game well, I could enjoy TMNT 3 just fine. I could use the basic moves, which are actually FUN to use this time, something the first arcade adaption on the NES completely failed at. Seriously, it’s a chore using the basic moves in TMNT 2, and they don’t feel rewarding when they land. That’s fixed. It’s all fixed. This is as good as an arcade brawler on the NES can be, and kudos to them for pulling it off. Surprise: TMNT 3 is quite fun.
Verdict: YES!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #2 of 13
Winner: Biggest Surprise of the Set

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Released August 15, 1992

I think this is my favorite boss in any side-scrolling brawler ever made. Someone at Konami must have realized it was just so satisfying to throw foot soldiers at the screen, so they made it a lot easier to pull off on the SNES, then built a boss fight around it. It’ll take something spectacular to top this battle.

Now this is more like it. Despite the arcade game having more fluid animation and sharper graphics, the Super NES version is better in every imaginable way. It controls better. It sounds better (well, okay fine, it doesn’t have most of the arcade’s voice samples or the Pizza Power rap during the attract screen). It plays better. It’s a kinder, gentler lover, like I imagine Shredder really is deep down♥. Turtles in Time on the SNES is a nearly non-stop joy to experience. The feathery, weightless combat of the arcade is replaced with weighty crunches, bone-breaking slams, and weapons that feel like they would actually hurt to get struck by. Whereas the added levels were not to the benefit of the NES game, which was already thin on gameplay and terminally slow, the added content here is welcome. There’s four new bosses and all of them fun to battle. Levels have either been added or heavily altered, including turning the two “surfing” levels into bonus stages, but ones that still have bosses. The Super NES has a lot of great arcade ports, but few actually improve on the coin-op. Turtles in Time MURDERS its arcade counterpart and was likely the best home-to-arcade port until SoulCalibur in 1999.

A bizarre extra feature exclusive to this port is the time trial mode. There’s three “courses” that take bite-sized segments from the main game, called “laps” here and times how long you take to beat all the enemies. It’s weirdly slow, as you spend as much time waiting for the next lap to finally load as you do actually “racing” the timer. It’s not the worst idea but the execution is frustrating because of the agonizing wait between laps.

Do you know what my only semi-real problem with Turtles in Time is? I object to the name. Really, the “time travel” aspect barely works. Going back to fight foot soldiers in the dinosaur era? Nice. But the train you’re on could be a train from any time period. Same with the pirate ship. Same with the Technodrome, for that matter. Hell, you have to finish about a third of the game before you even start “traveling through time.” So, yea, the time travel stuff outside of the dinosaur stage and the hoverboard stage is weak sauce. Everything else is superb. A big part of that is the OOMPH (my pet term for violence in a video game feeling like it has real, impactful weight to it) is wonderful. When you hit a strike in Turtles in Time, it feels like it inflicts pain. Which it probably doesn’t because you’re mostly fighting robots but my point still stands. In the arcades, it’s like paper dolls fighting. On the SNES, when you grab an enemy by the limb and start slamming them back and forth on the concrete like Hulk does to Loki in Avengers, it might be my favorite brawling game move EVER. It’s just so damn cathartic, especially when you clear out a screen full of enemies while doing it.

Turning Neo Night Riders into a Mode 7 showcase was another smart move. You’ve already done one “Sewer Surfing” stage. In arcades, it’s just more of the same, and futuristic facade feels paper-thin. On the Super NES, the Mode 7 graphics make it feel fresh and kind of novel. The weird thing about Mode 7 is it shouldn’t impress at all in 2022, but it always makes me sit up and take notice whenever I’m playing any SNES game.

The sound design factors into it, but the controls being a lot more responsive than they are in arcades is the real difference maker. That fluid animation that does look so good in arcades seems to also be why doing combos, getting attacks interrupted, and general unresponsiveness is present. On the SNES, it feels like when you give the command to crush an enemy, it’s done. I could almost do the “slam on the concrete” move at will (which really helps in the time trial mode) and when I needed throw enemies at the screen, I could always do so with minimal effort. Of course, unlike the NES arcade game, just using basic attacks is actually satisfying as well. So is the running shoulder block that makes for the perfect set-up for the concrete slamming. Turtles in Time’s move-set is relatively limited, but what moves you have are very satisfying. My wish list would only include more satisfying/effective aerial attacks.

The OOMPH isn’t quite as good against bosses, but hell, even the best Capcom brawlers where you could practically feel the bones shatter also struggled with that too. Boss OOMPH is a tricky balancing act because if you get it wrong, you make the enemy look weak and it takes the stakes out of the fight. One thing Turtles does get right is having all the bosses feel like they’re different. They require different patterns to defeat. You can’t just spam attacks. I like that.

Well, if I’m going to get nit-picky, I guess I wish there was a bigger variety of enemies. It’s mostly just foot soldiers of various colors/weapons. The second most common enemies are these stone guys that aren’t as fun to fight, as when you try to slam them, you just sort of toss them like a sack of potatoes. Rarely, mousers or these giant alien-looking things show up. My hunch is the dev team focused all their energy on the bosses, which was probably wise. The variety of bosses is spectacular and they all feel different, but I’m bummed becuase Turtles in Time was maybe five or six basic enemies away from being the undisputed best brawler of its era. Of course, everything I feel is missing was actually done with the recent Shredder’s Revenge, and probably the best thing I can say about Turtles in Time on the SNES is it set the bar that game had to clear very high indeed. Turtles in Time might not be the best Ninja Turtles game anymore, but that it held that title for twenty years and barely showed any wear from the test of time is a testament to what Konami accomplished here. The SNES port is a truly amazing piece of software and I’m so happy I got to play through it a second time. Let’s leave it here and not re-re-remake it, please. I’d rather have Shredder’s Revenge 2.
Verdict: YES!
Ranking: #1 of 13 **BEST IN SET**

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist
for Sega Genesis
Released December 11, 1992

They took the Krang Fight from Neo Night Riders in Turtles in Time, same attack patterns, and made him a boss without the cool futuristic facade or the hoverboards. Like so many things with Hyperstone Heist, it feels stripped-down.

I legitimately can’t believe there’s any debate on which is the superior 16-bit home TMNT arcade game. A lot of people seem to really like Hyperstone Heist. I’ve never seen a game this terrible that has so many people falling over to apologize or make excuses for it, or even call it good. I mean legitimate PASSION from fans who stand by Hyperstone Heist as one of the best, if not THE best, TMNT games ever made. YIKES! I’m not just talking fanboys either, but professional game critics! Hyperstone Heist has made lists like “The 20 Best Genesis Games.” I checked, there’s at least twenty-one Genesis games, which means they’re not awarding this by default. They’ll say “the graphics and sound are better!” Who cares? Turtles in Time in the arcade looks a LOT better than the SNES game, especially the fluid, cartoony animation. But, the gameplay is worse, so the SNES game is better. That’s just how it is. If you value a game having better animation or sound at the cost of gameplay, my reviews are not for you. And while we’re at it, what people consider “better” with Hyperstone Heist is very debatable.

I was already miserable playing Hyperstone Heist for reasons I’m going to get into right about now, but at least I wasn’t completely demoralized. Then a boss showed up I already beat, and I was only on the fourth stage. “Uh oh” I thought, a chill coming over me. Then, after beating Leatherhead for the second time, Rocksteady showed up, and I just felt completely dejected. A goddamned boss rush. And since there had only been three bosses up to that point, it was one of the most pathetic boss rushes I’ve ever seen. Unbelievable. Then it ended with the Baxter Stockman fight from the original TMNT arcade game. Hey, wait.. Rocksteady is in the game but Bebop isn’t? That’s like Simon without Garfunkel! ♫GENESIS DOES! YOU CAN’T DO THIS ON NINTENDO (unless it involves a mutant warthog)!♫

A lot of people lead off with “the music is better!” I’ve never understood why anyone would go to music before gameplay, but fine, let’s start with the music. The Wikipedia page describes Hyperstone Heist as having the same music as other TMNT games, only faster. The faster part I’m not entirely sure was deliberate. It has the same music tracks from previous Turtles arcade games, only they’re sped-up. The thing is, the voices of the Turtles when they die (“ohh, shell-shocked!”) sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks, because they’re ALSO sped up. Then you realize the various bonks and baps from the combat also sound kinda similar, but weirdly so, and it’s because they’re the same sound effects sped-up too. Why would you speed up the sound effects too? That makes no sense at all, unless they just screwed up the soundtrack and sound effects and decided to call it a feature instead of a bug. It must work because people cite the soundtrack as a reason this is better than the SNES counterpart that has more levels, more bosses, more moves, more set-pieces, better play control that makes pulling off advanced moves easier, and has heroes that don’t sound like they’re on an all-helium diet.

The Sega Genesis version of TMNT has only five levels and six bosses, three of which you have to fight twice, BUT HEY, it has one boss.. ONE SINGLE, SOLITARY BOSS.. that’s not in any other Turtles game. You can practically see the Genesis fanboys showering themselves with confetti while singing “GENESIS DOES WHAT NINTENDON’T!”

But, it’s the claim that Hyperstone Heist has “more aggressive AI” that I object to the most. Apparently it was Konami’s “selling point” for the game. “More aggressive AI” in this case is the most meaningless buzzword on the Genesis since “Blast Processing™©™®™.” But, people fell for it. Reviewers at the time noted the AI was “more aggressive.” The Wikipedia page notes it. People telling me I’m wrong about Hyperstone Heist have said it to me. I don’t know where this “more aggressive” shit comes from, because when *I* played Hyperstone Heist on Normal Difficulty, the enemies kept backing away from me when I walked towards them. They would back all the way to the far-far-far edge of the screen, so much they often weren’t on the screen at all, before they finally stood still long enough for me to kill them. Of course, that means when I hit my strikes, I could only hear that I was doing it and didn’t get the satisfaction of seeing the enemies die. This was consistent from the start of the game until the end. One of my biggest issues with the beat ’em up genre in general is the action too often migrates to the edges of the playfield, but Hyperstone takes it to a new extreme. “Well Cathy, enemies in a real fight WOULD back away from you!” OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, IT’S A VIDEO GAME! In real life, a fire breathing, princess-kidnapping turtle dragon wouldn’t choose to make its final stand on a bridge with an axe that the hero could use to drop it into a lake of fire, either, but in the make-believe world of video games, it’d be weird if it didn’t! And it’s weird that so much action in Hyperstone Heist is against enemies you can’t see!

Might as well have put a giant Pizza Hut advertisement in the the center of the screen. It wouldn’t have blocked the action at all.

I think by “aggressive” fans of the game mean the enemies are complete back-fighting, sucker-punching cowards. The overwhelming majority of enemies don’t swarm you. They sort of fall back, and they only move in to attack when your back is turned to them and you start swinging your weapon to the other side. They also have pitch-perfect timing on counter-attacks. But, combat mostly consists of chasing enemies to the edge of the screen for the kill. Many of the enemies are straight-up programmed to just sit on those edges and throw their projectiles in preset intervals. For a game that’s allegedly “faster-paced”, you sure do take FOREVER to get up when you get knocked down. The dramatic knockdown-rolling-sit-up animation is agonizing every time it happens, and most of the time, the enemies begin their attack animation with perfect timing so that you’re going to get hit again at the very nanosecond you make it to your feet. I don’t care how much fans of this game regurgitate Konami’s 1992 marketing of Hyperstone Heist as “more aggressive” and “faster-paced” because the actual gameplay unfolds a lot slower. It’s stop-and-go gameplay on steroids, and thanks to Cowabunga Collection, you can play this side-by-side with Turtles in Time on the SNES and see that it’s actually the SNES game that’s “fast paced” and has more aggressive enemies, because they don’t run away from you like complete lilly-livered yellow-bellied scaredy-cats. Isn’t the point of a brawler being fed an army of cannon fodder to punch?

The only nice thing I can say about Hyperstone Heist is it had the most playable version of this Baxter Stockman battle. So hey, +1 for having the best version of my least favorite boss from the original arcade game.

While I’m at it, where is all this other “better gameplay” at? You can’t throw the enemies at the screen, which is one of the most satisfying moves from Turtles in Time. It’s much harder to pull off the “slam enemies into concrete” move, and the other foot soldiers you hit doing it take less damage. Your own life bar can be drained too quickly, as the amount of damage caused by environmental traps or even by random hits from bosses or foot soldiers often is several of your health points. The OOMPH isn’t as good as the SNES game. It has less than half the bosses the SNES game does at 13 to 6. If you object to me counting the fights against Bebop & Rocksteady as two different bosses, and the same for Tokka & Rahzar, the tally is still 11 to 6, a not unsubstantial gap, and the SNES game didn’t make you replay bosses you already beat. “The stages are longer!” Yea, but they don’t do anything. They’re not fun set-pieces at all. I was excited for a “haunted ship” because those can be cool, but it had nothing haunted about it. It was just decrepit. Going off this game’s definition of haunted, my Mom is becoming haunted. So, where’s this better game play? Oh, because the dash button is separate? Well dip me in shit and roll me in bread crumbs, Genesis wins! ♫GENESIS DOES! YOU CAN’T DO THIS ON NINTENDO! GENESIS DOES!♫

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When presented side-by-side against the SNES Turtles in Time, I can’t understand why anyone would say Hyperstone Heist is the better game, unless they NEED Hyperstone Heist to be better because they still base their self-esteem on the fact that, thirty years ago, Sega successfully marketed their console to them better than Nintendo did (or their parents saved some money buying a Genesis instead of an SNES and then gaslit the kid into believing they really wanted a Genesis all along). Well, sorry Genny fans. The Genesis library beat the SNES library in many ways, but Hyperstone Heist isn’t just bad compared to Turtles in Time. In fact, on its own, compared to no other game, Hyperstone Heist is just boring. An already short game that feels very heavily padded, with bad enemy AI, a limited moveset, and dull set-pieces. But hey, you were told thirty years ago it was faster-paced than other Turtles games and had “more aggressive” AI, even though the AI clearly spends much of the time backing away from the fighting, and who are you going to believe? The best marketing teams money can buy or your lying eyes?
Verdict: NO!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #9 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Radical Rescue
for Game Boy
Released November 25, 1993

Each of the Turtles has a super power that lets you access a previously unacceptable area. For some reason, Leonardo’s is turning into a drill.

Metroidvanias are my favorite genre, and I’m one of those people that has very little problem with short games. The next IGC review will be an indie NES Metroidvania that takes only a few minutes to complete, and I consider it a perfect game in the sense that the only complaint about it is its ultra-short length, which isn’t really a complaint. I’d rather play twenty to thirty minutes of absolute perfection than two hours of great or six hours of good. Perfection is so much rarer. So, I have no problem with the smallish map and brief runtime of Radical Rescue. Even if you get lost, it probably should only take you under two hours to finish, but that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to be stuck with this game longer. It’s a pretty decent, if basic, Metroidvania that has a major issue with enemy placement and boss fights. This is one of those games where the developers fine-tuned the enemy placement specifically for cheap-shots and unavoidable damage. It happens non-stop throughout the runtime, and it’s such a shame because otherwise Radical Rescue might have become my go-to game for baby’s first Metroidvania.

I have a big problem with the bosses. They don’t quite telegraph their moves enough to give you time to dodge, and man, do they blink a LONG time when you hit them.

The game only has a couple environments that are as bland and flavorless as it gets, and it doesn’t really do a great job of teasing “you’re in a place that you can’t access.. yet, hint hint” that Metroidvanias are ideally built around. But, they actually did a good job of building around starting with Michelangelo and needing to rescue the other turtles. The concept of beating bosses for keys to jail cells works wonderfully. Each of the Turtles has a unique ability required for exploration, which is exactly what I wanted TMNT-NES to do, and I’m gratified that I was right to say it needed it. The boss fights are super annoying. I’ve never seen a game of this type that had the bosses blink with invincibility after taking damage as painfully long as Radical Rescue does. Thankfully, with the glory of save states, you can replay them with no penalty (use the save states over rewinding. Each boss takes a minute or two to beat). Ultimately, the #1 thing I want from a Metroidvania is a good map, and Radical Rescue has a very good map with a nice path to victory that requires the exact right amount of backtracking (or lack thereof) that never becomes annoying. I just wish this had been on a platform like the NES, Genesis, or SNES instead.
Verdict: YES!
Cowabunga Collection Ranking: #4 of 13

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters
for Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Game Boy
Released September 4, 1993 (SNES/Genesis) February 1994 (NES)

They all have such boring rosters. Oh, and the Genesis version (pictured here) is the only game in all of TMNT Cowabunga Collection that features Casey Jones. That’s an absolute travesty.

I don’t really have a ton to say about the three TMNT Tournament Fighter games. I’ll start by noting the Genesis game is basically unplayable. Of the three buttons they had available, one is used for taunting, which is just stupid. The fighting mechanics are extremely bland and even on the lowest setting, I couldn’t beat the enemy AI. It’s easily the worst game in Cowabunga Collection. If I gave a hypothetical “so bad that it occupies multiple spots in the rankings” for the Genesis version, Back from the Sewers on the Game Boy would be #12, then there would be five to six gaps and the Genesis Tournament Fighters would be #17 or #18. Absolutely abysmal. And you know that Digital Eclipse must have agreed. This is literally the only game in the entire collection that doesn’t have a section in the set’s built-in strategy guide.

It looks like Raph is kneeing Leo in his nardos here.

The NES game is actually better, but still not fun at all. It feels exactly like one of those modern “demakes” that you’ll see indie developers come up with as a cutesy novelty. You can only choose to use the Turtles in the one player mode, and once again, the AI is just too dang good. The big difference in this one is a dodgeball will occasionally be dropped onto the playfield for the players to use. The only nice thing I can say about the NES game is that I’d rather play it than Back from the Sewers on Game Boy.

I don’t understand the whole “Cyber Shredder” thing. That’s what he’s called in Radical Rescue too. Does he have online sex or something. Because I’d totally cyber with him. Damnit, I can change him!

Really, the SNES game is the only one of interest. Four button gameplay for heavy and light punches and kicks, so at least the action has substance and nuance to it besides button mashing. The OOMPH! is decent, there’s a nice variety of special moves, and the super move meter that penalizes usage of the block was ahead of its time and inspired. So, why didn’t I like it? Honestly, this felt to me like one of the more bland entries in SNK’s fighting game franchise. Besides Shredder and the Turtles, I didn’t recognize any of the characters, and the only fun character to play as is Shredder. The weird game show-like theme between stages threw me off, and frankly, I didn’t think the fighting was all that. It felt like they aimed for competent more than spectacular. I think a modern Turtles fighting game with cel-shaded graphics could be interesting, but for its time, this was just a wannabe Street Fighter that might have worked for kids in 1993 who recognized the characters. For a non-TMNT fan in 2022, this wasn’t for me.
Verdict: NO!, NO!, and NO!
Cowabunga Collection Rankings
SNES: #6 of 13 **BEST OF THE WORST**
NES: #11 of 13
Genesis: #13 of 13

A review copy for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection was provided by Konami for this feature.

Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium: The Definitive Review (Complete 34 Game Review + Ranking)

This is the complete Indie Gamer Chick review of Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium! For those not familiar with my way of thinking of how retro games should be reviewed, I take NO historical context into account. I don’t care how important a game was to the industry, because that doesn’t make a game worth playing today. The test of time is the cruelest test of all, but every video game must face it. I might not be here if not for Space Invaders’ success, but I wouldn’t want to play it today. Not when there’s better options. Therefore, when I review retro games, every game gets either a YES! or a NO!

Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium is identical to the first stadium in terms of engine and layout. I had to remap the controls quite a lot, and I didn’t appreciate how much I needed that until I played the Nintendo 64 collection on Switch Online, which has no such options. For that matter, the simple yet effective manuals that include visual aides that identify power-ups or provide complete move sets for fighters is much appreciated. Capcom has a history of lazy packages, like Capcom Arcade Cabinet for example. This wasn’t some half-assed effort.

YES! means the game is still fun and has actual gameplay value when played today and is worth seeking out.

NO! means the game didn’t age gracefully and is not worth seeking out, and certainly not worth spending money on.

There’s 32 games in Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium, but really, there’s 34. Three Wonders contains three completely different games, and they were so different from each-other that I chose to review them as their own entities. Capcom Sports Club also has three different games, but they all had the same aim (being fast-paced arcade sports games) and play value, so I chose to count it as one game. Also, I didn’t factor in SonSon towards my ultimate verdict, since it’s free-to-download whether you buy the complete set or not. Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium costs $39.99 for the whole set, while the individual games cost $3.99. Therefore, the set needed to score ten YES! verdicts to win the Indie Gamer Chick seal of approval.

YES!: 20 + SonSon
NO!: 13

Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium doubled what it needed. Thus, it’s Chick-Approved! This is one of the best arcade compilations available on modern consoles. It’s also an excellent package with tons of options for button mapping, presentation, screen orientation, and picture filters. The only feature missing is the one I fell in love with from SNK 40th Anniversary where a full video play-through is included that allows you to pause the video and take over the gameplay. I LOVE that feature and wish more classic sets included it.

There’s tons of options for presentation, including being able to play vertical screened if games originally used it.

Final Rankings

How I determined the rankings is simple: I took the full list of games, then I said “I’m forced to play one game. Pick the one I could play the most and not get bored with.” That goes on top of the list. Then I repeat the question again with the remaining games over and over until the list is complete. Based on that simple criteria, here are the final rankings. Games above the Terminator Line received a YES! Games below it received a NO!

  1. Vampire Savior: The Lord of Vampire
  2. Street Fighter Alpha 2
  3. Super Puzzle Fighter II: Turbo
  4. Super Gem Fighter Mini Mix
  5. Magic Sword
  6. Midnight Wanderers (Three Wonders)
  7. Night Warriors: Darkstalkers’ Revenge
  8. Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors
  9. Eco Fighters
  10. Chariot (Three Wonders)
  11. Street Fighter Alpha 3
  12. Saturday Night Slam Masters
  13. Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition
  14. Street Fighter Alpha: Warriors’ Dreams
  15. Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters
  16. Rally 2011: LED STORM
  17. Don’t Pull (Three Wonders)
  18. Hyper Dyne Side Arms
  19. 1943 Kai
  20. SonSon*
  21. Capcom Sports Club
    **TERMINATOR LINE**
  22. Black Tiger
  23. Knights of the Round
  24. Gun.Smoke
  25. Mega Man: The Power Battle
  26. The King of Dragons
  27. Pnickies
  28. Tiger Road
  29. Last Duel
  30. Savage Bees (aka Exed Exes)
  31. The Speed Rumbler
  32. Avenger
  33. Block Block
  34. Street Fighter

GAME REVIEWS

1943 Kai: Midway Kaisen (1987)
Designed by Yoshiki Okamoto
Also included in Capcom Arcade Cabinet

Way back in January of 2019, I named 1943 Kai “Best in Set” for Capcom Arcade Cabinet on Xbox 360/PlayStation 3. Now that I’ve played through it a second time, wow, it really speaks to how weak Arcade Cabinet was done that this could walk away with any trophy. Being the best game in Capcom Arcade Cabinet is like being the most edible item on the menu at an Arby’s. Which is not to say 1943 Kai is bad or anything. It’s a perfectly fine bland shmup, just like 1943 was. The differences are this has six fewer stages and one of the weapons is slightly better. Fewer stages is actually a good thing, as it feels like this cuts a lot of 1943’s gristle out. There’s smarter enemy formations too, so even though this is technically harder, it kind of feels like a more fair type of harder. I prefer the later 194X games, but they were really starting to get everything down pat with Kai.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #19 of 34

Avengers (1987)
aka Avenger, aka Hissatsu Buaiken (Deadly Hooligan Fist)
Designed by Takashi Nishiyama
Also included in Capcom Arcade Cabinet

Takashi Nishiyama had two pretty sizable hits at Irem before he joined Capcom. One was Kung Fu Master, aka just plain Kung Fu, a pretty influential game. Even I like Kung Fu, and I hate basically everything according to many retro fans. I bring up Kung Fu Master (aka Spartan X) because Avengers is clearly trying to be exactly that, only from a different camera angle. In this case, Avengers is a top-down game. Otherwise, the same concept: punch and kick your way through a hoard of identical baddies, most of whom just want to hug it out with you, but meanly so. Actually the huggers do headbutt you in the hug, but still, it’s a hugging game, with levels culminating in a boss baddie with a gimmick, usually based around a weapon. And it’s absolutely abysmal. I’m genuinely not trying to be hyperbolic when I say Avengers is one of the worst games I’ve ever played. The actual combat features incredibly piss-poor collision detection. I lost count of how many times I punched right through enemies to no effect. It even happens to the stationary garbage cans you collect items from. Besides that, what punches and kicks you hit don’t feel OOMPHful at all. It does try to one-up Kung Fu by having a teeny bit more variety in enemies, but even this blows up in Avenger’s face. Even on the lowest difficulty setting, enemies who throw projectiles have too much of an advantage over you. The power-ups are weak and wear off too fast. Punching is basically worthless, and you can also spam a spinning kick for no cost that I found more effective than normal attacks. You’ve got to feel bad for Nishiyama, who tried to recreate the magic of Kung Fu Master twice in a row (Trojan was the other) and fail, but when I say “even Trojan didn’t suck this badly” that speaks volumes.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #32 of 34

Black Tiger (1987)
Directed by Yoshiki Okamoto
Also included in Capcom Arcade Cabinet

After suffering a mysterious series of delays, Black Tiger released in 1987 and feels like it’s playing catch-up with Konami’s Castlevania and Taito’s Rastan. An action platformer with a bit of RPG grinding and money collecting thrown in, you have to hop around levels and fight baddies with some of the strangest attacks in history. You have both a whip and a series of daggers, and when I say “both” I mean you throw a barrage of daggers every time you use your whip. It’s so weird. It’s like they wanted to give you the option for one or the other, but they inputted it wrong and wired the game to do both at the same time. The daggers aren’t a finite resource, either. You have unlimited amounts, so much so that they’re often a lot more effective than the whip, since three come out at once and they’re ranged. BUT, even with this, the combat lacks satisfactory OOMPH, and the level design is based around dickish enemy placements and GOTCHA! type booby traps. Capcom seems to have been obsessed with treasure chests that would actually screw the player over, just like in Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. There’s too many whammies in the chests, and even rewinding doesn’t take away the frustration of dealing with them. Grinding up enough money to buy the good items is a slow process. Finally, the jumping is stiff and rigid and leads to many instakill situations. There’s a good game buried in this mess somewhere, but Black Tiger just acts like a total prick too often to be fun.
Verdict: NO!
Second Stadium Ranking: #22 of 34. **TOP OF THE BOTTOM**

Block Block (1991)
Designed by Shinji Sakashita, H.K., and M. Miyao

Simply put, Block Block is one of the worst brick breakers ever made. It’s especially unfit for consoles that lack dial controllers, but that’s just the start of its problems. In my two play sessions with it during Capcom Arcade Stadium 2, I had at least two instances of the ball clipping right through the paddle. In a game where everything depends on the paddle.. you know.. working, that alone is enough to earn it a spot near the bottom of the NO! pile. And I say “at least two times” because I had other instances where the ball was moving so fast that I couldn’t be sure if I barely missed a volley or if the game just stopped working again. It seems to be tied to having bricks underneath the paddle. Blocks underneath the paddle would be a nice twist, but the level design is miserable. I had tons of instances where a ball would travel around unbreakable corridors and then just jam up in the geometry. A funny quirk about Block Block is, if you go too long without breaking any bricks, the game opens an automatic exit to the next level. Of course, the ball has to actually hit the exit. It goes away if the ball bounces too much. There’s neat ideas here, like the paddle breaking into a smaller paddle after so many volleys, but the physics are amateurish and, frankly, brick breakers had existed for fifteen years by time Block Block came out. This SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN THIS BAD, and it’s awful. The final 8-bit Capcom arcade game is also one of their very worst coin-ops. Just a complete disaster in every way possible, and the only thing keeping it from finishing dead-last is the historic ineptness of Street Fighter 1.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #33 of 34

Capcom Sports Club (1997)
Designed by Yoshifumi Fukuda

Unlike Three Wonders, Capcom Sports Club’s three games don’t deserve their own reviews. They can be summed up by saying “fast-paced arcade sports games of middling entertainment value.” Two of the three are fine. The lone stinker is the basketball game. It’s like a 3-on-3 version of NBA Jam without the “on fire” stuff. Or real players, for that matter. Curiously, the game has no shot clock. Shot clocks exist for a reason, and a basketball video game based around a lightning-fast pace not having one is such an unforgivable omission that I can’t overlook it. Stick to the soccer and tennis games. Soccer features a short field and over-the-top animations, and it can be fun in small doses. I’ll note that the game tends to smarten-up the AI every time you win. If a game ends in a draw, it counts as a game over and you have to re-up on your virtual quarters, at which point the AI becomes more reasonable. I’m on to you, Capcom. Meanwhile, tennis game is just a cartoony game of tennis taken up-tempo. Literally nothing about it stands out. Well, actually sometimes it feels like you can’t cover the court fast enough, but that’s kind of the point of Tennis, right? Either way, there’s hundreds of soccer and tennis options out there, and neither of these will rise to the level of a fan favorite among them, but they’re fine.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #21 of 34 **BOTTOM OF THE TOP**

Chariot (1991)
Game #2 of 3 from Three Wonders
Designed by Shoei Okano

The second of Three Wonders’ offerings, this cute-em-up feels like it was probably meant to be the full-blown game that got a solo release, with Midnight Wanderers and especially Don’t Pull being games that barely rose above proof-of-concept and were shoehorned onto this board as an attempt to test a new business model that they straight-up stole from SNK. At least that’s our new working theory. Chariot feels like the most complete of the trio, though it’s still an all-to-brief experience. This time around, it’s a surreal shmup with a zodiac theme. Despite sharing multiple assets and story elements with Midnight Wanderers, Chariot isn’t remotely generic. Cuphead fans will recognize more than one boss encounter Chariot directly inspired, and shmup fans will appreciate the twists in the formula. You have a tail that causes damage if you can dangle it over enemies and bosses, and it also doubles as the indicator of when your charge shot is ready. It a later level, Chariot even does a camera trick that fools players into thinking they’re going to go one way before quickly moving up or down to another area of a map. I wish there was more variety in weapons and I wish the game was longer, but Chariot is among Capcom’s strongest shmups.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #10 of 34.

Darkstalkers Series (1994 – 1997)

Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors (1994)
Designed by Junichi Ohno
Also included in Capcom Fighting Collection

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers’ Revenge (1995)
Designed by Junichi Ohno
Also included in Capcom Fighting Collection

Vampire Savior: The Lord of Vampire (1997)
Designed by Shinichiro Obata, Hidetoshi Ishizawa, Malachie, Nohah, and Katsuyuki Kanetaka
Also included in Capcom Fighting Collection
Vampire Savior 2 and Night Warriors 2 are paired with this review but not included in Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium. Those games are only in Capcom Fighting Collection.

Darkstalkers (1994) Verdict: YES!

Darkstalkers is basically Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo crossed with a Halloween costume store. The story goes that Capcom asked Universal Studios for the license to their famous monsters. Universal, savvy businessmen as always, said no. I mean, why would they want to partner with the company who made the hottest fighting game in the world to make a fighting game with their stagnant lineup of old horror movie IPs? To really hammer home what a colossal failure their rejection of the proposal was, according to the legend, Capcom’s artists then turned out the basic concepts for the ten fighters in Darkstalkers in about an hour. It’s almost unbelievable, especially given how overflowing with personality and charm the roster is. There’s no stinkers in the bunch. I played with the full roster of characters, and they each had their own flare and uniqueness and at least one move or animation quirk that put a smile on my face. That’s rare for a fighter, and it continued for the entire run of sequels. Come on, how can you not love a Little Red Riding Hood lookalike who grabs an opponent from behind and slits their throat with a kitchen knife? It’s so dark! Oh wait.. I get the name now.

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers’ Revenge (1995) Verdict: YES!

If you squint, you might not even realize you’re playing a separate franchise from Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo. It’s really close, with the major additions being things like being the first Capcom fighting game with airblocks and the ability to move while ducking. There’s also a chain combo system for those who want a more advance fighter and not a button masher, though you can honestly have fun both ways. I played rounds of Vampire Savior with both fighting game vets and a person playing their very first one-on-one fighter and everyone had fun. This is a series that got better as it went along, and by time I reached Vampire Savior, I actually liked Darkstalker as a series more than I liked Street Fighter 2. A more colorful roster, better themes, surreal backdrops, and some of the most pitch-perfect controls I’ve ever experienced in a 2D fighter. Really, this whole franchise deserves to be regarded higher than it is.

Vampire Savior: The Lord of Vampire (1997) Verdict: YES!

Where it gets weird is Vampire Savior is broken into three different games that switch only a couple fighters out for a couple returning combatants. This was done as an appeasement to series fans due to the limited space in the ROM, though the shady-as-all-hell numbering of these revamps as sequels felt skeezy. People who don’t know the score will see these listed as totally separate games in compilations like Capcom Fighting Collection and be hoodwinked into thinking they’re getting three separate games and not three versions of one game, only one of which is really necessary. Given that it’s 2022 now, you’d think Capcom could use the space age technology of the modern era to just ROM-hack in the missing fighters. Presumably this wasn’t done to appease “purists” but those same purists apparently detested both Night Warriors 2 and Vampire Savior 2 anyway. It’s such a no-brainer and it comes with the bonus of not being intellectually dishonest about how many separate games are included in a compilation. I hate the whole situation because it left a bad taste in my mouth about an otherwise outstanding fighting franchise.
2nd Stadium Rankings
Darkstalkers: #8 of 34
Night Warriors: #7 of 34
Vampire Savior: #1 of 34 **BEST GAME IN CAPCOM ARCADE 2ND STADIUM**

Don’t Pull (1991)
Game #3 of 3 from Three Wonders
Designed by Toshihiko Uda

The shortest and weakest of the Three Wonders trio, Don’t Pull is a 90s remake of Pirate Ship Higemaru, only with the difficulty upped to an extreme. Oh, and will everyone PLEASE stop comparing every single cutesy game that involves shoving boxes to Lolo? Even the Wikipedia page for Three Wonders mentions Lolo as the most similar game. It’s listed first, before Pengo or Pirate Ship Higemaru. This is NOTHING like a Lolo game. Not even a little bit, because Don’t Pull isn’t even a puzzle game. It’s 100% an action game where you run around and shove boxes into enemies. When you shove a box, it slides until it hits another box or leaves the playfield, killing any enemies it makes contact with along the way. If there’s two boxes next to each other and you shove one into the other, the one you shove breaks immediately. The only way this resembles a puzzler is having to strategically break some of the boxes to create a safe space for you that can double as a clear shot at the baddies. If anything, you’ll spend most of your time running away and trying to scratch out enough distance between you and enemies to get a clean shot off. This isn’t made easier by the controls being pretty stiff, and enemies who are tougher to shake than you’d think. Still, this not-puzzler that represents the puzzle genre for Three Wonders can be quite exciting, especially if you manage to shake three or four tails and set up the perfect trap to take them all out with a single box. At only sixteen levels that you can knock-out in barely twenty minutes, Don’t Pull feels like it’s a game that got cancelled halfway through, but it’s fun while it lasts.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #17 of 34

Eco Fighters (1994)
Designed by Keisuke Mori

Eco Fighters caused physical pain in me, and in more than one way. It’s not epilepsy compatible, and even with my seizures under control, I got legitimately nauseated playing it due to unexpected strobe effects after beating the second boss. That type of stuff I could push past or take precautions against, but the cramping of my hands? That part was probably unavoidable. Eco Fighters is a very unconventional shmup where you have a turret that rotates 360° around the ship but NOT like a twin stick shooter (or Capcom’s own Forgotten Worlds). I struggled to find a comfortable button mapping for it, and early on, I kind of hated Eco Fighters. I spent the first twenty minutes wishing it had just been a normal shooter. But, it ultimately grew on me. If you’re using a normal game controller, I recommend slowing the turret rotation speed down in the game’s options for maximum accuracy. Once you get used to the controls, Eco Fighters is a shmup overflowing with personality, excellent set-pieces, wonderful boss battles, and some of the most satisfying guns in the entire genre. I especially liked the arc-welder gun, which allows you to cut through enemies. It’s so cathartic to camp on top of a boss and just lobotomize it with a short laser. I’m not entirely convinced Eco Fighters had a consistent vision, as the later stages dip their toes in lazy bullet hell design. But, even with all these problems, this is probably Capcom’s most underrated 90s coin-op. I only wish it translated better to a standard controller, since dial controllers aren’t an option.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #9 of 34

Gun.Smoke (1985)
Designed by Yoshiki Okamoto
Also included in Capcom Arcade Cabinet

Maybe it’s because I grew-up with a father who loved John Ford and John Wayne movies, but I love cowboy games. I wish there were more of them. Sadly, Gun.Smoke is too hard for its own good. This is a standard auto-scrolling shmup, only with a western theme instead of spaceships. I do like the novel control scheme: there’s three shooting buttons: left, straight, and right. You can slap any of these at the same time to shoot in both those directions. It makes for one of the most unique and intriguing shooters I’ve played. But, even on the lowest setting, the enemy placement is cheap as all hell. This includes enemies that quickly get behind you and thus out of your range, which becomes maddening. Worse yet is how the lives system works: if you die, you go backwards with your items downgraded by one tick, which is especially frustrating if you’re fighting a boss, since you have to cause all the damage in one life. I’d rather have a health meter or just instantly respawn. Weirdly, after I beat the main game with cheating, I became one of only eleven people (as of this writing) to clear Stadium 2’s special challenge for it: scoring 50,000 points on the highest difficulty setting. What’s truly insane is I did it on my very first try. Awesome moment for me, but Gun.Smoke’s difficulty makes the Fun.Broke.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #24 of 34

Hyper Dyne Side Arms (1986)
Designed by Yoshiki Okamoto & Noritaka Funamizu
Also included in Capcom Arcade Cabinet

Remember Capcom Arcade Cabinet? Of the 14 games in that set, I only gave two a YES! One was 1943 Kai. This was the other. Hyper Dyne Side Arms was probably the first good Capcom arcade game, and maybe their first really good game, period, depending on how you feel about their early NES output. Tellingly, it’s also one of their first coin-ops that isn’t stingy with the power-ups. In fact, Side Arms goes the opposite direction: the game is utterly spammed with upgrades, so much so that it’s entirely possible for you to become an unstoppable space tank. I’ve never cared for shmups that do the “shoot both in front of you and behind you” thing all that much, and I was worried that this would be little more than an upgraded version of Section Z. But, the way Side Arms does it works, especially with the wide variety of guns and the fact that you even have reasons to switch between them instead of sticking to just one the entire run. Even the Macross-like robot transformations are fun. There’s a little too much repetition, and the bosses can be obliterated if you choose the right weapons, but otherwise, this is a totally fun and solid shmup, even if it feels like it only exists to be Capcom’s slightly-soulless answer to Gradius.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #18 of 34

Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition (2003)
Directed by Ryota Suzuki
Also included in Capcom Fighting Collection

Hyper Street Fighter II was made to be the ultimate “settle the score” game for the absolute biggest fans and best players of Street Fighter II. It mixes the original five versions of Street Fighter II/Super Street Fighter II together, with players having to choose which version of the game they want from a menu, then selecting their character. So, you can have the Street Fighter II Championship Edition version of Ryu take on the Super Street Fighter II Turbo version of him, and each will play exactly as they did in those games. Like, right down to the amount of frames of animation. That’s apparently a very big deal for professional players, who measure that stuff like scientists. It’s a neat idea for a game. Whether you view this as the ultimate gift to fans or a soulless cash grab is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not so into Street Fighter II that I remotely care about the nuances of what moves can counter what moves based on what frames of animation you’re in, but I guess I’m happy this exists for fans that basically kept arcade afloat in the 90s.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #13 of 34

The King of Dragons (1991)
Directed by Tomoshi Sadamoto
Also included in Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle

The first in a series of four sword-and-sorcery brawlers from Capcom that would eventually carry the Dungeons & Dragons™ label, King of Dragons feels like a proof of concept for better things to come. There’s five fighters to choose from, but the ability to select them between rounds is nulified by the fact that they don’t level-up on par with the fighter you’re using. The characters you don’t select do gain XP, but not at the same rate. So, when my Cleric was a level 11, the other four fighters were levels 5 or 6. Why would I want to swap to them? By this point, the enemies, and especially the bosses, were spongy enough without selecting a character half-as-strong. The King of Dragons is only a three player game too, so some characters will just be stuck trailing the others even if you max-out the co-op potential. That dumb decision was probably the difference between a YES and a NO, because the ultra-repetitive combat could have used the ability to seamlessly swap between characters to take the edge off the monotony. You only get one standard move per character, plus a jump button and a crash attack that eats through your health. Top this off with mostly dull set pieces and underwhelming boss fights and you have the recipe for pure, unadulterated mediocrity. The King of Dragons isn’t a complete wash. There’s a couple decent levels that seem to have been inspired by the works of Ray Harryhausen, but the feathery combat that lacks OOMPH seals the deal. King of Dragons is a gigantic bore.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #26 of 34

Knights of the Round (1991)
Designed by Akira Nishitani
Also Included in Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle

I generally like Arthurian legend retellings, as long as they don’t star Richard Gere as Lancelot. But, Knights of the Round is a bit of a bore. I’ve previously given it a YES for #IGCvSNES, though it’s very close to the bottom of the YES pile and I could honestly go either way at any given time. The issue with Knights of the Round is the same as many Capcom brawlers: being married to two-button combat limits your options greatly. They did try to change it up by having a tilt-the-joystick mechanic where you can do an overhead slash if you attack and then immediately press forward. It makes for fighting normal baddies mostly fun. Then you get to the bosses, who are spongy, don’t play fair, and often just linger at the edge of the screen. Many require you to ping single hits off them with a bob-and-weave attack style, especially since they can cut your health all the way down with just a couple blows landed. They reskin the bosses quite a bit too, with some reappearing as normal baddies over the course of the forty-five minutes it takes to finish this with one player (it feels longer). There’s a horse, but I found actually trying to keep yourself mounted on it is more trouble than it’s worth, especially since I couldn’t line-up with the enemies most of the time while riding it. Like I said, I could see myself going YES or NO at any given time, and this time around, I was just bored the entire time. That tells me that Knights of the Round doesn’t hold up to replays very well. I can only review based on my experience this play through, so I have to go NO! Them’s the rules.
Verdict: NO!
**FLIP!** Previously received a YES! in Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle
2nd Stadium Ranking: #23 of #34

Last Duel (1988)
Designed by Takashi Nishiyama

I wasn’t expecting to run into controversy with Last Duel, a game I’d never heard of before I started this run. There’s apparently multiple different ROM sets, and the one included in Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium isn’t 100% the definitive version. Either way, I can only count the version of Last Duel that was officially re-released. It’s an interesting premise: a shmup where levels alternate between a futuristic car that you have to manually bring up to speed, and a slow-ass generic space shooter. I wish it had just stuck to the car sections, which manage to feel novel and fresh. Once you charge-up your weapons, you should be able to take out most of the baddies while moving at full speed and leaping over pits. In the space sections, Last Duel becomes a poor man’s Life Force (that’s Salamander anywhere but America). Neither style are particularly bad, but the car sections are too cramped and focused on near-misses (like a driving game) while the space sections are just soulless. The Last Duel got lost to obscurity for a reason.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #29 of 34

Magic Sword (1990)
Designed by Yoshimi Ohnishi, Tomoshi Sadamoto, and Yoshiki Okamoto

Magic Sword is like the black-out drunk version of an ambitious arcade RPG, and I swear to god I mean that in the nicest way. It’s so stupid that it’s endearing for it. Absolutely no finesse is required as you jump around and button mash your way through fifty floors of non-stop side-scrolling sword-and-sorcery action. There’s only one combat button (two if you count the seldom-used-outside-bosses magic attack) and almost all enemies can be killed by waving your sword at them without having to use any strategy. Maybe a couple have weak points that require all the complexity of jumping up to hit them instead of just spamming attacks on the ground. Unlike their early efforts, Capcom was very generous giving out power-ups and the various allies that you can free from jail cells who stand behind you and add boosts to your attack. They’re everywhere with no rhyme or reason in how they were spaced out. You often can free several different ones in a row and have your pick of the litter. But, it’s still a Capcom game, which means booby-trapped treasure chests and cell doors galore. Capcom is like that one asshole friend who keeps giving people the peanut can with spring-loaded snakes every Christmas and laughs until he’s purple in the face every time. That becomes problematic in the final third of the game, when the whammies seem to outnumber the actual items. Even worse is that for a game that’s all-combat, all the time, I kind of wish it felt more impactful. The OOMPH isn’t completely non-existent, but this hardly feels as satisfactorily violent as Capcom games were starting to get during this time period, resulting in attacks being a bit weightless. Still, dumb as Magic Sword is, I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun from start to finish and one of their most underrated arcaders ever. It just never gets slow or boring, which puts it in the upper-echelon of its breed.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #5 of 34

Mega Man: The Power Battle (1995)
Designed by Koji Ohkohara

What a weird idea for an arcade game. Granted, the idea of a Mega Man boss rush is an absolute no-brainer, but it’s the way they did it. Structured somewhere between traditional Mega Man mechanics and a fighting game, Mega Man: The Power Battle features some all-star Robot Masters from the first seven games of the franchise (and some bizarro choices. Who the hell thought fans would be like “OH MY GOD IT’S DUST MAN! TEE HEE!”) and frankly the best versions of the Yellow Devil ever. The issue is the “steal enemy weakness to use on next robot” mechanic feels flimsy and inconsistent, and some enemies (such as Turbo Man) take forever to show vulnerability. This was also one of the rare 90s Capcom arcade games that felt unresponsive, especially pressing the button that switches you to the acquired weapons. I had to press more than once quite often to get it to switch. I actually passed the controller off to my sister to verify I wasn’t imagining it. I wasn’t. Even despite all the problems, I was right on the edge of still enjoying it. But, the Mega Man 4 – 6 and Mega Man 7 levels were so brutally spongy that they crossed the line into boring. Power Battle feels like a prototype that should never have released, especially compared to the sequel that followed this. Hey, getting it wrong the first time seems like a tradition with Mega Man.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #25 of 34

Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters (1996)
Designed by Koji Ohkohara

Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters is a massive improvement over the previous game, a status that bumps it up only to “just alright.” The Robot Master roster is vastly improved and the conventional Mega Man “use weapon acquired from boss X on boss Y” is implemented much better here. Well, sort of. This time, when you find the correct weapon to use, the enemy comically recoils with a little too much pomp, especially the first time you do it each battle. At least you know you got it, I suppose. Plus, it led to one of the most pathetic sequences I’ve ever had in my gaming life where it looked like I was just slapping Cutman down over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. Anyway, this is exactly the Mega Man boss rush game I’ve always talked about wanting. It turns out, it already existed. So, what’s the problem? Well, it turns out it’s just not a very exciting format. For Power Fighters, my enjoyment level was a steady “okay” with no highs or lows (besides the still somewhat sketchy weapon switching). It’s a big, splashy Mega Man boss rush, and the best thing I can say about it is that it made me appreciate the actual levels in the original Mega Man games more. The fights with Robot Masters in Mega Man games can be really fun and exciting, but they only really work as the topping of an already delicious sundae. As their own thing, it’s like how every kid eats tries eating just sprinkles at least once. After a few bites you realize they only work along with the ice cream and hot fudge. So, thanks Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters for answering a question I always had the franchise. Oh and for not being crappy, of course.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #15 of 34

Midnight Wanderers (1991)
Game #1 of 3 from Three Wonders
Directed by Yoshiki Okamoto

Three Wonders has three different games that, by complete coincidence, appear in the order of their quality. Midnight Wanderers is by far the strongest of the three. It’s sort of like SNK’s Metal Slug games, only swap the military theme for a fantasy one that leans a little harder on platforming tropes. You run and shoot your way through five levels of various themes, taking out Jabba the Hut lookalikes, jack in the boxes, and endless malicious elves. At first, it feels pretty generic, like one of those endless SNES/Genesis mascot platformers by a third-string publisher who so desperately wants to launch a tent-pole franchise. Think Bubsy or Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel. I braced myself for the soullessness to sweep over me. But, Midnight Wanderer’s exaggerated enemy animations, rock-solid controls, and outstanding boss fights won me over. I wish the game had done more with the hanging-mechanic, where close-call jumps that you short are saved by grabbing onto a ledge by your fingers. Hell, I wish the game had relied more heavily on timed-jump sections, since every instance of those featured here was pitch-perfect and make this a surprisingly intense experience. I get why this ended up in a three-for-one arcade board. Midnight Wanderers never feels like an arcade game, and it’s too short to be an early-era 16-bit home game. Thank god for the home release of Three Wonders, where it can finally find its niche. The forgettable player character lacks soul, but Midnight Wanderers is legit.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #6 of 34
Winner: Biggest Surprise of the Set

Pnickies (1994)
Designed by Masanobu Tsukamoto

In the long annals of well-based drop puzzlers, Pnickies is among the dullest. A slower, plodding answer to the Puyo Puyo franchise, here you link pairs of colored blobs, some of which contain a star in them. Once they settle, the blobs merge with all matching colors they’re touching. If the settled blob has two stars in it, no matter how far apart the stars are, the blob is broken and you score points. It’s a boring formula that might have worked with fewer colors. Maybe. Of course, after a little while it begins adding more colors and becomes next to impossible, especially when the speed quickly escelates to ludicrous speed. Plus, there’s no reason to really get too fancy with chains and combos. It doesn’t even really reward you for cascading chains, instead focusing on shattering larger blobs with more than two stars in them. I figured this might be more exciting as a multiplayer game, but this is one of those puzzlers where the first person to land enough garbage blocks is going to have a massive advantage. Capcom would eventually do better with Puzzle Fighter, but their first attempt at this type of puzzler is among their most boring coin-ops.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #27 of 34

Rally 2011 LED Storm (1988)
Designed by Tomoshi Sadamoto

Buzz has it this unreleased prototype was sent back to the shop for retooling because it went unloved during route testing (the practice of placing near-finished prototypes at a prominent location to gauge earnings potential). Assuming it’s true, the practice failed Rally 2011: LED Storm. Having played both the actual game that came out (known as Mad Gear in Japan) and this original build, they got it right the first time. A sort of F-Zero before that was a thing, racing barely factors in. This is more of a bumper cars experience that hugely emphasizes jumping up and crushing opposing cars. The combat is very satisfying, as there’s something viscerally pleasurable about jumping on a car. You can also transform into a motorcycle, which goes slightly faster but corners worse. It’s not a perfect game by any means. Via rewinding, I was able to determine that sometimes the game deliberately places items out-of-bounds, perhaps to tempt you into driving off the track. That’s a crappy way to add difficulty. Also, there was only one moment in the entire game, a huge jump, that I felt the motorcycle was actually necessary. The transformation gimmick is underwhelming. Stick to the car and enjoy a basic but genuinely exciting car combat game. Fun fact: this and the released LED Storm served as the inspiration for the Autopia for Capcom’s Adventures in the Magic Kingdom NES game.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #16 of 34

Savage Bees (1985)
aka Exed Exes
Designed by Yoshiki Okamoto
Also included in Capcom Arcade Cabinet

Sigh. You know, the Capcom Arcade Stadium format can make some of the most basic games exciting, but it’s not a miracle worker. I did enjoy taking-on the challenge scoring 80,000 points, but, I think it was the challenge I enjoyed more than the game itself. Exed Exes was left out of the original Stadium’s lineup for a reason. It’s an ultra-bland shmup where the nicest thing I can say about it is it’s competent, but it’s so generic that there’s nothing to get excited about. Like many early Capcom shmups, Exed Exes is frugal with power-ups, and even the bomb is weak sauce. Instead of clearing the screen of enemies, this time, it only removes only their projectiles. It’s so underwhelming. There’s one idea I like: a scoring zone right before you reach the bosses with items that turn the stationary skulls on the playfield into fruits you can eat. Then again, you can just shoot the skulls a few times as well for the same amount of points they give you as a tomato. Still, that’s a nifty idea that complements Stadium’s score challenge mode perfectly, and that’s the only positive thing about this otherwise mundane shooter.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #30 of 34

Saturday Night Slam Masters (1993)
Designed by Tetsuo Hara
Directed by Takashi Sado

Over the course of my retro gaming adventures, I didn’t find a single 80s or 90s wrestling game that I found to “good” without requiring several “for its time” asterisks. Then I played Saturday Night Slam Masters, and it was fun. There’s no real wrestlers, but Mike Haggar from Final Fight finally got to be in a good game, so there’s that. It’s kind of hard to do a grapple since it’s mapped to the attack button, and pulling off special moves can be a pain in the butt. Oh and there’s no emphasis on finishing moves, which is sort of a hallmark of pro wrestling. Of course, I couldn’t even tell what wrestling moves were being done half the time because they zip by so fast, so having finishers wouldn’t have made all that big a difference. But, the action is fun and violent and feels exactly like what Street Fighter 2 would be if it had fewer buttons and you had to win by pinfall, submission, or even count-out. I didn’t think I’d enjoy any wrestling game that came out before WCW/nWo World Tour for the Nintendo 64, but Saturday Night Slam Masters proved me wrong.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #12 of 34

SonSon (1984)
Directed by Yoshiki Okamoto
Free to Play without purchase of Capcom Arcade Stadium 2
Also included in Capcom Arcade Cabinet

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For Capcom Arcade Cabinet, I didn’t enjoy SonSon at all. I’ve never been a fan of the auto-moving hop-between-platforms style of shooters. But, I’ve had a change of heart with Stadium 2. While I still wouldn’t want to play all the way through this, the format and extra features of this collection actually make SonSon a genuine thrill to play when you go for the challenge modes. Specifically, score challenge, which requires you to put up a minimum score of 100,000 points to get your score listed online. It made me appreciate the simple but elegant scoring system that incentivizes you to kill every enemy in every wave to score bonus points. It’s so fundamental, but it works wonderfully. I genuinely only meant to put about thirty minutes into every release, but right from the first game, I lost almost two hours to trying to hit that damn score. When scoring actually matters, SonSon suddenly becomes an intense, twitchy shooter that heavily weighs risk and reward, especially when chasing down the items, and it’s a lot of fun. I wish movement and controls were a little tighter. I really wish there were power-ups that improved the gun, and I really hate how you don’t blink when you come back to life after dying (SO cheap) but I’ll be damned: I really enjoyed my time with SonSon. Go figure.
Verdict: YES!
**FLIP!** Previously received a NO! in Capcom Arcade Cabinet
2nd Stadium Ranking: #20 of 34

The Speed Rumbler (1986)
Designed by Tokuro Fujiwara & Yoshiki Okamoto
Also included in Capcom Arcade Cabinet

Speed Rumbler is sort of like granddaddy of the original top-down Grand Theft Auto games, but not in a good way. This was my least favorite title when I ran through Capcom Arcade Cabinet, and I wouldn’t have been shocked if it finished dead last again. Even cheating, save states, and Capcom Arcade Stadium 2’s challenge formats can’t save this dumpster fire. Spongy enemies. Small enemies that are hard to line your bullets up with. Enemies a lot more mobile than you. All in a game that claims to be based around speed. The irony is, my best runs in Speed Rumbler involved me heel-toeing my way through levels, where I could start to ping enemies as they entered the screen. When I actually took the title to heart and tried to speed around the courses, I was basically just a bullet magnet. Even worse: I didn’t score any points, because enemies take too many shots to kill. The mechanic of being able to jump out of a car as it’s about to be destroyed sounds great, but I got killed soon after every time but once because you’re usually stuck in the middle of a screenful of enemies. They had a great idea with Speed Rumbler, but how they implemented that idea seemed like it was done specifically to remove everything fun from it. Advertise speed, then penalize you for going fast. Absolutely terrible. The scary thing is, there were three games worse than this in this set alone.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #31 of 34

Street Fighter (1987)
Designed by Hiroshi Matsumoto
Directed by Takashi Nishiyama
Also included in Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection

Wow. I had actually never played the original Street Fighter, at least for more than a second. I think I fired it up on MAME on a lark once, and then turned it off when I attempted to throw the first punch. Actually forcing myself to play this for a little over an hour made me realize that the tales of how putrid it is really don’t do it justice. You have to experience Street Fighter 1 to appreciate just how awful it is. Press any button on the controller and the game is like “thanks for the suggestion! It will be taken under advisement!” You only get one fighter in single player mode, Ryu, which is fine, since actually pulling off his special moves is like pulling teeth. In fact, I couldn’t deliberately throw a single fireball or dragon punch. I didn’t pull that off until I just started rotating the control stick and start mashing buttons, at which point I was throwing a dragon punch every other move. The enemy AI becomes next to impossible, even on the easiest setting. Worst of all, in my opinion, is the total lack of OOMPH to the violence. The fights have no weight or inertia to them, as if you’re fighting with paper dolls. It’s nothing sort of astonishing that the people who went on to make this trash fire went to make SNK’s beloved Fatal Fury games, while this particular title itself directly led to the single most important video game of the first half of the 1990s. Street Fighter could very well be the worst fighting game ever made, and no review can fully convey just how ghastly it is. Finally experiencing it reminded me of the difference between hearing about a tonsillectomy and actually receiving one. It’s something you can’t really fathom until you live through it. Fans of this (yes, it has fans, but then again there’s fans of everything. There’s fans serrated dildos) will argue that it’s better in arcades, where it had pressure-sensitive buttons. Okay, fine, but ports of Street Fighter 1 can’t do that, so why even bother?
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #34 of 34 **WORST GAME IN CAPCOM ARCADE 2ND STADIUM**

Street Fighter Alpha: Warriors’ Dreams (1995)
Designed by Noritaka Funamizu, Haruo Murata, and Hideaki Itsuno
Also included in Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection

I had never played the original Street Fighter Alpha until this project. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew going into it the series is held in high esteem, but right before I began playing this game, I got warnings that the Alpha games get good after the first one. They weren’t just whistling dixie. It’s not that Street Fighter Alpha is bad or anything. It’s fine. It just feels like Capcom was spinning their wheels, completely directionless. The super combo system from Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo is here, along with a super counter-attack that uses your special meter. It’s all fine, but Alpha is nothing special. While I really like the art direction, it also feels a lot less impactful than previous games, and the new fighters are kind of boring. I’ll say this about the new roster: it makes me appreciate the lightning in a bottle they achieved with Street Fighter 2’s lineup. Probably the best thing I can say about Street Fighter Alpha 1 is that it makes an excellent teaser for Street Fighter Alpha 2, a vastly superior game.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #14 of 34

Street Fighter Alpha 2 (1996)
Designed by Noritaka Funamizu, Hidetoshi Ishizawa, Hidetoshi Ishizawa, and Katsuyuki Kanetaka
Also included in Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection

Street Fighter Alpha 2 feels like the complete game that Alpha 1 laid the foundation for. Smoother controls and significantly better OOMPH help make this one of the best games in the series. While it has that unshakable sensation of a retread, the strong roster of fighters, excellent character balance, and the new-to-the-franchise custom combos really make this a standout. The only weak links are some of the character designs are outright boring, but Alpha 2 had my favorite versions of fighters like M. Bison and Ryu, which matters more to me. Plus, Street Fighter Alpha 2 is one of the best entry points for the franchise. Let me put it this way: Alpha 2 is one of the last “pick-up-and-play” Street Fighter games. I got a tension headache trying to figure out what to make of Street Fighter Alpha 3’s multiple play-styles. Comparatively, Alpha 2 feels like the last game that isn’t made specifically for the hardcore fighting fan. All the Alpha games withstand the test of time, but Street Fighter Alpha 2 is the only of the trio that feels like it belongs to everyone.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #2 of 34

Street Fighter Alpha 3 (1998)
Directed by Naoto Ohta, Mamoru Ōhashi, Buruma, and Koji Okohara
Also included in Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection

After playing Street Fighter Alpha 2 and 3, I felt weird because I really liked Street Fighter Alpha 2 more. It turns out, fighting fanatics are split on the duo as well. Alpha 3 gives players three different play styles, which sounds good on paper. In reality, you have to choose which type of special move you want to be able to pull off. Custom combos? You can only do them if you choose V-ISM. But, if you choose V-ISM, you can’t do super combos. Pick X-ISM for stronger attacks, but you can’t do mid-air blocking, custom combos, or alpha counters. A-ISM is the “average” one but the custom combos aren’t there either. While I’m sure professional gamers love all the variety, what if you just want to pick up and play a fighter? Maybe learn a move or two for a couple characters?  Street Fighter Alpha 3 is still pretty fun because the base Street Fighter formula is kind of perfect. But, Street Fighter Alpha 3 feels like a game that’s not made for me. It’s for the hardcore fans only. Games like that have a place, and if any fanbase is rabid enough to earn a game this nuanced, it’s Street Fighter fans. It just feels like something designed for tournament play by players of much higher skillsets than I could ever hope to have. The massive roster of twenty-five characters is actually a turn-off because the game is asking me to play three different ways (and that’s not even factoring in whether you’re using Turbo or Standard) to decide which characters to use. Did I enjoy it? Sure, because Street Fighter is awesome. But if I had to describe Alpha 3 in one word, that word would be “overwhelming.”
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #11 of 34

Super Gem Fighter Mini Mix (1997)
Designed by Katsuhiro Eguchi, Naoto Ohta, and Mamoru Ōhashi
Also Included in Capcom Fighting Collection

With its simplified three-button layout and ultra-cute makeover of classic Capcom fighting game characters, you might mistake Super Gem Fighter Mini Mix as being a kiddie release. It’s not. Instead, it kind of feels like Capcom clapping back at hardcore fighting fans and saying “oh for God’s sake, just have fun!” If I’m right about that, they certainly nailed it. Gem Fighter is a wacky, button-mashing, over-the-top fighter based on building strength by collecting gems and hitting big moves. There’s only twelve fighters (plus two hidden ones) and some of the moves are absolutely bonkers. Like Zangief putting on a lucha libre mask and swinging a folding chair, or Chun Li winning by kissing someone with such passion that they faint. It was a different time. Anyway, landing big moves is so satisfying (though getting the timing down is maddening) and honestly I liked this a lot more than I’ve liked Street Fighter in recent times. By the way, while this feels like a fighter made for everyone (as opposed to where Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Street Fighter 3 were taking the genre, which felt like it was only for hardcore fighting fans), there’s still a sophisticated combo and counter system for those who want to put the time into it. Weirdly, this game that I think is a “fighter made for everyone” also has some of the funniest visual gags I’ve seen in any game, including many pitch-perfect subversions of the characters. If you’re not smiling while you play Gem Fighter, you have no soul.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #4 of 34

Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo (1996)
Designed by Naoto Ohta and Katsuhiro Eguchi
Also included in Capcom Fighting Collection because.. um.. it says “fighter” I guess?

One of the few games in this feature that I actually grew up with, I had Super Puzzle Fighter for the PS1 as a kid. This, and not Tetris, was my introduction to the well puzzler. My parents picked it out for me, and it turns out, they did a pretty good job. Puzzle Fighter is one of the greats of the genre. It’s a wonderful formula that heavily incentivizes combos and planning ahead. The way garbage blocks are implemented, with a countdown before they convert to standard blocks, allows you to set traps that will pay off. Well, assuming you can keep your head above water while waiting for them to detonate.The frequent nail biting finishes leads to this being one of the most overall exciting puzzle games ever made. Oh, and as a versus game? No puzzler ever has the potential for a match to turn on a dime like Puzzle Fighter. Success requires a game plan, cool nerves, and fourth-dimensional thinking. That I have to think really hard about whether I prefer this to Pokemon Puzzle League is saying a lot. Capcom isn’t a company known for this kind of game, which is weird because they made what might be the best of its breed. My only wish is that you could do a vertical screen mode that makes the well taller. That would make for a truly breathtaking experience.
Verdict: YES!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #3 of 34

Tiger Road (1987)
Designed by Tokuro Fujiwara

Tiger Road is a better version of whatever the hell they were aiming for with Trojan. The two games are close cousins, especially the emphasis on high-speed, stiff jumping. Notice I didn’t say it’s a good game, though. Tiger Road’s positive aspects are minimal. There’s some fun enemy and boss design and the combat can be satisfactory, at least when it feels like they’re trying to rip-off Kid Niki. It does that Capcom thing where some of the items screw you. In this case, both enemies and dispensers drop these bell things that cut your life in half. Then, you get to the moments where the game quits trying to be fun and just straight-up tries to kill you so that you have to insert more quarters. Enemies that literally spawn on the pixel you’re on, with no possible visual cue they’re going to. Forcing you to jump into the pathways where projectiles are coming from both sides. Instakill death traps with those “forced damage” jumps. The entire time I was playing the game, I had it drop exactly one free life and two health refills, though one did come after a section that left you no choice on the damage. Tiger Road was the final straw for any lingering respect I had left for Capcom’s 80s efforts. They had zero interest in making their games fun. They wanted you to game over quickly. The proof that they didn’t give a single shit if you had fun is how toothless the final boss is. I first-tried it without cheating in about 10 seconds. Why bother with effort at that point? They already shook you down for your quarters. Be gone with you, loser. That was their attitude with coin-ops. Of course, this is a company that barely carved out an existence during that era, before the NES saved it. That’s around the time they finally pulled their heads out of their ass and realized that fun games, not unfair ones, make money. That’s when they became.. well.. Capcom. Almost every game before that revelation was basically as ethical as a carnival scam.
Verdict: NO!
2nd Stadium Ranking: #28 of 34

Beasts of Maravilla Island (Review)

I spent a good part of 2021 drooling all over New Pokemon Snap. It was my no-doubt-about-it Game of the Year of 2021, because all I’ve ever cared about with video games is having the time of my life and not being “moved emotionally” or whatever everyone else’s choice did for them. The thing is though, people mistook my love of Snap for a love of photography gameplay. It wasn’t. New Pokemon Snap is really just a rail shooter where instead of firing bullets you’re capturing photons. Plus, I’m a sucker for Disneyland-style dark rides and New Pokemon Snap is basically a series of interactive dark rides that you don’t have to wait in line for an hour to ride. The secret to New Pokemon Snap’s magic is that it’s not just about the photography. That’s just the means to the end, like how the New York Knicks only really exist these days to keep tabs on Spike Lee’s whereabouts and to promote shitty indie bands.

Beasts of Maravilla Island uses the same formula as Pokemon for creating unique creatures: animal + unrelated animal = Thingamon. Like this otter mixed with a crocodile creature where the first thing that popped into my head was “thunder.. THUNDER.. THUNDERCROCS! HOOOOO!”

But, once New Pokemon Snap had me and my family roped in, the thing that kept us playing it FOR WEEKS (and hell, my Mom still plays it every day and has some global-ranked scores) was trying to get the highest scoring pictures. If you’re a game where the core gameplay mechanic is photography, but the actual pictures you take don’t matter at all, you’re really just a glorified scavenger hunt that’s going to run out of steam quickly. That’s Beasts of Maravilla Island, the indie photography game I snapped up (see what I did there?) for Nintendo Switch because it’s currently discounted. Really, comparing it to New Pokemon Snap isn’t fair, since they’re two different genres. Snap is a rail shooter, but Beasts is a full 3D adventure.. with creatures that look just like Pokemon. Seriously, a spooky deer keeps showing up and it’s so close to looking like Xerneas that it kind of gets uncomfortable.

Yikes!

Beasts is really short, consisting only of three game worlds that fly by quickly. That’s FINE, because this is meant to be a breezy, no-pressure light-hearted adventure and not every game has to be a 40 hour epic. In that time, not counting the instances where I seemingly locked the game up, I took pictures of almost everything. In fact, I was a bit startled when, after about ten minutes of walking around the first level, I got a notification that I had just taken a picture of every kind of plant on the stage. “Really?” I thought. Nothing was really hidden. It just all out in the open, and sometimes, I wasn’t even trying to get those pictures. Not only do you not need to take quality pictures, but you don’t even need to necessarily see what you’re taking photos of. You can just turn on the camera and scroll around, and when something new is in the frame, it says NEW right on the screen. Just take a picture and you’ll check whatever it is off the list. Even if it hasn’t loaded the sprite for it into the game engine, you’ll get credit. Check out this ten second clip, where I get credit for capturing a picture of a flower that isn’t even visible from the distance I’m at.

Well, that’s not fun! The photography is the entire hook of Beasts, but I took plenty of pictures of things that weren’t even rendered yet and got credit for them. Beasts of Maravilla Island is an ambitious game buried by technical limitations and haphazard execution. The island itself isn’t far off from a Disneyland-like setting, but my immersion was constantly being broken by frame rate hiccups, janky animation, or seeing that my character wasn’t physically touching the vine they were climbing up. Beasts of Maravilla Island looks great.. in still screenshots. But the world itself never feels authentic and alive, which you need if you want a game like this to work.

Well, the first two worlds look great in screenshots. The third and final world, which I completed in roughly 20 minutes, looks like cars from Cel Damage could pop by to frag me at any second. Also, this entire level felt like someone was snapping their fingers the entire time saying “come on, let’s wrap this shit up.”

The shame is, there’s actually a really good video game buried in this mess. The characters and animals are fun, and there’s even some nice puzzles involving guiding beams of light to flowers. The team who made this aren’t hacks by any means. They had a good idea, and it was just a little too ambitious for the resources they had. Really, Beasts needed more time to cook. The photograph system needed a point beyond being a scavenger hunt where just looking in the general direction of something new doesn’t count towards checking whatever off the list. I can’t imagine I’d ever want to just take pictures of the animals featured just for the sake of it. I need a reason, and the game doesn’t really give you one. There’s only three “featured” animals who you have to capture different behavior of, and the game sets you up with the scenarios to get those. Like, you want to see the Otter-Crocodile thingy doing a backflip? It gives you a rock to throw into the water to make it do the move. Easy peasy. Did you not even get the thing in frame and only barely captured the tip of its tail? It still counts. ✔️ Other creatures do things like run across water or whistle or show their plumage, but all that matters is checking them off the list.

This is like combining the Mime in the Box with the Mime with the Rope Ladder bit.

So, no, I didn’t like Beasts of Maravilla Island. And the stuff I mentioned already is hardly the only problems. The level design is dull and easy to get lost in. There’s majestic temples that fuck all happens in. The game sets up this mechanic where you get glowing flower pollen all over you to help lure things closer to you, but it feels like it’s inconsequential to actually getting photographs of animals. And ultimately, it just feels unfinished, rough around the edges, and directionless. It’s not fair to compare a small scale indie game to a blockbuster like New Pokemon Snap, and I’m not. As its own thing, Beasts of Maravilla Island is a photography game where the photography doesn’t even matter, and that’s just plain not any fun. That’s like doing a racing game where crossing the finish line doesn’t matter. You had one thing to do!

Beasts of Maravilla Island is not IGC Approved

Beasts of Maravilla Island was developed by Banana Bird Studios
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, Steam

$4.99 (Normally $9.99) said the selfie mode never seemed to get another animal in the picture, so why even bother in the making of this review?

Dawn of the Monsters (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Widow: Recharged (Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Centipede: Recharged (Review)

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

Geometrypede.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praey for the Gods (Review)

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

An absurdity bordering on madness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why isn’t this an instant classic? Why is it average when it could have been legendary? Because the three guys who made this had nobody hovering over them, telling them “no.” That’s a valuable thing to have. Sure, they had years of early access feedback, but having read through literally months of Praey’s user reviews, most of it is just white noise. BUT, the overly-quick weapon/tool degradation came up a lot. Their solution to this was apparently the easy mode that prevents full breakage. I think?! Maybe it was there and people were just playing harder modes (easy IS the default setting today). So uh.. how about just making that whole thing optional? The core of Praey for the Gods doesn’t require it. It’s just an aspect that hurts the game for all but a very, very small niche of players. But, they were married to this idea, and it stayed in to serve no purpose but to 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

 

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Hell!

INKWELL HELL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every single one of those spikes I shot instantly hit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head over to The Definitive Review of Delicious Last Course!

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

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

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

At least until the DLC hits..

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Three

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

Inkwell Isle III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Public domain music plays).

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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