Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Hell!

INKWELL HELL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every single one of those spikes I shot instantly hit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least until the DLC hits..

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Three

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

Inkwell Isle III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Public domain music plays).

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Two

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

INKWELL ISLE II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Wait, why I am excited for Cuphead?

Brain: Because you love Cuphead, you fucking idiot.

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

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

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

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

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

INKWELL ISLE I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuphead: The (NOT SO) Final Review

UPDATE – DECEMBER 31, 2021: Um, yeah, so at the end of 2021, I did a four-part re-re-re-review of Cuphead, and flipped my opinion on it. Cuphead is Chick Approved now. I still worked very hard on all three original Cuphead reviews, so I hope you read them anyway, but seriously, read my FOR-REAL HONEST-TO-GOD FINAL *FINAL* THOUGHTS ON CUPHEAD (at least until the DLC hits) head over to part one of Cuphead: The Definitive Review!

I’ve already reviewed Cuphead twice, once when it first came out in 2017, and again in late October of last year. I didn’t like it. This is no secret. The problem is, a fairly large section of gamers that need people to like the games they like because they subconsciously look at it as affirmation for their own self-worth said my opinions didn’t count because I didn’t beat the game. Mind you, some of them.. most of them probably judging by the percentages.. didn’t beat it either. But they plan on it. It’s on their increasingly yellowed, tattered to-do list, right under games like Battletoads or Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Which they will get to any day now. When they get some free time and Netflix has nothing good on. And hey, since they say they’ll eventually find the time to beat these things, it’s totally cool that they white knight for them, while not cool that you point out the flaws in these games or their argument. It’s not a double standard at all. Apples and oranges. Totally different, as anyone can see.

I wasn’t sure what “gitting gud” or beating Cuphead would change about the stuff I primarily disliked about it. The cheap shots. The lack of checkpoints. The fact that there is a simple mode for the first seventeen bosses (though not for the Run ‘N Gun stages, which are technically optional as long as you don’t want to buy any upgrades), but using the Simple option gates you off the final two boss fights. Proponents of the Headed Cup say that the enjoyment and fun is when you finally triumph, and that getting to that point isn’t necessarily meant to be fun because the point is the challenge. By giving up on that challenge, they say my opinion is voided and nothing I say about the game counts because I played it wrong, I guess? By not failing enough? Or getting bored with failing? Even though they say the point is to fail? I think? Wait, what is their argument again? That it couldn’t have the easy modes that it already fucking has.. why? And my opinion doesn’t count until I beat it, why? I don’t get it. It’s like saying you can’t be grateful for airbags until you’ve hit a deer doing 80mph.

I mean, you can just say what you really want to say: “I can’t handle you not liking this game because I base all my self-esteem on the success of games by developers who would find me Steven Urkel levels of annoying if they knew me.” Whatever, my reviews for Cuphead don’t count unless I beat it.

Fine, I’ll play it their way.

I just beat Cuphead. Here’s a playlist of me beating all 19 boss stages. I also beat three Run ‘N Gun stages so I could get the 15 coins out of them plus all the hidden coins so I could buy all the guns.

My friends thought I’d lost my mind. Why would I subject myself to hours upon hours of a game I didn’t like? Because, out of fairness, the critics of my criticism might have had a point. While I was fairly certain, based on my nearly 23-years of gaming experience, that I wouldn’t have liked Cuphead even if I forced myself to sit down and beat it all the way through, I couldn’t know for sure.

I’m a moderately well-known indie game critic. But who am I to double-down on every single review I make and say that I know the stuff I’m guessing is right? Doing so makes me no better than the fans who sent me hate mail for these reviews. How can I expect anyone to try to see it my way when I myself am unwilling to try to see it their way? So, I decided to take that complaint off the table, permanently and put the ball in their court. And really, the only way to do that was to finish the game.

My goal was to get all seventeen “contracts” from the bosses of Cuphead’s first three worlds, giving me access to the final stages against antagonists King Dice and the Devil. And I took it very seriously. I spent over a week studying videos of “professional” Cuphead players, learning the tactics and strategies, then attempted to apply what I learned and see if I could watch the credits roll and add the finished game achievement points to my account. Originally I was going to do it one hour at a time once a day, but I shit canned that when I realized that I’d need at least that much time to warm-up every day. And some days, like Thursday evening to Friday early morning, I was doing insanely good.

At 6:50AM yesterday morning, I beat the Devil and rolled the credits. I can now say I’ve beaten Cuphead. Mic drop.

So, under my authority as someone who gitted gud at Cuphead: Cuphead still fucking sucks. Hell, if anything I have more stuff to complain about now. For those of you who can’t handle hearing people make valid complaints about your favorite games, do yourself a favor and leave now. I promise I’ll return to under-the-radar games you don’t base your self-esteem on in the coming days.

And the shit thing is, Cuphead didn’t have to suck. There is no reason why the game had to be this hard, or at times play as unfair as it did. Having now finished the whole thing (no I’m not playing it again on expert. This isn’t politics, assholes. You don’t get to keep moving the goalposts on me), I did manage to find more fun than either of my previous two sessions, though never to an astonishing degree. What limited fun I did have, we can’t rule out Stockholm Syndrome for either. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 2017, I actually did get all the contracts for Inkwell Isle I. But, I decided to start over from scratch with my project (titled “Vice Versus” which isn’t as clever as I thought, in fact it doesn’t really sound as much like vice-versa as I was hoping when spoken out-loud) and re-collect the Inkwell Isle I contracts. Among other reasons, I knew that the key to success was getting the hang of the parry, something I never got the hang of it my first couple forays. I needed the practice.

And I got it in my first encounter where random elements play a significant role in the battle: a pair of frogs who Megazord-together to form a giant slot machine. Yeah. This was the point where I realized I was in big, big trouble. The slot machine has three primary, randomly chosen attack modes. Unlike most bosses, you at least have a warning of what random element you’re going to face-off with when the reels line up. The one that kept screwing me was a series of inner-tubes that would randomly (double the random!!) have a column of fire going up or down. I couldn’t get the hang of this attack in particular and got right to the end multiple times. Fatigue and nerves began to set in and I started taking damage on phases that I had previously got past with no sweat. I even got killed by the slow-moving coins that it launched at me. After 20 or so attempts, I did beat it with a perfect score. Was I overcome with happiness? No. Relief? Well, yeah. If you fail at something dozens of times and then succeed, you’ll be grateful when it’s over because that means you don’t need to do it again. That’s not exactly entertainment. Well, unless you count Joss Whedon’s career.

But, was any bit of it fun? Nope. Not even a little. BUT, I’m willing to concede that I had a little bit of fun with the other four bosses in Inkwell Isle I, and various other bosses in other worlds. Even the shmup bosses I didn’t hate nearly as much. Or at all, really. Truth be told, I found them nearly enjoyable this play-through, having studied-up on how to beat them. The Blimp Chick (she’s literally a blimp, not fat, please don’t accuse me of fat-shaming) along with the Genie and Giant Bird battles from Inkwell Isle II were actually pretty fucking sweet. I didn’t expect that. Especially since I found these stages so dull the first time. Alright, gentlemen: set your faces to “stun.”

I, Indie Gamer Chick, am willing to admit that I was wrong the first couple times I played Cuphead. The shmup stages, previously a sore spot for me, were probably the most consistently decent parts this time around, and yea, sorta fun. Kinda.

Hell, I even beat the giant robot in six attempts and didn’t hate the experience of fighting it. I only really got annoyed on the 4th lost life because the final phase is far too spongy, repetitive, and lasts so long that the tension is lost and it just sort of becomes boring. It’s simply spams the screen with bullets while electrified poles get in the way. Before this, you had a clever set up with three different body parts to attack, each of which has its own unique moves and patterns. I heard more fans of the game complain about this stage than any other, but I thought it was the most fun of the shmups. Then, suddenly, it became an uninspired, lazy bore. And sadly that section lasts half the fight. Half! One constant thing I noticed in the interviews with the developers is they always go back to using the difficulty as a crutch to preemptively reject complaints. But Dr. Kahl’s Robot, one of the most cool and memorable designs in Cuphead, with one of the best sequences in the entire game, goes down as being one of the least popular stages. Someone involved in the game should ask themselves how that can be? Because it’s mostly boring and the boring part ends the fight. It leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. They don’t remember how clever that intro was. They don’t remember the fun when the head flew off. They remember a lazy, first-year game design bullet-hell effort that closed the fight. What a shame.

It shows that the overall difficulty is hardly the only mistake Cuphead makes. Scaling might be an issue. Yes, bosses can be tackled in different orders, but after needing over one-hundred attempts and three days to beat the Dragon, followed by another couple dozen attempts at beating a giant Queen Bee, something strange happened: I annihilated the remaining six bosses in Inkwell III, needing seven or less attempts to beat each. Did I “GiT GuD?” Perhaps. Or maybe the bosses were ordered wrong. Sally Stageplay I beat in just two attempts. Two! She clearly should have been a stage one boss. The pirate could have been a great intro to stage two. The frogs belonged in stage two, maybe stage three. The Dragon SHOULD have been stage three’s final boss and the gatekeeper of the final level. And God Damn, when I finally got to King Dice, he was a bit of a pussy. After making my way through his mini-bosses (all of which but one are thankfully simple, though in a good way that makes sense from a game design perspective), I beat King Dice in my very first direct fight with him despite completely shitting the bed. He was dead in barely half a minute. THAT was the boss that was hyped the entire game? Yeesh.

But, my main complaint is still with the difficulty. I realized by the end that the truly tough bosses were tough because of RNG. The Candy Bitch has an assortment of mini-bosses, three of which are chosen at random to do battle with. And during the second and third fights with those bosses, more elements are added to dodge. If I got the Flying Waffle as the third boss, it meant I was dodging its attacks PLUS little jelly bean things running along the ground PLUS the Candy Bitch shooting projectiles at me. In my successful run, the Waffle was the first of the three I encountered. Yea, I won that round, and did so without taking a hit. But I owe that just as much to good luck as I do any skills I picked up.

The same went for The Dragon the Queen Bee. Those fights have auto-scrolling platforms that come out in random patterns. Many times I found myself in a position where I had to jump, but the level stopped spitting out platforms for me to jump to. I won’t complain about needing over one-hundred attempts to beat the Dragon because my epilepsy came into play and the steps I needed to play it (drowning out my game room with lighting to offset the lightning storm strobe-effect) caused visibility issues for some of the obstacles. I mean, they could have included photosensitive options, but truthfully there’s more color-blind gamers than epileptic ones and they get no help with the pink-shaded parry objects. I sort of feel like colorblind gamers are told to get fucked here by a couple of pretentious “our way or the highway” brothers, but what can you do? I stand with the devs on it. I’m giving them bunny ears with my fingers while doing it, but I stand with them.

UPDATE: Colorblind readers alerted me that black & white mode wouldn’t help either. After sharing a full play-through video of that mode with me, they’re right: you couldn’t possibly know which stuff is a parry or not unless you already knew. The Two-Strip mode (which, like Black & White mode, is gated off unless you perform extra-difficult tasks in the game) I guess would work better for seeing the parryable objects, but at a cost of having other important aspects bleed into each-other. Their solution was to add some kind of shimmer, glow, or other subtle visual cue to the parry objects using an effect that is distinctive from other effects used in the game. This could have been an adjustable option, not something that is present for all players. “There’s plenty of design options that could have been used that are true to the vintage aesthetic.” I normally don’t get pissy about this type of stuff, but given this is such a tentpole indie, having visual accessibility options could have set new standards for the entire scene, and instead of the Moldenhauers seemingly gave no consideration at all. 

My question is, if the bosses are as well designed as fans of the game insist they are, why did it need so many random elements that have NOTHING to do with pattern recognition or defensive maneuvering? Of course, I can’t be 100% for sure. I’m not that good. But, I suspect the random elements led to situations where I couldn’t have possibly hoped to not take damage, based on nothing I did but rather on luck of the draw. I’m not the only person complaining about this, either. Players who do speed-runs complain about the Mermaid/Medusa shmup battle essentially requiring the luck of good RNG to get a perfect score on Expert. This came up constantly on videos from players much better than I, so I figure there must be something to it. So, are you going to tell those guys to shut up and “git gud” when they’re making world-record speed runs that are screwed not by their own skills but because the game’s lottery spit out an unwinnable situation? That fight sucks enough with stun-locking beams that you have to wiggle-the-stick to be able to move again. That wiggling happens in a narrow corridor with lethal coral, like the dam stage from the NES Ninja Turtles game. God damn, devs: stop copying bad levels from old games. Or, if you insist on doing so, try making them good at least, will ya?

Cuphead is well produced, but don’t mistake that for “well made.” McDonalds hamburgers are well produced. No joke. They’re designed by some of the most highly paid food scientists in the world. But that doesn’t mean their food will be up for Michelin Stars. With Cuphead, there’s just too many little things wrong, where someone should have told the Moldenhauers “have you guys considered that you’ve taken things a bit too far during this part?” Like during the King Dice fight, you might encounter a skeletal race horse that’s challenge comes not from enemy design, but by having a TON of objects in the foreground cover up the actual action. It’s an indefensible design decision. I’m sorry but if someone is playing a game and I stand in front of the TV, telling that person “isn’t this hard? Git gud!” isn’t going to fly. They’re going to ask me why I’m being a bitch. Apparently by that point they were so out of ideas that their only solution to add challenge was to make it hard for players to see. They could have added different enemies or basically anything else. It’s a video game. You’re limited only their imagination. But no, they went with blocking the screen. Does it look like a 1930s cartoon? Yea. But Cuphead, get this, isn’t really a 1930s cartoon. It’s a 2017 video game and that section is one you are expected to play. I was embarrassed for the Moldenhauers during that fight. It was so uninspired. Not the character design or the fight itself. Just the challenge. Let’s block the screen. Maybe they have fond memories of standing in front of the TV while each took turns playing Gradius as kids and this was an inside joke for them. Probably not. It was the best they could come up with to add difficulty. And it was fucking lazy.

So here I am, three reviews later, conqueror of Cuphead, and I still don’t like the game. I’m in the 7.19% of Xbox One Cuphead owners who have beaten the game. I got good. So why wasn’t it fun? Why couldn’t it be fun? I want Cuphead owners to take me down this road, where Cuphead exists with checkpoints or the ability to play the final bosses whether you beat the first seventeen on simple or not. Why is this game not as good? Because you lacked the self-restraint to beat the game on normal? That sort of makes it sound like you’re who needs to “git gud” if you can’t resist the siren call of optional difficulty. Like, people truly think that if these options existed, there wouldn’t be people playing on Expert difficulty (which is optional) and doing full 19 – 0 perfect boss runs. Or making up their own challenges, like beating every boss using just the pea-shooter or not parrying unless absolutely necessary to open up a gameplay mechanic. Because people are doing those things. They’re all over YouTube. Hell, this week, I saw someone who discovered you could beat Super Punch-Out!! without ducking, blocking, or dodging. The majority of gamers who want a challenge can find it whether forced by the game or not. Why should the rest of society be held back from having fun because you can’t control yourself? If you think Cuphead should only be played on normal, go play it on normal. If you need games to not have optional difficulty, who the fuck died and anointed you the gatekeeper of real gaming?

I can’t complain about Cuphead’s controls. I’ll vouch for them. They’re solid and responsive. I can’t complain about its concept. I like boss rushes and bullet-sprayers. I can’t complain about its soundtrack or appearance. It’s the best looking video game ever made. Cuphead is a game I want to love, because holy shit, has there ever been an indie this fun to watch? It’s in a league of its own in every single regard except being fun to play. Not that it’s never fun, but too many aspects of the game are based around being difficult just for the sake of doing so. It’s why I find the art almost obnoxious. Because fanboys of Cuphead, and even the developers themselves, use it as a deflect-all shield for why they couldn’t make the game easier. Even though they, you know, did include an easier mode. Those fucking sell-outs! What a weird choice for the Git Gud crowd to defend, no? Then again, I don’t recall hearing that Celeste is for pussies all that much.

I don’t feel good about having accomplished something that only 7% of owners did. This wasn’t some special challenge or rare event or extra difficult optional path. This is just beating the game. I know you can’t rely on achievement percentages because so many people (including me most of the time, guilty as charged) buy games and sit on them, but 7%? If that doesn’t hurt your heart, given how much work they put into the game, you need to check and make sure it’s still beating.

By far the worst argument for I’ve heard is “well, what about King Dice or the Devil? How were they supposed to make THOSE fights easier? So, as you can see, they HAVE to gate it off.” Hmmm.. here’s a thought: they don’t. They could have just left those two fights exactly as they are in the standard mode, unchanged. I have no objection to a game’s final bosses being harder than others. They’re the last bosses. Being harder is how final bosses are supposed to work. If they’re too hard for those who finished on simple, I don’t know what to say. Git gud?

Cuphead was developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$19.99 told the Moldenhauers “Git Fun” in the making of this review.

Cuphead (Second Chance with the Chick)

UPDATE: Since posting this review, I’ve beaten Cuphead and written a third and final review of it. Click here for my final thoughts on the game. But keep reading this because beating the game didn’t change my opinion all that much.

Nobody wants to be that one person who isn’t having fun at the party. It’s awkward. People stare. They wonder what the fuck is wrong with you? Can’t you see how much fun everyone is having? But that’s me with Cuphead. I think it’s boring. Sure looks pretty though. I reviewed it a year ago and you would swear I’d gone door-to-door and sodomized every Xbox fan’s dog while making their grandmothers watch by the way people reacted to my opinion of it. The cries of “how dare you review it when you didn’t even really finish it” rang through the land. Which I think is bullshit. Hey, *I* paid for my copy, fellow critics. Did you? If you buy a gallon of dish soap from Costco, are you not allowed to complain about the shoddy quality of it until you’ve emptied the entire container in a futile attempt to get that last bit of crusty shit off every plate in your sink? Of course not. And besides, as I took delight in pointing out, I made it further than 95% of Cuphead owners did at the time I threw in the towel. That number has since climbed to a whopping 88% of people who didn’t make it as far as I did. Apparently the 12% of those who outlasted me were all game critics. I’m sure.

It still boggles my mind that, in a game that so closely resembles vintage 40s cartoons, the story is laid out in static screenshots. How come nobody else finds that weird? It’d be like doing a tribute to Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood on the back of packs of cigarettes.

Anyway, as a responsible game critic, I do have to take into consideration things like if patches have fixed titles I previously disliked. And Cuphead has been patched a few times to clean up stuff like timing or glitches. Though fans of the game who understood why people like me wouldn’t like it did point out to me that the patchwork was so minuscule and insignificant that it couldn’t possibly change my opinion. And they were right, but I wasn’t happy with the original review, because it left some stuff out that I feel I probably should have talked about. So, let’s get this over with, shall we?

Gun to head, I’d probably name Cuphead as the best looking game ever. Any game, indie or otherwise. And I don’t take that lightly, even if I think it’s 2018 and we probably should be over graphics by this point. I’m not going to claim that I grew up some kind of vintage animation superfan or anything like that. I didn’t. I was a huge Superman fan growing up and loved the 1940s Fleischer Studios Superman shorts (there’s an awesome YouTube video on their significance to film history here, you actually owe lightsaber battles to them), and they’re one of the major studios that Cuphead drew inspiration from. Normally, I find referential nostalgia to be obnoxious (unless I’m doing it, YEA FOR HYPOCRISY!) but in the case of Cuphead, where so much effort was put into it, you can’t help but admire it. This wasn’t just assembling voxels in a way that looks vaguely like KITT from Knight Rider. This is authenticity in a way that nobody would reasonably expect from any game, except maybe South Park where the style isn’t hard to replicate.

This is a direct-tribute to “The Mechanical Monsters“, the second Superman short. Probably the best thing I can say about Cuphead is if I saw this screenshot ten years ago, I would never have guessed it was from a video game. Well, assuming the game stuff in the bottom corner wasn’t there.

That’s why I don’t understand why the decision was made to make Cuphead so prohibitively difficult. Some of the best character designs are gated-off unless you can beat all the bosses on “normal” difficulty. Here “normal” is in the sense of “I would normally expect it to be hard to swim across the Pacific Ocean.” I struggled enough trying to beat some of the bosses on the easy difficulty and they expect me to beat the same boss with extra phases added to it just to be able to see all the content in a game I already fucking paid for? After all the work I put into getting as far as I did (and I did beat all the bosses in worlds 1 – 3), having the game tell me I didn’t do it good enough was frankly a slap in the face. Like the break-dancing maneuver where you spin on your erect penis, it’s a dick move.

Weirdly enough, my favorite parts of Cuphead, the Contra-esq “run and gun” stages, don’t have optional difficulties. They start off fine, but they become maddening too. As in they make you angry. They don’t turn you into a perpetually sweaty ex-Raiders coach. Well, actually some of them might. But here’s what I don’t understand: they do have optional challenges. You can get an achievement by not killing anything in them, for example. So why didn’t they just apply that kind of design logic to the larger game and let people make their own challenges? This is an Xbox exclusive. USE THE ACHIEVEMENTS! Give someone who beat all the levels on one difficulty an achievement and let people who didn’t go that far enter the last level of the game. We’re not talking ONE boss people who could only beat the game on easy miss-out on battling. They miss eleven boss fights. ELEVEN! That’s one more than the first two (out of three total) worlds have combined! Having an extra final boss fight for a hard mode is acceptable and commonplace in gaming. Cuphead locks players out of nearly 40% of the content if they don’t have the ability to beat the game on the developer’s terms. So why even offer easy modes if you’re going to be that big a prick about it? That sort of makes me think the Moldenhauer brothers are pretentious fucking assholes.

Gamers are really cool about doing hard stuff if that’s what they’re into. Speed-running has become its own thing that people take notice of. We have an odd admiration for people who can beat games with their feet or holding the controller upside-down. Developers, you can cater to the insane-hardcore crowd and the people who just want a solid ten hours for their $20 investment. You shouldn’t want to lock anyone out. Especially a game like Cuphead, that put so much effort into the audio-visual presentation. Why divide people into two different groups and say “this is for THIS group, and not that group”? There’s something kind of heartbreaking about Cuphead. That it’s something that should be admired by everyone, but actually only a small niche of gamers will ever truly enjoy it to its fullest potential. That’s actually tragic. I don’t have a joke to go with that. It makes me legitimately sad.

While the side-scrolling stuff were my favorite parts of Cuphead, they were also far too difficult for me in most cases. And again, I just don’t get why this was a shooter at all. It’s based around the Golden Age of animation, where slapstick was king. There’s NO slapstick in the gameplay of Cuphead. Just shoot, then shoot some more, and then shoot even more. It’d be like doing a tribute to Prince without having any of his music. It seems like nobody would think to do that, and yet, here we are.

I played Cuphead again this week, hoping to figure out why everyone at the party was having such a good time. And I did like it slightly more. This was mostly because my long-time friend Brad Gallaway suggested I take one of my hair ties and use it to hold the right trigger down, thus keeping the game perpetually firing without having to use my finger. It works, and it removes the physical pain I felt last year when I played through it. I put a few hours into my replay of Cuphead and was actually able to type this without pausing every few minutes to ice my hands. It’s the first time since the Atari 5200 where a rubber band is the best accessory in gaming (there’s like ten people in the world who will laugh at that joke, but trust me, they’re howling right now). But it begs the question: why didn’t Cuphead just include that in the first place? Hell, firing isn’t even mapped to the most obvious button. You have to do it yourself. It’s one of those things that made me once again step back and ask “who exactly was Cuphead made for?”

The answer was apparently “for the guys who made it.” And that’s fine, by the way. Chad and Jared Moldenhauer got to do what very few people get to do: they made their dream game. If anyone else happened to like that game, hey, awesome. If not? Meh, they still got to live their dream and nobody can ever take that away from them. Cuphead is one of those rare games that I really kind of hate, but at the same time, I admire the shit out of it. When I play it, I can almost picture how it came about in my head. “Nobody remembers the levels in Gradius or Life Force or R-Type. They only remember the bosses. Well fuck it, we’ll have side-scrolling shmup stuff in here but ONLY the bosses. I mean, why not?” And, yea, actually that isn’t the worst idea when I think about it. If people will only remember certain aspects about a game as the years pass and the game fades into memory, why not just build a game around those things? Cuphead is memorable. I’ll give it that. Nobody who plays it will ever forget it. Its characters are like a 1940s cartoon, grainy filter and everything, as animated by someone sleepwalking through a fever-dream. There’s not a single boss that feels like they phoned it in. A lot of games that are prohibitively difficult feel lazy or under-developed. Not Cuphead. You really walk away from it feeling like the game turned out exactly as it was intended.

And that’s why I hate it. I was bored so much by the endless replaying of boss fights without checkpoints that gets tedious. The controls are mostly tight and responsive (assuming you remap most of the buttons) but I could never get the timing for the parry down. And the item you can buy that automates the parry takes the spot that could be used for the invisibility-dash, which you absolutely DO need (all the pros use it from what I can tell), which is a shit move by the developers. Why not just let people equip all the items available? Why have to choose? Why are so many enemies in the run & gun stages bullet sponges? Ones that don’t have to be, either. Those tree stumps that are stacked like totem poles aren’t exactly a challenge, but the amount of bullets they soak up just kills the pace of the stage dead. That happens a lot in what limited amount of levels there are. Why bother when those stages are treated like an afterthought anyway? Eh, you know what? Fuck Cuphead. I just didn’t have fun playing it. It’s not really meant to be fun, apparently.

Every single boss is unique and memorable in their design. The sheer creativity on display, even when a character is based partially on something, is astonishing. Beppi The Clown is based on Koko the Clown from old Betty Boop cartoons. Only if Koko had taken lysergic acid first.

Honestly, I think a lot of people who say they like it really didn’t either. I think people claim to like it so they don’t become that person that isn’t having fun at the party. The achievement percentages for the game back me up that. As of this writing, only 12.36% of all Cuphead owners on Xbox One have beaten every boss on Inkwell III on any difficulty. That’s as far as I made it, by the way. That’s not even the final level of the game. That’s as far as you can go without beating all the bosses on the “normal” (IE quite hard) difficulty. Compare that to Dead Cells, another game noted for high difficulty that came out nearly a year after Cuphead, where just over 14% of all people have beaten the final boss on any difficulty. So, more people have beaten all of Dead Cells in a lot less time than Cuphead has had people beat two-thirds of it over the course of its first year of release. 56% of Dead Cells players have beaten the 2nd boss, about two-thirds through a run of it. For Cuphead, only 21.56% of players have beat all the bosses in the game’s second world on any difficulty. So again, I question whether everyone who claims to love the game really does love it as much as they say they do. When almost 80% of all players aren’t even making it half-way through the game, really, how much fun can they be having?

Dead Cells became my choice for the best indie game I’ve ever played, and that’s despite the fact that I hate roguelikes and I don’t understand why some games don’t have adjustable difficulty just for the sake of making sure EVERYONE can admire your work. So actually, it’s kind of lazy on my part to say Cuphead “isn’t for me.” I actually don’t think it’s a well designed game. For Cuphead, the entertainment value is based entirely on the sense of relief felt when you finally clear a boss after your fiftieth-bleeping-attempt. And yea, those feelings are legitimate. When you spend an hour memorizing the attack patterns of a boss, come so close to beating it only to come up short and see that you were a fraction of a second away from victory, then FINALLY hit your stride, it’s going to feel good when you beat it. Well, no shit. For those who say “DON’T YOU FUCKING GET IT? THAT’S THE POINT!”, my question is “why can’t everything that leads up to that moment be fun too?” Because it is for games like Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, or Dead Cells. Yea they’re frustrating as all fuck, but the difficulty never supersedes the fun to the point of becoming demoralizing. Hell, dying can be entertaining in some games. There’s nothing fun about dying in Cuphead. It just means you have to start all the way over again, doing that thing that wasn’t fun to begin with. Besides the side-scrolling levels, I didn’t have fun with Cuphead at all. It’s all pain and no pleasure besides “well, finally beat that one. Yea?” And that makes me question whether Cuphead is a work of art or not. I somehow doubt da Vinci only showed off his paintings to those who allowed him to beat the shit out of them first.

Cuphead was developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Steam

$19.99 noted IGC won’t be buying the DLC unless MDHR opens up the final bosses to those who only beat the world 1 – 3 bosses on easy so they can play all the content they already fucking paid for in the making of this review. Oh and making a boss named “Chef Saltshaker” to mock those who had the gall to say this $20 game they paid for is too hard? Yea, not giving people the stuff they paid for is hilarious guys. Keep it up.

Cuphead

Update: Cuphead received a Second Chance with the Chick. Click here to read IGC’s continued thoughts on where Cuphead went wrong and why.

♪♪ Well Cuphead released to Indieland,

And gaming fans thought it was nice,

They figured no one would bad review it, and they turned to Cathy Vice,

CAAAATHY VICE!

Aaaaand now her hands ache, like stabbed by knives

And her timeline fills her with dread

If her review should proceed but Cuphead don’t succeeeeeeddd..

Welllllllll..

Xbox fans will take her head! ♪♪

Mom?

Here I am, reviewing 2017’s indie game of the year. Oh, the year isn’t even over yet. But let’s face it, Cuphead was fated to win universal accolades and more nominations than Meryl Streep regardless of quality the minute it debuted. Which, actually that’s exactly like Meryl Streep, come to think of it.

So yea, for those of you who already have formed an opinion and are fishing the internets for people who don’t share your opinion to hate-hoo, no, I didn’t like Cuphead. Oh I wanted to. Trust me, I like my windows. The thought of them having bricks thrown through them has me positively distraught. But I have two options: I can lie to my readers and say I liked something that I didn’t. That seems like a bad way for a critic to have integrity. My second option is to admit that I didn’t think Cuphead was fun. My father has an expression: sometimes you have to eat shit and learn to like the taste of it. Which, granted that could apply to forcing myself to play Cuphead until I like it. But, in this case the shit I’ll be eating is the mountains of it I expect from Xbox fanboys emotionally invested in the success and accolades in a game that they need to be universally praised because if it isn’t that means they can’t rub it in the face of PS4 or Switch owners because they base their self-esteem on owning the “best” console.

Speaking of integrity, no, I didn’t finish Cuphead. I did beat all the bosses through the first three stages. That I could play it at all is a fucking miracle. As people know, I suffer from photosensitive epilepsy. And literally every stage and every boss in the game opens with something that is my specific trigger. Thankfully, we quickly discovered I could just look away when each section started, though that means I had to wait nearly a full second before I could get in and start shooting. If people need an excuse as to why I didn’t like it and the old chestnut “she just sucks at games” seems tired, you can blame my utter failure at Cuphead on that one fraction of a second longer I had to wait over everyone else. I’m sure that made all the difference.

It would seem most people use the heat-seeking bullets (pictured) with the spread gun. Which was my first instinct too. Huh, maybe I am slightly wired for shit like this.

But seriously, the hook here is that you have to fight a series of bosses, with all the actual levels being optional. You gotta give the Cuphead guys credit: they know their audience. Contra is one of the most beloved 8-bit era games, but I have never once heard a single fan of it fondly reminisce about its level design. Most of them bring up how the final boss was a giant heart (if that’s the case, I wonder what part of the body this thing is supposed to be?). So why bother with the levels at all? There’s six normal levels in Cuphead that are treated like afterthoughts. That’s kind of a shame because, like the bosses, there’s genuine inspiration behind them. Unlike the bosses, they don’t seem designed specifically to generate an absurd body count. I’m guessing that’s why they don’t offer a nerfed version of them when you enter them, which the boss fights do. You do need to complete the stages to be able to get upgrades. For a game so fixated on bosses (seriously, the developers wanted to set a Guinness World Record for most bosses in a shooter. I’m guessing they got it, along with “game with the most forced finger amputations.” In your face knifey-finger game!), it seems weird that you don’t earn any upgrades through beating the entire point of the game.

So yea, the bosses. There’s a ton. They can be quite clever in their design. The issue is they’re so insanely difficult to beat that unless you’re wired for this particular genre, you’re going to be spending a lot of time making incremental progress only to die and start over. There’s no checkpoints, so every failure takes you to the start of the battle. There is an option to play a “simplified” version of each boss, which is how I ended up beating everything through the first three stages. But, if you don’t beat each boss on normal difficulty, you don’t get access to the final area of the game, which is basically just more bosses. I didn’t get access to it. I wanted to, and I tried really hard. I was able to beat the first world’s bosses on normal difficulty. The bosses after that? I spent nearly an hour on this one..

Seen here beating the nerfed version of it after another dozen or so failed attempts.

And about twenty times in a row I died at the very end of the fight. Some people say “the point isn’t to be entertained or having fun while you’re playing Cuphead. It’s the sense of accomplishment you get when you finally do win. All the anger and all the frustration is washed away then.” Accomplishments are not entertainment. If I had lost my virginity and then had an encounter with Jason Voorhees and survived, yea, that would be an accomplishment and I’d probably have felt good about myself. The thing is, I know I’ll just end up having to survive him again and again and again. After a while, it becomes less an accomplishment and more a war of fucking attrition. And that’s how Cuphead feels. By time I gave up, I’d put over seven-and-a-half hours into it. My hands were killing me (take my word for it: map the shooting to one of the triggers, do not leave it on the X button if you value your hands), I had a pounding headache, and I was being told by the game that I had played it wrong and had to go back and do it the right way.

I can’t stress this enough: Cuphead is fucking gorgeous to gawk at. We’re used to games looking good these days, so I don’t think the average gamer appreciates the degree-of-difficulty in getting a video game to look just like a 1930s Fleischer Studios short. It’s insane how uncanny it is, and that’s commendable. I mean, it’s weird they went to all that effort but the cut-scenes unfold as a series of still images with text instead of, you know, a cartoon. It’s also kind of jarring how they chose a shooter of all things to fit into this art style. A Zack & Wiki style puzzle-adventure seems like it would have made more sense since those old 30s cartoon shorts were based around slapstick and visual gags. Here, the bullets don’t even look like they match the art style. They’re bright and look like they were overlaid on top of the hand-drawn animation, giving the whole experience a strange Dragon’s Lair-ish vibe. But even with those nits, Cuphead is probably the best looking indie game ever. I just wish it had been something that aspired to be fun, instead of difficult to the point of inaccessibility.

And this is where I stopped. Call me a pussified quitter all you want. By time I got here, my hands were hurting so bad that I asked myself what was I trying to prove? I hadn’t liked anything about actually playing Cuphead up to this point, and probably lost relationships after attempting to play it in co-op. It’s been 24 hours since I put it down and my hands legitimately still hurt. If I wanted that from a game, I’d buy a PainStation.

Go ahead and say I suck at games. It’s the fallback insult for every single person who disagrees with one of my reviews. “You didn’t like Hotline Miami because you sucked at it. You didn’t like Cuphead because you sucked at it. Just stick with Call of Duty you casualtard!” You’re right, I did suck at Cuphead. I also sucked at Spelunky, Kingdom, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, and countless other indies I’ve loved. If a game required me to be good at it to enjoy it, my list of recommended games would be shorter than Mitt Romney’s bar tab. The problem with Cuphead is I didn’t find it fun. I found it tedious and maddening. I hate saying “it’s just not for me” because that sounds wishy-washy, but it’s just not for me. I don’t think not finishing it means I’m not qualified to say why I don’t like it. There was once this guy who ate an airplane. For real. His name was Michel Lotito, and he ate a lot of weird shit. He set a pretty high standard for what a person is willing to swallow in the process. Saying I’m not qualified to review Cuphead is like saying every food critic who hasn’t eaten an airplane isn’t qualified to review food. You’ll excuse me if I find that way of thinking, ahem, tough to swallow.

Sorry.

Cuphead was developed by StudioMDHR Entertainment
Point of Sale: Xbox One, Steam

$19.99 noted that only 4.32% of Cuphead owners apparently have finished all the bosses on the first three stages regardless of what difficulty they chose in the making of this review. Well I finished all those bosses and got the achievement for it. In fact, only 12.51% have the achievement for beating all the bosses in the second world, and less-than-half of all owners (42.73% to be exact) have even finished the first world’s bosses. Kinda strange, given how angry Xbox fanboys are about any remotely critical opinions of Cuphead, that so few people who own it have actually made any progress and are instead screaming at people who did beat all those bosses because they didn’t have fun doing it. But I’m sure they’ve loved and relished every minute spent with it and it’s just a total coincidence the majority of owners apparently can’t pretend they’re having a good enough time to force themselves to get past even the first world. Fucking GAME OF THE YEAR, AMIRIGHT!

Christ, if I suck at games, I hate to think of how bad at them the other 95% who didn’t get this must be.

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