Cuphead: The Final Review (At Least Until the DLC)

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 wre 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. Guys who do boss-rushes 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, beater 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.

Vice Versus: Cuphead Diary (Day 2)

In Vice Versus, I’ll be returning to games I never previously beat. I will play them one hour at most a day until I’ve reached my goal. For Cuphead, that goal is to get the contracts for all the bosses, then defeat King Dice and The Devil. I’m keeping a daily diary of this project. The following is done out of the Indie Gamer Chick character.

My Cuphead journey got off to a pretty decent start. I made a lot more progress on day one than I figured I would. Of course, I pretty much only cleared out the two easiest bosses. The ones that I never struggled all that much with the first time around. Now, all that was left for Inkwell Isle I were bosses that I needed dozens of attempts to get the contracts for during my original Cuphead session. And once I get past these, I move on to Inkwell II, where I’ve not gotten any of the contracts. Ever. Today felt like my last attempt to get “study” in before the test begins. And it didn’t start so good.

I decided to start against Ribby and Croaks because I’d struggled the most with them during my first play-session with Cuphead back in 2017. And last year, while working on my Cuphead re-review, I publicly failed to put them away while streaming my playtime. It seemed like these guys would be ideal to get in practice time. And then I actually started playing, and it was like a splash of ice water to the face. My struggles to get the timing of the parry down are still apparent. Actually, for the first ten minutes my timing wasn’t there at all. I also somehow, in my research, didn’t realize that the fireballs Ribby shoots during phase 1 change the order of which one you can parry on. A complete failure to prepare on my part.

Regardless, clearing the first two phases was no issue for me. The final phase, however, I failed, failed, failed. The frogs merge to form a giant slot machine that has three primary attack patterns. The one that specifically screwed me was the Bison pattern, which features spiked platforms that have fire shooting either above or below it. I could (mostly) get the timing for the Tiger and Snake patterns. For the Bison, I took more damage hitting the sides of the platforms than I did from the fire. This is a world-one boss, and if this is a harbinger for things to come, I’m screwed. Several times in a row I got just seconds away from victory, more than once with more than a single hit-point left, only to squander it. It was genuinely heart-wrenching to see how bad I was croaking.. I mean choking.

And then, something that didn’t affect me at all during my first day started to mess with my game: nerves. Even if I could keep myself calm during the first two phases, inevitably that hot-cold nerve moment hit as soon as the animation of the frogs merging to form the slot machine began. My hands started sweating, which really didn’t help considering that they were already starting to cramp up as well. Mistakes started to pile up over and over. Soon, I was taking damage even during the Snake pattern, which I had previously found to be the most tolerable. Hell, I even took damage from one of the coins being launched at me, which is probably the easiest projectile to dodge in the entire fight.

I was coming so close to winning and coming up short, replay after replay. There was one run specifically that I was so disgusted with myself after dying that I forgot to save the replay. I had made it through phase one in what had to have been close to a world record time, hitting all the parries along the way. Then, during the second phase, I’d somehow timed the damage in such a way where Croaks (the one that becomes a giant fan) was stun-locked while Ribby went into his attack animation. This meant I’d caused enough damage to end phase 2 just a split second after Ribby began his attack. All the damage from here would carry over to the third and final phase: the slot machine. And I had all three hit points. Not only would I be on track to have less attack waves for the final phase but I might set a time actual Cuphead experts would find impressive. I was actually calm too. That was the weird part. Maybe I would have played better if the nerves were flowing, because during the very first attack pattern, which was Snake, my BEST ONE, I got three-quarters of the way through the attack before mistiming a jump and taking damage, then immediately took another hit on the very last platform of the attack. I was so stunned and knocked out of my senses by this that I ended up jumping right into one of the easy to dodge coins the slot machine spits out before you can open it up for attack. Dead again, with a meter showing me that I was probably less than one second work of bullets away from winning. I felt like I was going to throw-up.


What an absolute disaster. I probably should have taken a break, because following that, the next few runs had me making mistakes in phases 1 and 2 far worse than I had been making earlier. Before I knew it, over half the time I allotted for myself for this project (one hour of actual playtime at most per day) was gone. The clock element that I added myself just made things worse. I realized that there’s probably going to be days where I won’t make any progress at all. That’s a thought so sickening that I might change the rules so that I can keep playing after an hour if I haven’t beaten the boss I started on for the day. This was a world one boss and I couldn’t get past it.

OVER FORTY MINUTES LATER I finally made a breakthrough. My nerves were pretty much shot and my hands were now actively starting to hurt. But, on my nineteenth attempt, I beat Clip Joint Calamity, and had a perfect score too.

This whole battle really reinforced to me the problem with Cuphead. The time investment I had to make to get this contract and the anguish I felt playing it wasn’t worth the end result. I kept playing it because I simply HAD to beat this boss in order to get its contract so I can eventually be given access to the final level of the game. If I had switched to “simple mode” I’d won on my first attempt. Yes, I got a sense of relief, but gaming should be more than a sense of relief I think. I do admit, I was a little proud that the round that I finally won on ended with two straight waves of the toughest attack pattern for me and I still finished with a perfect score. But no, I don’t feel better for having beaten it. I feel stupid for having taken so long to do so.

And then this happened. On my very first attempt, I took down Cagney Carnation. Going into Vice Versus, I figured there was a chance I might have one or two “eye of the tiger” moments and get a perfect score on bosses, at least early in the game. I also had planned to beat the Forest Follies stage on my first attempt and knew with the Seeker gun I could do it. But this? It was so unexpected that I literally started screaming in elation. It was 3AM. I woke up the entire house. Fireball and Laika, my dogs, hid under the bed while I jumped around the room. This is not a joke. I was so happy.

Let me make something clear: the joy I felt in taking down Floral Fury without losing a life in no way negates all the suffering I had just been through with Clip Joint Calamity, or all the misery yet to come. But for one shining moment, Cuphead made me feel like a superhero. Even if, according to a couple of Cuphead experts, I can partially thank incredibly lucky RNG from the attack patterns Cagney used. I’m NEVER lucky with RNG, so if that’s the case, I’ll take it. Also, this was hardly a perfect boss fight. I forgot to switch guns more than once, and as a result I wasn’t doing damage when I should have been. I still won the fight, but I should have won it sooner than I did. I need to work on that.

I’m not a shmup person. The only one I’ve ever put significant time into was Ikaruga on the GameCube when I was 13 (surprise, I did beat it). In my post-epilepsy life, it’s the genre that poses the most risk to me. Consequently, it was these stages I struggled the most on, even in simple mode, during my first few Cuphead play-sessions. Even Hilda here took me over an hour to get the contract for the first time. The infamous dragon boss put up less of a fight than these stages did. I had about 15 minutes of playtime left and didn’t expect a victory before time was up. Then, on my first run, I got to phase three. I didn’t expect that.

In both of my first two attempts, I got to phase three only to die due to the UFOs. In my third run, I took damage against a tornado I should have been able to avoid, then botched the timing of using the super bomb while Hilda was in the animation to change into the moon, taking me down to my last health. I figured I was toast and decided I’d use the life to try and get the timing of the UFOs down. It didn’t work out that way, because I ended up getting it right and scoring a knockout using a missile. It took me over an hour to get the contract the first time around. On this day, it took me three attempts. Not bad.

I still had a couple of minutes left but decided to call it quits. I had planned to need three to four days for Inkwell Isle I. Instead, I got all five contracts and all the coins in the run & guns in just two days. Of course, I’d already accomplished everything up to this point before. The real challenge begins now. I’ve not gotten a single contract from any boss in Inkwell II or III. I don’t think I got the practice I needed in, but there’s no turning back now.

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