Cuphead: The Definitive Review – The Delicious Last Course

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

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

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

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

THIS IS CUPHEAD’S REAL EASY MODE

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

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

WHO THE HELL PLAY-TESTED THIS SHIT?

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

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

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

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

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

CUPHEAD IS STILL FUN

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

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

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

INKWELL ISLE IV

The King of Games Battles

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANGEL & DEMON: THE HIDDEN MINI-BOSS

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

GETTING TO IT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know what? Screw it. Moving on..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOLY CRAP, THAT’S TWISTED!

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

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

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

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

My Dad when people complain his chili is too spicy.

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Elias!

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

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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

Angela, you are the light of my life.

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

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

William, my best friend.

Brian, who got me into this game reviewing stuff.

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

Jordi, you’re incredible.

Dash, you’re a dang cool guy.

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

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

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

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

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

The Cuphead Wiki, for all the help.

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

 

Cuphead: The Definitive Review – Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Hell!

INKWELL HELL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every single one of those spikes I shot instantly hit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head over to The Definitive Review of Delicious Last Course!

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

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

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

At least until the DLC hits..

Cuphead: The (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.

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.

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.

UPDATE #2: AND THEN I played it a fourth time and realized I was wrong all along. You know what? Enjoy the full Indie Gamer Chick v Cuphead journey. I sure did. Click HERE for the absolute final review.. until the DLC.

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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