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.

Vice Versus: Cuphead Diary (Day 1)

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.

I don’t know what exactly I’ve gotten myself into here. My friends and family thought I lost my mind when I told them about my idea for this project. Yet here I am, at 4:08AM, typing up my report on my first day of Vice Versus: Cuphead. My family kept asking me what I expect to get out of this. Validation? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe. Cuphead isn’t a game I like, and I don’t expect my opinion to change. But yea, I want to shut up the people who say my reviews don’t count because I didn’t beat the game. Even though I made it further than the vast majority of players, including some people who were pissed at me and defended the game. It’s weird that it doesn’t work both ways. In theory, shouldn’t a person who defends a game against a critic who was unable to beat the game despite a good faith effort themselves have beaten the game? Or at least made it further? But it’s gaming. What can you do?

I’m nervous. This is a big commitment to a game I can’t stand, and one that I’m not particularly good at. In preparation for this, I watched a LOT of Cuphead videos on YouTube. I watched the best players in the world and as many complete Hard and Expert mode videos that showed ever boss fight as I could. I’d be stoked to do half as good as they did, but some key strategies became apparent, stuff that hopefully I’ll remember during the actual play time. When I played Cuphead the first two times, I often just straight-up forgot to use things like the smoke dash. You essentially start the game with three coins so, before playing any bosses or run & gun stages, I purchased it from the shop and will try to get used to using it.

I’m going to try to practice up at the parry move as much as I can in the early days of the project. I need to get better at it. I could never quite get the timing down pat and it’s absolutely essentially to successful play, especially since it fills your attack meter up faster. I’m also going to try to do everything without the hair tie around holding down the trigger. I can handle one hour a day of this. It shouldn’t be necessary.

Most of the videos I went to show Botanic Panic! as the first stage, and I get why. There’s three phases that feel like a tutorial to the type of attacks you’ll be expected to dodge. With my goal for the early days to be focused on getting the timing of the parry down, I went for broke and tried to get a parry on every pink object within reach. And right away, I had timing issues. The window for getting the parry down is weird and almost seems inconsistent.

Getting past the first phase, Moe Tato, was easy. But then I shit the bed and died on the easiest (and shortest) phase, Weepy. He cries like a sprinkler, which has deadly tears rain down on you. I didn’t position myself right, and not only did I die but I realized it’d be too hard to predict when to get the melees down. I also forgot that there’s no point in building up all my attack energy when I haven’t even gotten my first super attack yet, and I died for the first time. On my second attempt, I cleared Moe and Weepy, then made it fairly deep into the final phase against Psycarrot and died. Fun fact about Psycarrot: he’s the only final phase of any boss you see in Simple Mode.

Thankfully, I had a major break-through on my third attempt. I successfully parried all three pink dirt balls Moe Tato spit at me, and took no damage for the remainder of the fight. With Psycarrot appeared, I did struggle a bit to line up my shot on him (I’ll have to practice on accuracy) but I did manage to blast him five straight times with my charged shot and avoided all his attacks for the knockout. When it tallied my results, I had a perfect score. Couldn’t believe it. Nice start to the project.

Actually, I started with the second chronological run & gun stage. There was a method to my madness: I struggled greatly to get the parries for this stage down the first couple times I played Cuphead. I need to get better at them to make any progress later in the game, especially against King Dice. This was the logical “jump in the deep end” stage. And I really exposed myself to how bad I am at the parry in doing so. Early in the stage there’s a section where you need to parry off a pink pillbug to get a coin. I could NOT get this down and had to constantly restart the stage.

In fact, getting through Treetop Trouble with all five coins proved to be such a hassle that I burned over half my Day 1 hour on it. I just couldn’t make progress. I was sloppy and reckless. It’s made me rethink whether or not an hour each day is going to be enough to make enough progress to not have Vice Versus go into 2020. Or, if I’m going to try to score the pacifist achievement during this project. The run & gun stages are just pure annoyance. I actually enjoyed them more than most of the bosses before, as I noted in my reviews. But with the clock ticking and me feeling no closer to getting the parry timing down, I really started to question whether I chose the correct stage first. It took me over thirty minutes just to get to the end for the first time, only to get killed by the Dragonfly. But, I deserved to lose, because like a complete moron I forgot to use my special attacks. Bravo, Cathy.

Thankfully I was finally able to have a successful run, grabbing all five coins. I only had one successful parry the entire time, and it was the one I needed to grab the first coin. So my plan to use this stage to get my timing for it down was a complete failure. I’m genuinely worried at this point about my ability to get the timing into muscle memory.

Mausoleum I

You might think a mini-game based around the parry would be the best way to practice it. But the truth is, it feels easier to score a parry in these stages than it does in the boss fights or run & gun stages. I don’t know if there’s a wider collision-box for the ghosts or what. But in my first play-through of Cuphead, I actually cleared both the first two Mausoleums on my first attempt and the third one in just two attempts. I don’t find these helpful at practicing the parry at all, but at least I now have my first super attack. I also followed this up by buying the Seeker gun from the store.

The first time I played Cuphead, this was the first boss I bought. It seems like it should be the first boss, but apparently the Root Pack is meant to be fought first even though its way below everything else on the map. The main thing I struggled with here was his bounce-off-the-walls timing, and also the timing of the Seeker, which I wanted to get a feel for. It does below-average damage, but basically never misses no matter which direction you’re facing. I reset in the middle of the first attempt even though I’m not going for perfect scores. My second attempt saw me take two damage during the first phase of the battle only to run the table on the rest of the bout. I even parried the question marks on my first attempt. The Seeker paid off big time in the second and third stages, where I spent most of the fight running away. Phase three with the gravestone especially worked well. It makes me wonder if a strategy or relying on the Seeker and just focusing on dodging attacks will work later in the game. Probably not.

The timer ran out on day one right as I entered the level, but the rules I made up for myself say that I can finish the current life I’m on or the stage I’m on. So I had one attempt to beat this run & gun stage, and the Seeker allowed me to do just that. I did take a bit of damage and, in fact, was down to my last health. This time, I did remember the super attack and used it to clear myself past the acorn maker. I honestly never expected to beat any aspect of Cuphead in one attempt. I don’t want to say it feels good, because I honestly didn’t really have any fun playing any of it, but I have to admit it was satisfying to have that one moment of glorious victory, even if I was bleeding out and on my last hit point.

I finished the first day of Vice Versus having completed 18% of Cuphead. Of course, all I did was knock out the four easiest parts of Inkwell I, but hey, it’s done, and I did play well. I have to keep practicing the parry. I have a couple bosses coming up that are not so ideal for it. I just bought the Spread gun so I should be able to get more damage on bosses during lulls, but I want to also see if my concept for relying on the Seeker is viable. But I’m happy with the progress of day one. Despite the fact that I don’t really like Cuphead at all, this feels like something worth doing. Maybe I’ll even walk away from it having learned something about myself as a gamer. Or maybe the next few entries in my Cuphead diary will be me typing the word “fuck” over and over again.

The Difficulty Gateway

I usually say that I feel my reviews as Indie Gamer Chick represent the average gamer, but the truth is I’m probably above-average in skill-level for most genres. Some, like puzzlers, I chew through so easily that I usually hand games off to my family to make sure they’re not too easy for normies. But being a fairly hardcore gamer since the age of nine and being a game critic is a tough balancing act. One that doesn’t get discussed enough, because we’re all probably better at games than Fred and Ethel shopping for something on payday to kill a weekend with on their dusty Xbox One. When a game doesn’t have adjustable skill-levels, challenge is hard to quantify on your own. You’re playing the game based on decades of experience, and can only assume how others will take it. Even if you have friends or family to observe, it’s not like you’ve been studying them in a laboratory your entire life and can fully approximate the ceiling of their ability.

Of course, being a game critic, if I’m not being told that the only reason I didn’t like a game is because I wasn’t “objective enough”, the most common thing I’m told is that I just suck at games. I didn’t like Cuphead, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hollow Knight, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hotline Miami, ergo I suck at games.

Ah yes, Battletoads. A game so fondly remembered that it could go completely dormant for twenty years because it was so prohibitively difficult that very, very few would ever remember it as an all-time great.

I don’t think I suck at games. Maybe some games. Like fighting games aren’t my thing, and an early running gag at Indie Gamer Chick was me noting that I couldn’t ever get the hang of throwing a Dragon Punch with Ken or Ryu (I’m proud to report I can now, suck it Kris & Jesse). It doesn’t mean I don’t like fighting games though. I got Mortal Kombat XL for Christmas and took delight in violence so awesome that it would make even the most dead-inside grizzled veteran become physically ill. But something like Cuphead? I actually don’t think I was that bad at it. I got all the contracts (IE I beat all the bosses on the standard insanely crazy hard difficulty) for the first world and beat all the bosses on the lowest difficulty for the first three worlds, something nearly 90% of all Cuphead owners either couldn’t do or couldn’t be bothered to do. As for Hollow Knight, I’ve heard fans of the game tell me how hard a boss was that I downed without breaking a sweat. I wasn’t dying all that much while playing it and only once did I die without retrieving the shit I dropped, thus losing it.

By the way, I sucked at Spelunky. I really sucked at Kingdom. They’re both IGC all-timers. Trust me, if talent was required for me to enjoy something, I wouldn’t have any hobbies at all.

I’m not a fan of the notion that games are supposed to be hard to prevent undesirables from playing them, or any game. That the measure of a true gamer is being able to finish these hard games. What an absurd notion this is. It’s snobbery of the lowest order. For games like Cuphead, I’ve come up with the phrase “prohibitively difficult” to describe them. I think Cuphead crosses the line where even above-average players will be gated-off from large sections of content without any hope of ever being good enough to reach them. And for those who say “practice harder”, this isn’t an activity where increasing your skill level will lead to greater things in life. It’s a video game. I’m not going to put in eight hours of practice a day just so I can fight a giant animated stack of poker chips.

By the way, Cuphead wiki, this is based on Amarillo Slim. Only the Babe Ruth of Poker. “Duhhhh, we think it’s based on poker. You can tell by the chips.” Good lord, you people need to get out of the house sometime.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to make their games. If you feel your dream project should only be able to be finished by 2% of all gamers, so be it. But, maybe you should consider telling your fans to stop calling those who can’t beat it a bunch of pussies. I’ve seen players far above my skill level who enjoy quality run-and-spray games walk away broken and shaken from Cuphead, wondering if their skills are depleting as they grow increasingly decrepit or if it’s the game. It’s the game.

And what’s the point of gating, anyway? Contra is an all-time classic, and one of my personal favorite NES games. It’s kind of a travesty that it wasn’t part of the NES Classic. Instead, we got inferior sequel Super C instead. Contra is hard, but it has the most famous means of overcoming that difficulty in the history of gaming: the Konami Code. If that wasn’t in the game, nobody would talk about Contra today. The Heart of Contra wouldn’t be one of the most legendary bosses of all time. It’d just be one of those NES games people say “cool, I remember it. It was hard” and then talk like blowhards about how games were better back in the day while reminiscing about all the titles they never got around to beating.

Has it ever been confirmed this is actually supposed to be a heart and not, you know, the Gonads of Contra?

So how is someone like me, an above average player, supposed to quantify the value of a game that didn’t just destroy me, but destroyed even better players I know? Indies are dependent on word of mouth, and “this game left me blistered and defeated” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement to your average gamer. A critic isn’t an asshole for telling people the game is too hard to recommend, nor are they a pussy. You’re who gated the game off. And for what? So a small percentage of players who will never help you move a single unit outside their clubhouse can have a secret handshake “we’re the only real gamers” crowing moment? If they tell you that you’re selling out for including adjustable difficulty, you tell them to pony up a few hundred thousand dollars so your kids can go to college. I’m sure they’ll get right on that.

Cuphead (Second Chance with the Chick)

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. It’s 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 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?

So yea, 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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