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.

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..

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