Why is Cuphead so hard? Let’s talk about something called pattern variance.
Cloaking itself beneath the mask of 1930’s American animation, It’s been a long while since I’ve encountered a game as brutally inconsiderate of my time as Cuphead is. In some ways, it reminds me of a stripped down version of Shadow of the Colossus, a PS2 game wherein heavy priority was placed upon boss design & the brilliant gameplay encounters that followed. These bosses are more akin to puzzles, which require multiple playthrough attempts to solve. Where Cuphead differs, however, is in its unforgiving difficulty.
Why is Cuphead so hard, though? Well, on top of the game’s use of informational overload to make things more difficult for our brains, many of Cuphead’s fights can’t be memorized due to the game’s employment of pattern variance. Pattern variance is the technique that the creators of Cuphead use to randomize in-game sequences during replays of the game. While each boss has several progression triggers throughout their fight that are reached by dealing damage, each sequence (or each segment of the boss fight) can be manipulated by the game’s engine. To better understand this idea, let’s take a quick look at one of the game’s early boss fights.
During my many attempts to defeat Ribby & Croaks, the two frogs that fuse into a slot machine, I learned that pattern variance was able to affect many aspects of Cuphead, including: the number & distance between hazards, duration of sequences, and characteristics of individual attacks. In the first phase of this fight, the frogs shoot high and low projectiles towards the player, who will have to jump, crouch, parry, and shoot to prevent themselves from taking damage. During this portion of the encounter, the order by which projectiles were launched changed nearly every time, sometimes favoring the high paths and other times being heavily focused on preventing low crouches.
Up next is the bomb phase, wherein Croaks turns into a high powered fan while Ribby throws bouncing bombs at the player, who has to prevent themselves from being pushed back too far while simultaneously dodging the incoming hazards. Initially, it was a struggle to find a rhythm, as Ribby would sometimes throw nine bombs instead of his usual six; and on occasion, Croaks’ fan transformation seemed a bit delayed and would turn on during the middle of the bomb dodging event.
Eventually the frogs transform into a slot machine, an aesthetic choice that I believe is most fitting, as it serves both form and function. After dodging a few coins and pulling the lever, Cuphead is able to finally begin the damage phase of this fight, wherein Ribby & Croaks open their mouth to release one of three different platforming segments, according to how the slots fell. Players will need to adopt multiple strategies because each of these platforming bits change the playspace in a distinct way. It’s entirely possible to get several of the same platform in a row, and if you haven’t mastered the particular segment of choice, well, then you’re out of luck.
Keep in mind, I’ve only talked about the survival aspects of this demanding performance. While platforming to save your life, you also have to damage the slot machine, as this is a player’s best chance to progress the boss’ invisible progress meter. Not to mention the summon order, directional damage, and speed of platforms change in every playthrough thanks to pattern variance.
I’m not quite sure what determines the frequency of these generated variances, but I know that every time I started to feel comfortable with Cuphead’s sequence characteristics, it adapted some small detail to throw me off of its scent. This constant building and breaking of patterns and rhythms requires reactionary decision-making, which prevents players from ever truly memorizing an encounter – a lesson learned from Contra 3 and Contra: Hard Corps.
I’m not exactly sure how we’ll all look back on the game in five or ten years, but as of right now, Cuphead’s challenge provides an incredible sense of reward that I’m not getting from many other games.
So I’m gonna continue playing and chasing after that sweet sweet Cuphead dopamine; and I hope you’ll keep watching. OK Beast releases video essays every Friday, and we also have podcasts, reviews, and other features on our website, OKBeast.com. If you liked this video, I’d love it if you would subscribe and share this video with your friends. Thanks for watching, and we’ll see you next week!