Cuphead & The Genealogy of the Boss Battle Game // Playing at Being (LudicRyan)


Hi, I’m LudicRyan. Today I’d like to talk about Cuphead by tracing
the genealogy of its structure. Cuphead is categorised as a shoot ’em up or
more specifically a run ‘n gunner, but we can identify its core structure as following
that of Titan Souls and Shadow of the Colossus: games which are comprised mainly of boss battles. This is not a video about redefining the genre
of Cuphead or even defining a new genre. But a video in which we explore the structure
of games which contain only boss battles and talk about how this effects the flow and play
of a game. Interestingly, the design direction of Cuphead
was changed in 2015 away from only boss battles, with the studio integrating typical platforming
levels . These levels are optional however, and the game can be completed without playing
them. Unlike Titan Souls and Shadow of the Colossus,
the presence of these regular platforming levels in Cuphead allows us to identify two
separate structures within the game. First, we’ll need to come up with a loose
understanding of what we mean when we talk about boss battles. From this we will then trace a short lineage
of games which feature only boss battles and identify their similar structures. Finally, we’ll use these examples to talk
about how game structures containing mostly boss battles alter the experience and flow
of that game. We all know what a boss battle is. Or at the very least we know one when we see
it. Why, then should we spend time constructing
barriers around a term that is such an amorphous entity in games? From Metal Gear Solid 3’s battle of patience
with sniper ‘The End’, to the more statistical affairs in the Disgaea series, to dextrous
performances in Hyper Light Drifter: games contain a wide array of boss battles. Instead of listing elements which close the
definition, we’ll show what the boss battle can do, what it may be intended for, and what
it can be connected to. I believe it is fair to say that in comparison
with other elements in the game, the boss battle is a non-trivial encounter type: it
is stronger than the standard enemy types regularly encountered by the player. Because of this they can be considered as
unique and one of a kind within that game system. Further, the boss battle feels structurally
rooted in mythic encounters. This is evident when considering the juxtaposition
in power between Odysseus against Trojan soldiers and against the Cyclops; and in games like
Mario where the plumber is against regular goombas and then faces off against Bowser. In an article for Gamasutra, Mike Stout outlines
a developers approach to the boss fight . Within the larger consideration of a game’s pacing,
boss battles can be used to punctuate and release rising tension, providing both a cathartic
release of this tension and a period of temporary calm afterwards that resets heart rates. He also outlines that boss battles can be
used as a mechanical test for the player, demonstrating their mastery of the performative
skillset necessary to progress in the rest of the game. Though boss battles can take a variety of
forms and be intended for more than testing the player, I want to focus on the simple
understanding that they can be unique encounters within a game system where greater performative
effort is required in comparison to more trivial enemy encounters. As mentioned earlier, Cuphead is mostly comprised
of boss battles. This is an interesting game structure that
does not often happen in games. There are usually levels of minor enemies
which build tension towards a unique encounter with a boss. However, we can trace this game structure
back through interesting examples. Titan Souls by Acid Nerve was released in
2015. Comprised solely of boss battles, these encounters
with the massive enemies are marked by the one-hit/one-kill system in place. Harking back to the story of David and Goliath,
one true shot with the player’s arrow is all it takes to bring down a titan. The majority of the time spent in these fights
is in discovering the weak point or prime opportunity, unravelling layers of armour,
and generally surviving long enough to line up the shot. A large influence of this game was Shadow
of the Colossus released ten years earlier. The player must similarly defeat all of the
colossi in the forbidden land. The game contains 16 colossi upon which the
player-character climbs to find their weak point. The player will not encounter any other enemies
en route to the colossi and so the game is marked by these spikes in activity during
the boss battles. We can also identify the Punch-Out series
of games, with Super-Punch Out in particular structuring different patterns of movements
and attacks for each fighter the player faces. What we can identify from each of these games
is that there are no regular levels to build up tension. The player travels through an empty map or
selects the next boss battle through a screen. The result of this are spikes of tension instead
of a gradual build up. In addition to this, each of these games have
simple performative toolsets introduced at the start. These toolsets are crucially simple to perform,
but are complicated by the performative contortions required of the player in the following boss
encounters. Certain equipment may change the end result
of a button press in minor ways but there aren’t additions in player moves: only the
bosses stretch the performative capabilities of the player in different ways. Whilst players may quickly grasp how to use
these toolsets at the start of the game the boss battle game structure encourages the
perfection of movement of that toolset. This brings us to Cuphead which has both mandatory
boss fights and optional, regular levels with trivial enemy types and a scrolling screen. Cuphead is inspired by shoot ’em up games
like Metal Slug and Gunstar Heroes , but it implements the structure of boss battle games
like Shadow of the Colossus and Titan Souls. What is interesting to note is that in terms
of base success both the regular levels and the boss levels are measured by the same metric:
the player’s proximity to objective completion. In the boss battles it is through the depletion
of their health, and in the regular levels it is the x-axis position of the player-character. The failure screen shown here acts as a hitpoint
bar whether it is a regular level or a boss level: success in either is quantitatively
measured as it would in a boss battle. Even though the level structures are different,
this bar creates an experience which unifies the two level structures. By identifying the boss battle game structure
and tracing the genealogy of Cuphead within it we can see how the game develops this kind
of structure and stretches our understanding of how it can be implemented. Cuphead contains a game structure of rolling
spikes of tension which challenge the player to master every aspect of the performative
toolset. Though not the studios initial goal, Cuphead
should serve as an inspiration like Titan Souls, Shadow of the Colossus, and Super Punch-out
that there is plenty of room for game structures which contain only boss battles. Thank you so much for watching, I hope you
enjoyed the video. There’s so much to talk about with Cuphead
and I’d love to hear from you in the comment section. If you’d like to watch last week’s video on
how Nidhogg spatialises the hitpoint bar then click on the link in the video. In the next video, I’ll be talking about how
Hollow Knight leverages both its genre conventions and the importance of uncertainty to deliver
a unique explorative experience. So if you’d like to be notified when this
video is released, then consider subscribing.

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