Adaptation from one medium to another is a complex task, but the answer is never to just lift and shift what was already present in the source material and call it a day. Cuphead: Fast Rolling Dice Game offers innumerable examples as to why this approach doesn’t work. I will elaborate in a dry, passionless fashion because this game drained my considerable enthusiasm like a cracked mug does tea.
First, a warning. I am going to spoil the contents of this box far and wide. This shouldn’t be an issue because there is no “plot” to speak of; in fact the story of Cuphead is reduced to a single sentence in the rulebook. But if you’d like to keep the game’s contents a mystery, let me leave you with this: it is bad. Bad in some strange ways, but mostly boring ones. Certainly not interestingly enough to justify a purchase. If you have ordered this thing or gifted it to a Cuphead superfan, you have my sympathy. With that said I’m going to start at a high level and work my way through the game’s contents. There’s a fair amount, though much of it is the same thing repeated, and for what it’s worth I am sorry.
The implementation of the real time dice rolling is mostly functional – rolling dice quickly is fun – but there are some odd stodgy bits. Enemy cards must be dealt with left to right, and if skipped can never be added onto again. This is somewhat reminiscent of dodging a boss in the video game so I can see what they were trying to do. What I’m less OK with is the restriction on shooting: you can only shoot during a successful dodge that doesn’t require multiple dice. If you’ve played Cuphead you know that you basically never stop shooting. Why can’t I add more dice to shoot with whenever I get a chance? The answer is because they balanced the decks around this, but it’s thematically iffy. You can absolutely shoot while running and jumping in the game – in fact it’s necessary if you want to get anywhere – so holding players back feels off and that feeling only gets exacerbated as bosses get more complex and offer narrower attack windows.
What I actively dislike is the EX die. Your 6th die is a special one capable of a weapon-specific attack that deals heavy damage if its conditions are met. In practice this will rarely matter because it requires you to A) roll the 1-in-6 odds attack side on that specific die and B) be able to apply it on your current slot that C) needs to be able to hold an attack. Since you’re required to reroll any dice you haven’t locked, more often than not your fancy EX rolls will be wasted even when you see that precious die go fingergun-side up. And on that subject, the game’s symbology is iffy at best. Two cartoon glove symbols for gun and parry and two round shoe symbols for jump and run seem intentionally difficult to parse, especially when the dice symbols are rarely rightside up after a roll. “Intentional obfuscation” will become a running theme as we go on.
As far as the actual gameplay goes it’s initially serviceable. Flip 3 enemy cards (not counting a bonus Wallop if there is one), start the timer (20 seconds or less if you’re feeling fancy) and get rollin’. Like I said, fast rolling is engaging by its very nature. But even this fades because no enemy in this game challenges you beyond this. A couple bosses ask you to stack the dice instead of setting them side by side, but as these are chunky bones this is very easy. Then the “anything-but-this” symbols start coming out, making the game actually easier than the earlier bosses that just demand a specific 1-in-6. A couple individual phases of fights introduce some short lived gimmicks like needing to point your gun symbols in an upward direction but none of these stick, so 95% of your time is spent doing the exact same roll-n-allocate routine.
But wait, airplane battles made it in! I’ve never considered these sections to be the video game’s strongest suit, but understand their inclusion because the spectacle was memorable. Unfortunately there’s no spectacle here because you still roll and assign dice in an identical fashion. Moreover, that aforementioned intentional obfuscation creeps in here and never leaves. Air bosses have two symbols that don’t exist on your dice: flying up and flying down. Flying up is a replacement for your jump, and flying down is a replacement for…the cup side? Not the run? Why do it at all then? You’ll internalize it after a couple turns but it still rubs me the wrong way; all it does is add a learning wrinkle to aerial battles for no benefit, a mistake to sting new players just because it needed to look like a plane to be a plane fight.
What’s far worse is that plane battles don’t allow you to use your purchased weapon upgrades in yet another attempt to mirror the video game as closely as possible. This is where direct adaptation begins to create direct frustration. When you beat the first boss you immediately get the option to spend 3 of your 4 newly minted coins on spread shot, which of course you want because it’s better than the peashooter, right? Wrong. The second boss is the first plane fight. You don’t get to use it. 3 out of the 8 boss decks are plane fights. Hope you don’t like using those cool things you keep buying!
Let’s talk about coins, because there are problems there too. Coins are a collectible in Cuphead so of course they had to be here. You don’t find them the same way though, as there are no run and gun levels in the board game. Instead you get 4 upon beating a boss. Fine compromise! However, Porkrind’s Emporium carries roughly the same prices as the video game and you just…don’t have that much money. So what does the game expect you to do? Grind. Refight bosses you’ve already beaten. And not for 4 coins either, no! Reruns get you a whole 1. This is unnecessary punishment that doesn’t even loosely resemble the video game. Refighting for rank improvements is one thing, but gating progression behind grind in an homage to a game that never does that is ridiculous.
That said, this only matters for so long. There’s a loadout that felt so dominant that I would be remiss to not recommend it: Lobber and Whetstone. Bring these two cards and you’ll do 3 damage at minimum on turns where other loadouts could only do 1. It speeds up your curve so much that you’ll crush the latter half of the game effortlessly. That’s what I did, in fact. I never lost another fight after beating the second boss. Granted my rank wasn’t always good, but playing even decently was enough to win every boss fight once I got even one good piece of equipment. I don’t think I’m especially good at fast-rolling, the numbers are just wonky.
Speaking of gated unlocks there are the envelopes. These are how you get your Super Arts now, and they fit into the popular modern trend of unlocking content via game-y achievement-style conditions. You should be able to unlock at least one super fairly quickly, be it 0 damage or full parries, but they’re massively easier to do in solo campaigns than multiplayer as only one person needs to pull it off. What that means is super arts are rare to come by when played with friends, if you manage to at all. They aren’t massively impactful though, and since they cost parry tokens using them will impact your rank fairly severely. Incidentally, all of them refer to “parry cubes”, which don’t exist in the printed production. Whoops!
If I sound like I’m being picky that’s because I am. The game itself is so simple, so lean, that there’s barely anything to talk about as far as actual play goes. But there could and should have been more than there was; the lack of variety is the rustiest nail in Cuphead: FRDG’s coffin. Nothing exciting happens until the final two bosses, whose identities shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the video game: King Dice and The Devil. Ol’ KD actually starts strong, having you assemble a board just like his level in the video game! But his trademark casino miniboss rush doesn’t hold a candle to his video game equivalent. It’s roll and move instead of timing-based, for one, but that’s not even the most egregious bit. Almost all of the bosses are identical, one is a flier, and another lackey literally just has you play a 12 card game of memory match. The preschool game. With the face down cards. No dice required. Just…memory. When I finally got to King Dice I killed him in a single turn. The closest I ever got to excited for a boss ended with a raspberry. This ended up being foreshadowing.
The Devil is the worst fight in the box. Not the hardest, he’s actually quite easy. His gimmick is just that you need to run the timer twice: once to memorize the symbols on his cards, then another where you actually roll dice and allocate them to face-down cards. Yes, the grand climax of Cuphead: FRDG is yet another basic fight with a memory element dumped on top. This added no challenge, only wasted time. When phase 3 finished and the Knockout card was revealed that…was it. No cards to buy. No congratulations. No reward beyond being finished. The game simply ceased. I was dumbstruck. Imagine producing a gated-content game, a game structured around levels mirroring a well made video game, and forgetting to have an ending.
I’ve written at length elsewhere on the subject of adaptation in board games. Simply put, it’s hard. Many don’t get it right and I massively respect those that manage to produce an adaptation that feels true to its material while also being an enjoyable and unique game experience in its own right. We’re in something of a golden age for quality board game adaptations right now but that doesn’t mean all of them can be winners. Cuphead: FRDG isn’t just a poor adaptation, it’s a poor game in every regard beyond its physical production, much of which is only uplifted by reused assets from the source material. It’s exactly the kind of game we used to use as an example back when adaptations were almost universally poor. Don’t waste your money or worse, your time, on this uninspired dreck.
A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.