How Cuphead Forced Me To See My Unhealthy Obsession With Perfection

I have gone on record to call myself a “perfectionist” in regards to my hobbies or work. I like doing things a certain way, the “right” way. I’ve never thought of it as particularly unhealthy and, on many occasions, I’ve had this perfectionist behavior looked at as a positive attribute of mine.

Though it can have positive results, I’ve recently seen how mentally destructive this behavior can be and how it can turn what would be considered a good result, into something more sinister. Luckily, I’ve come to terms with this unhealthy obsession all thanks to a little game called Cuphead.

Cuphead is the long-anticipated run-and-gun boss rush game from Studio MDHR, most notable for its beautifully hand-drawn animation. With the idea that presentation is key, Cuphead aims to make you feel like you are watching a cartoon straight out of the 1930’s…. And it does! It’s aesthetically pleasing with an upbeat tune to match. Cuphead isn’t just a cute cartoon with a cliche plot. In-fact, Cuphead is fucking challenging as hell! But it’s 2017 and difficulty is the new standard that, for the most part, we have come to embrace.

This doesn’t stop Cuphead from being fun. But even the game’s fun doesn’t prevent it from being excruciatingly frustrating. The challenges I faced weren’t in figuring out boss fight patterns or missing parries. No. The real challenge I faced in Cuphead was confronting my obsession with perfection.

The spaces in which I define perfect may vary and I often let the environment I’m in determine the requirements. Video Games are a great example of this. Take a game like Overcooked. A cooking simulation game that my girlfriend and I played earlier this year. It has a three-star rating system where you earn a star for each monetary goal you reach. This star system sparked my perfectionist desires to fulfill one task: get all three stars on every level. Save for the terribly annoying lava level in world 5-4, we were able to achieve this pretty easily as far as I remember- and it felt great!

The challenge was minimal and because of its simple three-star approach, I wasn’t forced to view my need to be perfect as a negative in this instance. Instead, my girlfriend and I felt accomplished. We felt like our teamwork was the shining star – no pun intended- and this overshadowed my irrational need to bask in this feeling of ending things perfectly. Overall it was a good time and I loved every second of playing with my significant other, but I still felt an unreasonable relief after getting every star available. It felt like I took a load off my shoulders.

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Although Overcooked was a breeze to complete it still offered its own challenging moments. Cuphead however, takes challenging to a new level. Firstly, I’d like to reiterate that yes, Cuphead is, in fact, a difficult game by design. It’s meant to have these overly-dramatic boss battles that frustrate you beyond control. That is the surface level here. That’s what everyone knows to be true because the game was created with this in mind.

What I will say is that, though it is difficult, it never felt like the AI was cheating or reading my moves. It never felt like the controls were stiff. I never once blamed a glitch or ridiculous hitbox for my failures. I always felt it was my fault and that’s a good thing but I can’t deny that the game’s difficulty was a factor in my self-reflection.

I mentioned that I let the environment I’m in determine the parameters of perfect. Well, Cuphead does just that. It lets you know how many parries you need, how many super moves should be executed, it gives you a star rating for your skill; all of the checkmarks required to have your end result be deemed “Perfect” are laid out before you. For someone like me, this messed with my head in ways that I initially didn’t understand.

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I have three HP so why was I restarting the fight when I would get hit once? Why did I scream expletives anytime I mistimed a jump? Why was I counting how many super moves I needed to meet the quota? Why did I replay boss battles that I technically completed but didn’t get a “perfect” rating?

My head was full of numbers that repeated from boss battle to boss battle. Three, three, six, two… I felt like Jim Carrey in his plot-twist of a thriller The Number 23. I wasn’t merely enjoying a game anymore, I was fucking obsessed with fulfilling every number!

Restarting mid fight because of a dropped parry or hit, counting numbers like Rain Man and gripping the controller like a stress ball gave me an inkling that this just isn’t normal. Why couldn’t I just move forward? The game wasn’t stopping me. I was! Then it all came together for me and I knew what I’ve probably known all along.

It started right before jumping into the Clip Joint Calamity contract which is the fight against Ribby and Croaks. I pressed the Y button to equip my recently purchased Chaser Shot and decided to check the List section. In the List section, you get to see how many contracts have to be completed in this world but, more importantly, you also get to see which souls have been collected and what grade you received. I was happy to be reminded that I received an A+ for my efforts in the Botanic Panic boss fight and I also received an A+ in my first run-and-shoot level as well. The tone was set. I needed to get an A+ on every level thereafter.

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I jumped right into the Clip Joint Calamity contract and must have restarted the game over thirty times easily. After I completed the fight and got my coveted A+ I realized that I just spent close to an hour trying to get the perfect score. What was worse? I was willing to replay that level all night until I got the A+ I convinced myself I needed.

It was close to 12am on a weekday. I have to be up at 6am and was willing to stay up all night just to get this A+. My girlfriend was getting ready for bed and I was on that couch, eyes ready to close, just to get that Perfect. Not to show off, not for a review and not for a healthy sense of a challenge. No. I needed to stay up because of this insatiable desire to fill this pseudo report card with all A+s.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this but it was the first time that I actually sat back and thought about it. The optional goals that Cuphead lays out alongside its sheer difficulty made me evaluate my problem. I’ve been conditioned to believe that I must do everything 100% or not do it at all. That’s what I was told as a kid. I’ve applied this thinking to almost everything and, I know it sounds silly but Cuphead made me realize how god-awful this can be.

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I’ve spent hours editing video trying to find the best moments, best angles, and the best lines. I’ve spent hours trying to edit my own articles, looking for any possible grammatic error, any misused term or word, any imperfection that would lead anyone to believe the author half-assed this piece. This thinking carried on to most of my experiences with video games. If I can’t complete it? If I can’t be great at the game? If I can’t be perfect? Then why even play it? It’s asinine to even think that this an okay way to approach video games, let alone life.

It’s ironic because my constant need for perfection is what has caused me to give up or not even try in many instances. It feeds my self-depreciation and it hangs over my head when I can’t complete things.

Now my biggest challenge in Cuphead has changed. Before it was all about getting my list full of A+s—a formidable challenge in its own right. But now? My biggest challenge is to see if I can check my obsessive yearning for perfection and just enjoy Cuphead for the strong, punishing, and wonderous shoot-em-up that it is. And of course, this challenge stems past video games.

I should take it easy on myself and be okay with doing things casually. I don’t have to cringe when I don’t get the highest score available or the top tier in anything. Life is far too short for that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to fulfill more contracts and limit myself to just ten retries… or maybe fifteen. What?! You got to start somewhere, right?