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Crusty Corner: Cuphead and the Art of Redpointing

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Crusty Corner is a monthly column written by Climbing Editor Matt Samet, a climber of 30 years. When he’s not at the gym or the rocks trying to stave off the inevitable performance decline of middle age, you can find him in his basement playing Xbox.

Cuphead Rock Climbing Redpoint Project Adam Ondra
Adam Ondra works Silence, currently the hardest sport climb in the world (left). Cuphead battles Beppi the Clown (right). Both employ redpointing techniques.

Cuphead is a console video game that came out in September 2017. Much anticipated, with years of build-up, it’s a throwback to old-school gaming, with boss battle after boss battle and side-scrolling run-and-gun levels in which you earn coins to upgrade your powers and arsenal. Cuphead relies on painstakingly crafted animations inspired by 1930s cartoons, with a retro jazz soundtrack to match. It’s a beautiful, engaging, addictive game with a fast-paced, over-the-top feel.

It’s also hard as hell. Like, really, really hard. Like, recognized as such even in the macho, elitist gaming world. There are so many things coming at you, and so much going on with bright colors, sounds, music, explosions, and so on, that it can overwhelm the senses, especially with older, slower reflexes like mine. Bonk into things three or four times and you’re dead. Boom. Time to start the level over. Again.

In the five weeks since the game’s come out, I’ve only progressed through 42 percent of the levels, despite putting in my time each night. Often, it might take me a week of attempts just to beat a single level, and this is usually after watching play-through videos on YouTube. The only thing I can say in my defense is that I’ve beaten every level so far on the Regular setting and haven’t caved in and tried them on Easy, so at least there’s that.

I’ve also come to accept that I may never, in fact, beat Cuphead—I’m not sure I’ll ever see that progress meter land on 100 percent. But that’s OK, because I’m learning to embrace the process. I would give Cuphead a rock-climbing rating of 5.15c.

If you’re wondering what Cuphead has to do with climbing, the short answer is: “everything,” especially when it comes to redpointing. At a certain point in your career, if you’re diehard about the sport, you will begin to climb on projects, routes that take more than a few tries to complete and that might in fact take multiple days, weeks, months, or even years to redpoint. You will fail over and over again, sometimes in different spots, sometimes in the same spot, experiencing failure upon failure until once—just the one time—it all comes together and you somehow, magically, don’t fall.

Ditto with Cuphead. I’m not sure how many times I’ve tried certain levels, but it’s up in the dozens—failure upon failure. And then the once, just the one time, I somehow stick it out to the end until a big “Knockout!” appears across the screen and the boss is vanquished. And I wonder, “How the hell did I just do that?” And also, “What took me so long?”

Instead of giving in to my lesser impulses and hurling my controller at the TV after dying the 50-millionth time in one night, I’m trying to learn from the experience and to take those lessons into other areas of life, especially climbing, an equally frustrating and pointless pursuit—but one that I love nonetheless. Here are a few things I’ve learned from Cuphead that cross over to climbing.

1. Embrace failure

It might be hard to believe now, but back in the day this very magazine in its “Hot Flashes” department would routinely report on how many days and tries a climb took. “Jocko McRocko climbed Fuzzbuster Arête third day, second try for his third-ever 5.13b,” the copy might read, breathlessly. It boggles the mind to think that anyone cared, but apparently they did and probably still do, since you can find similarly pointless chest-thumping stats on people’s scorecards and Mountain Project ticklists. The net effect of this, at least to me at the time as an aspiring 20-something barely pro climber, was an arms race to do a route the quickest—to do it in the fewest tries. By so doing, you then proved that you were the superior climber even though all you had done was climb the exact, same route.

Of course, viewing redpointing like this is wrong-headed, placing the focus on the result and not the process—and it was a trap I got caught up in for some years, sometimes to the point that I wouldn’t even get on certain climbs unless I was sure I could do them in fewer tries than the last guy. (I was climbing a lot at Rifle then; please try to understand…) But if you’re just rushing to cross the finish line, then why are you climbing? At least ostensibly, we get on climbs because they appeal to us on some aesthetic and/or kinesthetic level, not just to “do” them. So, who cares how many tries they take? In fact, if a route is a true classic, then the more tries the merrier, I’d argue.

It should be pleasurable to “fail,” because along the way you get to do some great rock climbing. In Cuphead, when I can feel my blood pressure rising and face flushing with frustration after Beppi the Clown (total asshole!) has killed me for the tenth time in as many minutes, I remind myself that I like this—that I’m doing this voluntarily to unwind at the end of the day. Ditto with redpointing: I’m out here trying a route because I love to climb on it, and whether I do it on my second try or twentieth should have no bearing on how much I enjoy each effort.

2. It’s all about pattern recognition

When you first try a level on Cuphead, you die quickly, usually in the first 10 or 20 seconds. So much is going on, with so many obstacles, projectiles, boss attacks, and so on, that your mind can’t initially process it all. It all seems random and meaningless and chaotic. You flit around the screen shooting your finger gun or mini-airplane and hoping for the best, knowing all the while that you’re about to get annihilated. In fact, your first thought might be, “There’s no way I’m ever beating this level.”

I liken this to the first time up a hard route. There’s a jumble of chalk and boot rubber everywhere, the holds feel small and impossible to hang, you can barely get into position to do the moves much less clip, and it basically feels like “There’s no way I’m ever getting up this thing.” But then, somehow, eventually, you do.

So what happens in the interim to so radically change your perspective?

As I learned with both Cuphead and redpoint climbing, it’s all about patience and pattern recognition. In Cuphead, you can eventually decipher what’s going on by studying the movements of each enemy, then figuring out where you need to be on the screen to be safest, how to avoid their attacks, and how to maximize your offensive capabilities. And while climbing, you can eventually decipher beta and that cryptic labyrinth of holds and sequences—you just have to take the time to look at what the rock, chalk, boot marks, and tick marks are telling you. (Or ask the local beta troll, often found hanging out below popular testpieces, unsolicited advice at the ready!)

I recently spent six days putting up a new climb, an overhanging arête, and the first three days were beta investigation and refinement, imposing order upon the chaos. I remember thinking on day one and two, “Does this sequence even go?” I could see the holds and hang them, and I could see that they were within reach of each other, but I had no idea how to link them. On day three I cracked the code, and by day four I had the crux dialed, down to every last thumb catch, foot dimple, shuffling of the hand up the arête, and so on. When I sent the climb, as I lowered off I remember thinking, “This sequence is so obvious—there’s only one way to do it. How did I miss it?” But of course, it hadn’t always been so—the 14-move crux is actually very complex, comprising two paragraphs of beta when written out—and if you took me back to the climb five years from now I’m sure I’d flail, unable to recall or easily decipher that “obvious” one way until I put in the time to recognize the pattern again.

It’s this problem-solving that makes rock climbing beautiful. The more you embrace the trial-and-error phase of beta refinement, the better you’ll get at it and the bigger your library of possible moves will become, making it easier to impose order upon the chaos with each subsequent project.

3. The less you care, the better you’ll perform

If I come home and jump right into Cuphead, thinking, “I need to beat some levels tonight—I’m falling behind!”, I’ll choke. By contrast, many of my best “burns” on Cuphead are late at night, as a passing thought before bed, when my mind is nearly empty and my thoughts have slowed. “Aw, fuckit,” I’ll think. “I’ll play a level or two of Cuphead then crash.” It’s then, feeling loose, indifferent, and relaxed, that I can “Zen” out and work the controls.

I’ve noticed something like this out climbing, too. My first burn of the day, I usually want it “too badly” and so am riddled with redpoint anxiety, overgripping, climbing too quickly, breathing poorly, obsessing about falls, slopping through sequences, rushing on easy terrain where I should be resting, and so on. Sound familiar? The second burn is often better—I’ve discharged that frenetic puppy energy, and so climb more smoothly, but I often still kind of “want it” and so am not as relaxed as I could be. By the time the third burn comes around, I’m tired and usually don’t expect to succeed, and so I just climb for the sake of climbing and gaining on-route fitness. It’s often then, ironically, that the route goes down.

I’m not sure how to cultivate this “Devil may care” attitude earlier in the day, but if someone figures out a way to bottle it up and sell it, I’ll be the first to place an order. Maybe the key is just to look at burns one and two as the warm-up, and treat them accordingly.

4. Take a break when you can’t stand it anymore

This one’s obvious. After 10 or 15 tries in a row on a Cuphead boss fight, I’m done for the night. Same with climbs—if you’re flinging yourself at a route and making no or negative progress, and you’re not enjoying the process anymore, then it’s time for a break. To unwind and reset, I suggest heading home to play a little Cuphead!

5. There will always be another boss to fight

Finally, I’ve come to realize, there will always be another boss to fight—in other words, just as soon as you finish one goal, be it a video-game level or a project at your local cliffs, the hunger will hit you again and you’ll be on to the next challenge. In that sense, we’re never “finished,” nor should we approach redpointing like there is some end goal other than the process itself. It would be impossible in a human lifespan to redpoint every climb on earth, even if you were Adam Ondra, and I’m not sure that you’d even want to because then what would be left to do? Sit around and reminisce? Write books and give slideshows?

There is a bittersweet joy in sending a project—sweet in that you’re finally done, but bitter because that chapter of your life has ended and you don’t get to climb on this awesome route anymore. Same with Cuphead: I actually felt a small pang of grief when I sent Baroness Von Bon Bon packing in the Sugarland Shimmy level. We’d been through so much together, night after night for at least a week. And when I lay down on a floating saucer and nuked her with my super attack till I won, I felt a little dirty, like my victory had come too easily after so much toil and strife. Ironically, I’d felt the same when I’d vanquished the arête project one day earlier, especially after I found a way to improve the pre-crux rest by using a different hold for my left hand.

“Darnit, route,” I thought as I clipped the chains. “That was almost too easy. I figured we had at least another date or two with each other.” But in the end, it all worked out—friends and I bolted another new route, in the Flatirons, last week. Fourteen bolts, 35 meters, with an overhanging power-endurance sprint for the chains up a radically overhanging wave. I’m not sure how many tries it will take, but I intend to enjoy and learn from each one. I intend to embrace the process, just as I will while getting merc’d for the ten thousandth time by that asshole Beppi the Clown when I get home after a day of climbing.

Read more Crusty Corner.