Does paying tribute to animation’s legacy also require grappling with its problematic history?
Initial release: September 29, 2017
Platform: PC, XBox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
Ah, the 1930s. The golden age of animation, ushered in by the 1928 classic Steamboat Willie. But that was 95 years ago, and animation — and society at large — has changed a lot. But the “rubber hose” style of animation has never truly gone out of style; while you might not see it on Cartoon Network, it’s seeing a revival in the video game arena. And you could probably pin that on studioMDHR’s Cuphead, which is like if Fleischer Studios (Popeye, Betty Boop) and Contra had a baby. Directly inspired by Fleischer Studios and its contemporaries, Cuphead is the logical response to pixel art as a deliberate aesthetic; as pixel art represents a bygone era of video games, so too does Cuphead’s animation style reflect the imperfections of animation’s golden age.
This evocation of the 1930s is obvious right away: not only is everything animated by hand, but it also plays back at a traditional 24fps — in spite of the game itself running smoothly at 60. The result is as if you were literally playing an interactive cartoon. It’s mesmerizing. Everything is done as traditional as possible. In addition to a delightfully rubbery and absurdist animation style, the backgrounds are gorgeously detailed watercolors — sometimes bordering on stuff worthy of hanging on a wall (especially in King Dice’s stage.) And, in a move that reminds me of 1932’s Minnie the Moocher using (and named after) a hit Cab Calloway song, the soundtrack is 51 tracks of the hottest big band jazz you’ll ever hear this side of Count Basie. It’s glorious, and i can’t imagine the game without it.
Even the storyline is like something out of the absurdism that dominated Fleischer: Cuphead and his brother Mugman, two vessel-headed troublemakers, wind up in debt to the devil after losing a gambling bet. To get out of it, they have to collect the souls of other debtors. Spread across three islands, each one unlocked by defeating the inhabitants of the previous, you’ll wander around a Mario-style top down map. There’s NPCs to talk to, secrets to find, shortcuts to traverse, and even mausoleums to visit. Ah, but I did mention Contra, didn’t I? this game is more than just a cartoon, after all. It’s a run-and-gun game in the tradition of, well, Contra, Metal Slug, among others, though with a unique twist: it’s almost all boss fights, each with multiple phases.
While there are simple sidescrolling levels, they’re optional and generally kind of mediocre to outright annoying. The boss fights are the real draw of the game; in fact, they’re so impressive that when a very short version of the game was showed off at E3, fans demanded more. And they got it, with ten new bosses added to the game, though it cost a second mortgage on the developers’ part to make it happen. The effort was worth it, though: the game is still quite short if you have any talent at this kind of game. Hell, even DarkSydePhil finished it.
That’s not to say it’s not hard. Because oooh boy is it ever hard. This is not a forgiving game by any stretch; indeed, its intense difficulty has only added to the ongoing (and tiresome) debate over difficulty versus accessibility in gamer circles, sometimes in a ludicrous fashion.
It’s not all bad, though. As the game progresses, you can purchase alternate weapons (using coins you find in side-scrolling levels) to give you an edge. These include slightly weaker homing bullets, a short-range spreadshot, among others. As you fight each boss, you’ll gradually fill a super meter, depicted by cards, that can be used to fire powerful shots. If you visit the mausoleums and defeat the ghosts there, you’ll gain access to powerful moves that can give you a serious edge. You’ll need it, too. The common standard for difficulty these days is quick reactions, but Cuphead evokes the old days of muscle memory and pattern recognition. While some bosses are easier than others, most bosses will require a lot of practice to take down. Indeed, the game makes several references to classics of the 80s — aside from the obvious Contra callbacks, there’s multiple Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog jokes, plus a little bit of Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and Wonder Boy of all things.
There’s also, of course, various references to classic animation, such as Woody the Woodpecker, Popeye, and the 1930 Fleischer short Swing, You Sinners! The game’s main villain, King Dice, is intentionally evocative of Cab Calloway, who often appeared in some form or another in Fleischer shorts as well.
Which leads me into the other controversy around this game. Shortly after the game came out, a couple of thinkpieces put forth the argument that Cuphead’s 1930s-era animation style is inextricably linked to 1930s racism.
In short, the argument goes, by stripping the art style of the (many) racist caricatures it once perpetuated, it’s essentially whitewashing history by refusing to honestly engage with the racism of the era. (You can imagine how white nerds reacted.)
It’s true that many cartoons of the era played on race-baiting (and indeed, Cab Calloway only got a fair shake when the characters he voiced weren’t strictly human.) And it’s true that many racist caricatures of the mid-20th century were perpetuated in animation of the 1930s, which itself was building on the minstrel shows that preceded it. So if nothing else, the articles present a good analysis of just how racist that the 1930s animation industry was be, but I don’t know how well the core premise holds up under scrutiny. It does feel a little like similar arguments I’ve heard about cosmic horror as a genre — that having been originated in the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft, a notorious xenophobe, and his contemporaries (who were also racist) — the entire genre, stretching all the way to the likes of Bloodborne or even Mass Effect, is inherently racist. And I don’t know, maybe it’s not my place to say, but when you get down to it, almost the entirety of our modern popular culture is built on racism: what we didn’t use to demean people of color, we just stole from them instead. So what’s the solution here? Better minds than mine have searched for it, but I don’t know that anyone’s ever agreed on the answer. Even the producers of the Cuphead Netflix show struggled to answer this question.
At the end of the day, Cuphead is only what it was meant to be: an arcade shooter with an art style out of time. You might find it too hard. You might have qualms about the history the game evokes that the game itself does not meaningfully address. But at its core, it’s a solid title. And maybe that can be enough for now.