In the 1949 Looney Tunes short, “Curtain Razor,” Porky Pig works as a recruiter for a talent agency. His last audition featured a con man in a fox outfit, who dressed up in a devil outfit and drank atomic powder, TNT, and gasoline before setting himself on fire and blowing up, dying on the spot. Porky is impressed, but the fox’s ghost (really) points out one teeny, tiny little problem:
“I can only do it once.”
Cuphead from Studio MDHR didn’t take inspiration from this era of cartoons—instead, they drew inspiration from the early Disney and Max Fleischer shorts from a decade prior. But it definitely blew up in similar fashion, selling (at time of writing) a whopping 3 million copies for so effortlessly capturing the essence of the hand-drawn cartoons of old. Unfortunately, this faithfulness isn’t only on the surface level. If the above reference didn’t tip you off, these older cartoons were also awash in jokes about drugs, murder, sex, casual suicide, and some truly nightmarish imagery.
Meaning if you made a video game based on animated shorts from the 1930s, where Cuphead and his pal Mugman go around stealing souls to satiate the Devil and their gambling compulsions…you might be the catalyst for another Great Depression.
Boiled down to its essentials, Cuphead is basically Gunstar Heroes for the “Steamboat Willie” generation, and on those terms, it succeeds magnificently. Save for a few Run-n’-Gun levels, this game has a strong emphasis on brutally unforgiving boss fights, requiring quick reflexes and a faster trigger finger than Sonic the Hedgehog doing his best John Wick impression. Enemies are vicious, unpredictable, and punish even the slightest mistakes, and in a game where you can only take three hits before STARTING AT THE VERY BEGINNING, your rage will runneth over.
At this point, a lot has been said, especially by games journalists, about this game being exclusionary—that a brutally hard game has no right being so demanding of people who love old cartoons—but didn’t even know about Gunstar Heroes before reading the previous paragraph. In a way, they’re correct: despite offering a “Simple” difficulty, you have to beat every boss on “Regular” to obtain the Soul Contracts for accessing the final area. Why even do this, and what’s the point for players drinking from this saucer of sadism?
Contrary to what the Polygons of the world would have you believe, Cuphead is much more approachable than you may think. While you do need to start over at the beginning of a fight, loading is instantaneous, so you can jump right back in and go for another scrap.
Apart from being colorful, the exaggerated hand-drawn visuals pair remarkably well with this arcade approach: all attacks are consistently telegraphed and easy to read, even if the learning process involves dying or taking damage. And in the end, there was never a single level or boss that I and 2,999,999 other people couldn’t ultimately overcome with persistence and a willingness to learn from our mistakes. It may not be the norm these days, but that doesn’t make it inherently bad or exclusionary.
Cuphead isn’t the only game to start these discussions, and it won’t be the last. But a game like this going triple platinum is heartening, regardless of where you stand—not because it’s a game for everyone, but because it’s a game for a niche audience that’s so meticulously crafted you don’t even need to be part of that niche to appreciate it. That’s worth celebrating on principle, and with the Delicious Last Course on tap for 2019, I can’t wait for that next oh-so-delectable sip.