Editor’s Note: This article was first published on October 24, 2017. We’re bumping it today for the release of Cuphead on the Nintendo Switch.
Despite how often early twentieth-century animation is referenced in Western media, it’s been virtually untouched by gaming – until now.
When video games first began to emerge as a commodity, their visuals were dominated by heavy pixels, geometric shapes, and bright colors meant to draw players in. Classic titles like Pong, Tetris, and many others made heavy use of simple yet varied designs in their art. Video game animation was very rigid throughout the 80s and early 90s, and movement was typically represented by quickly alternating distinctive poses back and forth. Visual fluidity was not introduced until much later when technological advancements allowed rendering of smoother surfaces. As a result, “retro” with respect to video games is associated with heavy pixelation, chiptune soundtracks, and other artistic aspects reminiscent of the golden age of arcade gaming.
But video game animation took a distinctly different trajectory than film, leaving many visual outlets that are relatively unexplored by games today. While video games came into existence with early computing, film animation evolved directly from hand-drawn comic strips in the early 1920s, when comic artists began to experiment with illustrating motion. But depicting movement in two dimensions required a large number of mass-produced drawings, which presented a dilemma: artists wanted characters to appear lively and fluid, but demanding high amounts of detail would require substantial time and labor. The solution was an art style that made use of smooth, flowing surfaces devoid of points or sharp edges, otherwise known as “rubber hose” animation. Though it might seem a bit primitive and inarticulate by today’s standards, rubber hose animation served as a foundation for animated film as a whole.
Still, despite how iconic “rubber hose” animation is in American media, its use in video games is exceedingly rare. That’s where Cuphead comes in – its visual appeal is so strong because it evokes a completely different avenue of “classic” within a relatively new medium. Studio MDHR’s website restates the developers’ enthusiasm for that era, stating that they were “heavily inspired by vintage Fleischer Studios and Disney hand-drawn animation, but still delve into other classic studios for inspiration – ComiColor, Van Beuren, Columbia Pictures, Copley Pictures and more.” Just like the early days, every single frame of animation in the game was drawn by hand – a Herculean effort for a team of less than two dozen people (five of whom are artists). But Cuphead not only captures the era’s concrete artistic techniques but its abject surrealism as well. While later animation was more grounded in human reality, the characters and entities in older cartoons were indisputably strange (and at times, outright terrifying). Since animation offered so much more room for experimentation than using live actors, nonhuman characters – particularly animals, demons, and inanimate objects – began to take center stage once the medium gained traction. This unabashed eccentricity is evident in Cuphead as well, seeing how the majority of characters are anything but human. Visually speaking, this absurdity shines the most through the game’s bosses, which include vegetables, a sentient ghost train, and a human-zeppelin hybrid. Combined with the slapstick movement and gleefully chaotic gameplay, it makes an unusual but near-perfect interpretation of vintage animation.
In addition to capturing the fluidity and peculiarity of early Western cartoons, Cuphead features many characters and visual elements that closely resemble those from actual early 20th century animated shows. The Botanic Panic level, for instance, features a bag of fertilizer labeled “Acme Grow” in reference to the Acme products in Warner Bros. cartoons (specifically, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner). A building labeled “Acme Shipping” can also be seen in Perilous Piers. Jake Clark, animator at Studio MDHR responsible for most of the bosses, explained on his Tumblr that Cala Maria, the mermaid boss in Inkwell Isle Three, was inspired by Betty Boop and an unnamed character from Disney’s short film Moth and the Flame (1938) with just a touch of Ariel from The Little Mermaid (hence the seashell bra).
There is much more to be enjoyed about Cuphead than the art, of course – the sassy, swing jazz soundtrack and the creatively infuriating boss fights, for starters – but it is the game’s most immediately distinctive characteristic in an industry over-saturated with two-dimensional side scrollers.