There have been a lot of narratives swirling around Cuphead since its announcement. It's a game that looks like a real cartoon. A game that's too hard. A game that perhaps leans a bit too much on an era of animation where racist caricatures ran rampant. A game that feels at odds between its cutesy style and brutal boss fights. As I've been playing Cuphead, these thoughts wash over me, bleeding into my experience with it.
Cuphead feels like a game shaped by the public's perception of it during its long development—the game first arose back in 2010, but wasn't formally announced until it was buried within a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sizzle reel during Xbox's 2014 E3 conference. When news of it being strictly boss fights arose and people didn't seem pleased, developers Studio MDHR added platforming levels into the game. The run-and-gun levels feel literally stitched on, nowhere near as engaging as the battles nor as endearingly animated. Cuphead, it often feels, maybe should have stuck to its initial vision: an uncompromising boss rush that isn't at odds with its art direction.
Still, some say Cuphead is at odds with itself. Its animation is joyful and inviting at a mere glance, like Mickey Mouse whistling on a steamboat, his tail flopping in the fictional wind. I see it on the contrary side of things. Cuphead wasn't inspired wholly by the anthropomorphic mouse-starring cartoons of Disney, but by the surreal, sometimes disorienting animation of Fleischer Studios.
Fleischer Studios was most commonly known for the works of Popeye, Betty Boop, and other humanoid characters. Fleischer had a reputation in the 1930s for its dark humor and how it more realistically reflected its era—better known as the Great Depression, an time of immense mass poverty. Contrary to many other animation studios' counterparts, Fleischer Studios focused its effort squarely on human-like characters to match this tone. Fleischer Studios never wanted to create a distraction like many other cartoons, they wanted to reflect reality, for better or worse.
In the biography Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution, filmmaker Richard Fleischer shares the story of his better-known animation pioneer father Max Fleischer's own meteoric rise to fame, and what initially spawned his own whirlwind spiral into the animation industry. Richard didn't have an earnest understanding of his father's work until he was ushered into a screening at a local art house theater of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, a German Expressionist film from director Robert Wiene. According to Richard, going to the theater was a favorite pastime of Max's. Max didn't have a reason for taking his son to see the art film, but for Richard, the film ended up speaking for itself.
"I still carry an image from [the movie] around in my head—a tall, pale-faced thin man in a long black coat, his eyes circled in black, standing in a narrow hallway, its walls askew," writes Richard Fleischer in Out of the Inkwell. "I remember not so much being frightened as somehow being hypnotized by the image. I've never really figured out why my father wanted me to see that surrealistic masterpiece. By no stretch of the imagination was it a film for children. Perhaps, with this film, he was initiating me into the world in which he lived. His animated cartoons always relied heavily on surrealism for their effect. Perhaps it was his way of stretching my imagination, of making me aware that there was more than one way of looking at reality."
The story Cuphead weaves is an equally bleak one, compared to the zany worlds Max Fleischer brought to the screen. Cuphead and their brother Mugman have upset the Devil, and to pay him back must do the Devil's dirty work for him. That dirty work materializes in boss fights, arduous battles where you eventually coerce big baddies into signing contracts, forking over their soul to Satan when they leave this world and venture into the afterlife. Yet with a soul pledged to the Devil, they won't get much rest. In a sense, Cuphead and Mugman are makeshift repo men in a world that doesn't want them, except it's far cuter and Harry Dean Stanton isn't mulling around this eccentric landscape.
I'm a stubborn type of player. When Cuphead landed in my inbox, it was smack in the middle of the week. I was caught in the mid-week shuffle before I had to hop on a plane for a mini-vacation. I had review obligations, and no time to meet them. I let my review embargo slip away, and reviewing Cuphead in a timely fashion slip away too. I felt bad. But in my stubbornness, the game itself wouldn't be let off that easy, even as it had other plans for me. Its punishing rinse-repeat of death and eventual tedious victory were waiting with open arms. At this point, I'm about halfway through World Two, and there's so much awaiting me. I'm frustrated by it at every turn, and playing for hours on end is a grueling experience. And yet, I can't forget about it. I can't let it go.
I wish I could say I'm enjoying every waking moment of playing Cuphead, as much as I enjoy watching it in action. A sugarcoated princess hocking sentient candy at me, growing more grotesque with time; two gambling-savvy frogs who bounce in unison with one another. Nonetheless, the patterns of Cuphead's bosses are embedded in my mind. Recently, I woke up in the dead of night to scribble down something I was screwing up on, as to not forget ever again. I don't remember why—when I think about it, it must have been a nightmare. As if Cuphead's sadistic bosses are dancing in my mind against my will long after I've put the controller down. In a way, Cuphead has been haunting me, as I suspect the all-too-surreal cartoons of Fleischer Studios once did to its viewers.
Cuphead doesn't bear the overpronounced shadowy figures like the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but its bosses leave just as lasting of an impression as the landmark piece of German film. Cuphead imagines a cartoon world where everything is out to get you. Everything is a menace. Nothing is as saccharine as it seems. It holds a different view of reality, like what Max sought to put into animation, one that his son Richard didn't understand until seeing the inspiration itself. Cuphead roots itself as memorable in the same fashion, adopting the imagery of a 1930s cartoon but with its own spin, mechanically reflective as an homage to the cutesy video games of the 1980s and 1990s. Games that snuck up on you, and pounded you into the ground with their grueling difficulty.
Cuphead was never at odds with its sinister-minded animation. It found its home within it.