Cuphead Embraces the Classic Imperfections of Yesteryear

Cuphead running away

E3 is filled with games that we’re trying out for the first time. Cuphead isn’t one of those – we’ve had a chance to play the extremely retro-styled indie title a few times over the past year, and we’ve adored the zany creativity on display each time – but that doesn’t mean that its appearance at E3 2016 was simply a rehash of what we’ve seen before.

The game plays out like one of those classic Popeye cartoons come to life – you know, the really old ones before animation had any sort of code or followed any sort of established rules – crossed with run-and-gun ’80s arcade fare like Contra. This time around, we got the chance to try out Cuphead’s platforming segments which, like the game’s previously seen boss encounters, are infused with some seriously old-school challenges.

What was the biggest test of reflexes during our hands-on time? Trying to navigate through the game’s herky-jerky patterns that stay true to the imperfections seen in classic cartoons. Enemies zigged when we expected them to zag, adding to the feeling that this was a lost hand-drawn masterpiece that somehow escaped an animation studio 80 years ago and wound up inside an Xbox One.

We can’t be sure what video games would’ve been like if they’d been around in the 1930s, but given the free-wheeling, just-about-anything-goes nature of animation from pioneers like the Fleischer brothers and a young Walt Disney – when artists were still starting to figure out the medium, and their work was filled with charming (and sometimes disturbing) imperfections – they might well have looked something like Cuphead.

And in talking to animator Joseph Coleman, it’s clear those imperfections are the key to Cuphead’s authenticity. The team at Studio MDHR is making sure they’ve copiously studied pre–World War II cartoons, particularly those from the Fleischers, best known for still-iconic characters like Betty Boop and that certain spinach-guzzling sailor man.

“I’ve watched a lot of Fleischer cartoons – a whole lot,” Coleman says with a laugh. “You get to know particular designs and the reasons why they designed the characters the way they did.”

Just like we had to retrain ourselves when it came to platforming strategy when playing the game, Cuphead’s animators have had to rethink the way they build a game world.

“Personally, I had to kind of break away from professional-style animation, because we want the game to be ‘imperfect’ in certain ways,” Coleman says. “With the cartoons back then, they were still learning how to animate, so we’re leaving imperfections in here and there just to make it feel more authentic.”

The game’s superbly swinging soundtrack completes the package, evoking the work of beloved band leaders like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The music and animation truly work in tandem, and that’s just one more reason that players should look forward to the unique presentation and challenge of Cuphead when it hits Xbox One and Windows PC via ID@Xbox later this year.