In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.
-Sir Francis Bacon
Some of my favorite memories from childhood are Saturday mornings. Relaxing in front of the television, bowl of sugary cereal in my lap, watching Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny cartoons in all of their technicolor glory. Alligators danced, coyotes ran off cliffs and ducks wore shirts; everything and anything seemed possible on the other side of my television’s glass screen.
Studio MDHR’s Cuphead is a run ‘n gun based off of the 1930s cartoons I remember so fondly. Taking their cue from early animators like Fleischer Studios and turn of the century Disney, Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, successfully pieced together a strange new world for gamers. All of the character and effect animations were hand-drawn with painstaking detail placed in authentic music, text and overall style. The player genuinely feels like he or she is interacting with an animated cartoon from 90 years ago.
Cuphead and Mugman are two brothers who have lost a gamble with the Devil at his casino on Inkwell Isle, losing their souls in the process. The Devil strikes a deal with them that if the brothers can collect all the soul contracts from others who have lost bets with him in the past, that Cuphead and Mugman’s souls will be freed. If not, their souls belong to the Devil for eternity. The player controls Cuphead throughout the land to battle boss after boss to open up new areas and, ultimately, win soul contracts. The world is beautiful but difficult with a learning curve that reminded me of the games I played growing up like Contra and The Lion King.
In Cuphead, the line between good and evil is unmistakable with hard consequences for those that cross it. The game reminds us that the cost for bad decision making can be detrimental. What started out as just a game brought Mugman and Cuphead head over heels in debt with payment they didn’t have.
This path to payment is paved with hardships. Cuphead is notorious for its difficulty and for reminding players of their failures. A more interesting example of this is “Peace Lake,” a seemingly-tranquil blue lake found in the second area of the game. You approach it with curiosity and are rewarded with a grim reminder: “Through all your battles and my rhymes, you have failed 157 times.” At this point, you’ve hacked your way through around ten boss fights and, if you’re anything like me, feeling a bit triumphant. The lake brings you back to reality with a reminder that there is always room for personal improvement no matter how far you’ve come. And one of the best ways to inspire progress is accountability, even if that accountability comes from an animated face in a lake half way through a video game.
In my opinion, Cuphead is, in many ways, an instructional tool. When so much of our media glorifies escaping consequences, the world of Inkwell Isle shows us different. Like the original fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, Cuphead puts a dark spin on a moralistic lesson. Brothers Cuphead and Mugman face the consequences of their actions and, in the end, are given a choice that responds to the lessons learned. Their journey mirrors our own lives and how failure plays a role. Even though we’re reminded of the things we’ve screwed up on and are faced with fight after fight, we raise our fists triumphantly after each victory and move on to the next, hopes high that our wins will out number our losses.
I value the hard lessons in this game and in cartoons of yesterday far greater than the watered down stories found in children’s media and most gaming today. Sometimes in order to enjoy the sugary cereals, hippos dressed as ballerinas and talking yellow canaries of life, we need the darker, real world contrasts to compare them to. While fluff media has its time and its place, it’s just as necessary to have cartoons and games that teach us the harder things in life like the value in morality, consequences and failure. Like those grainy cartoons that both frightened and delighted me as a child, Cuphead is both a lesson and a joy; showing us that even though we may fail 157 times, it’s our victories that carry us and drive us to continue playing.