Through the Inkwell: Cuphead and homage
In a slightly unfocused scene, Cuphead pulls himself up by his belt loops, ready for a fight. The character is sporting a determined stance to face off against Captain Brineybeard, the jolly, laughing yet imposing sailor to the right. The other objects in the frame are sporting facial features, giving them life. The boat that Brineybeard is standing on has a grimace and even a barrel suspended from the sky is expressing anger. Waves crash in the background and foreground, adding to the intensity of the shot. The word "Wallop!" strobes across the screen and the action begins. With so much going on, the scene feels like it comes from one of those bargain-basement VHS compilations of old cartoons that have lapsed into the public domain. Although these visuals may seem oddly familiar or elicit a sense of déjà vu, there is one key difference: nothing appearing on the screen is pre-determined. It is instead being controlled by the player, revelling in the titular character's mayhem.
Studio MDHR's 2017 video game Cuphead is an ambitious endeavour. It has been released in an era where interactive entertainment is getting close to perfecting photo-realism; heralded by studios such as Naughty Dog with games like the Uncharted series (2007–17) and The Last of Us (2013), which are lauded for the quality of their facial animation. These games also combine rich three-dimensional environments with a balanced cinematic and gameplay-rich experience. While these blockbuster games dominate the gaming landscape, independent game studios have tended to look to earlier media forms for stylistic and gameplay influences. These choices make a game less expensive and time consuming to produce but also allow the games to draw audiences via nostalgia. This is especially evident with the "indies" that take inspiration from the 8-bit and 16-bit era of games. Team Meat's 2009 Super Meat Boy draws heavily from earlier platformers such as the Super Mario Bros. series, while laying a much darker theme over the simplistic style. Another example is Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight (2014), which draws influence from games such as Capcom's Megaman and Konami's Castlevania series, explicitly presenting itself as a game that looks like it could have been released on an early Nintendo console. Cuphead follows in this same tradition of looking back for stylistic and gameplay inspiration, drawing heavily on the mechanics of run-and-gun games from the same era such as Konami's Contra series and SNK's Metal Slug games. However, the game's style is not reminiscent of an earlier video game but instead borrows heavily from the medium of hand-drawn animation. In an extensive stylistic homage, the entire art style and visual design of the game is based around early 1930s animation pioneers, such as Max and Dave Fleischer, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.
The influences of Fleischer Studios and early Disney shorts envelop the screen as the player battles through the game. Like these early cartoons, Cuphead is awash with big-eyed over-the-top characters ranging from flowers to morphing zeppelins. Hand-drawn characters are complemented by watercolour-painted backgrounds and a boisterous jazz soundtrack that plays in the background, harking back to the Fleischer Talkartoons series and Disney's Silly Symphonies animated shorts. Throughout the numerous layered intertextual references, perhaps no aspect recalls these works as strongly as the character Captain Brineybeard, seen above; chest puffed out, laughing and antagonising the titular Cuphead before releasing a barrage of attacks. Brineybeard appears alongside the scratched film effect, the washed-out colours and the overall vintage aesthetic that places the scene straight out of a short from the 1930s.
Cuphead also directly recalls the characters of these earlier animated works, as Captain Brineybeard features an uncanny resemblance to the character Sindbad from the Fleischer Studios 1936 short Popeye Meets Sindbad the Sailor. The plot of this short centres on Popeye coming to the rescue of his girlfriend, Olive, who has been kidnapped by Sindbad. Popeye needs to complete a series of feats to prove his worth, and ultimately must fight with Sindbad to save Olive. In Cuphead, Brineybeard appears complete with Sindbad's imposing figure, beard and earrings. Also evident are similarities in the two characters' animations, both swinging their shoulders and weight around to emphasise their large frame. Warren Spector, a fellow game producer, remarked while interviewing the team at Studio MDHR: "The Fleischer/Paramount influence is pretty clear. And I see clear echoes of specific characters there (in some cases, enough that I'd be a little worried if I were you)."1 Cuphead demonstrates that taking inspiration from old characters and sparsely remembered films serves as a touchstone and lays intertextual references to earlier animated media for avid players to discover. This does not serve as a cheap rip-off or a copy trying to exploit its progenitors. I think it works as quite the opposite, enticing the player to explore these references as they play through the levels of the game.
The artistic references throughout the game are, of course, explicit, and their homage is not hidden by the developers, who have stated their inspiration numerous times. Chad Moldenhauer from Studio MDHR explained in an interview with GamesRadar: "As kids, we watched old VHS tapes of Popeye, Betty Boop, Silly Symphonies and more – the art style has always stuck with us."2 The influence of the early cartoons speaks volumes to both the prevailing cult and popular appeal of early Fleischer and Disney animation, which has over many years been enabled by the widespread distribution of these in low-cost VHS compilations. Even today, these films are widely distributed in DVD format; combined with the availability (especially of Fleischer animation) on online services like YouTube and the Internet Archive, due to the release of these cartoons into the public domain, this allows them to maintain their cultural presence.
The acknowledgement by the game's creative team of their homage and overarching influences demonstrates how Cuphead transposes the familiar 1930s animation style from celluloid to coded events. This changes the art style of the game to an intertextual reference in and of itself. Along with its referential characters, the game's watercolour backgrounds (a technique used often by animators in the 1930s) and animation style (such as the fluidity of characters, often referred to as rubber hose animation) are all explicitly chosen by Studio MDHR to maintain authenticity in their homage. These elements not only present the player with a beautiful visual experience but also entice them to go on to seek out and discover the animation that has often been relegated to cultural ephemera, now available through the proliferation across the Internet. Captain Brineybeard's appearance serves not as an imitation but instead as a kind of key to unlocking other intertextual references placed by Studio MDHR.
We could look at Cuphead through the lens of traditional film remaking. Thomas Leitch's categories of remaking specify the category of homage as "[dealing] with the contradictory claims of remakes – that they are just like their originals, only better – by renouncing any claim to be better."3 With the jump from a film to film homage, to a film to video game homage, Leitch seems to perfectly describe Cuphead's intertextual nature: the game seeks to be referential to the original texts, rather than vying to "usurp its place of honor."4 As a video game, Cuphead is not going into direct competition with the original animated shorts, but is instead positioned as a companion piece to them. There are also important distinctions to be made between the players and audiences. In a game, the player makes a central impact on the plot in a way that is completely different to the experience of being a passive viewer of an animated short. Leitch goes on to posit that the homage attempts to "redefine the earlier film's authority by appealing more directly to the desires of a contemporary audience through accommodation."5 This is exceedingly accurate with the transition of the medium, as Studio MDHR are accommodating the player actively borrowing and taking inspiration from its animated progenitors to provide a fresh take on the traditional run-and-gun video game genre. This allows Cuphead to be both a vessel for a revitalisation of a game genre that is now considered niche while also being a revitalisation of animation techniques that have fallen out of common use, making both accessible to a player. This appeal to nostalgia on both fronts bring together a cross-section of players and viewers who may be unfamiliar with either concept.
Cuphead's intertextuality serves as a timely reminder of why homage is a necessary tool in the recognition of early animation. The appeal of the early animation techniques and styles that are rarely seen in contemporary mediums allow the bright colours and wide-eyed creations of cartoon pioneers to live on in an interactive space. The revitalisation this art style allows players, new and informed alike, to experience the wonder and magic of animation from a time passed.