Cuphead has already sold well over 300,000 copies since its release earlier this week. Many will attribute this to its style: a grainy throwback to the surreal daydreams of the early Fleischer and Disney studios of the 1930s. But would a YouTube production of a new Popeye cartoon sell that many copies at $19.99 a go? I don’t think so. I think there’s more to Cuphead than its mascara and eyeliner.
I doubt that it’s the play-style either, unless run n’ games via Contra and Metal Slug have made a comeback without my knowing. Contra 4 on the DS, for instance, has sold fewer copies since 2007 than Cuphead sold in a week, and it’s the best portable run n’ game ever made. Others might say it’s the ability to buy digital that’s given Cuphead the edge, but I don’t remember that logic coming to the rescue of 2011’s Hard Corps: Uprising, a spiritual sequel to Contra: Hard Corps. So what’s driving these numbers?
I think it must be Cuphead’s aesthetics, but not by themselves, not as they would be in a new cartoon. I think these crazy numbers indicate what those aesthetics represent in the video game industry as it is today.
Clever-looking games come out all the time, which is why I say it can’t be style alone. And a lot of these cute indie projects have gameplay more accessible than Cuphead’s relentless arcade action. But I’ve never seen a game that looks like the 1930s. StudioMDHR Entertainment have not sold a style, but have discovered how to commodify a feeling with a style. What makes this game so appealing is hidden in a quiet chemical reaction in our brains between how we perceive recent trends in AAA gaming and our preconceptions of the 1930s from which Cuphead takes its inspiration.
We’ve let AAA get arrogant by being undiscerning with mommy’s credit card. We’ve let review payoffs and click-bait scar the industry. We’ve let DLC and expanded editions turn game achievements into addictions and unlockables into taxes. This summer, NBA 2K18 released with a “Legends Edition” for $99.99, which included the $59.99 game, some virtual currency (which you can still continue to buy separately for as much as $49.99), some extra costumes, and some stickers. Video games have taken the economy of the prize shelf at Chuck E’ Cheese’s and applied it to the real world. 10,000 tickets for an eraser. 30,000 for the Shaquille O’Neal sticker.
Whether you play basketball sims or aren’t an insane realism addict, Cuphead represents a refreshing turn back to quid pro quo for the games industry – $19.99 for a whole game, all of it, to own forever. Though games like this still get released as full packages all the time on the indie scene, that’s where the 1930s comes in.
The 1930s represents sincere simplicity. We were post-war, we were poor, and compared to the millennial machines of industry we were warm and creative. We associate this time with an artistic renaissance, in which not only sound and color film became popular but in which Disney began making feature films, in which cartoons became something like the adult pastime they remain to be today. We think of tinkly music, fashionable hats, growling trumpets, smoky cities, Betty Boop. Its idea of poverty just seems so stylish.
And now we’re richer but colder, louder, digital. NBA 2K18 is saying we can play with stickers if we can spare a hundred bucks. Cuphead emerges as an escape from an industry into a feeling. It feels innocent like those old cartoons, and surreally scary too. I get the impression that difficulty wasn’t a goal on this production, but just the corollary of that feeling: the interactive version of unsettlement. Like Disney, the game has capitalized on a deeply-felt emotional nostalgia, set it up within the industry in contrast to the same industry, and let it capture imaginations.
The implications are exciting. Cuphead makes you realize just how many games look the same for no reason, how concretely the standards of both pixel art and realism-lite have been edified into the industry. If Cuphead exists, will we see a game that looks like Pinocchio, or Gertie the Dinosaur, or My Neighbor Totoro? Remember that Ni No Kuni, the lovely cel-shaded RPG by Studio Ghibli, looked like an anime only in the cut-scenes. Ghost in the Shell games have all been polygonal. Cuphead was generated out of a desire to break the uniformity of player avatars, to interact with the un-interactable.
In a way, that’s what the original NBA games were all about: moving something real to a plane on which the player can interact with it. But a simulation of real life will always fall short of its source material (and so they may be released again and again under the pretense of closing that gap). Cuphead captures the spirit of another time, one ironically as distant from the popularization of PC gaming as we are from WWII. That representation of a spirit, of a people we perceive as better in a world safer, more well-mannered, more childlike and wonderful, has made Cuphead a phenomenon, as much entrepreneurial as aesthetic.
You should buy it. You should buy it five times before you succumb to anybody’s legendary edition of an investment scheme. After playing Cuphead, NBA 2K19 will be your new laughing place, you can bet your life.