Studio MDHR’s Cuphead is by now a classic platformer, in no small part because of its unusual art style. A lot of games take their cue from animation genres such as anime – MDHR, though, decided to reach back almost as far as possible, to cartoons from the 1920s and ’30s. Some of these should be recognizable to just about anyone – but a few may surprise people who thought they knew Cuphead inside-out.

The setup of the game finds its protagonists, Cuphead and Mugman, ending up in the Devil’s debt after going bust at his casino. To keep their souls, the pair are asked to collect soul contracts from a motley crew of other debtors. This, of course, provides an excuse to battle a range of bosses in many different environments, from garden patches to Egyptian ruins. Those enemies can be everything from giant carrots to pirates and robots.

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Perhaps the most obvious inspirations for Cuphead are the early shorts of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, or more accurately, their studios. For the former, it’s films like Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie – but Fleischer is the more important artist of the two, since according to Kill Screen, MDHR’s Chad Moldenhauer has cited him as a primary muse. Many of the game’s character and environmental cues come from Fleischer series like Betty Boop or Popeye the Sailor, or one-off shorts including Swing You Sinners. The latter shares some thematic links with Cuphead, including even the main character going to hell. It definitely dispels any notion that animation was always intended for kids.

But Why Does Cuphead Have A Cup For A Head?

The source of Cuphead and Mugman’s bizarre designs comes from a 1936 Japanese propaganda film, which is rare enough online that only the most hardcore of animation fans may have stumbled on it. The clip sees Japanese forces fending off an army of Mickey Mouse clones, representing the U.S. About five minutes in, a teacup man transforms into a tank. “We just thought, well, let’s try that,” Moldenhauer told Kill Screen. “We thought it was so odd. I drew a couple versions of it and right away it stuck.” In the game, though, Cuphead and Mugman transform into planes.

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MDHR is still working on The Delicious Last Course, a final morsel of Cuphead DLC. The expansion was postponed indefinitely in November 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it should provide some interesting dissection opportunities for fans curious about the history of animation. Its success could decide prospects for a full-blownCuphead sequel.

Sources: Kill Screen, Madhog Thy Master/YouTube

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