It's Impossible To Separate Cuphead From The Era That Inspired It

Illustration for article titled It's Impossible To Separate Cuphead From The Era That Inspired It

Cuphead is a beautiful looking game with tight controls and grueling combat that culminates in game unlike many others. But as a throwback to the animation of the early 20th century, it finds its muse in a troubling past it never gets around to actually confronting.


There’s a famous saying often attributed to Sigmund Freud that goes “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” While he almost certainly didn’t actually say it, the quote lives on because of the appeal of its underlying logic: not everything has another layer, a hidden meaning, or a secret agenda. As persuasive as this logic can sometimes be, however, it’s often born of exhaustion or hopelessness rather than insight, like when when J.J. Gites is told at the end of the movie “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

A lot of people have wanted to do the same with Studio MDHR’s latest game and say something along the lines of “sometimes a cup is just a cup.” But over at Unwinnable, Yussef Cole convincingly shows why that’s not the case. In an essay titled “Cuphead and the Racist Spectre of Fleischer Animation,” he argues that the imagery used in the game borrows from tropes and characters intended as a rebuke against the culture and music associated with black people in the 1930s. By taking the “good” parts of this tradition of animation and leaving the bad, Cuphead ends up whitewashing the past.

He writes,

“By sidestepping this kind of over the top caricature, Cuphead attempts to represent the best of the jazz era’s relationship with cartoons. And there is a lot of good to be found. Calloway is an electric performer and cartoons like the Fleischer’s 1933 films The Old Man of the Mountain and Betty Boop in Snow White do far better justice to his inimitable style. At the same time, these examples feature his voice in the body of an old white man and a white-faced clown, respectively. When it comes time for cartoons to represent him as a human being, his lips balloon up, his eyes grow, and he is forced into the minstrel mold, the only way that animation studios seemed to be able to envision black characters for decades. That Cuphead follows the path of the Fleischers and hides what could have been his likeness behind an anthropomorphic talking dice is historically in line with black representation in animation. Once it became faux-pas to depict black characters as minstrels and racist caricatures, then the solution appears to be not depicting them at all.”

Illustration for article titled It's Impossible To Separate Cuphead From The Era That Inspired It

At two different points, Cole quotes the creators behind the game. First is an interview with artist Maja Moldenhauer who said, “It’s just visuals and that’s about it. Anything else happening in that era we’re not versed in it.” The second time it’s something designer Chad Moldenhauer told Kotaku a couple weeks ago,

“We went into the game knowing that what we wanted from the era was the technical, artistic merit, while leaving all the garbage behind. You can find it in everything from the era: film, advertisement, everything. We wanted to take the style but make it our own. We tried to focus on our likes and dislikes and steer away from any of that.”


“All the garbage” in this case means the deep-seated racism and reactionary politics which surrounded early American animation. Art doesn’t arise out of nothing, from no one and from nowhere. People create it. The dream of being able look to the past and extricate what we find free from baggage is understandable, but as Cole shows, can have the unintended consequence of compounding the sin. Where characters of color were originally depicted with racist imagery, they now risk not getting depicted at all.

You can read the rest of Cole’s essay over at Unwinnable.

Kotaku staff writer. You can reach him at



Now this is a good dilemma.

It seems like a Catch-22 where we have the creators of the game wanting to highlight the style and feeling of the old 1930's cartoons and the big band jazz music, but not shine a spotlight on past racism. If they point out the racism of the past, it could result in some people possibly getting upset and that would detract from the enjoyment people might have with their game.

I have every reason to believe that their intentions were/are good and they did not mean to create anything that would be controversial. By having a cast made up of mostly animate objects, talking animals, and other weird creatures, they were able to successfully avoid portraying any one particular race, sex, gender, what have you in a negative light. Some characters were clearly based on or inspired by other old cartoon characters or other character archetypes in both cartoons and games.

But in their attempt to avoid anything that could be considered offensive or racist, the trouble is not so much what was included, but what WASN’T included.

The LACK of something can be just as noticeable as when there’s something clearly there. It’s like if you have a open forum session discussing women’s issues and look around and see nothing but men in the auditorium/room. Sometimes this might not be something easily obvious and truth be told, I didn’t think much about it until this article here. But then again, other times it might be something that sticks out like a sore thumb. So what’s a game dev to do?

The solution: Inclusion.

We know King Dice is based off of Cab Calloway, and if he were to look like the actual Cab Calloway and not a person with a die for a head, he’d probably look something like this:

From Erika S. on Twitter, this “Humanized” rendition of King Dice was their take on what they would look like if they actually used a complete likeness of Cab Calloway (and a somewhat realistic one to boot; notice the 5 fingers on each hand). Even Joseph Coleman, one of the artists on Cuphead, LOVED their take on King Dice.

Using the actual likeness of Cab Calloway would probably have cost quite a bit to license it from his estate, hence why they went with King Dice being the way he is, but take a good look at what Erika S. did.

She took the old timey style and illustrated a person of color without the stereotypical minstrel show appearances. Of the few human characters in Cuphead, like Sally Stageplay, Hilda Berg, Dr. Kahl,Captain Brineybeard, and a few others, all of them appear to be white. I highly doubt the creators meant to exclude any particular race of people from this game, but the lack of any one character, even as minor as a random person standing in the background, being dark skinned creates the “Illusion of Exclusion”.

I have no reason to believe that any person at Studio MDHR was actively trying to exclude anyone or anything from this game. It’s one of those things that once you look back on it, you can go, “Well I’ll be! I didn’t even think of that!”

To help break this illusion, all they need to do, whether it be in their next game, or in an update to Cuphead (they did say they want to add more bosses down the road), all they need to do is include at least one human person of color to be present. Even if they were just someone you talk to in passing on the overworld map, that one person helps dispel the illusion. And doing so with realistic (at least for humanized cartoon characters) attributes proportions without going into minstrel show caricatures will ensure that no one accuses the developers of racism.

So what now?

I do not expect Studio MDHR to go back and change a background character or anyone in specific to be a person of color for no discernible reason. Changing what’s already out there on the grounds of trying to be PC would likely cause friction from one group of people or the other. Instead of focusing on what’s already out, they just need to focus on what’s yet to come. They can add on to the game with DLC so that additional characters or bosses can represent what’s missing, or just make sure to include someone that’s a person of color in a later game.

Chad Moldenhauer said:

“We wanted to take the style but make it our own.”

And I think Cuphead is a good START at doing that. I think the next step to really making it their own and going beyond the old minstrel show racism would be to include a few people of color among the other few humans in the character roster. This, I think, will help them really make this style their own and make sure that it maintains a positive light and reception.

But that’s just my thinking. What do the rest of you think?