One of my favorite games from 2017 was indie darling “Cuphead,” a challenging, side-scrolling shooter lauded for its breathtaking art and animation that looks as if it was pulled directly from a 1930s cartoon.
The game was recently ported to the Nintendo Switch, and I’m glad a new audience gets to experience such a wonderful and unique game. Its jazzy music and hand-drawn visuals are enough to entice most, but the single-player and co-op gameplay also are rock-solid.
But one thing I’m not happy about concerning the game’s re-release is a bizarre criticism from its original launch that has resurfaced. Some claim “Cuphead” is guilty of bigotry simply for its art style, and that it whitewashes the past because it doesn’t acknowledge the racism of the time period by which the game is influenced.
It’s a stretch of a critique I felt compelled to publicly argue.
It is true that some cartoons of the early 20th century included insensitive portrayals of African Americans, Native Americans and other races and ethnicities. As Warner Bros. now warns in messages displayed before its old cartoons, “Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. These shorts are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”
“Cuphead” takes a different route. Instead of recreating the racist caricatures prevalent in some classic cartoons, Studio MDHR’s original levels and characters are free from offensive portrayals. This isn’t ignoring the past, as some have suggested, but merely borrowing the good parts of an art style the creators appreciate while leaving the bad parts behind.
In an Unwinnable piece published after the game’s original release, author Yussef Cole argues Studio MDHR has “whitewashed history” by not including the offensive caricatures prevalent in old cartoons.
“By sanitizing its source material and presenting only the ostensibly inoffensive bits, Studio MDHR ignores the context and history of the aesthetic it so faithfully replicates,” Cole writes.
To me, this reads that Cole is arguing “Cuphead” should have acknowledged its art style’s history by including what made 1930s animations racist, which is ridiculous.
Obviously, in today’s hypersensitive day and age, any artist with half a brain wouldn’t include such offensive material in his or her entertainment product, even for the right reasons, lest he or she be be labeled a bigot. This is especially true for a game the developers want to be kid-friendly.
Studio MDHR wisely avoided career suicide but is still being accused of “dredging up bigotry and prejudice” by merely paying homage to an art style the developers appreciate.
Ironically, it seems no matter what they did, the developers were in an “unwinnable” position.
Kotaku published a short piece titled, “It's Impossible to Separate Cuphead from the Era That Inspired It.” The article claims “Cuphead” was influenced by a “troubled past” the game never confronts.
Not every classic cartoon was inherently racist. Yes, many used offensive stereotypes and caricatures, but not every show was plagued with offensive caricatures. As such, Studio MDHR has no obligation to depict or even acknowledge the racism of old cartoons just because “Cuphead” shares a similar art style.
Other critiques go even farther. Popular Twitter user Film Crit Hulk recently went on a tirade outright accusing “Cuphead” of being racist for merely having the art style it does, going so far as to compare it to a game including Nazi flags without the developers knowing the history of the swastika.
This is a laughable critique. By this logic, an entire art style is off limits because it is linked to a bygone era. To ban art styles by association would set a ridiculous precedent that would eventually see all creative expression banned. Count me out of that dystopia.
When Rolling Stone asked about the offensive animations to which “Cuphead” is inadvertently linked, the developers said, “It’s just visuals, and that’s about it. Anything else happening in that era we’re not versed in it.”
The developers also told Kotaku, “We went into the game knowing that what we wanted from the era was the technical, artistic merit, while leaving all the garbage behind.”
There doesn’t need to be any more explanation than that. The developers appreciated the gorgeous art style of 1930s cartoons and wanted to recreate the aesthetic while having nothing to do with the darker side of a racist time, which seems pretty fair and levelheaded to me.
Surely everyone can appreciate that and enjoy “Cuphead” for what it is without dredging up a connection to the sins of a century ago.