Not everything is as it seems: Cuphead and the consequences of bad decisions

By ·October 8, 2017 10:05 am

This article contains spoilers.

There’s been a lot of fuss about Cuphead lately. Inspired by cartoons from the 1930s and backed by music inspired by that era (played, no less, by a real live big band orchestra), this run-and-gun game looks like it hopped straight out of Looney Tunes.

But don’t let that happy-go-lucky cartoon exterior fool you. The game’s story hinges on a simple yet dastardly trope that’s been tested time and time again: making a deal with the devil.

In the game, the titular Cuphead and his brother Mugman recklessly gamble away their souls when they (or rather, Cuphead) roll the dice the wrong way. The only way out for these two troublemakers? Collect the souls of other debtors on Inkwell Isle, so that their own will be spared.

To help them out, their guardian Elder Kettle gives them a magic potion that transforms their fingers into guns. As the two boys grow stronger, they defeat even the most powerful of their foes.

Such a dark premise can be easily overshadowed by Cuphead’s infamous boss battles – which can be described as “pretty, but difficult” for many gamers, or just “pretty” for others – and side-scrolling run-and-gun levels.

Take another look, though, and you’ll uncover the far-reaching consequences of this simple story.

A WORLD FULL OF TRAPPED SOULS

Cuphead may be full of cutesy, smiling bosses that attack you with things like parasols and candy, but they are all out to stop you from taking their souls – the consequence of not repaying whatever debts they have incurred.

What’s surprising about this is just how many monsters have signed away their souls. There are almost 20 bosses taking up a whole lot of space in Inkwell Isle –  many are much larger than Cuphead himself, and most are accompanied by smaller, helper enemies and mini-bosses.

This shows that many of the inhabitants on Inkwell Isle have been involved in some way with the devil too, even though that is never a desirable option. But it does spark some questions. What sinister deals and unlucky gambles did they make, and what did they receive in return? Were they, like Cuphead and Mugman, also thrust into a scheme to collect the other debtors’ souls?

THE POWER OF CHOICE, THE CHANCE AT REDEMPTION

In similar stories, someone’s soul is often exchanged for unlimited wealth, intelligence, or some other grand desire, often with caveats. For instance, a character can achieve immortality as an old, sick man, and not eternal youth as he desires.

In contrast, Cuphead and Mugman have gambled away their chance at great riches – or anything, really. It’s another type of lose-lose situation, where they must throw either themselves or others to the fiery depths.

At the climax of Cuphead, however, Cuphead and his brother have a chance to turn things around in (almost) everyone’s favor – they can either fight the big boss himself to release the inhabitants of Inkwell Isle from the contracts they’ve worked so hard to collect, risking giving up everyone’s souls in the process, or become permanent cronies of hell, giving up whatever goodness they had in them.

A NOD TO THE PAST

Time to show Captain Brineybeard who’s boss.

Considering older cartoons, maybe this sinister stuff isn’t so surprising. Watch Tom and Jerry again and you might see a mouse constantly picking on a poor cat. Ditto for Wile E. Coyote, who always runs into trouble when chasing the Road Runner, or Elmer Fudd, who is constantly outfoxed by Bugs Bunny.

In these cases, an initially entertaining aesthetic – and, quite often, good musical accompaniment – hide a darker plot or an antagonistic relationship between characters. These themes, furthermore, are repeated and underscored in every episode, much like how Cuphead’s bosses have all found themselves in the same situation.

Bearing these examples and more in mind, the simplicity and execution of Cuphead’s story fit right in with its main allure. It’s a game that pays tribute to older games and older animation in all of its aspects – from its hand-drawn designs to its focus on solid gameplay.

Cuphead is available on Windows 10 and Xbox One.

Image credits: Studio MDHR

Written by Alane Lim

Alane Lim is a materials science graduate student and writer based in Chicago, IL. She has been published in science, satire, and entertainment writing, the latter focusing on character and show analyses.

Her interests include indie games, Archie comics, and sci-fi/fantasy books.

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