Cuphead: How Creepy Old Cartoons Spawned a Hit

http://store.steampowered.com/app/268910/Cuphead/

It’s not every day that a video game can unset PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive from the top of the Steam charts, but Cuphead has done just that.

Since releasing 48 hours ago, StudioMDHR’s old-timey cartoon platformer has won universal acclaim from both critics and audiences. Currently, Cuphead is the most trending title on Steam and has thousands of reviews gushing over the title. It seems that the world of video gaming has its next indie darling.

It’s natural to wonder what causes an indie game to blow up so big. Some reviewers claim storyline (as in the case of Firewatch), while others say atmosphere for the likes of Limbo and Inside. No matter the reason cited, there’s always a common trait among indie games that become overnight superstars: aesthetic.

Limbo had a one-of-a-kind look that continues to captivate audiences seven years after release. Firewatch too has a unique appearance about it: a brightly colored shine that meshes well with the game’s suspenseful wilderness.

Cuphead is no different, at least in terms of having a novel look. While Limbo opted for a gritty monochromatic motif and Firewatch the bright colors of summer, Cuphead is rendered entirely in the style of 1930’s cartoons: those old, somewhat unsettling drawings of characters with big grins, pierced pupils, and few to no sharp edges.

Cuphead has been lauded for much more than its appearance, but its appearance is what audiences are talking about right now. Even the game’s fun run’n’gun gameplay and reportedly outstanding system performance don’t come up as often (at least if the reviews are to be believed).

Aesthetic is to video games what branding is to a company: as much as a firm wants a consumer to remember its product or service, the jingle used to promote that service is what sticks around in consumers’ heads long after the commercial’s over.

A video game’s appearance functions much the same way; even though there’s much more to Cuphead than its cartoony exterior, that exterior is so novel that it’s become the title’s brand ambassador. Like a good commercial, a video game’s aesthetic has to do something different in order to stand out in a very thick crowd of competitors.

This phenomenon is further exemplified by the presence of other, lesser-known titles in Cuphead’s neck of the woods. Cuphead is hardly the only run’n’gun platformer on the market, but it’s certainly the only one to bear a resemblance to Popeye or old Mickey Mouse cartoons.

That resemblance is what helps give the game its flavor and what’s causing it to stick out in an indie world that’s chock full of platformers. Cuphead isn’t the only good run’n’gun game, but it’s sure the only one to look out of the 30’s. That’s why it’s winning.

It’s a beautiful thing when developers take an aesthetic and apply it in new or unexpected ways, and StudioHDHR has accomplished that. Cuphead is at the top of the Steam charts in no small part because of its appearance, and that appearance has helped make it a hit.

No doubt the game will spawn a wave of imitators, as Limbo and other platformers did before it, but hopefully another indie dev somewhere is hard at work on the next great video game aesthetic. Next up on the list? Japanese anime circa 1990.

Well, we can hope.