On Monday, during Microsoft’s E3 press conference, the Windows people cornered off a section to focus on independent games. One of the games they they premiered (via trailer) was Studio MDHR’s Cuphead, a platformer with an art style that calls back into 1930s animation. The choice is certainly unique and with the sordid racial and cultural past of those kind of cartoons, it’s certainly an interesting choice for this game.
The trailer shows the story of Cuphead and Mugman, who make a bet against the Devil. Sounds good, but the images are a bit Kara Walker-style disconcerting. Though images of Mickey in blackface and other racist censored cartoons of this era were probably not what the creators had in mind when presenting their trailer. Still, it’s hard not to consider those images as it plays with so many various animations references.
The Verge’s headline of “Cuphead is the video game Walt Disney Would’ve Loved” shows that there is still nostalgia for century-old cartoon animation styles. The gameplay didn’t appear to traffic in ugly stereotypes or imagery. Yet the effort to revive this often shunned era of animation raises more questions about what made a designer want to work in this specific style.
Creativity is great and rough history is no reason to ignore art, but you’ve got to wonder about an ode to a period of American animation defined by racist attitudes. Is it possible to separate the style from the history? Potentially. But Microsoft is probably not going to be the company to create the ideal conditions for such a project.