CUPHEAD: From the XBOX to Netflix

Feb 27, 2022

Hundreds of video games are released every year, but not every game gets its own companion TV show. Recently Netflix has premiered a new kids show, CUPHEAD, based off of the highly successful video game franchise, of the same name, released in 2017. CUPHEAD, a run and gun style video game, follows the “misadventures” of two young brothers, Cuphead and Mugman, after they make a deal with the devil to pay off their debts to him. Mugman accidentally bites off more than he can chew in a game of craps with the devil and becomes indebted to him after losing the game. In order to pay off their debts they must collect “soul contracts” from the devil’s other debtors. Once they collect enough of these contracts they are free from their debts. 

The game is straightforward, players run, jump, and shoot profusely, until the end of the game. The game features more mature themes such as, gambling addiction, alcohol drinking, debts, and so on. But, the game is popular with younger audiences, with over 6 million sales since the game was released. What draws in these younger audiences, outside of the straightforward gameplay, is the animation style. The game’s style draws direct inspiration from the “Golden Age of Animation”, like Steamboat Willie. The game is illustrated with graininess as if it was shot on film, the music sounds straight out of a 1930’s cartoon, and the frame-rate matches the exact rate at which cartoons during the golden age of animation were shot. One might think this vintage style of animation would potentially deter kids from the game, but the millions of sales and spinoff kid’s TV show prove otherwise. 

Since it’s release, the video game has sold over 5 million copies worldwide, it has garnered  numerous video game awards, and then, in 2022,  Netflix turned it into a kid’s show. 

I was first exposed to Cuphead while babysitting my best friend’s 7 year old brother about a year ago. He played it for hours on end while I sat on the couch watching over his shoulder. Eventually, my friend and I gave in to boredom, and took a turn at the game. What was most shocking about this game to me, other than the unique animation style, was the difficulty. WIthin my first ten-minutes of playing I must have died in the game at least 15 times, fighting to even get past the first level of the game, and the same  for my best friend. Meanwhile, this 7 year-old ran through the levels with an air of ease. 

4 years after the game’s massive success, Netflix picked up the rights to bring the characters from the game to the kid’s television world. The show follows the beloved Cuphead and Mugman as two preteen boys (where in the video game their character’s ages are a bit ambiguous). The duo live under the roof of their caretaker, Kettle, while constantly evading the devil who is on a mission to claim Cuphead’s soul. 

Each episode brings  viewers into a new section of Inkwell Isle, where both Mugman and Cuphead reside, as the two boys continuously run through trouble. In one episode, the ‘boys’ find a carnival that is actually a “Carn-EVIL” and they must run and jump their way out of the park.  In another episode, the pair end up on a game show hosted by Dice King only to find out he has some more sinister plans for these two. The show provides all of the tantalizing animation styles and high action sequences with none of the more mature themes the original game provides, making it more accessible to kids than ever before. Now, kids can enjoy the world of Cuphead without potentially struggling (like me) to get past the first level of the video game. 

The show draws direct inspiration from iconic animations of the past like Fantasia, or Looney Tunes, and the original Mickey Mouse cartoons. The show pays homage to great cartoons of the past through a similar comedic style, sound design, and the musical score set underneath the show. The show provides audiences with much to absorb, with every plot beat there is a new animation style, or rowdy set piece, or musical number around the corner, and there is an array of salient features to keep younger audiences tuned in. Without the gameplay elements to lock in audiences the creators have to work even harder to bring audiences into the show, and their work pays off. Each episode is more like a vignette of Cuphead and Mugman’s lives, rather than a serialized story, similar to  cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants

While The Cuphead Show isn’t a groundbreaking example of how to transition a video game to TV show world, the creators of the show translate the world of the video game onto the screen for children effectively, while also paying homage to great cartoons of the past. The Cuphead Show is now available to stream on Netflix, with 14 episodes, each around 15 minutes in length.