It’s the most spooky time of the year, which means that I, like many others, must dive into an abundance of horror games to celebrate the occasion. Yes, I play the titles that immediately spring to mind when you think of the genre, such as Silent Hill, Resident Evil, The Evil Within, Alien Isolation, and Fatal Frame, to name a few. However, there’s one other game I must play around this time every year, for it features horrifying undertones.
Now, please bear with me before you send the Headless Horseman to take my head, but Cuphead is a horror game, at least in part. No, you don’t get to tell me that its cartoonish charm means it’s all smiles, even when in the face of death as you face off against many arduous bosses that are keen to spell an end to Cuphead and Mugman. In fact, let me turn the tables on you and explain why the throwback to Betty Boop-era cartoons supports my horror theory.
The animation itself has a horror-esque backdrop. The slight graininess offers an atmospheric touch that no amount of smiles can remove. Actually, the game features some of the most sinister grins I’ve come across in videogames, courtesy of some of the bosses you need to defeat and steal souls from (see, you’re stealing souls, you can’t tell me that’s not a bit spooky).
One such boss that fits the horror genre perfectly is Cagney Carnation. Just look at the evil smirk on its face. This boss goes from a sweet rosy-cheeked sunflower to something that leaves you screaming, “ack, kill it with fire!” The way it grabs its own chin and pulls it in a maniacal way to twist its innocent appearance into something so malevolent is not something I’m likely to forget. Then, as if all that isn’t bad enough, the thorny sunflower then launches its entire face at you in a way that’s sure to make Mr Fantastic envious.
But wait, there are more Cuphead bosses out there that bring the fear factor, so let’s move along to Cala Maria, a beautiful mermaid, at least she is when the fight starts. Then, when you enter the second phase, she’s attacked by two electric eels – yes, attacked. The look of fear on her face quite clearly indicates that she doesn’t consent to this shocking turn of events. She then takes on a slightly reptilian appearance as her hair turns into snakes. Medusa, eat your heart out.
Cala also develops the ability to turn you to stone, something we can all agree is a frightening prospect, though the fight does admittedly take a turn towards ridiculousness in its closing hour, as the once beautiful mermaid ditches her body to become nothing more than a floating head. This is a questionable decision, but I can only assume she thought, ‘sod it, I don’t need no body weighing me down. My head is my most important asset anyway.’ She’s wrong, and dead now, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.
Yet, despite a nightmarish sunflower and Medusa wannabe, there are actually other bosses that ramp up the spooky factor, one of which is Beppi The Clown, who quite clearly takes inspiration from Art the Clown. The main antagonist of the Terrifier franchise also adorns a small tophat, a twisted grin, and has murderous tendencies that frankly make Freddy Krueger blush.
The fight with Beppi takes place in a fairground. Just take a second. How much fun is it to have a day out at a theme park? Going on rides, eating junk food, and having a laugh with your pals. Sounds great, right? Well, imagine all that taking a turn for the worse as you end up on the receiving end of a clown enema, how horrifying is that!? This is supposed to be a place of fun, yet this clown wants to run you over with a bumper car, take you on a neverending carousel ride, and frankly make you suffer this madness for an eternity. I have a list of clowns that I hate, and this pain in the butt cracks my top three, alongside Art and Pennywise.
I could keep going about freaky Cuphead bosses, from Baroness Von Bon Bon, who launches her head at you, to Hilda Berg, who turns into a terrifying crescent moon, and the Phantom Express, a train that wants to kill you. I should also give a mention to Grim Matchstick, an old-timey dragon that appears to kill those that get near the castle tower in the background – where’s Shrek when you need him?
But, instead of honing in on the big bads in the Inkwell Isles, I want to discuss what happens to Cuphead, Mugman, and Ms Chalice should the boss be victorious. Your soul leaves your body. Yes, your human form drops to the ground dead while your ethereal spirit floats towards the sky, at least that indicates that you’re going to heaven, I guess. But you know what’s a more freaky concept than that? The fact that if you play the game with a friend, you can grab their soul and shove it back into their body – quite a literal way of saying, “not today Satan.”
Speaking of death, you know how earlier I asked you not to send the Headless Horseman my way? Well, even if you did, I highly doubt he’d arrive on my doorstep anytime soon, what with all the decapitation and rolling heads that appear in Cuphead. I bet that during your time in the Inkwell Isles, you didn’t even bat an eye when people lost their heads, quite literally. Well, I did, and trust me, Christopher Walken is having a field day out there.
If all of the evidence I’ve provided isn’t enough to convince you of the sinister roots buried deep within Cuphead, what about the fact that the main antagonist of the entire thing is The Devil? And considering the fact that thousands of people worldwide are about to dress up as Satan for Halloween, I think it’s fair to say that the legend is a horror icon, which means any iteration of The Devil shares this quality.
Plus, Cuphead’s Devil is undeniably evil. Heck, the guy even cries blood when he becomes frustrated towards the end of your fight with him. That’s not normal, and frankly, it’s quite creepy to have to avoid blood droplets. Plus, if we go all the way back to the beginning, Cuphead and Mugman are in this mess because they owe The Devil their souls, but they opt to be debt collectors for him instead, harvesting the souls of those that owe hell’s overlord.
While the game begins the exact same way every time, there are two distinct endings that you can achieve, one of which sees Cuphead and Mugman get ghastly new looks as they fall victim to The Devil, thus becoming his henchmen in what I can only assume involves an eternity of pain, suffering, and debt collecting.
So you see, from the creepy imagery that you often find with old-style animation to the body morphing (body horror) that you see various bosses go through, to the design of fights in general, and the story that surrounds Cuphead, it’s a horror game. At least in part. Plus, the fact that it’s brutally hard might be a terrifying prospect for some, though that’s a discussion for another time.
The next time you dive into what many perceive to be a lighthearted game, I hope you remember this article, take a deeper look at what’s in front of you, and think of me fondly when you can’t shake off the creepy vibes that rush over you with this realisation.