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Cuphead is the video game Walt Disney would have loved

Don’t listen to me. I’m not a hardcore gamer. Hell, I’m barely a gamer at all. Still, I spent 90 minutes watching Microsoft’s E3 event last night after I put the kids to bed. Not because I wanted to, but because it’s my job. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with a game at the 52-minute mark.

“Hi I’m Chad from Studio MDHR, and this is my brother Jared. A few years ago when we first sat down to sketch Cuphead, we had no idea that character would eventually be the star of his own Xbox game.”

Cue the trailer:

I watched, mouth agape, mind empty but for a single Keanuism: Whoa. The watercolor backgrounds. The original jazz composition that sounds like The Shadow giving chase through pre-Castro Havana. The hand-drawn and hand-inked cell animation reminiscent of Walt’s early Disney — aka, the Golden Age of Animation.

I had to stop the broadcast and watch it again, combing through the 60-second clip like Abraham Zapruder. I discovered ACME-branded detritus. Baby birds weaponized with 10 penny nails affixed by rubber bands. A suitcase-wielding worker bee trudging through the daily grind. What looks like Bluto from Popeye and some kind of fish-head propeller boss in boxing gloves.

As a game, Cuphead bills itself as an all action all the time run and gun, coming to Xbox One and Steam (PC) sometime in 2016. But it’s also a wonderful homage to 1930s animation.

Cuphead employs the "plausible impossible," a technique that Disney used to give life to inanimate objects in shorts like Thru the Mirror (above) from 1936. Similarly, everything is alive in the world of Cuphead: anthropomorphized ships, barrels, a giant angry carrot, and a slot machine dispensing studded rock-n-roll bracelets of Nilay’s doom. Frenetic objects in constant movement like a bouncing Steamboat Willie.

Roger Ebert famously proclaimed that video games can never be art. Like Ebert, I’m not experienced enough with the medium to exalt such an axiom. But I only have to watch this Cuphead trailer to know that great art can be used to create video games. More importantly, they can make us smile.

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