Netflix strikes video game gold with 'The Cuphead Show!'

Classic animation and modern humor go a long way to make “The Cuphead Show!” spectacular.  

Video game adaptations have a bad history. Until a few years ago, fans of beloved franchises like “Mario,” “Mortal Kombat” and “Assassin’s Creed” were often given awkward, uninspiring movie adaptations that seemed to prove video games and other media didn’t mix well. Most adaptations deservingly end up as financial flops, especially when these adaptations felt more like commercial cash grabs than meaningful, passionate storytelling.

Despite this troubled past, it’s never been a better time for video game adaptations. Blockbuster hits like “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Detective Pikachu” were taken with more care, and it ignited the film industry’s pursuit in other video game brands. It’s not surprising that Uncharted – a game known for its cinematic feel – hit the big screen this year, while Nintendo is trusting a star-studded cast to finally bring Mario and company the film superstardom they deserve. Netflix has partnered with Studio MDHR to create “The Cuphead Show,” an adaptation of the award-winning game “Cuphead.” “Cuphead” is an action-adventure platformer released in 2017, and since then it’s been recognized for its outstanding hand-drawn animation yet unforgiving, brutal boss fights.

The show details the misadventures of the reckless Cuphead and anxious brother Mugman in the colorful Inkwell Isle. They are all about having fun, even if it comes at the expense of their souls. This bold attitude toward life helps the brother duo meet unique characters in all shapes and sizes, and they somehow find themselves at odds with the devil. Fans of the video game will recognize most of the characters that appear in the show, yet the series goes above and beyond by imbuing these fan-favorites with style while also creating an island teeming with life.

From talking kettles and vegetables to singing ghosts and chalices, the worldbuilding surprised me. Inkwell Isle became more than just three stages with difficult bosses around every corner. Instead, it’s a delightful playground with personified creatures living normal lives, and the Inkwell Isle population make the adventures of Cuphead even more exciting in comparison.

I adored the hand-drawn cel animation from the video game, and the show capitalizes on this retro style by imitating early cartoon animations, down to the frame crackles common in early films. For music aficionados, the video game is filled with original jazz recordings, and each episode of the show combines music numbers and snappy orchestral pieces to great effect. 

Each episode is roughly an 11-minute whacky snippet, reminiscent of weekend morning cartoons. I had no trouble binging the entire season because although there’s little overarching plotlines connecting each episode, the charming characters and humorous writing was more than enough for me to sit on my couch and laugh.

The show often leans on nostalgia, with its old-school cartoon aesthetic, a catchy jazz score and slapstick comedy. It reminds me of the recent Animaniacs series, as it finds a balance between depression-era aesthetic and modern animation techniques. It’s rare to find new shows like this on TV, let alone on Netflix, so I surely hope “Cuphead” season two arrives sooner than later and more studios follow this refreshing trend. The end of season one leads many viewers to believe that this is only the beginning of Cuphead and Mugman, and Netflix must have a long-term plan to profit off studio MDHR’s cult creation.

With “The Cuphead Show,” the future of video game adaptations looks brighter than ever, and it might be due to several media titans finally seeing the potential in gaming. Netflix has gone the extra mile to partner up with game studios to create content for the foreseeable future. The recent series “Arcane,” a critically acclaimed “League of Legends” story, proved that the streaming service could create good TV out of video game properties. It’ll be exciting to see how Netflix’s acquisition of Night School Studio, known for narrative games like “Oxenfree” and “Afterparty,” will take the service into the gaming world. For now, “The Cuphead Show,” is a step in the right direction, and for those who love the show, check out its devilish gaming counterpart.


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