I can remember back when Cuphead was initially revealed at E3 2014. I only had a PS4 at a time, and it was the first Xbox One title that truly made me green with envy. Not only was it a 2D game (something I’m a bit of a sucker for), but its visual style was immediately arresting. Fast forward over three years later, and Cuphead has been nothing short of a resounding success since it released last month. In fact, the game’s developers, Studio MDHR, recently announced that the game crossed one million copies sold across Xbox One, Windows 10, and Steam.
Cuphead features an engrossing combination of gorgeous visuals, precise controls, and relentlessly challenging gameplay that puts many titles released this year to shame. That the game is console-exclusive to Xbox almost makes up for the dismal 2017 that Microsoft gamers have had to endure with regard to exclusive game releases.
At the same time, people for years have been calling for Microsoft’s game division to switch things up a bit. A common criticism is that Microsoft is too reliant on their tried and true franchises: Halo, Gears of War, and Forza. While games released from these series this generation have been mostly excellent, there is some merit to this claim. Recently, it seems as though Microsoft is content to put all of their eggs in one basket, so to speak, with these three franchises. Other IPs that have been Xbox exclusives such as Jade Empire, Crimson Skies, and Fuzion Frenzy have been completely forgotten.
Xbox head Phil Spencer has been the subject to approximately equal amounts of praise and criticism since he took the reins at the Xbox division. Whatever you may say about him, he seems like a very calculated man, and he isn’t dumb. Certainly, Spencer and Xbox administration know what a gem they have on their hands with Cuphead. Combined with the aforementioned issue of Microsoft’s over-reliance on old stalwarts, it begs the question: can Cuphead be the new face of Xbox?
There are several benefits to Microsoft bringing Cuphead and developer Studio MDHR officially into the fold. If Microsoft were to play it smart, they would throw copious marketing behind the franchise to ensure its continued success. Cuphead and Mugman are incredibly marketable characters brimming with charm, easily able to stand beside Chief, Locke, and Fenix as the pillars of the Xbox brand. This would represent an important shift for Microsoft. It would signify that Xbox is the home of mainstream racing games and shooters, as well as to some truly unique, diverse experiences.
Speaking of marketing, Cuphead merchandise would be a hot item should Microsoft push the franchise to the moon. The strength of the game and its characters would drive merchandise sales, similar to what is already in place with Halo. Funko has already revealed some great looking Pop vinyl figures from Cuphead, and the merchandising opportunities can only expand from there.
Lastly, having Cuphead as an Xbox mascot would allow Microsoft to better fit in with Sony and Nintendo, who both have mascots that have starred in excellent platformer games. All of the above would bring more attention to Microsoft and the Xbox brand. I also feel that it would be really cool of Microsoft to reward the talented folks at MDHR for all of their hard work.
That all sounds great, but are there any disadvantages to this scenario? I can envision a few.
The first question to ask is whether Cuphead should ever become a continuing series to begin with. One could arguethat the current game is all that is needed. It is a special game for sure, and perhaps it should stand on its own in order to preserve its sense of magic. It could lead to the perception that Microsoft is “milking” the franchise as sequels are released. I believe that this would be a non-issue so long as subsequent games continue MDHR’s standard of quality. There is more that they can explore with regard to animation and art style. Perhaps Cuphead 2 would feature art from famous artists such as Van Gogh, Michelangelo, and Salvador Dali. Cuphead 3 could feature an animation style similar to 1990s Disney movies, like The Lion King. There are certainly possibilities.
More crucial, then, is how the elevation to Cuphead to mainstream status alongside Chief and Locke would affect gameplay. As I stated before, Cuphead is brutally difficult. The game rarely feels unfair, mind you, but that difficulty is sure to turn a sizable number of people off. It is a game meant for those raised in the 8- and 16-bit eras. Quite frankly that isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Can you have a mainstream mascot whose games are intended for a pretty niche audience? Worse still, MDHR may be forced to dumb down the difficulty in future games to better capture the mainstream audience. In my opinion, this would ruin the lasting appeal of the game.
Of course, Microsoft has made no indication as to whether or not they want to acquire the Cuphead franchise and/or Studio MDHR. Still, it’s quite the interesting proposition indeed.
What do you all think, readers? Would having Cuphead as one of the faces for Xbox be a crucial shot in the arm for Microsoft’s gaming division? Would it spell the end for the franchise, like other Xbox exclusive IPs from years past? Let us know in the comments.