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Why Cuphead is the best thing at E3 2015

It's not about the gameplay, it's about using familiar cultural images in a new way.

Studio MDHR

LOS ANGELES -- There were plenty of great things to see and play at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo, including the photo-realistic Star Wars: Battlefront, the universe-spanning No Man's Sky and the long-awaited Fallout 4. But those games, as well as new entries from the Call of Duty, Uncharted, Rainbow Six and other established franchises all pull from an overly familiar set of building blocks.

We've seen spaceships, near-future military skirmishes, dark spaceship corridors, and lots and lots of post-apocalyptic landscapes, just as we have for most of the modern video game era. After a while, the ideas and visuals blend together into a forgettable mess, making it hard to distinguish one apocalypse from another.

As a veteran of 15 E3 shows over 17 years, there's one game I saw at the conference this year that I can safely say people will be talking about for a long time to come. Cuphead is a casual 2D shoot-em-up (the developers call it a run-and-gun game) coming to Xbox One and to PCs via Steam, but it's not the simple gameplay that has caught so many eyes, it's the art.

Rendered in a hand-drawn style inspired by early 20th century animation, the look of Cuphead calls to mind early Disney cartoons from Steamboat Willie on, the work of Max Fleischer, and with nods to the character designs of Popeye and other classic cartoons.

The unique look and feel of the game was already called out by one of my colleagues last year when the game was briefly previewed at E3 2014, and the game was designed by Canadian brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, calling themselves Studio MDHR.

The reason Cuphead has registered with so many people is that it takes culturally familiar iconography, in this case animation art styles from more than 80 years ago, and recasts it in a new interactive context. But while it draws from an established era of entertainment history, it's one far enough removed to feel strange, even dangerous. Many cartoons of that era are have been effectively buried, as they reflect cultural insensitivities of the era. The wildly kinetic art styles used by long-ago animators, with characters in an endless loop of quivering movement, creates a kind of nervous on-screen energy that's unnerving to watch, and is ably mimicked in Cuphead.

That's important because when you look at the overly repeated palette of crate-filled hallways, ruined cities and armored super-soldiers in so many games, it's shocking how small the bank of visual ideas most games pull from is.

The last time I recall E3 audiences being so clearly hit over the head with a new visual idea, it was the first time we all saw 2K's original BioShock game at E3 2006. While the actual gameplay wasn't all that different than other action games of the time, the mid-century underwater setting was so bold as to transcend the familiar corridor-based first-person shooting action.

Studio MDHR

BioShock also drew from established visual and storytelling ideas, from Jules Verne to 1950s pulp sci-fi magazines, but it was the act of applying that to interactive entertainment that ended up creating something entirely new. It's worth noting that BioShock's sequels generated diminishing returns, and perhaps you can only get one bite of the apple at this.

Like BioShock, Cuphead is a game that might be even more fun to watch than to play. And in a world dominated by Twitch streams, e-sports, and YouTube game play-throughs, that's a goal worth reaching for.

Cuphead should be available sometime in 2016.

Follow all the latest news from E3 2015 on CNET and GameSpot.