Inspiration and Imitation: Where's the Difference?

With the recent controversy surrounding the Cuphead-lookalike Enchanted Portals, when can we really say when inspiration crosses the line into plagiarism?

Inspiration and Imitation: Where's the Difference?

Before I write any further, let's establish some vital ground rules:

Number one: this will not be a summary of why I believe that the creators of Enchanted Portals are ripping off Cuphead with their game. This is purely an objective study of the situation based on my own experiences and research, meant only for educational and discussion purposes. I will explore both sides of the current argument and give my own personal thoughts on both in as objective a manner as possible. So if you're looking for an excuse to harass the Enchanted Portals team, then you won't find anything here (granted, if you're a sane individual, you should already know that you shouldn't be harassing them or anyone in the first place).

Number two: I'm a creator. By design, that means that I have naturally strong feelings towards copyrighting, especially when it comes to plagiarism. Just the thought of somebody stealing the work that I put hours of tender love and care into, and then putting it out with their name on it instead of mine, honestly makes me sick. It feels like having your child kidnapped by a total stranger, who then tries to pass them off as their own offspring instead; it's a serious crime and deserves hefty punishment.

But even with that said, it surprises even myself how conflicted I am on the Enchanted Portals-Cuphead controversy.

Screenshot of the game's protagonists fighting a music-themed boss; image and characters belong to Xixo Games Studio.

For the uninitiated, Enchanted Portals is an in-development independent platformer title made by the duo-led Xixo Games Studio. The team dropped a trailer for the project's Kickstarter campaign on their Twitter back on the 8th of October, and it took no time at all for thousands to share their thoughts: that the gameplay looks way too similar to that other exceedingly popular hand-drawn animated indie run-and-gunner, Cuphead. In just the thread for the trailer's Twitter post alone is filled with side-by-side comparisons between the two, with others calling Enchanted Portals a "discount" and "unabashed copycat" of the Studio MDHR game and accusing the developers of blatant plagiarism.

But that does beg the question: what even is plagiarism in the first place?

Well, for one thing, according to Merriam-Webster, to plagiarize something is to "steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own" or "present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." By this definition then, real plagiarism would be to take somebody else's creative ideas or works without permission and then claim them to be your own original work. You could define it more simply as "literary theft" in this way—again, borrowing a definition from Merriam-Webster, because I must give credit to whoever's words or ideas I'm using.

And that's exactly why I hesitate to call Enchanted Portals a definite plagiarized Cuphead; the Xixo duo supposedly aren't out to fool anyone or pass off the Moldenhauers' work as their own, as in response to the controversy they've clarified that they were inspired by Cuphead and wanted to create something in the same vein because of that. From this, it sounds more like Portals's identical art style, gameplay, and animation were actually meant to pay tribute to the original game rather than copy it.

This is one of two big reasons why I hesitate to label the game plagiarism. Take a moment to think about any movie, book, show, game, or any piece of creative media that you love—whichever you chose to visualize, it's probably an homage to something. If not the entire product, then much of it was probably made in homage to something. Everything that has ever been created was inspired by something else. This is why I like to say that "everything is fanfiction" because, technically, everything is; can you think of a piece of creative media that was wholly "original"? that didn't seem inspired by another creative work? that didn't remind you of a different source that had similar tropes, archetypes, styles, or ideas? It's impossible to create anything wholly "original" anymore, but that doesn't mean that every creator is "stealing" ideas from their inspirations. If you want specific examples, then The Shape of Water is technically a high-budget Creature from the Black Lagoon fanfic and Paradise Lost is Bible fanfiction. Does this mean they stole from those texts in any way? Of course not. They were written out of love and/or inspiration thanks to the original source. Because of this, I can see how the Xixo team view their game as an homage to Cuphead's genius, as nothing about their response to the backlash indicates any ulterior motives in the similarities.

To go along with this, I noticed plenty in the trailer that sets Portals apart from Cuphead; for one, the story is vastly different, focusing on two inexperienced wizards who have to travel through magical worlds and beat quirky bosses in order to get back home after fooling around with a portal spell out of a magic book. What we see of the setting suits this premise well, since in the first couple of introductory shots we get a small glimpse of the interior of the protagonists' presumed home, which looks like something right out of a fantasy RPG. While Cuphead took place in a purely-nonsensical cartoon world, Portals seems set in a world filled with elements of classic fantasy like wizardry. My point here is that, putting aside the gameplay elements, it's even clearer how Portals was always meant to be its own property, rather than just a reskinned Cuphead. The story is unique to it, along with the setting, so much that if it wasn't a run-and-gunner or animated in the rubber hose style, any comparisons would be null and void.

Plus, Chad and Jared Moldenhauer didn't invent that style of animation, nor the run-and-gun platformer neither; you can't really accuse Xixo of plagiarizing Cuphead's art style or genre since they've existed long before either Studio MDHR or Xixo were even thoughts. Personally, I'm thrilled that hand-drawn animation and classic art styles are making such a strong comeback lately, both as an animation buff and just as a creator in general; I'm always pleased when I see creators experimenting with styles or taking inspiration from classic media.

However, despite all of all this, I can't say that Enchanted Portals is totally clean, or that the controversy is unfounded. I cannot ignore the most damning piece of evidence held against the project: the gameplay.

Screenshot of the game's protagonists fighting a Cerberus-like boss; image and characters belong to Xixo Games Studio.

The screenshots I've featured in this article don’t do this point enough justice: the bosses and how you fight them look like Cuphead with a fantasy mod installed. The protagonists move almost exactly how Cups and Mugs move in their game, all the way down to peashooting magical beams to defeat enemies, with the only difference being the use of wands instead of finger-guns. The bosses themselves sit idly while they attack, with many of them showcasing their minions’ or even their own reigns of bullet hell on the player; I don’t need to explain why that one’s suspicious since it’s right there in the open in the trailer. Nobody can deny the mirroring here, which is where Enchanted Portals stops looking like inspiration and more like imitation (if you don’t want to call it straight-up copying).

While I’d love to say that the team at Xixo isn’t doing anything wrong here, I do have to take issue with this. Although I absolutely understand how they wanted to emulate what made Cuphead so great in their own game, there is an absolute limit to how far you can go with that emulation before you look like you’re copying rather than paying tribute. Not to mention, it makes the new game less unique; as a creator myself, even if I made something out of love for another property, I’d still do my best to make sure that it still has its own identity instead of coming across as a 2.0 of the original. This is what I’d suggest to the Xixo team as they continue working on their game: you can take inspiration from Cuphead, that’s always been fine (and honestly who wouldn’t?), but I have to warn against making the gameplay too similar to it. It might’ve been unintentional, but it still looks like copying, so in developing the game consider changing it so that it feels more unique. It is a Kickstarter project after all, and you can take all the time you need to create something beautiful.

Again, this is not a “for or against” argument, I genuinely want to see what Xixo do with this project in the future, and I’m always a fan of developers getting creative with the art styles as I said before; but, at the same time, you must be careful when creating something like this, as it’s easy to emulate your inspirations a little too well. If Xixo Games Studio wants to continue with the project as is, then they can do that, I can understand why; if Studio MDHR take issue with the similarities or even want to press plagiarism charges, then I also understand. I might not agree with either of those decisions, but I can still see the valid points if both. Again, the trailer only just came out and the Kickstarter for Portals is only beginning later this month, so only time can tell us what will become of this.

What do you think? Do you think Xixo Games Studio is plagiarizing Cuphead? Why or why not? Do you think they should change the game? Will you be supporting the project as it goes on? I’m always eager to know what you all think!

You can watch the trailer for the Enchanted Portals Kickstarter here:

To read Xixo Games Studio's full responses to the backlash, here's a link to Polygon's article on the matter:

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adventure games
Em E. Lee
Em E. Lee
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Em E. Lee

Writer-of-all-trades and self-appointed "professional" nerd with an infinite supply of story ideas and not nearly enough time to write them down. Lover of all media, especially fiction and literature. Proud advocate of the short story.

See all posts by Em E. Lee