[appicon]It's rarely a good sign when you wake up to an entire lock screen full of Tweetbot notifications. That was the case this morning when we posted that Cuphead launched on the App Store. It seems until the actual Cuphead developer started telling people this was a fake, everyone just assumed it was the real deal. We've posted about scam apps in the past and historically, these things are super easy to spot.

The scam typically goes like this: A random developer finds a popular game on Steam, cobbles together a barely working, typically very low quality knock off, and submits it to Apple. The Astroneer scam app that made the rounds earlier this year was a particularly good example of this. If you look at its listing on AppShopper, several things immediately jump out:

  • It's published by Gregor Friment and not System Era Softworks.
  • It's 100MB, which is about the size of an empty Unity project, while the Steam version recommends 4GB of available disk space.
  • The same developer also has also released an iOS version of Rust, another popular Steam game.
  • The App Store listing is very low effort, with screenshots that aren't formatted for the device.
  • When you actually run the game, it looks like this:

If all the red flags on the App Store listing aren't enough to indicate it's a scam, playing the game always does. In the case of the Astroneer scam, all you can really do in it is walk around inside of a small area and jump. No one will be fooled by this once they get into the game, but that's the whole idea behind these scams: They weaseled through the approval process, fooled you into spending your money, and hope you're lazy enough to not get a refund.

Today's Cuphead scam was particularly sophisticated, which really sets a troubling precedent for the App Store. Here's the App Store listing, which passes the first four bullet points outlined above with flying colors:

There's an actual animated video trailer for the game, the icon looks good, it's 1.9GB which is plausible for a mobile port, and the developer name appears correct. There are absolutely no warning signs aside from the developer using "studiomdhrgames.com" instead of "studiomdhr.com", but they even mirrored the official web site at their domain. Unless you specifically knew their URL did not include "games" in it, nothing looks out of the ordinary.

As mentioned, post-download is where these scams always fall apart. Today, this was not the case. What was released on the App Store was a shockingly functional, unbelievably well done port of Cuphead. Check it out in motion:

Multiple save slots, full cut scenes, virtual controls that match the art style of the original, and more. We've never seen a scam app of this level of quality before, and the precedent this sets is honestly quite scary. We raced to post about it this morning after being tipped off of its existence because quite literally everything about this game seemed legit. Until the developers came out and said it was a scam, the only clue that it wasn't was mismatched whois information on the game's associated URL, and I honestly have never been in a situation covering video games for the last decade where cross-referencing whois information was anything you even had to think about.

Due to the nature of the App Store and the weird way games are released on it, it is very normal for games to just randomly pop up at 2:00 AM like Cuphead did. It's typical for big games to be released without a single mention from the studio, as bigger studios will often employ PR firms which are notoriously slow compared to the speed of the App Store. Also, just last week alone, we've seen some amazing ports hit the App Store, which makes a Cuphead iOS release the week before Christmas seem totally normal. This time of year is filled with surprises.

If you downloaded Cuphead because of our news story this morning, I'm incredibly sorry. This is the first time in the history of TouchArcade this sort of thing has happened, and it's ultra troubling to me that a scam app of this quality is the new normal. The good news is, the game has since been removed from the App Store, and getting a refund should be incredibly easy. If you've never been through the refund process before, the best guide I've seen is over on iMore which walks you through absolutely everything you need to do, with screenshots of every step.

We're going to be reevaluating how we handle posting about new games to avoid this happening again in the future, and hopefully everyone sticks with us while we come up with new ways to filter out these sorts of shockingly sophisticated scams while still providing up to the second coverage of new games on the App Store.


UPDATE: A developer who wishes to remain anonymous reached out with what is likely the most plausible explanation for what happened- It seems likely that a porting outfit is behind this. Porting games to mobile has become a large business, particularly as developers who originally release games on platforms like Steam either don't have the manpower or expertise to handle to both releasing of a high quality mobile port and supporting it across a ton of different devices.

This is where porting companies come in, and like any industry, there's a massive spread when it comes to how reputable these places are. I'd put Noodlecake at the top of the pile of who is doing the best work on mobile ports (I've heard the best things from other developers who have worked with them). However, the other end of the spectrum, like most things on the App Store, is dark and filled with terrors. Exploring porting to other platforms is a pretty normal part of game development, and usually these deals happen behind the scenes and are totally transparent to the end user. Also, these ports also can be done as sort of exploratory process, to see if a mobile port is even worth pursuing on a technical level. Once completed, a developer can then just wait to release it until any exclusivity deals are up and the marketing efforts can spool up.

There are countless porting outfits, many based in Asian countries where labor is cheap, relentlessly badgering developers to allow them to port their game for "free." This is typically fairly appealing to developers, as it's no work for them, and if the game does well on mobile they're more than happy to share the revenue with the porting company. Kicking this process off involves signing some paperwork, and sending over the full source files for the game.

It's entirely possible that the reason this Cuphead scam is so good is because it was built off original source's files, and at one point was a legit port of the game. From there, a disgruntled employee could have stolen the project, or the porting company could have just released it themselves after the deal to port the game fell through. Either seems equally plausible, as my source who tipped me off to this possibility mentioned they pursued having a title they built ported, the port didn't meet their quality expectations, and the porting company just released it anyway.

When you're a small outfit and things like this happen, there's really not much you can do. If you don't have the resources to port your game to iOS or Android, you sure as hell don't have the resources to take someone to court in China.

Alternatively, it's also possible that the reason the game is so functional is because it's wrapped in an emulator with the textures all significantly downsized to hit the 1.9GB file size. This feels a bit more unlikely to me, however, as an additional degree of customization seems to have gone into the game compared to what you'd typically see with an emulation wrapper. The totally custom virtual controls, instead of super jank on-screen buttons (like in the Astroneer screenshot above) definitely makes it feel like there's more going on than simple emulation. A third vaguely plausible theory also exists in that since it was built in Unity, Cuphead could potentially be decompiled and repackaged.

What actually did happen? I would love to know.

🤔 Like this article?

We pride ourselves on delivering quality, long-form articles like this one instead of the SEO-driven click bait that is slowly taking over the internet. Unfortunately, articles like these rarely generate the traffic (and as a result, the ad revenue) of listicles, cheat guides, and other junk.

Please help us continue producing content like this by supporting TouchArcade on Patreon, doing your Amazon shopping by first visiting toucharcade.com/amazon, and/or making one-time contributions via PayPal.

  • Dailon Huskey

    No need to be super apologetic guys this was a good one
    I trust you guys and anyone got burnt can get refunded
    Keep up the great work TA!

  • Chris

    Thank you for the prompt and entirely appropriate apology! I see how this happened, and kudos to you guys for being so on top of everything.

  • Rafi Makaro

    Well to be honest props to the scammer, it's really really well done, I'm not even sure I want to be refunded lol

  • Tom

    Looking at the video posted of the Scam app it really looks like only people who have played the original/played through the game would have realized its a scam - its understandable that for a game which had this much hype on PC/consoles you'd be excited to get the word out ASAP.

    Doesn't change my position that i'm still very happy to support the site through patron

  • Milotorou

    Seriously we cannot hold any kind of grudge there, as an ex-programmer myself I was amazed by how far they went with this scam, its definitely terrifying because.... if it happened once it will definitely happen again, we got to be more careful than ever before.

    Hoping we eventually get the game for real though !

  • Erdrick

    I am curious as to how people even intended to play Cupheads with touch controls. Although the controls are somewhat simple in Cupheads, you have a shoot button, a jump button, a dash button, a super button. That’s already a complicated mess for a mobile game... but couple that complexity to a game that is fast paced and incredibly difficult and you’ve got yourself a game that is unplayable on mobile without physical controls.

    • IAmTheNightRider

      I am curious as to why you keep saying Cupheads, considering the name of the game is Cuphead.

      • Erdrick

        Autocorrect.

      • HouseofG

        Why is "Cupheads" in your dictionary? Valid comment though, yes. I guess controller-only games aren't happening or can't happen on the App Store.

  • jabbasoft

    Really appreciate this fast post and your candour/honesty Eli/TA. And having previously read the earlier articles re fakes and bogus apps I think TA can't really take responsibility for the failed due diligence on the Apple/App Store side of things. Don't they have a flag to say "hmm, this property is AAA so let's triple check with the dev and owner the account used to publish is theirs"?!..

  • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

    It's a balancing act. TouchArcade is largely sustained by Google News traffic, and Google News vastly rewards the outlet that breaks a story. It is very, very, very normal for these kind of ports to hit the App Store without as much of a peep from the developer. Most developers that release things on iOS for the first time don't really know how the App Store works, and if they are employing a traditional PR firm they almost assuredly don't know how the App Store works. Like, I've had people argue with me that their games are not released when I'm sending them their iTunes link.

    The whole reason TouchArcade has been around for so long is because we're very good at breaking these stories, and waiting to get confirmation on everything we post will kill the site as our Google News ranking gets blown up as we're the last to post things. Running a web site and trying to keep your head above water financially in 2017 is a ... experience. Everything here passed the sniff test.

    • http://www.stromstock.de klschn

      Well... it did not take more than an email to the devs. Email is in their presskit.

      • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

        Things happen fast, if we hadn't picked up this story someone else would have.

      • DanCJ

        It could be done with an email, but that could cost anywhere from 5 minutes to 24+ hours depending on how quickly they reply

    • HouseofG

      Very interesting. Love the backend insight like this.

  • curtneedsaride

    Well, on my iPhone X it didn’t get passed the second screen where it was on the page of a book. Music seemed nice, but seemed broken to me.

  • Wicuicad

    The SPINTIRES release on iOS is also a scam. The website that apple provides for this game is just like that fake one of CUPHEAD. And, this one is still on AppStore. I've purchased and got a refund.

    SPINTIRES™ by OOVEE GAME STUDIOS INC.
    https://itunes.apple.com/sa/app/spintires/id1323127425?mt=8

    • HelperMonkey

      Reading this article, as they keep saying “it will probably happen again,” I was thinking “it has probably happened before.”
      If a game had a lower profile, fewer eyes checking it out, and fewer people familiar with the legitimate product, this kind of scam could cause significant confusion.

  • Nico&Smokey

    Its not your fault Touch Arcade. This is why I stick with the well known Game developers. But my question is how does these scams get into the app store? I thought the Apple app store are very strict on these kinds of things? But just looking at some of the games in the store, I can't believe how many scam games are closely copied to games like to King games or Cookie cats to name a few, and they just changed the cats to bees and slapped a new name to it. But the bees looks like a spitting image to the cats in cookie cats. I wish there was a way to report those fake games.

  • icoker

    The user "sevenape" seemed to encourage people to get the game saying it plays fine - it may be a good idea to look into his profile.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      The problem is it does play fine. That's a totally accurate thing to say.

      • 7ape

        Still feel like an idiot though.

      • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

        Eh, no big deal. Clearly you weren't the only one who thought this was legit. If there's one thing people on the internet love doing it's pointing out that someone is wrong when they would've made the same decision at the time.

      • 7ape

        🙂 thanks and here’s to the next real hype game.

        And to be honest I think it could be a sort of sign of the quality of games that have been released recently that people got suckered in... if you get my drift? I mean aside from licensing deals etc why shouldn’t it be released on iOS? It’s a viable platform for real gaming after all.

      • 7ape

        Hi, I just Sent you a mail to your tips section. A guy claiming to be the cuphead clone dev posted an email address under my video and says he wants to talk. Dunno if this is of interest to you? If so, check your mail! 🙂

    • http://www.stromstock.de klschn

      Nonsense: @dan7ape: @klschn uploaded a video of fake cuphead for iOS. DO NOT BUY. https://youtu.be/MKuutg72bCo

    • 7ape

      That’s me, I downloaded it, had a quick go and went back to work. I started the first level and it played. I’m not trying to scam anyone, I got scammed too. I also made a video and uploaded it to my YouTube channel to warn people. Please don’t cast aspersions, I’m just a fan like everyone else. And has been said before it was a really good scam.

      • boydstr

        Good scam or not it is still a scam.

      • 7ape

        I mean it was done well in that it fooled me. I’m not in anyway condoning it. It’s bullshit.

      • boydstr

        I know what your saying these scams hurting imo an already unhealthy mobile landscape.

  • delirium38

    Cuphead is a PC and XBOX One exclusive game and it should have raised some red flags that it was even released on IOS.

    Just a short time ago the developer was quite vocal that the only new versions of the game would be on Linux and Mac, not IOS.
    Could be wrong here, but I think if you buy the Win10 version, you also get access to the other versions and If that's the case then an IOS version for just 5 bucks would be strange indeed.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      Just because it's an exclusive game doesn't mean the developers couldn't have been exploring porting options. That's a pretty normal thing for studios to do. Accidental releases on iOS have happened quite a bit over the years, particularly as devs who aren't familiar with iTunes Connect fat finger things.

      • delirium38

        Whatever the case, it's definitely an interesting story and glad you guys did a thorough follow-up.

  • Grits n Gravy

    Interesting story. I’d be interested in playing this and was hoping an iOS port would happen.

    Some day maybe

  • Hiraether

    Incredible. That was worth it just to learn about the scam. Thanks to all those who took one for the team. 😎. We all have to work together to assure quality. It's obvious no one else is going to do it for us.

  • gmattergames

    Will Apple auto-refund all associated purchases? If so, wouldn't that detour would-be scammers if they never get a return on their effort?

  • AppStore Cowboy

    You realize this is a small video game blog and not the New York Times, right? But thanks for taking a post where they are already being open and apologetic for making a mistake, and chastising them for the mistake they already apologized for. I hope you take this as a learning opportunity - that you come off like a smug dick, chap.

  • Joe J. Cassara

    "We're going to be reevaluating how we handle posting about new games to avoid this happening again in the future"

    You could try playing the product before writing about it next time.

    • DanCJ

      They did:

      "What was released on the App Store was a shockingly functional, unbelievably well done port of Cuphead."

      • Joe J. Cassara

        No. From the *original* article:

        "It was a joy to play on Xbox One and I’m already downloading it on iOS."

        TouchArcade was in such a breathless state to post an article that Mikhail hadn't even finished downloading the game before reporting on it. Shoddy.

    • http://twitter.com/JaredTA Jared Nelson

      You could try reading the article before commenting on it next time.

      • DanCJ

        I was going to say the same, but decided to stay politer 🙂

      • Joe J. Cassara

        See above, smartass.

  • DrlRage

    Apple should really consider doing auto-refunds for real, to remove the incentive and to make it easier for people to get reimbursed (technically if they don't.. they're profiting off the scam as well) . At least they took it down promptly and no one else can be tricked into buying this scam game on the AppStore. On another note: it seems like they haven't been able to take it off Stream.

    • boydstr

      Yeah totally agree with you when they treat customers in such a way that people have the feeling that they are ripped off by Apple that there comes a point that people think twice to by a premium game in the AppStore every week there is a shitload of FTP on the AppStore mabey it is a matter of taste but I see so many “games” that it seems the only purpose is to let people watch ads with sooo simplistic gameplay and when there is a developer that make a great game you can bet on it that you see within some weeks that people try to copy the formula.

  • DTK

    It is sad to see that game is not available in the German Appstore! I would really buy it, Unfortunately, the publication will only be reserved for US.

    • DanCJ

      It's been withdrawn. It's not on any App Store now.

      • DrlRage

        Oh. Have you checked?

      • DanCJ

        Yeah - and it's been reported by TouchArcade

  • boydstr

    Isn’t there no one at Apple that checks apps/games before they are released on the AppStore? so any so called developer can put the name of a wel known franchise on a “game” and release it to the AppStore and take our money and run.

    • Stormourner of the Nature

      simple answer: not every Apple staffs knows about the games

      • boydstr

        Call me naïve but when you name your business App”Store”then it is normal that the customer can trust that the items that are sold in the AppStore are genuine,it should be a good thing when you buying a game that Apple gives a warranty that it will work on the device it is bought on for example a maximum of 2 years.