The ‘Cuphead’ Scam and TouchArcade: What Happened

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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 “" instead of “", 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.

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    Cuphead is a classic run and gun single player action game heavily focused on boss battles. Inspired by cartoons of the …
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