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Drawn to greatness: The making of Cuphead

It feels like a lifetime ago that we first saw Cuphead. Such is the effect of wanting something you can’t have: Cuphead’s vintage Disney-esque charm and quintessential run-and-gun gameplay was firmly entrenched in our heads after it burst from the shadows of Xbox’s press conference all the way back at E3 2014 a year and a half ago.

But our seemingly endless wait for the game has only been the latest part of a long journey for Chad and Jared Moldenhauer – the brotherly tandem that founded Cuphead creator Studio MDHR. Although work started officially on Cuphead in 2010, this game has been in their collective minds for much, much longer than that.

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“Since we were wee lads, my brother and I have always wanted to make a run-and-gun game,” says Chad, “so it’s pretty neat that we’re here today making Cuphead as our first title.”

That love for the run-and-gun genre comes – as you might expect – from a childhood of gaming during an era when side-scrolling shooters and beat-em-ups were all the rage. Anyone like us who lost hours of their life to games like Gunstar Heroes, Contra III and Megaman will catch more than a whiff of those games in Cuphead. And that’s no accident…

“We still play loads of Gunstar Heroes and Contra III, and Contra Hard Corps,” Chad grins, “but it’s fair to say that even the likes of Street Fighter III, Super Mario Bros. 3 and shmups like Thunderforce and Ikaruga have all had an influence on us. We played them all non-stop growing up, so the resemblance in Cuphead is 100 percent intentional, because we’re following in the footsteps of these amazing games. It’s our way of paying homage.”

That element of nostalgia extends far beyond the brothers’ gaming influences. What grabbed everyone’s attention at E3 2014 was Cuphead’s unique art style, one that harked back to classic Disney cartoons from the 1930s and more recently, Warren Spector’s ‘Epic Mickey’ series.

“When we first saw the concept art for Epic Mickey, we thought, ‘Oh my! 1930s-inspired, 2D animation might be a reality!’” says Chad. “But our personal art style is heavily influenced by the 1930s era of cartoons – Jared and I have always been drawn to that type of animation. Most of the cartoons we watched as kids were from that era and it has stuck with us ever since, particularly the creepier side of cartoons like Fleischer Studio’s ‘Swing You Sinners’ and ‘Minnie the Moocher’. Our love for the more adult side of early cartoons drove all our main inspiration for Cuphead.”

Cuphead

Cuphead© Studio MDHR

There is more than just a gentle influence at work here, though. If you think Cuphead looks pretty authentic, well, that’s no accident either. Chad and Jared aren’t just emulating the 1930s, they’re recreating it one frame at a time.

“We are trying our best to ensure everything fits within the guidelines that were set in stone by the studios back then,” he explains. “Things like pupil shape, expressions, rubber limbs, timing of cycles and motion lines are always cross referenced [with the original standards] while we are animating, so Cuphead really feels like the designs and animation were made in the 1930s.”

What makes Cuphead doubly exciting is that the art-style Studio MDHR have chosen is new ground for the industry. “We are 95 percent sure that the only other games in the past that have hand-drawn and hand-inked visuals are the FMV games of the past,” says Chad. He proceeds to reel off a list of games we have little to no recollection of: Don Bluth’s ‘Dragon’s Lair’ and ‘Space Ace’, and old Toei Animation games like ‘Time Gal’, ‘Thunder Storm’ and ‘Road Blaster’. “There are probably some other games that use similar techniques,” he continues, “but we don’t know if anyone has attempted a complete, traditionally animated game done ‘on the ones’ [an animator’s term that essentially means 24 frames per second].”

Cuphead

Cuphead© Studio MDHR

Studio MDHR has gone above and beyond to give the whole game a “humanistic feel”, according to Chad. That means not just including all the little flaws, but enhancing them, by using post-processing to simulate film grain, scratches and noise. “We’re crazy enough to make sure those effects are taken from actual scans of real film,” he laughs, “rather than just being a digital recreation.”

“We’ve even put together a custom jazz soundtrack influenced by the era. The old-timey tunes of the 1930s work perfectly within something like Cuphead – we’re hoping players will be humming along as they play.”

The whole story is one of dedication to an ideal. Studio MDHR wants this game to look like it was made 80 years ago, and that requires a lot more time and effort than most titles these days.

“When each frame is custom, it means that the art pipeline is much slower than ‘straight to digital’ art. It’s safe to say creation of the art is about 50 percent slower than digital, because there are so many steps involved – from concepts, to pencil testing, to animating, to inking, to scanning, and then sorting and storing everything.”

Cuphead

Cuphead© Studio MDHR

“We haven’t finished all the art yet, but it’s safe to say that we’ll probably be close to 15,000 individually drawn frames by the end.” That’s a lot of work for a studio of just 14 people (though they plan to hire another two or three in the near future), but as Chad reminds us, “the original Snow White from 1938 has over a quarter of a million unique drawings.” It’s a massive amount of work for the sake of authenticity, but Studio MDHR is dedicated to its craft, and Chad admits that the whole style also suits the game down to the ground.

“It allows for a tonne of creativity,” he explains. “It lets us experiment and have fun, and that adds to the overall experience of Cuphead. Playful violence is a major theme in old cartoons, and that perfectly lends itself to gaming – get hit and you get hurt, too many hits and you die.”

If you’re thinking about picking up Cuphead when it arrives on Windows and Xbox One next year, you’d better get used to the idea of getting hit and dying, a lot. Not only does Cuphead pay homage to the gameplay of classic run-and-gun games, it’ll also emulate the difficulty that goes hand in hand with the genre.

Cuphead

Cuphead© Studio MDHR

“We grew up with games that focused on being tough to master – they were hard but fair,” Chad says. “In our minds, there is no better feeling than being able to master a challenging game, and we are creating Cuphead with that in mind.

“A lot of games today aren’t as difficult as older games, I think that’s largely because today’s gaming environment is far more diverse – not everybody who enjoys a game wants to be challenged like that. We recognise that, and we’ll have some kind of solution to ensure gamers of all types can enjoy Cuphead. But, at the same time, we are pushing the difficulty with NG+ to awesome heights!”

Even the mighty Phil Spencer – Head of Microsoft’s Xbox division – struggled to get to grips with Cuphead at first when he first got his hands on the game. “He did manage to beat one of the bosses on his fifth or sixth try,” laughs Chad. That enthusiasm, he says, is symptomatic of Studio MDHR’s relationship with Microsoft since the two partnered to make Cuphead exclusive to Xbox One and Windows. And yet, this fruitful partnership came about in the most unlikely of ways, and could very nearly have never happened: they were plucked from obscurity on an internet forum.

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“Alexis Garavaryan [Senior Manager of Worldwide Business Development] at Microsoft found us on NeoGaf,” he explains. “They reached out to us and… the rest is history! Working with Microsoft has been really amazing, it’s given us the freedom and resources to deliver Cuphead as we have always intended.”

And really, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want Cuphead to arrive exactly as the brothers Moldenhauer always intended it to be, since their earliest days struggling through Gunstar Heroes and Contra. The original 2015 release date was pushed back for that very reason, and if Studio MDHR needs more time to perfect their vision, then we think it’ll be worth the time. After all, our wait for Cuphead has been nothing compared to theirs.

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