Due in part to its standout art style, Cuphead has been on the minds of many an Xbox fan since that 3 second reveal in 2014. With featured articles in Game Informer and recently winning two “best of” awards from IGN at this year’s E3 event, it’s safe to say that Studio MDHR’s 2D platformer is the most anticipated ID@Xbox release in a laundry list of upcoming indie titles.
It’s definitely at the top of my list, and I jumped at the chance to chat back and forth with Chad Moldenhauer–one of two brothers working on Cuphead’s development, and the first person to mention a Game Gear in my tenure here at What’s Your Tag?.
Brad: At first glance, Cuphead looks like it could be a 2D platformer, but it’s actually a series of intense boss fights without the pre-encounter fluff, right? I mean, there’s clearly heavy emphasis on platforming during the encounters, but was there ever any consideration in the early development process where Cuphead was going to be a full-on platformer? Or has this always been the game’s core design?
Chad: Cuphead started out as a much smaller game. We were going to create 10-12 bosses and call it a night. Within that original scope, we wouldn’t have the time to create traditional platform levels and we really wanted to focus everything on large, over-the-top boss encounters for a few reasons:
- Our favorite moments from other games of the ‘run and gun’ genre were bosses.
- The background art/assets wouldn’t take as long as full fledged levels.
- And, we really liked the idea of massive, hand-drawn sprites on the screen (with the animation running @24FPS).
But that has changed since E3 2014 (Cuphead received much more attention than we could have ever imagined – especially since we had only shown three seconds of footage). The scope of the game has been increased:
- Over double the amount of bosses.
- Platforming style levels (that scroll like traditional levels!).
- And a few more surprises that we aren’t going to reveal just yet.
Brad: Cuphead’s unique art style borrows heavily from 1930’s cartoons and it shows in the incredibly detailed game animations. Can you give us a basic breakdown of the process involved in making these characters come to life in game? Everything is drawn by hand, right?
Chad: Indeed – everything is drawn and then inked by hand. Here is a not-so-small summary of the process for one animation:
- Rough sketches: the capture the character and the basic poses.
- Finalize Concepts: refined versions of the chosen poses are fleshed out (keyframes).
- Pencil Test: the keyframes are pencil tested by taking a picture of each frame (with a webcam). This lets us view a lo-res version of the animation to find anything that is hard to catch by page flipping alone.
- Breakdown Frames: we create more drawings between the main keyframes. It is usually pencil tested again.
- In-Between Frames: the remaining in-between frames are drawn and one last pencil test happens. If problems show up at this point, those frames are reworked.
- Clean up: any drawings that are really rough need to be finalized before moving onto the next step.
- Inking: a new sheet of animation paper is placed on top of each frame and then it is carefully inked one at a time (any final clean-up is done at this stage).
- Scans: each frame is scanned in at high-res.
- Coloring: is all completed in Photoshop.
- Scale & Export: the last step is to scale the images to the final size and export them all as PNG files.
Brad: The wiki page for Cuphead claims that your team is going for a world record for the most boss fights in a single game. First off, is this true, and if so, what was the reasoning for such a boss-centric game?
Chad: We started out with a boss heavy game before knowing about the the Run and Gun World Record. Once we caught wind of that record, we had high hopes to defeat it. We will try our best, but there is still a lot of work left…fingers crossed!
Brad: Boss battles may not last that long content-wise, but that’s just a general assumption without actually playing Cuphead ourselves. Can you talk about the overall length of the game itself or the boss fights? Aside from the core game, do you have any other game modes you can talk about or have in the works?
Chad: We don’t even know how long Cuphead is going to be yet, as we’re still pretty deep in development. As for extra modes, everything we have is built into the core game. If it doesn’t help with making the core of Cuphead better, it gets thrown out. There’s no bloat in our game. Cuphead is straight and to the point: it’s an action game for action game fans. Anything else would just be a waste of our and the player’s time!
Brad: Your game has some mature themes, like dealing with the devil, cigars, etc.. Did you choose the art style to complement this because it relates to the older generation? And were you worried it might turn off the younger audience?
Chad: We chose the art style solely to emulate the art and slightly more adult themes of cartoons. Our goal in creating Cuphead was to make a game with gameplay, visuals and audio that we love and nothing more. We have never worried about attracting/detracting specific audiences – we just always hoped there would be a small group of people that share the same interests as us!
Brad: What games did you and your brother play growing up that influenced your decision to pursue game development? Can we see any of those influences in Cuphead?
Chad: The major influence of wanting to design games stems from playing a ton (and I mean a TON!) of games. After playing enough games we began to see why some are better than others – and that sparked a burning desire to analyze games from a young age and continues to this day.
There are games we played that influenced all aspects of Cuphead (game feel, control, hit boxes, acceleration, etc.), things like:
- Contra III
- Gunstar Heroes
- Contra Hard Corps
- Super Mario World, Super Mario 3
- Street Fighter III
- Radiant Silvergun
- Thunderforce series
- Megaman series
Brad: E3 was huge this year, and your game was given center stage during the Xbox presentation. (Congrats on winning IGN’s Best Xbox One Game and Best Platformer, by the way!). What has it been like working with the ID@Xbox team in making Cuphead a reality?
Chad: E3 was wild…we didn’t expect the opportunities or the reactions and we feel extremely lucky for the experience (and winning awards from IGN was the icing on the cake).
We are both hugely grateful for having Microsoft as a partner. From giving us amazing opportunities to allowing complete creative freedom and everything in between, it’s been a blessing. I said before that working with Microsoft “was like” we were working with great friends – but I have to change that sentence: Working with Microsoft “IS” working with great friends – all of the people there are amazing.
We need to give props to Alexis from the ID@Xbox team; he is the guy who originally found us and believed in everything that we were doing. Without him, I don’t think we’d be in the same position today (of course, we can’t forget Chris, Nate, Dave, Blake, Katie, Glenn, James and the many other talented and genius people who are making our dreams come true!).
Brad: It’s safe to say that Cuphead is the most anticipated Xbox One indie right now, but what other games are you two excited about? Anything you’re playing right now that you’re really in to?
Chad: We are very excited for:
- The Witness (Hurry up and finish!)
- Below from Capybara
- Jamestown Plus (everybody needs to play this)
- Inside from Playdead (even though this is a little further out – not unlike us!)
- Mighty No. 9
Currently we are playing a lot of:
- Shovel Knight
- Ultra SFIV
- and many classic titles on NES, SMS, GEN and SNES
Brad: Last question, I promise! We do a lot of weird challenges when we live stream games, like eating hot peppers or fermented Century Eggs every time we die. If we were to do something like that for Cuphead, what would you suggest?
Chad: That’s easy:
- Every death means you have to eat a chunk of a durian that is too ripe (and if you like it, that makes it that much easier!)
- Every five deaths means you have to do both of these things for two minutes while playing — Wear the Sega Master System 3D glasses (they must be working and a 3D game running on the SMS, so they flicker while you are trying to play Cuphead). Blast the soundtrack from Taz-Mania on Game Gear.
Brad: Thanks again for not only answering our questions, but bringing your game to the Xbox. There’s already an incredible line-up of games on the horizon, but Cuphead easily stands at the top of our most-wanted list.
Chad: No problem, it has been super fun to answer everything!
Again, we’d like to thank Chad from Studio MDHR for taking the time to give us such in-depth answers to all of our questions. I know they’re busy working on Cuphead, and I’m honestly surprised they got back to me so quickly.
Are you excited for Cuphead? Sound off in the comments!
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, generally handling reviews, public relations, and our social media communications on Facebook and Twitter. He’s no stranger to sinking an absurd amount of time in to an MMO, but also has a deep seeded love for quirky indie games, pro wrestling, horror films, and his hometown of Baltimore, MD. Get in touch with him by e-mail at the address above, or follow him on Twitter.