What it takes to make the meticulous, hand-drawn art of ‘Cuphead’

Cuphead is one of those games that’s been “just around the corner” for the last several years. Studio MDHR’s retro platformer became an instant indie darling the moment critics saw the game in 2013, thanks to its perfectly pantomimed 1930s cartoon aesthetic. Cuphead would look right at home next to Steamboat Willie, Silly Symphony, or Popeye the Sailor. The incredibly honed style that captured our attention has also played a role in keeping the game in development for so long.

But that wait is finally coming to an end. At long last, Cuphead will launch on Xbox One and PC September 29. We recently played the and spoke with lead inking artist and producer Maja Moldenhauer, who gave us insight into the meticulous, hand-drawing process that took so long to get right, but gave the game its spectacular look.

True to the Contra code

Although Cuphead stands out most in people’s minds for its distinct visuals, the project really started with gameplay. Brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer wanted to make an SNES-era action platformer, “since that’s what they grew up with, so they’d always dreamed of making a game like Contra 2, the Mega Man series, games like that, and the design came afterwards”

While the friendly cartoon visuals might lull you into expecting a kid-friendly platformer, the game is more like Contra than Super Mario Bros, jumping on mushrooms is a surefire way to get yourself killed very quickly. The game plays like a classic side-scrolling shoot-em-up — you run and gun down wave after wave of enemies as you press forward to the level’s end. You only have four health points and no way to restore them, making Cuphead an unforgiving grind to master. Even after a dozen or so attempts — both solo and with Maja Moldenhauer’s help – we couldn’t conquer the game’s first level during our demo.

The game offers a “simple” mode, but even that kept us squarely on our toes.

Fortunately, the rest of the game was unlocked, so we were able to explore the charmingly-detailed first two overworlds and several of the bosses. The boss fights, which originally comprised the entire game before fan excitement expanded the project’s scope, remain the star of the show. Smartly increasing the challenge over its genre forebears, Cuphead’s bosses mix up their attack patterns–both the order of their attacks and the tempos of their particular execution–keeping even the most seasoned platforming veterans on their toes.

The game offers a “simple” mode, where bosses use fewer attacks and simpler patterns, but even that kept us squarely on our toes. The gameplay is hard, but fair, and having just a small number of skills to master makes it a manageable challenge, particularly if you bring a friend, who can indefinitely revive you once you lose your final health point, so long as they catch your spirit before it floats off screen.

More than just a fun and challenging variety of gameplay, the bosses stand out for their imaginative design. Moldenhauer found working on them, particularly because of the aesthetic, to be one of the most interesting parts of the project for “the amount of creativity that can go into a boss because you’re not restricted by realism.”

Bring to a boil

Moldenhaur said the team arrived at Cuphead’s striking aesthetic through trial and error. “We tried a couple of different art styles, and nothing stuck,” she said. 1930s animation, particularly that of Fleischer Studios, had been a childhood favorite of brothers Chad and Jared, which led them to trying it out.

Once they’d decided that they really liked it, getting the look just right is what drove the team to adopting traditional, hand-drawn animation techniques. “It’s painstaking, but we couldn’t actually get the look that we wanted [with digital animation].”

Animating the game this way required extensive research: “[We were] watching endless hours of cartoons from that era,” Moldenhauer said. “Pausing it and taking screenshots, studying the pen weights, how the lines tapered, things like that.”

Studying the original material helped her find the techniques that gave the animation of that era its distinctive style.

“You see how everything has a bit of movement and life to it? It’s called a ‘boil.’ So it’s one drawing and you would draw it three times over, because naturally you can’t draw the same line every time as opposed to when you’re just digitally recreating the image,” she explained. That gives everything a slight ‘wiggle’ which ends up making the whole scene feel much more alive than modern animation with more static idling characters, such as Family Guy.

Every movement of every character on-screen (and there are generally a lot) comprises hundreds of frames of animation. Drawing them by hand takes a lot of time and demands a tremendous attention to detail.

“Just one frame of animation is probably near to twenty minutes to get it concepted, tied down, inked, colored, and put into the game,” Moldenhauer said. “It’s definitely a lengthier process [than digital animation] because you don’t have immediate ‘undos.’ If something doesn’t look good, it gets scrapped.”

Multiply twenty minutes per frame over nearly 50,000 frames — far more than the 14-15,000 the team estimated when it started working on the full game — and that’s nearly two years of man-hours on character animation alone.

Add in the game’s three hours of original music (scored with a 10-piece ragtime ensemble, big band, barbershop quartet, and a tap dancer), hand-painted watercolor backgrounds, and hand-drawn fonts, let alone designing and developing the actual gameplay, and you begin to get a picture of why the road has been so long.

Love and legacy

It’s a hugely ambitious game, particularly for first-time developers. Moldenhauer reiterated many times that this was only possible because it was such a labor of love for everyone involved.

“Ok, we’re not the first ones to do this. They’ve done it before, and it looked beautiful.”

“I am not classically trained — we’re all self-taught.” She said. “Previous to this I was working in the banking industry, and my education is in biomedical science and physics.”

In addition to providing fodder for their work, researching the original material also keeps the team motivated during the long, hard process. “When I need a little inspiration to keep going — after 13, 14 hour days — I’ll pop one in and think, ‘Ok, we’re not the first ones to do this. They’ve done it before, and it looked beautiful.’”

Moldenhauer’s work clearly paid off, because Cuphead looks beautiful, too. We’ve played several iterations of the game over the last several years, and are continually more impressed by the extraordinary attention to detail in both its gameplay and its aesthetic. We’re looking forward to getting our hands on it when it releases for PC and Xbox One on September 29.

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