What a mug
The term "retro game" doesn't really cover it for Cuphead. It might draw on run 'n' guns like Contra, and include full shmup sections, but it also nabs its art style from 1930s cartoons and presents itself like a game played on CRT, scanlines and all. It's unlike anything else out there, and it's coming to Xbox One this year. I spoke to Studio MDHR co-founder, Chad Moldenhauer to find out how his first game became quite so intriguing.
OXM: How did StudioMDHR start out?
Chad Moldenhauer: StudioMDHR is short for Studio Moldenhauer. My brother Jared and I have wanted to make games since we were young, but the true kick in the pants happened when we saw Jonathan Blow launch Braid and Team Meat launch Super Meat Boy. They showed us how small teams can make amazing experiences and that indie games had finally become real.
OXM: We can't recall seeing any game that looks quite like Cuphead. What made you decide it was time to apply that style to games?
CM: The main inspiration for the visuals came from our childhood: we watched a ton of 1930s era cartoons from a broad range of animation studios: Fleischer, Disney, ComiColor, Warner Bros., Van Beuren, etc. Nostalgia is a large part of why we chose this style - these cartoons still stand out to us today as our favorite era of animation. We initially only joked about having an art style like this it seemed unreachable. Since I had zero traditional animation experience, we initially set the bar very low. But Jared would frequently muse about how awesome it would be to have 1930s cartoon visuals, so during the concept phase I incorporated some old Mickey Mouse and Popeye images into a mock-up of the game. We instantly fell in love and our friends told us that we shouldnt even bother making the game unless we were going to use this style.
OXM: Has that unusual visual style caused any challenges in development?
CM: There are a few challenges that this style has made, but none of them directly relate to the game feel. We are extremists when it comes to gameplay, and if something like the blur was interfering with the ability to read what was on the screen, we will drastically change the attacks to ensure they are very visible. But, certain other challenges creep up throughout development. We try to ensure 95% of enemy/boss animations lineup, so they flow just like an old cartoon without the traditional pop of 2D animation in games. The main challenge is trying to create attacks and patterns that dont have too many frames of animation while keeping visual interest within each design.
OXM: The gameplay itself looks like an homage to retro genres like run 'n' guns and shooters, too - would you say Cuphead's a love letter to early forms of both animation and gaming?
CM: Cuphead is one part love letter to our favorite run n guns AND one part bringing new ideas and techniques that have not been used before/been fully utilized in this genre. And Cuphead is definitely a love letter to the golden age of animation.
OXM: You seem to be focusing on boss battles over fights with general cannon fodder (although General Cannon Fodder would be a good name for a boss, actually) - why is that?
CM: All of our favorite moments in this genre are the boss encounters and this was something we felt we could evolve and contribute to. The idea of a bunch of unique bosses resonated the most with us and we just ran with it. Even though the game is centered on boss battles, we are creating some more like traditional levels (platforming, enemies, etc.), a few are shmup based, and this adds to the overall experience.
OXM: The subtitle, "...in Don't Deal With The Devil'" implies that you see Cuphead as a recurring character. Have you started planning more 'episodes'?
CM: We definitely see him as a recurring character but there are no current plans for more episodes or future games, etc. We are treating Cuphead as if it were the only game we'll ever release, so all of our focus is only on this one. I think we will have much more clarity on where we want to head next after weve completed this beast.