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Road to the IGF: Studio MDHR's Cuphead

Players will battle colossal bosses, their styles drawn from 1930s animation, as hot jazz blares in their ears in ever-escalating run and gun game Cuphead.

Joel Couture

February 26, 2018

6 Min Read

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Players will battle colossal bosses, their styles drawn from 1930's animation, as hot jazz blares in their ears in ever-escalating run and gun game Cuphead

Gamasutra spoke with Chad and Jared Moldenhauer of Studio MDHR, developers of Excellence in Visual Art and Excellence in Audio-nominated Cuphead, to learn about what drew them to this Fleischer Brothers-inspired art style, and how they used it, alongside a series of foes that grow ever-stranger as the battle continues, as well a catchy soundtrack, to keep the player invested in their challenging boss fights.

What's your background in making games?

In an official capacity, basically non-existent, but we've been designing games as far back as I can remember. As children, we would draw out complicated Monopoly knock-offs with monsters and ridiculous rule sets. In high school, we'd make rudimentary RPGs in QBasic. Later on, we even tried making a simple platformer on a Net Yaroze. Everything we learned, we learned from struggling through on our own.

How did you come up with the concept?

We knew from the start we wanted to make a run and gun game like Contra or Gunstar Heroes. That genre has always been one of our favorites, and it feels like it's been lost over the years. Because we started out as just the two of us, we knew to keep the scope small and impactful, so we thought focusing on boss battles was a good way to do that. After prototyping a few fights with block art, we started brainstorming different art styles we could use. We've always been drawn to more unique art styles, especially games that tried to mimic physical media, like Yoshi's Island and it's crayon-like art. We tested out a few story-book and cartoon styles but kept coming back to the rubber-hose animation of the 30's. Everything just sort of grew from there.

What development tools were used to build your game?

We initially started out on the XNA platform, but once those tools were sunset, we moved over to Unity. All of the art is hand drawn and hand inked the old fashioned way, and then colored in Photoshop. Other than that, we used Basecamp, Slack and Trello for communication and organization.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

It depends on what one considers the shipped game. Our original, single boss XNA build was entered in the 2014 IGF, but the entire game went through an overhaul in the months after. It wasn't until 2015 that the team started to really take shape. So, anywhere from four to five years depending on the point of view.

Cuphead features a delightful look at past animation. What sort of research did you do into this animation to help inform your style? What animated features really helped the style click for you?

We mostly just watched the animated shorts from the time period over and over and tried to approximate what we saw. The core of Cuphead's aesthetic matches closest with the Fleischer Brothers' work, especially Swing You Sinners, which perfectly encapsulates the mood and insanity that we wanted to put into the game.

Likewise, what thoughts went into the musical accompaniment for the game? What sort of tone were you going for with the music? What made a track feel like it suited Cuphead?

We always knew we wanted hot jazz for the soundtrack, mainly because we love jazz and found it to be aesthetically appropriate. When we started working with the composer, our childhood friend Kris Maddigan, his initial compositions trended more towards freeform jazz. They were beautiful, but they didn't quite fit with the fast action, so we tried to push him more to more traditional game-like structure - something like Mega Man tunes filtered through big band jazz. He came back with dozens and dozens of amazing songs that fit perfectly. Aside from trying to hit some sort of tonal theme for a boss, we were just looking for the most catchy, hook-filled tracks that kept a driving pace for the action.

How did you design the boss battles and stages to suit the game's bouncy, animated style? How did this style inform the kinds of enemies and locales players would encounter?

Pretty much all of the boss battles were created before any art was applied to them. We weren't creating boss battles to fit the animation, we were creating animation to fit the boss battles. The art style is really flexible, though. We could basically do anything we wanted, as long as the rubber hose limbs and pie eyes were there, it would fit, but we found that taking the crazy up a notch helped the most. Once the gameplay was in, the characters would go through a bunch of revisions, back and forth with the animators, making sure the weirdness was right and that they fit with the in-place hit boxes and attack timing. When in doubt, we would reference the old cartoons to be inspired.

What thoughts went into making every boss battle as visually entertaining as it was challenging? What thoughts went into making each fight something fun to see as well as to work through?

We found escalation was the key. We tried to make sure that each boss started out weird and then ratcheted up the intensity as it went on. We knew even when we were doing block-art patterns, well before any of the animation was done, that screen-filling characters had a lot visual punch. It makes the player feel like they are going up against something truly dangerous. So, a lot of the fights start with something big and then just keep getting bigger and bigger.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy is amazing in how it does so much with such simple interaction. On the other end of the spectrum, Shenzen I/O follows Zachtronic's history of making games that offer the complexity found in building systems of systems.

What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?

The biggest hurdle is getting noticed. There are way too many amazing games being released constantly, and standing out in a sea of masterpieces is hard. That seems like a consequence of the biggest opportunity, which is that it feels like there's less division between the biggest and smallest games in the industry from a consumer-access point of view. So, everyone's in the pool now; you just have to fight harder to swim.

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