With its iconic art style and exciting gameplay, Cuphead is a highly anticipated game. The debut title from StudioMDHR, we recently had the opportunity to ask Chad Moldenhauer – co-founder of the studio with his brother Jared – about Cuphead‘s creation, story, and art.
Xbox One UK: Cuphead is already famous for its 1930’s cartoon-style visuals. Were you surprised it would prove so popular?
Chad Moldenhauer: We knew that if we wanted to stand out, we would have to have a different and under served visual style, so in that respect, we were pretty sure there was a niche to fill. But we were blown away by all the attention we got. The support and fandom for the Cuphead characters has been incredible.
XOUK: Many of the cartoons from that era brim with creativity and grin with a delight in the disconcerting. Did you wish to bring similar creative and unique twists to the gameplay in Cuphead, or create a more traditional experience similar to classic 2D platform/shoot ’em up games?
CD: We have had a very clear concept of the way Cuphead would play right from the start of the project and we’ve kept true to that. Cuphead is a classic arcade-style run and gun game, the type we grew up playing. We wanted Cuphead to be very direct and very replayable, very much about continuing to improve your skills within a specific gameplay structure. Everything has to be instantly readable and the player has to be able to identify threats immediately and react appropriately, so we’ve prioritized creating a game that is easily internalized by the player.
In a lot of other games, we’ve found that parts of games that diverge heavily from the core gameplay feel more like gimmicks. Those gimmicks can be fun as a change of pace, but on replays can be tedious. We find the best games put a strong emphasis on perfecting a core control structure, then the game throwing new challenges at the player to get them to rethink that core structure to overcome them. That is what we are striving for.
XOUK: The story in Cuphead – of brothers Cuphead and Mugman losing a dice roll to the Devil and forced to do his bidding – could be straight out of one of those early cartoons. Did the story have an impact upon the art or did the art impact upon the story?
CD: We came up with the story after we defined our art style, so the art definitely impacted the story. We wanted something whimsical, but still kind of subversive, and the idea of being forced to do the Devil’s dirty work seemed very much like the type of situation Bimbo or Felix would have gotten themselves into in a cartoon from the era.
XOUK: And how did Cuphead and Mugman themselves come about?
CD: Mostly just tons and tons of iteration. I probably drew hundreds of characters before my brother and I decided we had our lead in Cuphead, then Mugman was an iteration off of him. The actual gameplay that we were creating defined a lot of the constraints that made up Cuphead’s overall form – for instance, due to the hit box that we wanted for the gameplay, we knew the lead character couldn’t be tall and skinny, or have too long of arms that would stick out.
XOUK: Cuphead’s focus is on defeating bosses – do you all have a particular favourite boss in the office?
CD: I feel like everyone on the team has a different favourite. I personally can’t pick one, it would be like picking a favourite child! If I was forced to choose right now, I would probably say the clown boss is my current favourite.
XOUK: To fund production of the game you both mortgaged your houses. What was the final thing that made you both decide to take what appears to be quite a bold action?
CD: It was probably the reaction to the E3 trailer. The response was so overwhelming that we knew we had to go all in to deliver the game that both we always wanted to make and what the game deserved to be. The last thing we want is to disappoint people, so we’d rather give the game the time necessary to hopefully fulfill that potential.
XOUK: Cuphead’s popularity on looks alone tells of a desire for the different – a flavour of something new or reinvented. Do you feel you’ve found a niche with aspects of Cuphead that you’d wish to further explore in future games?
CD: Right now we are so focused on delivering Cuphead that we haven’t had any time to think about future games. We think and hope that Cuphead will be successful, but we don’t really know. So at this point, we’re just putting everything we have into this game and we’ll see how people respond once it’s released. With all that aside, there are a ton of other hand drawn animation styles that would be incredible to explore in our future games.
XOUK: And taking the success of Cuphead as a given, as much as one can, do you have future plans for the game and yourselves as a studio?
CD: Back when we were first deciding to work on a game, we had a bunch of different ideas we were concepting out before deciding to go with a run and gun platformer. Some of them were larger scope games and some were little one-off smaller scope games, so we’ll probably revisit those and see where we want to go next. That said, we feel like we’ve built up a reputation for a visual style and we now have a phenomenal team of animators, so you could expect any project that comes from Studio MDHR to have a lot of animation.
XOUK: The game features local co-op and the protagonists are brothers. Are these inclusions thanks to the memories of playing games in your childhoods?
CD: Yeah, completely. Cuphead and Mugman are indirectly based off of my brother and I and are pretty much cartoons of us getting into trouble as kids. The game is basically us trying to make the type of game that we want that no one else is making a game that looks like a cartoon, with fast arcade action, where two players can play at the same time.
XOUK: Finally, what can be seen out of Studio MDHR’s windows?
CD: That’s a tough question because Studio MDHR exists across multiple cities over North America! We have team members in Canada: Toronto, Ottawa, Regina, B.C., in California: Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Outside my own windows is a quiet suburban street though. I guess the normality of my life inspires me to create the insanity of Cuphead, ha!
XOUK: Many thanks, Chad!
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