released back in 2017, and at the time it was one of the most highly anticipated releases of the year. Which, for a run and gun game that drew inspiration from hard-as-nails titles from the 1980s and 1990s, may have sounded a little strange on paper. On the screen though, it was a different story. Meticulous, detailed, vibrant, and evocative hand-drawn animation that looked like it was unearthed from a film-can from the 1930s. An instantly lovable main character, and a cartoon world that felt as inviting as it did fresh and new by the way of ‘old timey’.
Fast forward to 2022, and hot on the heels of a critically acclaimed Netflix
animated series, comes Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course
. Which as per the namesake is a slice of DLC that looks to expand on what had come before. And arriving almost five years after the main game’s launch, carries with it a sense of something more that simply more of the same. “We jumped into DLC with a mindset that it was going to be a smaller version of Cuphead,” Chad Moldenhauer, Studio MDHR co-founder and art director tells me. “And then it grew into this love letter to the 1930s, let's push towards the craziest stuff Disney was trying in the later part of the era. Can we do crazy transitions and background transformations? And when it got into that, we started dipping our toes in the water of the unknown.”
“It was a desire as a team to see what else we could do within this universe,” Jared Moldenhauer, Studio MDHR co-founder and lead game designer adds. “As much as we learned all the techniques involved with the animation, or our composer immersing himself in the jazz of the era, there was stuff left over. And the more we thought about it, before we leave this, we should give a great farewell to that Cuphead game. While we're still in the genre of run and gun and still in 1930s animation in this Fleischer-esque style, why not? Give it one last go and see where we can take it.”
Plus, the small team at Studio MDHR was finally able to realise its initial plan to add a third playable character with Ms. Chalice. A character that players can now use in all of the original stages, giving them another option to explore Cuphead’s challenging and incredibly rewarding run and gun loops. Ahead of the DLC's launch, we sat down with Chad Moldenhauer and Jared Moldenhauer of Studio MDHR to talk about all things Cuphead and all things The Delicious Last Course.
What goes into bringing its animation to life, what goes into creating a tough-as-nails bullet-hell experience, the coming together of retro gaming and retro animation, and what’s next for the team.
With Cuphead and The Delicious Last Course having this close relationship and love of traditional hand drawn animation from the 1930s, and the jazz music, you've also got the challenging run and gun or even bullet-hell style of videogame. It's a strange blend and mash-up, old timey animation and hardcore, challenging, gameplay from like the 1980s or 1990s. How do you marry those two things together?
A lot of it actually marries itself, beautifully too. Let me take a step back, the first thing we wanted to do was make a game that we really loved and use a style that we really loved, knowing full well that we would be working on this day in and day out. Once we started digging into the cartoons of that era, we noticed that they relied heavily on loops, had this bouncy animation, and off the wall creative ideas. A character doesn't throw a punch, their hand turns into a giant anvil and that anvil bites the other character. All of that actually pointed to merging that style of cartoon with a game like this. All of the things they used in those cartoons are similar to the things that we're using in the game.
“While we're still in the genre of run and gun and still in 1930s animation in this Fleischer-esque style, why not? Give it one last go and see where we can take it."
On top of that there's parallels with retro gaming. There was something about the 1980s, including movies, where it felt like any idea was open. Something like Stinger (TwinBee 2), you're flying a ship with two boxing gloves, you're fighting coat hangers and a water tap and a giant space melon. The insanity that was coming from early videogames merges with what early animation. There are no rules, your creativity is the only thing that's holding you back. Any inanimate object can be a character, including one with a cup for a head.
Also, when you played old games, you almost applied art on top of the pixels. You were looking at a pixel game, but as a child, that's not pixel Mickey Mouse, that's Mickey Mouse. For us it was, why don't we see if we can actually make a game exactly like a cartoon, where what you saw when you were younger was actually true on the screen. Of course there are a few road bumps where that much animation needs more planning, you have to be aware of how many frames an attack is or an idle cycle is because something small might be 800 frames of animation. In a retro landscape, that's a pixel squid that will slide around the screen.
Like you said, it's a weird mashup and it definitely is. But one of the awesome side effects was seeing people who would never play this type of run and gun game or late 1980s, early 1990s style game, become attracted to the game and willing to put the time in. Even if initially it was to see some more of the visuals or hear more of the music, all of a sudden this itch they didn't know that they had had been scratched, and they've since become a huge fan of the style of game.
Cuphead is a difficult and challenging game by design. With the DLC, how do you approach the difficulty? Do you take it further, do you scale it back, do you look at the community response or data from the main game?
If this is additional content, something for the fan base who enjoyed the game, the expectation would be somewhere within what you already had played. And we wanted to stick to that realm of difficulty. More importantly though we put the focus on newer ways of playing. Something different so it doesn't feel like it reminds you of Boss A plus Boss B, and that was harder than deciding on the difficulty itself. We did a few things to mitigate a little bit of the difficulty by not making it easier, but just adding more player choice. Having an extra set of weapons and an extra set of charms, and trying our best to balance them. There are certain advantages in fights that may have been far more difficult before, and it's not as though the pattern's any easier, you have a few more options to pick and choose from.
“One of the awesome side effects was seeing people who would never play this type of run and gun game or late 1980s, early 1990s style game, become attracted to the game and willing to put the time in. Even if initially it was to see some more of the visuals or hear more of the music."
And on top of that, in a pre-DLC Patch we thought it would be fun to add a Game Djimmi, which is a way to get three wishes for the game. Essentially he grants you extra HP, but only three times. So at what point do you feel like you've maxed out? That helps alleviate the problems where maybe it's only the Dragon or the Bee that stops you. The ability to get over that hurdle. We never wanna take away that feeling of a core fight, that twitch reaction timing, the abundance of layering of patterns that push the player's brains to a new level. That said, on some of the New Game Plus versions, we may have pushed things to the extreme just so the pros have something to be like, ‘Oh my’.
With the new boss designs, you mention having to plan out the animation where a move might be 800 frames. How meticulous is the pre-planning of a fight before you dig into the animation side? A lot of it is split second timing and frame specific, can you plan for all of that before you put pen or pencil to paper?
Yeah, if you think of it like a rough storyboard you can plan out the major parts and take a look at it and know if it’s going to work. If something is complicated we can put rough frames into the game and say, ‘Oh, that's right, his arm shouldn't be that long’. And with that you kind of build a guide that aids the animators when they start putting the pencil to paper. With the first game we didn't get to do as many smooth transitions as we have with this game, and that’s this weird layer of extra planning on top of the normal amount of animation you would have to do in a film or a TV show.
If there's a boss that has an animation and from that animation, he attacks, there can be multiple points where the attack can come from. This time around we did some crazy stuff depending on how a boss attacks and getting back into that main animation.
With the Netflix show, on top of the game, Cuphead has become something people adore. Instantly too. Looking back to the beginning, that first reveal at the Xbox showcase from 2015, was there any hesitation that it would ‘catch on’?
Pre-reveal we were hesitant that the 1930s cartoon style mixing with anything would land. We thought it was cool internally, but we were very hesitant and just hoped we’d find a small group of fans. And it had a smaller scope to match, that's how we went into it. But it definitely was that Microsoft stage moment, where we realised Cuphead was quite a bit bigger than we could have dreamed.
It's really hard to predict something like that. If we're passionate about it and enjoy the time we spend working on it, which turns out to be a long, long time, maybe there's enough 2D fans. And maybe the animation style, which hasn't been seen in a while, will bring some nostalgia to fans of old golden age animation. We just wanted to do it. There’s no way to predict a run and gun game, specifically one about boss battles, is a great idea for a top seller. There aren’t many boss rush games that have sold at all. Run and gun was loved in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, so there's always a chance it'll feel newer and fresher. But then maybe the reason you haven't seen them in a while is because people don’t like them [laughs]. It was a happy surprise for us, ID@Xbox and E3. And we've been forever grateful.
When it comes to Cuphead there’s also the time between that reveal and release, which applies to the DLC. Being hand-drawn, is that the time-consuming part? It’s not unheard of, but it is unusual to have DLC arrive five years after the original game launched.
I thought we were going to be the world record. I don't even remember what it was but I recently saw something where it was seven years later when the DLC finally landed. I was like, ‘we should have delayed again’ [laughs].
“With the first game we didn't get to do as many smooth transitions as we have with this game, and that’s this weird layer of extra planning on top of the normal amount of animation you would have to do in a film or a TV show."
It's kind of a two-part answer, from my point of view. Don't announce a game way too early, there's your first thing. But really, we were learning and growing as we were doing this. We jumped into DLC initially with a mindset that it was going to be a smaller version of Cuphead. And then it grew into this love letter to the 1930s, let's push towards the craziest stuff Disney was trying in the later part of the era. Can we do crazy transitions and background transformations? And when it got into that, we started dipping our toes in the water of the unknown. So there weren't big roadblocks, it was more looking back and saying, ‘we can do that in a more efficient way’ and then ‘if we do this, it'll be better’.
I would add that there was one roadblock, the pandemic. A lot of stuff just naturally gets slower. Everybody and their family and having them all in the same house, you just can't be at the same production level with four kids running around. And then there’s the mental toll and stress of not being able to spend time with your friends and family or go out. You do need to be in a happier space to produce more. And even if you were like, no, you could just push through it, well, you have to also take into account things like recording music. We had no way of doing that until much later, when there was a process set up to have certain musicians available to come in x-amount at a time. We weren’t the only company that was affected by the pandemic and having to delay a game, but it was something that we had to deal with and manage and learn to work around.
As a studio are you planning for the next thing? You probably can't really talk specifics, but is it safe to say that the combination of traditional animation and videogames is something that Studio MDHR is going to continue doing?
Doing something in an animation style that feels more film-like, and putting it in a game with an ‘80s or ‘90s fast action feel will be there for the foreseeable future. We're already playing around with ideas and things now that we have space in our minds to think.
That's a hundred percent true, we’re finally free to explore more options and see what happens. But, there's no way we'll be turning our backs on 2D art.