Studio MDHR Details the Challenges of Developing Cuphead

by Jennifer Locke

Ever since its announcement on Microsoft’s stage at E3 2014, fans have been eagerly awaiting Cuphead’s release. Its enchanting aesthetic made it stand out and it became one of Xbox’s most anticipated titles. Cuphead will finally launch in a few short months on September 29, and the developers behind the run and gun platformer detailed the amount of challenges they went through during development.

Enthusiasm for Cuphead has died down tremendously since its reveal because it went so long without a release date. First showcased as a game containing only boss battles, the developers were quick to rectify what many felt was a mistake in not including larger platforming levels. The decision to add them, while making Cuphead closer to the game they’ve always wanted it to be, lead to its delay and created unforeseen challenges for the small independent team.

GamesRadar+ got a chance to speak with Cuphead’s Lead Designer and Co-Creator Chad Moldenhauer to find out how it was made a reality. Among other struggles, Moldenhauer mentioned how he and his brother, Co-Creator Jared Moldenhauer, quit their jobs and remortgaged their houses after E3 2015 to expand the development team.

“We realized that there were a lot of people out there that wanted what we were doing. My brother and I quit our jobs, remortgaged our houses and began expanding the team. This was our chance to actually deliver the game we wanted to make all along, rather than the cut-scope game we originally planned with a three person team,” said Chad.

Even with the extra help from the now 20 person team, Cuphead’s development was still a struggle attributed to its animation and art style that imitates cartoons from the 1930s. Each frame is painstakingly hand drawn, and this means that everything must be carefully planned beforehand.

“To really capture the style of the 30s animation, we had to double down on the authenticity by doing the work the same way they did back then – pencils, inks, watercolour paintings, every frame done by hand. We don’t use any of the modern techniques or software tricks to assist our animation. If you see an egg spin 360 degrees in Cuphead, we didn’t draw one frame and spin it in software, we drew all the individual frames at each stage in its rotation.”

This amount of work takes an enormous amount of time, and is partly responsible for Studio MDHR’s radio silence at times. They just buckled down and focused on development. As Chad describes, even needing to move a character’s limb several pixels could result in work getting thrown out.

“We can’t just move a hand up 30 pixels or squash a head down 10 pixels, the whole action has to be redrawn from scratch. This means we end up doing a ton of planning and iteration before anything gets to that level, as we can’t afford to throw out a lot of work. Similarly, we always have to keep in mind how much work is going to be involved in any action. If we want to add a new attack for an enemy, it could be over 30 frames of animation plus all the implementation work. The biggest sacrifice has been to our lives outside of Cuphead, ha!”

Because changing even the tiniest aspect of the game requires hundreds of new animation frames, new ideas must be approved by every member of the team. Though the art style is undoubtedly a main talking point, Chad assured players that the gameplay mechanics, such as the platforming levels and boss battles, are still important.

Players will finally get to experience the culmination of several years’ work on September 29, 2017. Cuphead will be an Xbox Play Anywhere title.

- This article was updated on March 8th, 2018