A brief history, with a side of influences and methods.
My brother and I have been making games as far back as I can remember.
Not video games, specifically, but games out of anything we could find to construct them. We made elaborate marble games, using the marbles to construct two-dimensional mazes and structures similar to using pixels on a screen. We made three-dimensional dungeon levels out of our sandbox and had crickets run the challenges to find holes in our designs like insectoid QA testers. We made games out of chores. We made games out of walking to school. Some games were played once, some were refined over years. Marble games added base-building and crafting mechanics based on defeated structures. Sand mazes added water hazards and wooden sticks with unexpected flow patterns for randomization and surprise.
Those games were fun but they were always missing something. There was art to the video games that we loved playing that couldn't be represented in marbles or sand; character, style, and atmosphere that oozed from 8-bit classics that we wanted to emulate. That started us down a path in creating our own custom board games. We started out with hand drawn Monopoly clones (complete with monsters and video game characters sketched across the board) and grew into creating extensive branched path narratives that spiraled out across multiple poster sheets. Our magnum-opus was a tough-as-nails dive into hell wherein the players had to defeat six different bosses to gather items to grow powerful enough take on the devil himself. Some ideas never leave you.
Even in the video games we were playing at the time, we looked for any chance to make our mark, change them, or add to them. We started out with a Vic20, loading games off of a tape player and trying to mess with the game code: adding extra lives, speeding up the main character and manipulating the world state. We loved level creators, with Penguin Land's on Sega Master System being a particular standout - this game had a fully functional level editor that allowed you to save up to 15 custom levels, which was very cool for the time (especially on console). We learned about grid based level editing, challenge progression, and flow. We went about as far as kids could go without a PC.
As the years passed we started making our own video games. We began by hacking together top down RPGs with pixel art and even dabbled in some 3D prototypes. As the tools got better and the indie scene made it viable to create games, it gave us the well needed kick in the pants we needed to do something serious.
Mixing the love of “creating a game” with “old cartoons” came very naturally. We watched a ton of 1930s cartoons in our childhood and it’s still one of our favorite eras. When the time came to get into pre-production for Cuphead, we knew we had to at least try a few concepts in the 1930s cartoon style. And from there the rest is history (which is borrowed from history).
“By using the same animating tools and techniques that they did, hand drawing and inking each frame, animating on the ones, and creating hand painted watercolor backgrounds, we believe we can closely replicate the 1930s style better than using modern and digital means to create the art.”
StudioMDHR: METHODS AND INFLUENCES
We are taking an old school approach to as many aspects of Cuphead as we can: gameplay, visuals, music, and sound. We feel that this keeps Cuphead rooted in our influences. For art, we strive to capture the style of the masters, including (but not limited to): Ub Iwerks, Grim Natwick and Willard Bowsky. By using the same animating tools and techniques that they did, hand drawing and inking each frame, animating on the ones, and creating hand painted watercolor backgrounds, we believe we can closely replicate the 1930s style better than using modern and digital means to create the art.
A lot of people ask us where we get our inspiration for the various designs throughout Cuphead…and the answer lies within three key areas:
We keep a tight deadline on decisions and rely on our instincts as if we were cranking out cartoon shorts in 1931. When a design looks ‘right’, we don’t second guess it. This also keeps the spontaneity of the art in the forefront and aids in our goal of “replicating the early art styles”
We study old cartoons and themes. Continual research plays a huge part in helping us to re-create the era. Sticking to a high-level them helps a lot too: the over-arching theme of Cuphead is 1930s cartoons, but the sub-theme is a style of toons from the early thirties: macabre, strange and creepy. With this in mind it’s easy for us to push our designs into the darker realm and ensure continuity throughout the game.
We bring a bit of our own nostalgia into each design. There is a reason that the dragon boss is slightly reminiscent of the Megaman 2 dragon or that the two boss frogs have similarities to the monsters from Disney’s ‘Lullaby Land’ – we add subtle homages from our influences within Cuphead. And coupled with the fact that each artist brings his or her own style into each drawing - it makes the game very special to all of us.
For gameplay, our core touchstones are: Gunstar Heroes, Contra III and Hardcorps, Super Mario World, Street Fighter III, Megaman, and Ninja Gaiden. We strive for the instant-gratification, easy-to-pick-up tough-to-master, hard-but-fair, action gameplay that is immediate and visceral. Even with all the care we put into the art, we want the players to be playing our game, not just watching it.
As much as we love those old games, we aren't slaves to their design templates. We've adopted many of the modern techniques of progression, accessibility in fail states, gating, and difficulty selection that make sense to respect the player's time and investment. Recognizing where these techniques fit properly and make Cuphead more functional and more fun is challenging to balance with the old school ethos we started with, but we are hitting a good equilibrium.
It’s a great time to be creating games - the current technology makes game development easy, allows us to collaborate from all over the world and lets us focus on the fun. This is the greatest industry.