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How Cuphead Was Made and Struggled Finding The Right Protagonist

Apr 11, 2024
Cuphead is the result of two brothers' lifelong dream of making a video game. Chad and Jared Moldenhauer grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan during the 1980s, and spent all their time watching 1930s cartoons, playing run-and-gun video games like Megaman, and coming up with their own games. When they were 10 years old, for example, they had drawing contests to see who could draw the scariest and most powerful monsters. Soon, his games became increasingly complex. Chad built castles in the living room, protected by bastions and foot soldiers, while Jared and his other siblings were tasked with taking them down with a single shot from increasing distances.
how cuphead was made and struggled finding the right protagonist
They would also map out complicated board games with multiple winding paths. The young brothers promised each other that when they grew up they would create their own video game together. Over the years, they've kept their creative spirit alive on several different platforms. QBASIC was perfect for creating multiple role-playing and adventure games and Sony's hobbyist development hardware called Net Yaroze was the brothers' choice for developing a samurai side-scrolling game. In 2000, Chad and Jared even attempted to create a full Cuphead-like game, but the technology of the time


it very difficult to do so, let alone make money without online distribution platforms like Steam.
how cuphead was made and struggled finding the right protagonist

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how cuphead was made and struggled finding the right protagonist...

Furthermore, adulthood separated them. Jared stayed in his hometown of Regina to work in the family business as a construction worker, while Chad moved to Oakville, Ontario, to work as a graphic designer, eventually founding his own advertising agency. Life just got in the way of his childhood promise. However, despite the distance, the brothers still spoke frequently on the phone and continued to dream of one day creating and publishing a video game together. That dream became a reality again during the indie gaming boom around 2010, leading to the creation of a documentary called “Indie Game: The Movie.” After Chad and Jared saw the history of the development of Super Meat Boy, a game created by two developers, it was impossible to keep their own dream on hold any longer.
how cuphead was made and struggled finding the right protagonist
Despite their previous attempts at creating games, the brothers actually had very little to no experience in programming or animation, but now the Internet provided many ways to learn all those things. The only question now was: what would they do? At first, they kept their ambitions small and manageable, opting to come up with concepts for simple puzzle games designed for mobile devices. However, the couple couldn't stop thinking about another concept that had been on their minds for a long time. “But even as we iterated on these early ideas, we kept returning to a run-and-gun concept that we had modeled after the Contra and Gunstar Heroes games we loved as kids.
how cuphead was made and struggled finding the right protagonist
We miss the fast-paced action, giant bosses, and learn-and-play nature of the genre. We knew that if we were really going to try it, spend all that time, work and money on it, it would have to be something we loved. So we took the plunge.” It wasn't until 2013 that development officially moved from simply talking about ideas and coming up with concepts to creating prototypes for a run-and-gun game. Of course, they still had their full-time jobs, so working on their passion project took place on the weekends. While it's true that Jared and Chad had never published a game before Cuphead, they believe it's a good rule of thumb to make a lot of small games and finish them before moving on to something more ambitious, which is technically what they did as well.
During initial development, the brothers


many small prototypes, chose the elements they liked, iterated on them, and implemented them into the next larger prototype. One day, after many iterations, they started working on the prototype that would eventually become Cuphead. The project was titled “Turbo Super Mega,” a tribute to mid-nineties consoles that had names like Super Nintendo, WonderMega, and TurboExpress. When it came to the visual style of their project, they were confident that they could use any type of art style as long as they had the


gameplay. That said, the two aspiring developers knew they wanted a more traditional art style, as opposed to pixel art, where missing even one pixel can ruin the entire aesthetic, according to Chad.
With games like Hollow Knight or Bastion, for example, there's something endearing about


little human flaws in the graphics and animation. Jared told the Nintendo Everything website that they tried a hundred different art styles before he and his brother landed on the signature 1930s cartoon style. Interestingly, the original concept looked more like children's art. . The player would start in kindergarten, where everything looked like it was drawn by little children. After defeating some bosses, the player would advance to grade one, grade two, grade three, etc. By the time you got to eighth grade, the levels seemed semi-detailed.
At some point during development, they replaced some of the art with stills from old Disney cartoons as a joke and even went so far as to add some animation. After showing it to his friends, there was no turning back. “They said we should never play our game unless we use that style. “Then I started crying because I knew I had to try animation.” Chad obviously had a lot of experience with graphic design, but animation, and especially the more traditional form of 2D hand-drawn animation, was a completely new field for him. His mission was clear and he began to learn everything he could about animation.
Richard Williams' Animator's Survival Kit was one of the many resources he used to teach himself the ins and outs of classic 2D animation. Jared, on the other hand, dove deeper into Unity tutorials so he could quickly translate his brother's first sketches into playable levels. What followed were months of close examination of the 1930s cartoons the brothers used to binge-watch as children. Many, many hours were spent watching their old VHS tapes, with developers pausing them to study pen weight, line fade, and differences between frames. Photoshop was also used to zoom in on individual frames to get a real sense of how the lines shifted from each other.
One thing was immediately clear: if they wanted to stay true to that unique style, it was going to take a lot of work to put it lightly. Before we continue, I'd like to talk about the sponsor of this video, DataCamp, get your data fluent today! DataCamp is an online learning platform that makes learning data skills fun, easy, and convenient. The platform offers more than 350 data science courses for all levels: beginners and professionals alike can find great ways to increase their knowledge. Each course is designed by an expert in their field and there are several different technologies to choose from and master, such as Python, SQL, Git, Shell, and more.
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Use my link in the description to view the first chapter of any DataCamp course for free. Unlock new career opportunities today! Chad explained in an interview with Engadget that artists in the 1930s didn't know how to take shortcuts to create similar visual styles. Therefore, much of the animation from that time period is done in ones, meaning that each frame contains a single unique drawing. At 24 frames per second, the standard in cinema, things start to add up. However, artists soon discovered that people wouldn't really notice if you animated in pairs, meaning you used the same drawing for two frames instead of one.
This basically cut the amount of work in half. Instead of drawing 24 unique drawings to fill one second, artists now only had to draw 12. However, Chad mentioned that there is something special about animating them. “There is still something very strange and surreal about seeing each frame drawn, and that is why it doesn't seem traced, but almost like a very surreal movement in its animation. And because we are stupid, we are copying that style of… more work.” The fact that playful violence was a major theme in 1930s cartoons also lends itself perfectly to a run-and-gun video game. The more they thought about it, the more each piece of the puzzle fit together.
And so the decision was made to stick as closely as possible to the traditional techniques of early animation. All the characters you see in the game are hand drawn and inked on paper, while all the backgrounds are watercolor paintings. There are many steps involved in creating even a couple of seconds of animation, from concepts to pencil testing, animation, inking, scanning, and then sorting and storing everything. Additionally, they went to great lengths to ensure that everything fit within the guidelines set in stone by the animation studios of the 1930s. Things like the shape of the pupils, the expressions, the rubber limbs, the rhythm of the cycles and the lines of movement were always cross-referenced during development.
Even small defects due to film limitations at the time, such as film grain, scratches and noise, were included for the final touch. And of course, they made sure those effects were taken from actual scans of real films, rather than just being a digital recreation. Some of the levels have rotating 3D objects in the background, but none of them were created with a computer. The objects were handmade and hand painted and then filmed separately so they could be added to the game. Basically, they approached development as they did in the 1930s, with all the limitations that come with that era.
Unfortunately, doing everything this way drastically slowed down development. According to Chad, it slowed down production by 80% compared to a digitally animated game. Fortunately, it never hindered the gameplay. The whimsical nature of 1930s animation allowed the brothers to be as creative as possible. Not a single idea was ruled out. If they wanted a character to remove his hand and turn it into a shovel, they could make it work. It allowed them to experiment and have fun, which added to the overall experience of not only developing Cuphead, but also playing it. There was a brief time when the couple considered doing everything digitally.
After all, it would save them a ton of time and money, something an independent team can always use more of. They created some artwork using only digital tools, but they didn't capture that authentic look. Despite that, there was a part of the process that was done in Photoshop and that was coloring. They put a hand-painted drawing next to a Photoshop-colored one and Chad and Jared just couldn't tell the difference, so they indulged in this trick that wasn't available in the early days of animation. Despite this time-saving concession, the volume of work ahead of them was a daunting and daunting prospect.
The only reason they kept going was for the same reason they gravitated toward run-and-gun games. They just loved the style and figured if they loved it, there had to be an audience for it. Additionally, the brothers assumed that this might be the only game they were going to make, so they wanted it to be the best game possible and exactly how they imagined it in their heads. After all, more than 120,000 frames were drawn by hand. To put this into perspective, the original 1938 Snow White has over 250,000 unique drawings. After establishing the art style, one of the first elements Chad and Jared began designing was Cuphead himself.
While they knew they wanted to keep the classic “gloves and boots” outfit inspired by characters like Mickey Mouse, the number one goal was to create a character with an original appearance, something that is not easy to do in a world where we are a century old. . of distinctive looking cartoon designs. The advantage of this, of course, is that they had access to many inspiring works. As kids, they loved watching Disney's Silly Symphony cartoons and during early development, there was one of them titled "The China Shop" that pushed them in the


direction for the main character.
The cartoon features inanimate objects that come to life, givingChad the idea of ​​trying things like giving the


a plate or a fork per head. Chip, one of the NPCs in the finished game, was actually one of the first designs they considered for the main character. Everything fell into place after seeing a 1936 Japanese propaganda cartoon during his research that has a character with a cup for a head who transforms into a tank. “We just thought, well, let's try it. We thought it was very strange. I drew a couple of versions and it immediately stuck.” After sketching over 150 different designs, Cuphead was finally born.
However, the name never went through the same type of iteration, as they wanted to follow the older cartoons' strategy of giving characters easy-to-remember names that often had two syllables. From the beginning, the brothers knew they wanted to create a two-player experience, but the design for Mugman, Cuphead's brother, only took shape some time into development, after several bosses had already been created. His design had to mirror Cuphead's, but still be easily distinguishable. When researching early Bimbo cartoons, they noticed that several artists depicted the character with a large, exaggerated nose, which almost made him look like a completely different character.
With this idea in mind, Mugman began to take shape. When it comes to the overall tone and feel of the game, Jared and Chad's love for the more adult side of the early cartoon was the main source of inspiration for it. Great examples of this are Fleischer Studio's 'Swing You Sinners' and 'Minnie the Moocher'. As for gameplay, the brothers wanted to focus primarily on boss fights, their favorite part of gaming growing up. It provided that "edge of your seat" gameplay that they just didn't get from other parts of run and gun games. Speaking of bosses, most of them were designed based on how you have to beat them.
Before sketching out the designs, the developers tried to get a general idea of ​​the size of each boss and where they would be located on the screen. A small part of the design process also involved trying to match the boss to the theme of his island. Once all that was taken into consideration, Jared created concepts for what each boss could be, what each phase looks like, and how to beat it. Then he would pass those ideas to Chad, who would refine them and draw character designs. The initial public reveal occurred in October 2013, when the first trailer was released on YouTube under the banner Studio MDHR.
It ends up showing a release window from 2014, when the team planned to keep the game very small, with eight or ten bosses at most and no platform levels. Chad and Jared wanted the game to have a much larger scope and had many ideas, but lack of funds forced them to compromise their vision. However, that all started to change when Microsoft's Senior Manager of Worldwide Business Development, Alexis Garavaryan, discovered Cuphead on NeoGaf and approached the team to see if they wanted to be a part of Microsoft's E3 conference in 2014. It was their golden opportunity. to be seen by millions of people and generate interest in the game, without having to spend money on marketing.
By now, his passion project had practically become a second job. The brothers spent all their free time working on Cuphead and to keep up with the increasing amount of work, Studio MDHR grew to six people in late 2014 to help with programming, animation and soundtrack creation. What's interesting is that the study involved many family members and friends during development. Chad's wife, Maja Moldenhauer, joined the team as an inking artist in 2014. With no prior professional experience working as an artist and instead being a full-time software development manager at a bank, she was a perfect fit for Chad's husband. her and Jared.
Tyler and Ryan Moldenhauer, two cousins, also joined the team later to help with the artwork. Kristofer Maddigan was hired as a songwriter and grew up just a couple of blocks from the two brothers. They all hung out as kids, played video games together, and shared a love of analyzing how their favorite games were created and what makes them fun. To keep development costs as low as possible, the team decided to work from home and use communication and management tools such as Basecamp, Trello, Slack, and Skype. Another reason they chose not to have office space is so they could hire talented people from all over the world.
Limiting yourself to the local area didn't make much sense considering it's already hard enough to find designers in the industry who specialize in classic 2D hand-drawn animation. What's more, most of the people on your team are the most creative at various times of the day. Locking them into a nine-to-five situation would have been detrimental to the highly creative work they were producing. However, working from home had very obvious disadvantages. Whenever they found a free moment, it was all too easy to rush back to the computer and start working again. Additionally, collaborating and seeing each other's work in real time was simply impossible, as was having coffee together and talking about anything other than work.
Studio MDHR lived and breathed Cuphead. As mentioned above, the team did everything they could to cut costs and Maja vividly remembers the time when Chad made his own light table for his drawings and used an old bar scanner that slowly scanned one drawing at a time. After a while, when development really started to accelerate, they relented and bought a $300 printer with an automatic scanner. In 2015, Cuphead made a second appearance at E3, once again during the Microsoft conference. The developers revealed a new trailer and had even prepared a playable demo for the convention. The very positive reception that followed the events of E3, combined with a newly established partnership with Microsoft, convinced Studio MDHR to take a calculated leap of faith and go all out.
Jared, Chad and Maya quit their jobs, mortgaged their houses to have enough development. funds and hired many more people, expanding the team to 16 developers. Suffice to say, mid-2015 is when development really took off. Thanks to Microsoft, the studio was now able to return to its original, broader scope for Cuphead, which meant more bosses, NPC characters, platforming levels, and more. In other words, Jared and Chad were finally able to start developing their dream game. With no restrictions left, the team started thinking about implementing a charming little narrative to tie all the levels and bosses together. The team wanted to avoid the classic save-the-world/princess scenario and make the story feel more comparable to a 1930s cartoon.
That's why it's about Cuphead's deeply ingrained inability to stay out of trouble against a destined hero. to overcome a pre-existing obstacle. Chad and Jared feel that, even though he creates his own problems, they can't help but support his success. People who have played Cuphead know that it's a challenging experience that dates back to the era of NES and SNES video games, and that's exactly what Chad and Jared wanted to achieve, while also trying to provide a way for a wider audience to play Cuphead. will enjoy it. “We grew up with games that focused on being difficult to master: they were difficult but fair.
In our opinion, there's no better feeling than being able to master a challenging game, and we're creating Cuphead with that in mind. Many games today are not as difficult as older games, I think that's largely because today's gaming environment is much more diverse - not everyone who enjoys a game wants to be challenged in that way. We recognize this and will have some sort of solution to ensure that players of all types can enjoy Cuphead. But at the same time, we're taking the difficulty with NG+ to incredible heights! Some people tried to dissuade the developers from making the game so difficult, saying that it wasn't marketable to anyone.
Every time that happened, they would just drop it on their shoulders. The team respects everyone's opinion on difficulty, but they were confident in their vision and believed that challenging gameplay fit perfectly with the direction of the game. Kristofer Maddigan told Bandcamp that, before working on Cuphead, he had never written a soundtrack for a game before. That's why he respectfully turned down Jared and Chad's initial offer to collaborate on Cuphead. However, the brothers believed that Kristofer was the right person for the job and kept insisting, until he agreed to write some sound demos. From there, the soundtrack expanded to a big band orchestra with jazz-inspired music.
Kristofer admitted that he watched very few old cartoons during development, since big band soundtracks were not frequently used in them anyway. Instead, he tackled the soundtrack while making it in a parallel universe where the Jazz Age occurred simultaneously with the Golden Age of video games. His lack of experience was something that ultimately benefited the scoreboard, Kristofer believes. He allowed him to be flexible and not be bound by any kind of rules that they teach in school. The E3 2015 trailer revealed that Cuphead would be released in 2016, but the team announced in 2016 that they made the difficult decision to delay it until the following year.
During that period, Maja realized that projecting schedules and sticking to schedules is not Chad's strong point and that she needed to intervene to prevent further delays. In addition to inking drawings all day, she also began to play the role of producer. What's more surprising is that Maja gave birth to two children during the development of Cuphead. She considered taking some time off after having her second baby, but Maja couldn't help but work on her passion project when she finished breastfeeding her children. Of course, Chad was also there to take over so his wife could fully concentrate on her work.
It's another example of how truly dedicated the entire team was to seeing his dream come true and getting him to the finish line no matter what. To help avoid another delay in 2017, the studio hired a company called Illogika to help with programming, testing, support, and anything else that came up in the final months of development. The number of people working on Cuphead during that time approached 30 developers. On September 29, 2017, Cuphead was finally released for PC and Xbox, with players and critics alike praising the challenging but fair gameplay, authentically detailed art style, and jazzy soundtrack. Fortunately, its critical success was accompanied by financial success and after just two weeks, Cuphead sold over a million copies.
Once the game was available for Mac, Nintendo Switch, and PS4, that number increased to 6 million copies in 2020. On top of that, Cuphead won more than a dozen awards in unsurprising categories like best art direction, best independent game and best musical. score. In addition to all the awards, Cuphead also broke three Guinness World Records in the field of video games, namely for having the most frames of hand-drawn animation, the most boss battles in a run-and-gun game, and, lastly, the most boss transformations in one game. run and shoot. If anything, the development of Cuphead shows that you don't need experience to create a game, as long as you start from a place of passion.
Jared, Chad, and Maja had little to no experience creating a video game, much less one rooted in the golden age of animation, and yet they created one of the most successful indie games in recent memory. The entire team learned many valuable lessons over the four years of developing Cuphead, and one of the things the team advises other aspiring indie developers is this: “Get a small team, keep your day job, and use your best judgment as Your game nears the end. Be careful before investing real money or time.” Additionally, Chad believes that anyone who wants to get into the gaming industry should play all types of games.
Modern, old, good and bad. That way you'll really understand what makes a game work and what doesn't. Jared also shared another lesson with Kotaku. “Expect failure. That's really the best advice I could give. Many times people think that their first idea will be "the one" that will get them through the door. You will make mistakes and be better in the next game if you learn from what you did during your first approach. Try doing smaller projects and see where it goes. Also, do something you like; It's a long process, so if you're not really interested in it, after a year you'll break down and think how can I finish a game I never really enjoyed?
As far as the future of Studio MDHR is concerned, the team is hard at work on the highly anticipated Cuphead DLC called The Delicious Last Course and is scheduled for release in June 2022. Additionally, an animated series based on Cuphead will be released. It will also be released on Netflix in 2022 and both Jaredand Chad participate as executive producers. Everyone at the studio couldn't be happier with where they are today and what's in store for them next. "We are very proud. We're very proud of what this is and what we've done, that it stayed true to our vision.
It's exactly what we've always imagined. We haven't formally revealed what we're working on at the moment. “It will serve our current fans and I also think it will hopefully help get some new ones.”

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