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The Art of ‘Cuphead’ and Why it Feels Right at Home on Switch

A Quick History of Cuphead

Anyone who has listened to the NXpress Podcast has most likely heard me say that the reason I bought an Xbox One was so that I could play Cuphead, the first game by StudioMDHR, a Canadian indie game studio led by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer. For the unfamiliar, its development began in 2010 but it wasn’t until 2013 when they put a teaser video on YouTube that the game caught the attention of the video game industry including some fancy Xbox execs. Shortly after, StudioMDHR formed a partnership with Microsoft and quit their jobs to work on Cuphead full time. They invested all of their savings into production, remortgaged their homes and with an undisclosed amount of funding from Microsoft, they set out to make a game that was unlike any other game on the market. At the time, the studio consisted of just three people, but after some very positive showings at various trade shows including E3, StudioMDHR decided that in order to satisfy the ever-growing fanbase, they would need to widen the scope of the game. They hired eleven employees, contracted several developers and set out to expand their original vision and create even more boss battles, platforming levels, and an overworld to connect each stage. Much like the titular character, the brothers took a huge risk gambling everything they had, and after several hiccups and many delays, Cuphead was finally released seven years later on Xbox One. The risk paid off, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Cuphead Feels Right at Home on the Nintendo Switch

I can’t remember the last time a non-triple-A title inspired me to invest in a video game console. Truth be told, I don’t think any other indie game has ever been the catalyst for me dropping $400 on a piece of hardware – but Cuphead did. Now in an unexpected turn of events, the once Xbox exclusive has been ported to the Nintendo Switch giving me even more reason to play Cuphead yet again. It is a fantastic port to boot with plenty of options including two-player local co-op and a simple mode that allows you to adjust the difficulty setting. Cuphead has been translated perfectly to Switch and runs 1080p docked and 720p native on the screen with a smooth 60 frames per second, making it visually identical to the Xbox One version. Cuphead’s demanding, fast-paced action also seems better suited with the more compact size of the Joy-Cons making it easier to react and respond to sequences that require precise platforming skills – but even more than that, Cuphead feels right at home on a Nintendo console for another more obvious reason. You see, while we all have Microsoft to thank for helping StudioMDHR get the game made, Cuphead is better suited on Nintendo hardware if only because of its cinematic and video game influences.

Cuphead Mugman

Personality Goes a Long Way

Nintendo has always been referred to as the Disney of the video game industry. When Walt Disney died in 1966, Shigeru Miyamoto was a 14-year-old aspiring cartoonist, who adored classic Disney characters and early animated films – and when the world’s most famous and influential video-game designer set out to make his 1981 arcade hit Donley Kong, he drew from a wide range of inspirations, including Popeye, Beauty and the Beast and King Kong. It was the start of a long and prosperous career and ever since the creative mastermind has helped Nintendo unleash hundreds of iconic characters including Mario, the mustached Italian plumber who eventually stole the spotlight from Mickey Mouse and become the planet’s most recognized fictional character.

Picnic Panic
Animation historian Steve Stanchfield traced Cuphead’s biggest inspiration back to Van Beuren’s The Picnic Panic (1935).

 

The Sounds and Sights of Cuphead

Much like Donkey Kong, Cuphead makes it no secret that it’s very much inspired by animated films of yesteryear. When Cuphead was revealed at E3 in the summer of 2014, the game immediately grabbed everyone’s attention due to its art style, an homage to the rubber hose style of animation used in early animated films produced by cartoonists such as Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Grim Natwick, and Willard Bowsky. It’s no secret the animation is where Cuphead’s real strength lies and it would feel wrong to write about Cuphead and not mention its astonishingly surrealist visuals that harken back to the look and feel of the popular cartoons of the 1930s.

Brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, along with animator Jake Clark, faithfully recreated nearly every facet of the golden age of hand-drawn animation, from the title cards that introduce each stage to the jazzy score that accompanies the action. Anyone who has the slightest interest in classics like Betty Boop, Popeye and Steamboat Willie will be floored by the game’s presentation. Cuphead is easily one of the most awe-inspiring platformers I have ever played combining spectacular visual set pieces and a spicy musical gumbo to deliver one of the finest games, in any genre.

Captain Brineybeard
Captain Brineybeard in Cuphead
Bluto from Popeye

Capturing that style in a way that looked and felt authentic to the era required recreating the technical imperfections of classic animation as well, including dirty film stock, scratches, and projection flaws. “If you go back and study old film—not just cartoons, any old film from the period—nothing was perfect,” Moldenhauer tells Gamasutra in an interview. “It’s nothing like the digital crispness we’re used to.

Everything about Cuphead oozes with personality. I especially love its art deco typography; the crackly hand-drawn animated characters; the worn-out look, the jump cuts, and the cigarette burns across each frame. Even more impressive is that every frame of animation was hand-drawn on 12f animation paper including the old fashioned typefaces, and custom fonts. And just like the game’s hand-drawn art style, the music of Cuphead is equally amazing and features over two and a half hours of original jazz recordings composed by the talented Kris Maddigan along with with a 13-piece big band, a barbershop quartet, a solo pianist, various backup vocalists, and even a professional tap dancer. It’s truly remarkable how the music was painstakingly crafted to achieve that 1930s cartoon feeling, complete with additional sound effects by the industry award-winning people at Sweet Justice. The soundtrack to Cuphead is easily one of the best ever made for a video game.

From Hells Bells 1932
Hells Bells, a 1929 animated short film which was directed by Walt Disney.
Cuphead
Cuphead, directed by Chad and Jared Moldenhauer

The Art of Video Games

If ever there was an argument to be made that video games are art, Cuphead should be at the forefront of that conversation. For anyone who has ever wanted a video game to look like a genuine cartoon, look no further. The hand-drawn animation makes for one of the most visually appealing games in recent years, consisting of a charismatic hero, gorgeous scenery and bizarre boss battles including prize-fighting toads, killer plants, a magical dragon, a conniving genie, killer vegetables and even the Devil himself. If you look close enough, you’ll notice plenty of sight gags and callbacks to everything from the Iron Giant, to Tom and Gerry, to the work of Ben Sharpsteen, most notably his animated short, The Cookie Carnival and his masterpiece Pinocchio. There’s even a mad scientist who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Wiley and a boss named Captain Brineybeard, who strongly resembles the Popeye antagonist Bluto. Meanwhile, one of my personal favourite Mickey Mouse short films Thru The Mirror is said to have helped shape the team’s vision and StudioMDHR has also cited Disney’s Silly Symphonies as one of the strongest influences behind Cuphead as well as Dave Fleischer’s Bimbo’s Initiation, an early and totally surreal masterpiece of animation that features a very early appearance of Betty Boop Betty who served as the basis for one of the game’s major bosses, Cala Maria. Every frame of Cuphead is packed with cinematic references that it would be foolish to try to list them all but I do recommend this list of the best boss battles published by Max a while back.

Cuphead Bosses
Cagney Carnation from Cuphead
Swing your sinners 1
Swing You Sinners! is a 1930 animated cartoon short, directed by the Fleischer Brothers.

Swing Your Sinners 2

Cuphead Boss Battles
Ribby and Croaks from Cuphead

The end result is a game that utilizes its classic cartoon style with aplomb. Everything on screen brims with personality and now that we’re being treated to a Switch port, millions of new gamers around the world can experience the critically acclaimed masterpiece. I’ll be curious to see what StudioMDHR does next and even more curious to see what lies ahead for Cuphead. As it stands, Cuphead and his supporting cast can stand comfortably alongside the likes of Samus, Link, Kirby, Donkey Kong, and Yoshi (to name just a few), and much like how Mario and Luigi made a splash in the ‘80s, Cuphead and Mugman are sure turning heads. Cuphead brought back fond early childhood memories of playing NES and SNES games as a kid. Similar to those games of yore, it’s brimming with magic, childlike wonder, and imagination. The future looks bright for the franchise, bright enough for Cuphead to one day be as popular as Nintendo’s famous plucky plumber.

Dave Fleischer’s Bimbo’s Initiation
Dave Fleischer’s Bimbo’s Initiation

 

 

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