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Cuphead: 1930s animation meets modern gaming

Coming to Xbox and PC next year is Cuphead, a game that has been entirely cel animated by hand in the style of 1930s cartoons.

Studio MDHR

Game developers are accomplishing amazing things with computer-generated graphics, and video-game graphics are becoming more sophisticated than ever. Lovingly rendered single hairs, carefully constructed environments, movements created through the use of motion capture -- as the technology gears ever upwards, so does what we see and interact with on our screens.

One developer, though, has decided to travel far off the beaten path, using not the latest and greatest in graphics rendering, but techniques nearly a century old.

"We do live in a world where everything is or has tons of CG," artist and animator of Studio MDHR Chad Moldenhauer told CNET. "And, while we do appreciate 3D visuals and what they can achieve, our love for traditional art is one hundred times stronger."

The studio is currently working on a game with the curious title of Cuphead -- curious, that is, until you see the game's protagonist, a little cartoon character with a teacup for a head. It's certainly a unique design choice, but one that fits neatly into the game's art style, wholly influenced by -- and animated in -- the style of cartoons of the 1930s.

This means exactly what you think it does: each frame of the game is drawn and painted by hand.

"We've always loved games that tried to imitate the fine arts. Final Fantasy VI feels like a painting and Yoshi's Island looks like it was made with pencil crayon and, somewhat more recently, Okami has a nice sumi-e visual style," Moldenhauer explained.

"We have always wanted to see a game that let the traditional art show itself exactly as it is -- with all the flaws that come with it and nothing digital. We both maintain a love for all 2D arts and, through a long process, we found a harmonious match-up with game and cartoon."

Studio MDHR

Inspired by the cartoons of their childhood, the team acquired VHS tapes from animation studios such as Fleischer, Disney, ComiColor and Van Beuren, and watched them until the tapes were nearly dead; but it takes a lot more than watching cartoons to be able to make them.

"Since I had not attempted 2D animation before this project, I needed to learn everything as fast as possible," Moldenhauer said. "I spent a lot of time studying The Animators Survival Kit by Richard Williams (which teaches amazing modern techniques) -- and then I spent more time researching old cartoons to unlearn a lot of the modern techniques I had just learned. I would say it took about five to six months of studying and practice to get good enough to attempt the 30s style."

It is, Moldenhauer explained, an entirely different set of skills to the kind of animations created in video-game studios today; and, since it is so different, the team at Studio MDHR had to basically learn as they went.

"The fact that all the animation needs to be drawn rough, then cleaned up as a final drawing, then inked onto a separate sheet, then scanned in (one by one) and finally coloured in Photoshop, means that we can't cut a single corner... everything we want to do just means more frames and more time," he said. "It's a delicate balance: sometimes we think, 'Oh, this animation will only need 13 frames and it will probably look pretty smooth' -- and then, when it's finally done, we have 26 frames and a puddle of tears on the desk!"

Those tears, though, look like they're worth it: the snippets of the game teased in videos so far look as authentic as it gets. Because the animation style is 2D, so is the game -- but that doesn't mean it's going to be just another 2D side-scroller. Although the game is influenced by titles such as Gunstar Heroes, Street Fighter III, Super Mario World, Thunderforce and Contra, the team is working hard to make sure there are a few new elements in store.

Studio MDHR

At its core, it maintains that run-and-gun style, with Cuphead taking on a series of boss battles, but each of those bosses will add a twist to the gameplay. One boss, for example will move vertically, while another takes up multiple screens; and there are some that Moldenhauer said will incorporate brand new ideas. " Think Gunstar Heroes mine cart," he teased. Cuphead will also have a friend, Mugman, for single-player co-operative play.

However, he was reluctant to reveal too much, hoping to keep a few titbits in store for the players -- one of which will be exactly how Cuphead uses his cup head.

"Cuphead and Mugman use their heads when they need to for certain things: supers and intro animations (to name a few)," he said. "There will probably be a few surprises, so we won't say much more!"

Because the animation schedule needs to be flexible, Moldenhauer couldn't give a firm release date for the title, saying only that it would arrive sometime in 2015 for Xbox and PC via Steam. You can follow Studio MDHR on Twitter and Facebook for updates about the project.