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Cuphead: The Admirable Lunacy of Hand-Animating a Video Game in 2017

A scene from the videogame Cuphead.

Cuphead has been making the rounds of gaming media for a while now — video of the game, hand-animated in the style of 1930s cartoons, has been around since 2014 — but, after some significant fleshing-out, it’s finally available.

The first thing you’ll notice about Cuphead is its art style: It looks almost exactly like the cartoon from the 1930s: its big-band score, the flapper-esque aesthetic, and small imperfections from hand animators slowly making copies of each character during the animation process.

The second thing you’ll notice is old-school in more ways than one — it’s hard. It’s a run-and-gun shooter in the vein of Contra, Gunstar Heroes, or Metal Slug, and levels — particularly boss fights — can quickly send you into that Zen state of concentration that only bullet hell shoot-’em-ups can inspire. Bottom line: You’ll die playing Cuphead, and you’ll die a lot.

We sat down with game co-creators Chad and Jared Moldenhauer to talk Cuphead, the difficulties of hand-animating a game in 2017, and their flickering hope that Cuphead might inspire a few more hand-animated game in the future.

So why would you choose to use an art style for a video game that has to be one of the most labor-intensive methods out there?
Chad Moldenhauer: It really just happened from being too green in the industry and never having the experience of making a game, and also really loving the style of those cartoons. When we eventually landed — in the concept stage — on the style, it stuck with us and our friends and our peers, and we just jumped right into it without thinking that, hey, this might mean 60,000 frames of animation, you know? And I guess the other thing that helped a little bit was that the game started much smaller. That was a little bit easier for us to take on.

Jared Moldenhauer: Yeah, it’s also that cartoons and video games are just a perfect seamless mix, and that’s just kind of one of those things where it’s just like, why hasn’t this happened before? Everybody’s thought about it, and everybody’s always wanted to play a cartoon, as a video game, so once we went through the process and tried it out, just seeing it, it was hard to say no. And that, right on, seemed like it was going to be a smaller project, so it felt like we’ll never be stuck doing 60,000 frames, we’ll just make a smaller game and work on it in our spare time and see what happens.

I’m sure many decade-long projects have started with those same words. 
CM: Just to interject: I think one of the things that we knew from the beginning of the project was that if we were going to do something that was going to take long — like we knew it wasn’t going to be a six-month-long project; it would be long and we’d have to be talking and looking at it all the time — we wanted something that we both loved. The visual style and the type of game really had to stand out to us; it helped us hone in on our favorite era of animation.

And it seems to me like a really specific era of animation. Early ’30s-ish …? What led you down that path?
CM: It was personal preference, but later as we were studying what makes those cartoons click to us, I think there’s two major things. The one side is that this was pre–Hayes code, before people knew that they should maybe make cartoons a little more catered toward children. There’s a bit of a creepier, surreal vibe. The cartoons just stood out as — something was always a little bit off and they weren’t packaged up in some neat, perfect story. The other side of it is, back then, the artists didn’t know that you could get away with animating everything on the twos — which means you draw every second frame — the frames are held longer, so everything was drawn on the ones — which means 24 drawings per second of animation — which adds quite a bit more life to it. Almost more real. I think those two things are the main themes that caught our eye, even when we were kids. We didn’t know why we loved it, but, I think, now that we’ve studied it, those are the main reasons.

And so, when you guys decided to develop Cuphead you guys also decided that you were going to animate on the ones?
CM: Yes!

At what point did you start to regret that decision? 
CM: [Sighs, laughs.] I feel like we’ve never had too many regrets aside from having to make so many delays on the game, but every time that we’ve implemented something with a big piece of animation, or an entire boss fight or whatever we’re currently working on, we still are in awe every time we see it.

JM: Yeah, I think that’s definitely it: There’s always a reward. When it is something that you’re so passionate about, and just seeing new 2-D art coming in constantly, it’s surprising how much time can pass before you actually look back and you’re like, “Okay. I just lost five years of life, but, I guess it’s …” You’re always happy to see the next thing in a couple weeks, and a couple weeks, and once it’s in the game … I don’t know! It was a rewarding process; it just was a long and laborious one.

That’s fair enough. One of the other things that struck me is that when I’m watching someone else play the game, the animation and the art style just really leap out, but when you’re playing the game, the art style recedes, because the game is incredibly difficult. I know you guys have played with the difficulty spikes a little bit, but when I’m in the middle of a boss battle, it doesn’t matter that everything is animated on the ones — I could be playing Contra on the NES, because what I’m really just trying to do is avoid the bullets and kill everything that’s coming close to me. Did you guys worry about that? 
JM: I’m not really worried about that. It adds the benefit, too, if someone else is around, it’s still very interesting to be watching someone else playing it, because you can also take in more of the visuals. At the same time, it’s that, the feeling of being overwhelmed, where you need all of your brain power to get past something, that kind of gives the biggest reward once you finally do, but, the further you progress in the game, kind of when you leap back, you won’t need that much concentration. It’ll just feel natural, and then, at that point and time, people will still be able to take in all of the visuals at once too.

CM: Yeah, we’ve noticed times where — as people are getting better and better — they come back to certain aspects of the game, things that were visually very in-their-face and apparent. They actually realize it then, when they didn’t shut their brains off for a bit, to be like, “I didn’t know this boss was doing this thing to me in this part.” We didn’t go into this game planning to make sure that the visual aspect ties in so perfectly with the game, even if it makes the gameplay suffer. We’re real sticklers about the gameplay. So it’s always been gameplay first, 95 percent the time.

There’s a fair amount of interest in Cuphead — do you have any sense that more things like Cuphead could be coming down the line? Have you talked to anybody who is thinking about doing something similar? 
CM: We haven’t heard anybody talk too much about — even in our dev circles — of people wanting to emulate or do something like this. I think part of the problem is it’s scary to do a traditionally animated game — traditionally drawn and painted — because if something doesn’t work, or if you need to change something, you don’t get the nice cheat of redoing things digitally, or pulling the bones out beneath the animation to make it work how you want. You have to redo the whole thing on paper and have it colored. I think only the craziest people will attempt this. It’s a long process, it’s hard to find animators who work on paper anymore — there’s a bunch of factors that make this a scary style. And, in saying that, I think if Cuphead even ignited 1 percent more people to create 2-D games with more of a hand-drawn look,we’d be super-excited.

JM: I’d be excited for any return of 2-D, like 2-D gaming and 2-D animation. One percent or anything. If some large company was like, yeah, we’re making a blockbuster movie and it’s 2-D again, yeah, I’d be really proud if it was somehow linked to us.

I mean, I feel like there is a small return to 2-D gaming, but so much of that is basically pixel art or high-res pixel art that wouldn’t have been possible in the 16/32-bit era. Cuphead is not pixel art.
JM: It’s the same like … I remember being in awe when we first saw Dragon’s Lair in the arcade, because it was actually a cartoon that you played, but adding that extra layer of like, folk and troll and not full motion video kind of … like hotkey events, like an actual playing cartoon. That was kind of something that — when we brainstormed it — we knew that there was something special there.

CM: I think it was something that we had always thought was very strange that no one else had really made a close attempt. And not the 1930s era of animation, but any era of animation had never really attempted to be thrown onto a game with just traditional pencil and paper.

JM: But now, after five years, I probably know why they never attempted it.

The Admirable Lunacy of Hand-Animating a Video Game in 2017