Microsoft brought, rather expectedly, a strong emphasis on games to their E3 press briefing on June 9th, and whilst the line-up was predictably covered by a strong collection of AAA system sellers, such as Forza Horizon, Halo and Assassin’s Creed, there was a newly found desire to move past the inevitable array of sales dominating sequels towards something new and inventive, something that can only be truly discovered through the current swathe of upcoming indie games. Included among them, was a rather stylish looking shoot ‘em up from a small, five man team working out of such far afield places as Oakville (Ontario), Regina (Saskatchewan), New York (NY) and even Romania . I am, of course, referring to the gorgeous looking, Cuphead, from Studio MDHR.
From the outset, the main allure of Cuphead are its incredibly stylish aesthetics, featuring a visual style heavily influenced by 1930’s cartoons, from the screenshots and footage that we have seen thus far, the coupling of run and gun gameplay with the studio’s penchant for artistic flair now looks like an obvious one, but it didn’t come about quite so easily, as art/animation designer, Chad Moldenhauer explains:
“We both wanted a style that looked like the fine arts. We loved games that imitated this (Final Fantasy 6 feels like a painting or Yoshi’s Island looks as though it was done with pencil crayon) and we thought: why not actually use one of the traditional mediums. While going through the concept phase, we amusingly went through the exact order people naturally learn about art – from crayon to marker to pencil crayon and then straight to 1930s animation studio. It’s like we raised Cuphead from a baby!”
“Originally we were using crayons and markers to create a universe that felt like a six year old drew it. Backgrounds were just different types of paper with some subtle crafting glued on and characters had all the flaws a kid would make. ie: Disproportionate, no perspective, etc. The problem with that was, even though it had charm, it never paired well with the game design. We needed something with more vigor in it.”
It was then, however, that the team hit upon a rather novel idea, and the game that we are now anxiously anticipating was born.
“We played around with a pencil crayon style for a while and got some great results but it still didn’t match our vision (maybe next game!). Even though we joked about “how awesome would it be to have 30s style animation/visuals” throughout the entire concept phase, somewhere around the pencil crayon trials it dawned upon us make Cuphead in the likeness of our favourite cartoon era. Videogames and 30s cartoons made the perfect union and shortly after the honeymoon Cuphead was born. This just meant that it was 10x more work to nail the visuals.”
“We lucked out as kids and our super market regularly had bargain bins of old cartoons. We slowly acquired a bunch of VHS compilations from old studios (most of them were from Fleicher Studios) and watched them many times. I guess a large part of the love comes from nostalgia, if by chance we watched more 50s and 60s Looney Tunes, then it is possible that we would have an affinity for that style instead. Still an avid fan of the era you can see nuances in our designs from all studios, Disney to Van Bueren to ComiColor (Iwerks!) to Fleicher…90% of anything from the 30s era is usually solid gold.”
The announcement trailer released at this year’s E3 shows a maturity to the team’s work, showcasing their firm understanding of the subtle nuances of their primary influences, the finer details that will give their game the edge over the competition, from the brilliant, highly detailed, hand drawn art and animation, to the washed out colour palette, or the imitated print damage and loss of focus on the title cards. Evidently, Cuphead is a real labour of love, and it will surely strike a chord with those looking for something a little different, and artistically striking, in their video games.
In terms of its audio content too, of which little has been heard, the team are promising a score well suited to compliment, and complete the art style and setting. The team’s composer, Kristofer Maddigan, when queried as to how he intends to do this, answered quite jovially.
“The writing process has been augmented by doing lots of research and listening. Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, certain eras of Ellington, etc, all fit into the aesthetic that we’re going for on this project. There are a handful of specific old cartoons which integrate big band music in the way that StudioMDHR are trying to do so in Cuphead, and while there are certainly other directions the music could have gone in and still have been era appropriate, they really felt strongly that ‘hot jazz’ would help propel the fights to new levels of excitement. The challenge for me so far is to try and write upwards of 20-30 full big band charts in a style which is authentic and that sounds familiar, but are still original tunes (ie not ripping anyone off). Some days, all that keeps me going is the thought of all of the money, drugs, and groupies which will obviously come with a successful indie game soundtrack!”
The task asked of the composer on this project, therefore, is a mammoth one, but it is a job that he takes on head first, confident in his own abilities, and in the project that he, along with the rest of Studio MDHR are skilfully crafting. Expect to hear a mixture of walking basslines, bombastic brass and perhaps even a substantial dollop of humour thrown into the mix, as one would expect to unearth within the works of the legendary Cab Calloway himself, undoubtedly one of the biggest influences upon the brilliant Henry Mancini. Typically, the industry, and gamers themselves, have a tendency to look down upon independent studios, as though less effort has been put into the creation of their works, but this, surely, is a myth that the upcoming crop of ID@Xbox titles are set to put to bed, and Cuphead, is at the vanguard of that movement.
Studio MDHR are going to great lengths to ensure that Cuphead is a game worthy of any gamer’s attention, and that it has enough originality within its concepts and mechanics to stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest examples of the run ‘n’ gun genre, and yet, contrarily, stand apart as its own entity. As Chad explains:
“Aside from us trying to make sure the boss fights are as original as we can make them (even thinking outside of the “run and gun” rules). Certain features like our super or parry system will set the game apart from the others. We aren’t trying to completely reimagining the genre, but these new ideas will open up a universe of unexplored ideas, guaranteeing a new experience for fans. These are integral to every aspect of the game, we are not adding things that only get used in rare circumstances.”
The parry system mentioned sees enemies attack Cuphead and his compatriot, Mugman, with pink coloured shots, only these bullets can be parried, and successfully doing so will help to fill up the character’s respective super meter (reminiscent of the Radiant Sword weapon in Radiant Silvergun), interestingly, this allows novice players to tackle the game with a more defensive stance, whilst the pros can utilise the system to effectively speed through the game. In order to ensure that Cuphead features a fairly steady difficulty curve, stages will avoid requiring immediate use of this mechanic, but eventually, player’s will be confronted by bosses that can be bested only by those that bring the parry system into play.
Like Treasure’s wonderful, Gunstar Heroes, the team are keen to implement a strong sense of variety into the proceedings in order to avoid the game ever feeling stale, and the traditional left to right gameplay of the platform shooter becoming overused. To this end, levels will add varying degrees of verticality, shirk the shooting aspects and delve more into the realm of the traditional platformer, or throw in one-off set-pieces designed to mix up the gameplay entirely. An example that the studio gave to us was that the player will be confronted with schmup levels – and one of the abilities will be to shrink and gain increased movement speed (but lose the ability to fire weapons), giving them the chance to better dodge incoming projectiles. It certainly all sounds rather interesting, though undoubtedly, some players may already be shrinking away from what might sound like a cruel, and unforgiving difficulty level, but the team has also made some moves to ensure that Cuphead will be accessible to all gamers, and yet still exciting enough for those demand the highest level of challenge from their games. Cuphead will provide gamers infinite lives from the start of the game, allowing Studio MDHR to ramp up the difficulty, but without making the experience too frustrating for the more novice player, though in addition, the team have promised to feature some of the most challenging optional levels in the history of the genre, as well as an entire game mode targeted for the most masochistic of gamers. Inevitably, Cuphead will not only be accessible by all, but it will surely offer something for everyone.
Typically, the genre that gave us Alien Soldier is not simply difficult to overcome, but rather cruel in the way that it can punish players for failure, and this is another archetype that Studio MDHR are keen to avoid. The classic repercussion of death is that players lose access to the advanced weaponry that they have succeeded in collecting, invariably leaving them more susceptible to the challenge that they have already failed to overcome, and essentially advocating severe punishment, for little reason more than for the sake of simply doing so. Interestingly, Cuphead is set to feature a collection of power-ups that can be earned, such as increased damage or additional health, which can be activated prior to a key battle, though they will only last for the duration of that section, meaning that players will need to use them sparingly, adding a tactical edge to the proceedings, and with it, an additional level of depth, to ensure that Cuphead has more than enough about it to warrant the attention that it will surely see.
Equally, gamers should expect to witness Studio MDHR bringing a unique slant to the typical diet of weapon designs as well, ensuring that Cuphead will offer something just that little bit different in this department too.
“It is nearly impossible not to include some form of the classics as they basically define all the possibilities. Most weapons come from the adjusting of certain variables: damage, distance, spread, homing, piercing, etc. But there are a few that break away from the mold such as Browny’s Electromagnetic Yo-Yo (Contra Hardcorps) or the controllable flame (Fire + Chaser) in Gunstar Heroes. We want a few oddities of our own too, but the most enjoyable weapons are the ones people can pick up and play. We put a simple spin on the basics to keep the game feeling original: example – a spread shot that splits multiple times, meaning it changes it from an up close for high damage attack to a long distance weapon. It’s minimal, but enough that a player doesn’t think “oh, this again”.
“Our plan is to create a bunch of weapons with subtle differences, letting the player discover what suits them the best for every scenario. On top of that we are attaching a super to each weapon each with a unique function. For example, the “Beam” super holds you in one place during the super, which can be a hindrance, but if used right it can keep you in the air longer and completely avoid an attack that could not have been jumped. This allows players to explore more possibilities as they learn a function of the weapon and the super”.
“The amount of weapons we are planning is undefined. It is easy to make a tonne of weapons but harder to balance them out. We don’t plan on being a collect-a-thon with 150 weapons and only 4 of them are useful. If we get eight perfected – great! But if we end up with 15 all the better”.
Putting Cuphead’s interesting game mechanics, gorgeous visuals and creative weapon designs aside, we find a narrative at its core to put everything into the proper context, though like the game’s spiritual predecessors, the team are keen to focus primarily on the gameplay rather than any unnecessary story exposition. Evidently, Cuphead harks back to a time when it was a combination of strong gameplay and level design that kept gamers glued to their screens, as opposed to the cinematic overtures that populate almost every major AAA release. As the team put it to us:
“The core of the story is that Cuphead finds himself in trouble after gambling on a Jan–ken-pon match with the devil. Betting well outside his means he only has one option left: to win the most valued prize: “one wish granted by the Wizard King” at the grand tournament. With the aid of his pal, Mugman, they must use their wit and weaponry (magic gloves!) to stand a chance of persevering or the devil will claim his head!”
“The story telling is kept simple, reminiscent of 16-bit games. Cut scenes will to tell the main story and there will be NPCs throughout the map to give hints, minor story elements, and flesh out the theme of the world. We both prefer to have less story and more gameplay. Take Mario 3 for example: it wouldn’t benefit from an hour of cut scenes and forty pages of text. The experience becomes burdened by taking away too much time from what counts-the progression of gameplay.”
Studio MDHR are keen to ignore the frivolities that can bog down a title then, to sculpt a finely honed run ‘n’ gun experience, and this naturally, extends into the story telling components of Cuphead, which looks set to provide a satisfactory level of narration without ever resorting to cheap tactics or feeling forced. Put simply, one shouldn’t expect to find hours of pre-rendered cut-scenes or famous actors gracing the stage vainly attempting to give the game’s heroes a sense of being or purpose beyond simply shooting everything in sight. On the topic of voice acting specifically, Chad had this to say:
“As far as voice acting goes, we both got our share from the Sega CD days and have no interest to include tons of repeated samples in game. It can be acceptable on cut scenes and maybe a few key areas in the game but nothing will be attached to repetitive actions – those start to burn a hole in our ears’ soul. Maybe if the game does well we can make a Saturday morning cartoon with live action openings and lots of chilli dogs for our heroes?”
On this epic journey, Cuphead will be joined by his friend Mugman, allowing the team to implement two player co-operative gameplay, which will surely delight those eagerly searching for that seemingly scarcest of all things, couch co-op! At this early stage of the game’s development, the team are still toying with ideas to ensure that teamwork becomes elevated to that of a priority, clever concepts that will force players to work together in order to progress. There will obviously be sections of the game that will see one player focus their attention on clearing the screen of small enemies so that their compatriot can continue to damage a boss. Though on top of this, the team are currently testing intriguing concepts, such as being able to donate energy from one super meter to another, allowing gamers who have successfully mastered the parry system to aid their teammates, and this would tie in beautifully to another idea that the team are currently considering, the possibility of allowing players to combine their super moves for even greater effect, and presumably, a spectacular showing of screen filling, plasma fuelled death. Games of this type always excel when two players come together, so it is great to see the team looking at ways that they can improve upon another tried and tested formula, further adding to the exciting prospect that is their debut venture.
Cuphead will be launching next year as part of the ID@Xbox program, which allows Studio MDHR to self-publish their creation on the console, but when exactly will it be ready? Chad Moldenhauer was slightly coy on the subject, but rightly so, as the development team are keen to avoid the pitfalls of announcing a release date without being able to fully guarantee that the game will be ready on time. Good things are supposed to come to those who wait, after all, so it may be some time before any of us are actually able to get our eager hands on a finished copy of the game.
“Currently we are going to be very vague and say 2015! We will shoot for as early as possible, but being our first game and launching on Xbox One and PC it means there will be some unknowns.”
The ID@Xbox program is now in full swing and the promise that it offers is now available to be seen, with a whole host of interesting and artistic titles en route to the console over the coming months and years, though Cuphead could very well rank as the most exciting of them all. As a homage to the best platform shoot ‘em ups that gaming has offered us in the past, such as the Contra series, it is a very respectful nod of the head to the masters of the genre, and as the new, novel twist on the old formula, it is an intoxicating blend of action and art that may very well surprise a few of gaming’s old hands.
So, if sumptuous, cartoon aesthetics, jazzy soundtracks and tons of hard-core run ‘n’ gun action sound as good to you as they do to me, then Cuphead is indeed a game that you might very well want to watch out for.
– James Paton @theblackpage81