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    Cuphead: Getting A Handle

    Cuphead made a big impression at its E3 2014 debut. The hand-drawn aesthetic animated in the style of classic cartoons from the 1930s stood out among the rest of the games shown in Microsoft’s indie-game compilation video. Viewers weren’t the only ones blown away. Cuphead’s creators, brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, watched from home (on what Chad recalls was “a horrible stream”) and were stunned by the immediate response from attendees and reporters.

    “We were so used to seeing it, and we loved the visuals,” Jared says. “But after a while you just get accustomed to them and you go, ‘I hope people like these.’ Then E3 happened and websites started picking it up, my brain still didn't quite get it. I didn’t expect too much of a response, to be honest, from E3. I thought that there would be some fans, but seeing it pop up as the ’top five interesting things at E3’ on more than one website didn't make any sense. ...I'm still kind of in shock."

    Since then, the brothers have ramped up production to a staff of nine artists, animators, and programmers to ensure that the game arrives before the end of 2015. Making games isn’t easy, but Cuphead is a particularly labor-intensive production. I spoke with the brothers about how development is going, and got a glimpse at how its retro aesthetic extends to the way that it’s being created.


    The Story So Far
    If you’ve only seen a few screenshots or even the trailer you might assume that Cuphead is a side scrolling platformer. It certainly shares elements from the genre, with one notable difference: It’s all about boss battles. The Moldenhauer brothers grew up playing run-and-gun classics like Contra and Treasure’s games, but the boss encounters held a special place in their hearts. With Cuphead, they’re stripping away the level-boss-level-boss rhythm, and skipping right to the best parts: battles with weird, screen-filling big baddies. From what we saw, Studio MDHR is cramming in a lot of variety within that structure.

    When we start, Cuphead is at the devil’s place with Mugman, the player-two character. They’re gambling with the devil when they run out of dough. Sensing an opportunity, the devil offers them one last run, if they put something of value up as collateral. They agree to the terms, but lose once again. With that, the devil owns their heads but he’s willing to negotiate. If the pair travels the game’s world and retrieves an item that he covets, he’ll consider them even.

    That scrap of a story is all players need to know. “Because we both grew up in the fast-twitch arcade era, that’s what we homed in on,” Chad says. “We love the idea of not including too many cutscenes or too much story.”There’s not 15 minutes between boss fights. But at the same time, it calls back to the Fleischer Betty Boop early ‘30s era, where they were doing stuff that was almost just because.”

    Plane Crazy
    This birdhouse boss shows one of Cuphead’s shooting stages, in which the hero takes the yoke of an airplane to defeat his foes in this case, a bizarre bird. “Everything is like the ‘30s, and we wanted to have that not just that it’s a bird in the sky, but that it’s a bird in a birdhouse,” Jared says. “We want that secondary level of uniqueness to each visual. This is part of the first form.” Here, the bird coughs up eggs that must be dodged. They hatch into projectiles, which players also have to dodge. “It’s not like a bullet-hell pattern, but it’s still very challenging. You might need a few tries to defeat the first form of this boss, based on your experience.”

    Cuphead can pull himself and the plane into a smaller, more nimble form during these shooter sections, though he isn’t be able to attack. That ability aligns with the game’s overall willingness to stretch, squish, and manipulate characters whenever it’s necessary just like in the old cartoons. Jared says the alternate form also breaks up the action and helps to keep gameplay from simply being about holding down the fire button.

    The backgrounds are handmade, too. In these cases, they’re watercolor illustrations. This image (shown right) shows the various layers that the team has to paint to create the parallax scrolling effect. “In the old days, Disney, Fleischer, and other studios had to paint each layer on glass to make a multiplane camera shot, which is time consuming and hellish,”Chad says. “Some elements they could paint on a cel, but if they wanted a big pan with a lot of foreground objects, it would have to be a pretty large piece of glass. We originally thought of that too, but scanning glass creates a lot of light leak and other time-consuming problems.”

    “It’s crazy enough as it is,” Jared says. “We don’t need to set up miniatures and glass paintings to get one scene. What we are doing is still obscene.”

    Here, you can also get a sense of how many effects layers go into creating each background scene. The team adds two blur passes, and then other effects like simulated scratches and hair are added to mimic the visual effect that the game is being played on old film stock. “The reason we separated them like that is there’s almost never a time on screen where you’re seeing the same layers of noise and grain interacting with each other,” Chad says. “So it never feels like you’re watching a loop of effects. When we first started we noticed that when you have certain cigarette burns or other things on the screen that kept repeating, you eventually started thinking, ‘Oh, look, it’s at the top right every seven seconds.’ So we’ve put in a lot of work extensively with those effects especially to eliminate that and still keep the old-timey feel. I’m pretty sure if you tallied up all the time we spent discussing or researching and actually testing out effects, we’re probably at about a three-and-a-half full-time months with three people, because we were experimenting with this back before any real development on the game started just to pull off the old-time film look.”

    Straw Power
    Cuphead and Mugman aren’t just empty vessels they’ve got straws protruding from their respective toppers. Cuphead’s is long and bendy, while Mugman’s is straight and short. Cosmetic differences aside, the tubes both have the same in-game function: the Straw Slap.

    “Initially it was a core idea, that we always wanted a parry, but we got sidetracked and we forgot about the Miyamoto rules,” Jared says, “which are, ‘Keep things simple.’ We were going to have a separate parry button, and then the parry could be performed on the ground. It didn’t have the same impact as forcing a player to engage and change their position. If you could just stand still and tap parry, it didn’t have the same response as having to commit to a jump to start a parry. The idea is that it’s contained in the same button, which is far better to communicate to players. You jump and then it’s timing-based depending on how close the shot is to you. Cuphead has about 15 frames of straw slap animation. If you connect this properly, you can land a slap and destroy any pink attacks that are in your radius.”

    “We made it a color that we’re not going to use often in the game, so anything that’s colored pink like that and is bright and shiny will be known as a parryable attack,” Chad says. It’s not just bullets, either. As you might notice in the image with the Phantom Train boss, the handcar that Cuphead and Mugman are riding has a pair of pink orbs. Parrying each one slides the car over to one side of the screen, which is a handy way to avoid the bosses and their various attacks.

    Insert Coin
    This boss (shown left) shows another example of how far the team is willing to push its boss-battle boundaries. Here, Cuphead takes on a boss via an antique-looking arcade machine, with each wave of tin enemies representing a form of the big baddie.

    “This actually came from Jared,” Chad says. “He wanted to have a tribute to the ‘80s arcade games and all of the classics of the era. Our brains initially told us, ‘We’ll do pixel art in some kind of 1930s style.’ In the Simpsons cartoons, when they wanted to represent video games, they used some kind of pixel filter in post to achieve a style, so we started with that. We had this insane idea where we'd draw and ink all the assets for this level and then run every frame through a pixelation filter and finally reink every frame with the pixelated look. Aside from the amount of effort to do that, it was too jarring with the watercolor and cartoon visuals..

    “This stage is a crazy idea because it’s all new character assets, and we’re limiting the player to only shoot up, so it’s old arcade style. It’s definitely off the path of the main game, but we feel like the games we always played like Treasure’s had a lot of love put into them, and they’d be just outside of the boundaries of what the rules were. They would always have unique gameplay ideas, so we're hoping this stage creates the same feeling for others.

    “This is also something that you will only see once or twice; we aren't going to overuse it. In that sense, it’s its own unique thing. Maybe in the future we’ll have to do a spinoff game based on this old mechanical look, but for now this is one of our ways to keep things exciting even if it's a lot of extra work, we think it's worth it in the end.”

    DRAWING A CROWD
    Cuphead’s look may draw from old-school cartoons, but it features winks to classic video games. Take this battle against a tag-teaming frog duo, which takes place in a fly-fi lled bar. “This is our nod to Street Fighter,” Chad says. “You have to fight both of them at once, which is also a fun animation challenge. They switch the side of the screen, and we also put characters in the background cheering you on just like [in Street Fighter].” The frogs split up, covering both ends of the screen in what Chad calls “a hectic nightmare of dodging.”

    Now that you’ve seen Cuphead’s amphibious adversaries, here’s a glimpse of what goes into creating them. Chad says each character begins as a crude thumbnail image (not pictured), just to help the artist conceptualize what they’re trying to get across.


    1. “From those thumbnails, you go into a rough first stage. You get your forms and shapes and the flow of the animation, and you only make key frames that you need to sell the idea to the team. If a guy leans back and throws his arm forward, you only need to do the stand, the lean back, and the forward to get that  across.”

    2. “Once that’s done, we add the inbetweens one-byone. Then we pencil test it using similar methods of the old days by shooting each frame one at a time with camera or webcam. Once the pencil test is approved, each drawing gets one more pass to tie them down so the inker has a finalized line to follow. There are shortcuts we could take, like letting the computer squash or rotate certain frames, or drawing inbetweens digitially, but they don’t have the same charm. We’re doing none of that. Every single frame has to be drawn even on eff ects. And since the majority of effects are easy to draw, we’ve been creating original assets for most of them. If Boss A hits the ground, here’s a unique dust cloud, when Boss B hits the ground, [we create] a brand-new dust cloud just because. Creating it all from scratch is still very time consuming, but it completes the look.”

    3. “The third stage is the inked version. Once the drawing is finalized, we ink the frame on a fresh piece of paper, using the bottom drawing as a guide. This stage usually requires a good eye for cleanup because there are still going to be a few straggling details that aren't the true lines.”

    4. “For stage four, this is where we break the traditional medium; it’s colored in Photoshop. I know, we don’t color it with paint. We’re losers. The funny thing is we actually did a test of painting on a cel and scanning it, so we could compare it to a digital colored version. When you put the eff ects of the game on top, you actually can’t pick out which one has been painted, because there’s grain and effects and there’s a little bit of blur and, to the human eye, it’s basically the exact same thing. Which was good, because once the inking is done we just scan it in, delete any mistakes or smears, then just color it and not die a thousand deaths.”

    “Everything is already long enough, and if we added in that extra step of traditionally painting cels, we would have been dead,” Jared adds. “We’d still be trying to get Cuphead animated.” As it stands, Chad says they’re currently drawing, inking, and coloring between 200-350 frames of animation every week.

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