When Cuphead was first teased back in 2013, it was something that most people had never seen before. A video game made in the art style of classic cartoons, with the music to match, was a completely novel idea. So novel in fact that most people would have never even thought to attempt to make a game like that because of the sheer amount of work it would require. That was a lesson Studio MDHR had to learn the hard way because it did not meet its goal of a 2014 release.
With some assistance from Microsoft and Xbox, as one of their first ever IPs under the ID@Xbox Program, Cuphead was finally released in 2017. That novel idea turned out to be a perfect one, because what has happened to Cuphead really is a one-of-a-kind story. Not only has the IP earned accolades from critics, and fans but it has exploded with merchandise, a TV show featuring Wayne Brady, and an extremely successful DLC.
UPROXX got the opportunity to speak with executive producer and inking artist Maja Moldenhauer, alongside art director of Cuphead and Studio MDHR founder Chad Moldenhauer, about Cuphead’s rise to fame, some of the game’s inspirations, and what’s next for everyone’s favorite new video game icon.
How are you doing? You had the studio closed for a little bit after the DLC release. Must be nice to finally get a moment and take a breath.
Maja: Yeah, it really is. I think we took a different approach with DLC from the initial game. It wasn’t as much of crunch and stuff leading up to the launch of it, because we were a little bit more generous in terms of timing and time frame and when it was going to launch, because we didn’t want to go into crunch mode. But no matter how much you try to mitigate that, there’s always going to be some kind of last-ditch push to the finish line. So, it’s nice to be able to take that breath. And, I’ve said it previously, I sound like a broken record here, but we’re so proud of the core game, of how DLC turned out, and so it makes this last two weeks even more relaxing.
Did you ever see Cuphead becoming what it is today?
Chad: Initially, we had a dream scope but we kind of paired it back down to Mega Man style selection screen with eight bosses. And that’s all it was going to be. So if you think of that super small scope to where the game and the brand and the recognition is today, it numbs my mind. I think all of us, everybody on the team is still like, this doesn’t quite make sense.
Maja: Yeah, you can connect the dots going backward and stuff like that. And, it’s hard work. There’s passion, there are the mechanisms for success that I think every single person this company has. You’re only as good as your team is, and the team is fantastic and phenomenal. And so you can be confident that it was going to turn out to be something pretty, pretty good that we’re very proud of. But like Chad said, not even close, not even. Nothing, like what is today.
Chad: I think we still pinch ourselves. You know, the whole team. It’s surreal.
What’s really interesting about Cuphead is how it has had constant positive momentum. From when it came out, to Game of the Year considerations, to the TV show, and now the DLC, it’s always seemed to be moving forward and accomplishing something new.
Maja: I wish it was all premeditated and part of a big larger forecast but it wasn’t it was just hard work and passion. And passion is like a really big thing because if there was ever a day that we were grinding in here, it wouldn’t have happened. We all really, really love what we do. We love the art style, we believe in bringing back some of the tangible ways that we did this like pencil and paper, and that art form. It’s a dying art form and bringing that back to a younger generation that may not have ever seen a cartoon made this way. So yeah, that’s a really rewarding thing.
Chad: There’s probably a lot of being in the right place at the right time that also helped a lot, but I think the one thing that we always stick true to is that we make a game that we all have a deep love for, and I hope that shows in the games we make that it’s part of us.
What were some of the inspirations that eventually became Cuphead?
Chad: So the main one is just growing up with and watching those super early cartoons, especially the Fleischer and Disney stuff. That had been around for a long time in the back of our minds, and then when we kind of finally got around to wanting to make a game, it just came up as a ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could make a game that looked like a cartoon?’ and again that was it was more of a laugh to be like, hey what if maybe one day somebody can do this? And then we started playing around with it, and that spring that kind of was like the jumping board to start the spark of ‘what if everything is hand done?’ you know, from the visuals and the paintings and the inking, and even the music initially. It was supposed to just be really high quality midi tunes, but as we created this whole kind of through line of making everything that old style, it just started falling in place.
Maja: I feel like every time we had a shortcut we identified there was a spark missing. If we went and tried to digitally ink it, it just wouldn’t look the same, and then we would be like, okay, let’s do it by hand, and then with that it would come back to life. And so that’s kind of, I guess the Genesis of how we did it. But for inspiration-wise, it was those cartoons and then married with all of these retro games that you probably remember from your childhood, it’s the same thing for us.
Where does Cuphead go from here?
Chad: So we launched DLC. We kind of finally take a breather and now we can kind of really think about that because the first game launched, and we started thinking about where’s Cuphead going to go and we decided let’s push it into a DLC. It was a much easier answer. So this time around, we kind of have to think up what’s the next game we’re going to work on, what are the next projects going to be, and find out how that’s all going to work.
Maja: We do know what it’s going to be. We have made the mistake before of announcing it too early. We’re excited to announce things once they really take form. We’re just taking the time right now to really appreciate what that looks like, and try to give a more accurate estimate this time when we can do it. We’re not going anywhere. We love making games. Thanks to the, you know, fan response and things like that, we are enabled to be able to continue doing this for a long time and we’re really excited to bring more ideas to the forefront. But you’re going to have to wait and see what those are.