There’s something eerie and surreal about the flowing, wavy bodies characteristic of early American animation.
The 1920’s era hand-drawn style emerged as comic strip illustrators began to translate static images into moving ones. This outdated and time-consuming technique is no longer necessary – yet Canadian game developers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer of StudioMDHR used just that in their avant-garde 2017 project, Cuphead.
The indie game is structured around a sequence of levels and traditional boss fight as protagonist Cuphead works to settle a deal with the Devil. The user plays as Cuphead in the RPG-style gameplay, moving through the landscape of Inkwell Isle and a string of adversaries by shooting blasts from his fingers.
Alongside him is his brother Mugman. The brothers’ mission is to keep their souls after encountering King Dice and the Devil, by collecting the soul contracts of fugitive debtors and return them to the Devil.
Known for its difficulty, the game emphasizes the dynamics of play over character or plot. Yet the real standout feature is the atmosphere created by the animation style, running at 24 frames per second, speckled with the errors of the human hand, and creating a lovely contradiction to the run-and-gun game.
The final bosses at the end of every level are reminiscent of yet another era of RPG gaming, and the combination of historical aesthetics is as unique as it is charming.
Chad Moldenhauer drew the characters by hand and painted backgrounds with watercolors in a novel synthesis of retro and current processes. Despite the intricate detail and attention to visuals, this doesn’t detract from the essence of the experience as a game. The romanticised aesthetic is further immersive when paired with a lively, prohibition-era soundtrack.
Adorable, weird, and bizarre, Cuphead is an unprecedented marriage of traditional animation, ragtime Jazz, and straight shooter gaming.