Cuphead's Creator Opens Up His Sketchbook

by Jeff Cork on Feb 03, 2015 at 07:01 AM

StudioMDHR's Cuphead made an impression when it was shown during Microsoft's E3 press conference last year. When we hear the word "retro" used to describe a game's art style, many of us think of 8- or 16-bit sprites. Cuphead takes inspiration from material that's significantly older – cartoons from the '20s and '30s. I spoke with the indie studio's co-founders, Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, for a six-page feature that appears in the latest issue of Game Informer. There, the brothers speak about the intense process that goes into creating every hand-drawn frame of animation. Today, Chad was generous enough to share several pages from his sketchbook. They provide a glimpse at false starts, various oddities, and a few of the first designs that would lead to Cuphead himself.

You might spy a few familiar faces in the first page of Chad's sketches. "Ryu from Ninja Gaiden, Mario and a Ninja Turtle make cameos," he says."The last drawing on this page is based off of one of the earliest sketches I created for the game (before it was Cuphead)."

There's also a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to Dragon's Lair's hero, Dirk the Daring. And while it seems Chad was zeroing in on the body profile that would make it into the game, he clearly wasn't afraid to experiment. For instance, there's the head with a unicycle body and a skinny little guy without arms.

"The ninth drawing is light-bulb man (This literally sparked the “aha” moment to try more inanimate objects as the head of the character...no pun intended)," Chad says. "There are a few obscure cameos here too."

Personally, I love the fish wearing his own T-shirt and his underwater cohorts. I'm not quite sure what to make of the tank cat or the happy guy with an eyeball where you might expect to see legs. 

On Chad's third page, we hit paydirt. "The fifth guy is one of the first Cuphead sketches," he says. "The tenth sketch is our home town (Regina, Saskatchewan) junior hockey-team mascot. The last drawing is a nod to Plants vs. Zombies." 

There are a fair amount of animal-inspired creations on this page, which Chad says they wanted to get away from. Ultimately, he says, they seemed out of place in the world they envisioned – and brought back bad memories of all of those animal-mascot games that were so commonplace in the '90s. That springy horse is definitely his own deal, however, as is the toothy gentleman with the tiny body.

Here, you can see another wave of inspirations, including some from old-school cartoons and classic video games.

"This page starts off with homage to Flip the Frog, a creature from Swing you Sinners, and Lance from Contra," Chad says. "The fourth drawing is another variation of Cuphead with a plate body and spoons for hands. The fifth sketch is influenced by the Wheelers (from Return to Oz, the horrible movie we watched too many times as kids). The seventh was tested as a variant to the cup – a bucket head – but for some reason it didn’t have the same charm, it felt like a secondary character."

Here, you might be seeing the effects of an artist slowly losing his mind. Either that, or he was just sketching anything that came to mind.

"This page contains some more 'over the top' ideas," Chad says. "I Don’t know why I drew a wind-up dog with a shovel for a body…but I did. The second sketch is a flying soldier head influenced by the Dynamite Duke box art (North American version). The third drawing is heavily influenced by the Japanese box art for Alex Kidd in Miracle World. The seventh sketch is a 1930s take on Cactuar from the Final Fantasy series."

Some of the other highlights on this page include wind-up shovel dog, rocket soldier, and sad-sack apple. You will all be missed.


For more information on Cuphead, be sure to check out the latest issue of Game Informer. Cuphead is set for a 2015 release on Xbox One and PC.