Cuphead is a made-in-Canada tribute to animation's golden age

Drawing inspiration from surrealist cartoons and big-band jazz of the 1930s, Cuphead is unlike any other video game out right now.

Chad and Jared Moldenhauer quit their jobs, remortgaged their homes — and made an instant classic

Cuphead is a 2D action video game drawn and animated in the style of 1930s cartoons. It's out now on PCs and the Xbox One gaming console. (Studio MDHR)

The first thing you notice about Cuphead: Don't Deal with the Devil is how gorgeous it is. The 2D visuals, hand-drawn and inked in the style of 1930s animation, are unlike anything else in gaming today.

Players control Cuphead and Mugman, diminutive Steamboat Willie-like characters who, with a finger-gun-like gesture, can shoot fluorescent bullets out of their hands at bizarre, incredibly detailed enemies.

The big-band jazz soundtrack complements the sumptuous visuals. Cuphead feels like a lost cartoon strip brought to life and remastered for the digital generation.

Most of Cuphead's levels are intricately designed, marathon-like battles with colourful and dangerous 'boss' enemies. (Studio MDHR)

Beneath its initially cuddly presentation, however, lies a crushingly difficult action game with a retro feel. Out now on Xbox One and PC, Cuphead is a 2D shooter where players run, jump and shoot at waves of enemies in a desperate dance to survive.

It's the brainchild of Studio MDHR, an independent studio founded by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, who are based in Regina and Oakville, Ont., respectively.

The Moldenhauers drew inspiration from run-and-gun games like Contra and Gunstar Heroes, space shooters such as Radiant Silvergun and even martial arts fighters like Street Fighter 3: Third Strike.

Cuphead is a difficult game by design. Players will need quick reflexes and sheer determination to complete it. (Studio MDHR)

Cartoon shorts by the Fleischer Studios, particularly Swing You Sinners and Minnie the Moocher, provided much of the inspiration behind the game's character design and overall vibe.

"While we really do love the fine-tuned, polished stuff like Snow White and Pinocchio, which are amazing — and kind of creepy in their own way — when you go back to the late '20s and early '30s ... it's almost as if they wanted to make surreal animation just to make it," said Chad Moldenhauer.

Left: Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, co-creators of Cuphead. Right: The brothers spent much of their childhood playing and analyzing classic action video games. (Chad Moldenhauer)
Making a game that properly evoked that bygone era was no easy task, however — it meant drawing and inking every character and backdrop's animation frames by hand.

"To get one second of animation, you have to have 24 frames of art," said Moldenhauer. "So when you're planning certain attacks or certain jumps, you still plan them the way anybody would plan them for another video game, but you just know you're going to be drawing a million frames to make it work."

Chad Moldenhauer said that animating a main character in a video game in this style takes month of works and 'a million frames' of art. (Studio MDHR)

The only concession the team made was to paint the frames digitally, rather than on a physical cell. Doing the latter would have added an extra six years to development time.

When Studio MDHR debuted their first trailer in 2013, fans were immediately struck by the art style and throwback run-and-gun action. Anticipation quickly bubbled into frothing demand. But the original scope of eight "boss fight" encounters wasn't enough.

Classic games like Contra had long levels with obstacles and enemies, capped off by boss fights at the end. Gamers wanted more than what was originally promised.

Chad and Jared Moldenhauer wanted to make a game that reminded them of the games they played in their childhoods, like Contra or Gunstar Heroes. (Studio MDHR)

After observing the reception to the trailer, the Moldenhauers dramatically expanded the scope of the game, more than doubling the number of boss fight levels and adding a smattering of traditional run-and-gun levels for variety. They also expanded the development team from three to 14 members.

News of the upcoming game's changes further stoked the anticipation among gamers. But the extra work also pushed back the release date from 2014 to this fall.

A shot of a background sketch in progress. Every frame of animation in Cuphead is drawn and inked by hand. (Studio MDHR)

Perhaps echoing Cuphead and Mugman's deal with the devil, the Moldenhauer brothers went all-in: They quit their day jobs and remortgaged their houses to work on the game full-time.

"From the outside looking in, it definitely seems like a huge risk," said Moldenhauer. "Our opinion of the reception was we should be able to just break even and still make this perfect game that we want. We might both be slightly crazy, but that's how we felt."

In the end, the gamble paid off. Studio MDHR announced Friday they have sold one million copies of Cuphead since the Sept. 29 launch.

"I don't even know how to respond to that, but it's blowing our minds," he said.

Studio MDHR took inspiration from the surrealist cartoons of the 1930s, such as Swing You Sinners. (Studio MDHR)

Other developers, however, cautioned that while the Moldenhauers' gambit ultimately paid off, there's no guarantee others will find the same success, no matter how good their idea or game.

"This could have easily — EASILY — turned out very poorly for them. It does for a lot of indie devs every year," a Vancouver-based developer wrote on Twitter. "Huge respect for the work put into Cuphead, but I hate that this feeds the myth that if you give up everything for your game it'll work out."

Additional sketches of buildings in the backgrounds of Cuphead's levels. (Studio MDHR)

Despite the success of Cuphead, Chad Moldenhauer remains modest and extends his gratitude to the game's fans.

"My brother and I, all we wanted was enough money so we can create the next game without worries. That's our dream, so anything above that will be … I don't even know," he said.

He's also grateful to be part of the growing number of Canadian success stories in the games industry, having grown up in a scene historically dominated by American or Asian creators.

"You would see Doom explode and Myst explode and it was always in the U.S. — and it was still amazing, because you're like, 'Wow, these two guys or these five guys made this?' But it still never felt real. So for us to be at least part of this success story — so somebody younger can see that this can be real — that's like a dream to us."

Cuphead took several years to develop, design and animate, but according to Chad Moldenhauer, the project was profitable by the end of its opening weekend. (Studio MDHR)