A lot of the conversation around Cuphead, a side-scrolling shooter from Studio MDHR, has been focused on the game’s difficulty. While there is no mistaking that this is a hard game, it’s a shame that the debate surrounding its release has been pinned on its unforgiving nature, instead of focusing on how lovely it looks.
Cuphead stands out because of its striking visual style. Inspired by American cartoons of the 1930s, every frame was drawn first on paper before being digitised and animated in the game.
To capture the essence of Disney and Fleischer Studios cartoons, the game features watercolour backgrounds with hand-drawn foregrounds and characters, all drawn in black and white before being colourised digitally. The studio originally planned to colour by hand, but a test cell showed that the results were exactly the same when done digitally, and doing it digitally meant the studio would not be developing the game forever. In retrospect, that seems like a good call.
The result? The surreal, dreamlike quality of cartoons of that era - your Steamboat Willies, your Disney and Fleischer - is perfectly captured. Every frame feels authentic. Even the tone is nailed, flipping between cute whimsy and unsettling weirdness without missing a beat.
Studio MDHR went above and beyond, copying the imperfections of 1930s cartoons, adding in different line thickness for character outlines between scenes, and using other tricks such as on-screen noise to add a grimy quality to the crisp art. All that noise was scanned from film, to ensure that grainy, 1930s videotape style was matched.