Cuphead is a 2D platformer with a 30s animation aesthetic and gameplay inspired by run-and-gun 16-bit era games such as Metal Slug and Gunstar Heroes. Since its release in 2017, Cuphead has achieved a massive cult following, both due to its exciting boss battles and traditional style visuals. The animation process behind the game utilized the hand-drawn cel animation techniques used in 30s cartoons like Betty Boop and Popeye.
Jake Clark, animator from Studio MDHR, took the time to discuss the animation process behind Cuphead in a segment for GDC Showcase called “Animation Bootcamp.” He began by stressing how seriously the animation team took the process, describing that the character movements are all drawn by hand, the backgrounds are done in watercolor, and the soundtrack was recorded using a live jazz band.
The animation style of the 30s is often referred to as “rubber hose” animation on account of the tubular limbs each of the characters possess. What sets 30s animation apart from modern animation is that character designs in the 30s aired towards simplicity with solid shapes. In place of sharp edges and tight corners, characters would have rounded shapes and lines to allow the character to turn in three dimensions with ease.
After the designs are completed, the animators have to get to animating. Clark provided examples of several designs he created for the game and showed his process of bringing the designs to life. He demonstrated how the Mermaid boss moves while idle, how the Slime Tombstone boss moves while attacking, and then revealed how the Cigar boss looks as he dies from being stomped by the foot of an off-screen character in Monty Python-esque fashion.
Clark declares that the purpose of Cuphead was to provide an opportunity for authentic visual design that had been perceived as outdated. With Cuphead, Studio MDHR intends to keep proper animation alive in a world overrun by digital media. The bizarre nature of 30s cartoons allowed animators to have complete freedom to animate the strangest things they could think of. This aspect is what gave the animators of Cuphead complete freedom over the gameplay since it was not limited in its subject matter.
And as Clark put it: “It’s more fun that way.”