Cuphead has a parry ability and parrying various color coded objects will fill up a special meter that will enable Cuphead to perform a special move. The levels are accessible through an action RPG-style overworld with its own secret areas. The game has a two-player cooperative mode that adds another human player to the single-player boss battles playing as Mugman.
Cuphead is the first game by StudioMDHR Entertainment, an indie game development studio consisting of brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer. Additional animation work was contributed by Jake Clark. Its development began in 2010, and they worked on the game from their respective homes in Toronto and Saskatchewan. The game was inspired by cartoons such as that of Fleischer Studios, Disney, and cartoonists Ub Iwerks, Grim Natwick, and Willard Bowsky, particularly their most “subversive and surrealist” elements. Chad Moldenhauer called Fleischer Studios “the magnetic north of his art style”.
The Moldenhauers watched ’30s cartoons in their youth, which Chad Moldenhauer describes as happenstance, based on gifts and VHS compilations. Among other siblings in their Regina, Saskatchewan childhood home, the two shared aesthetic taste and interest in gameplay. They attempted a game in the style of Cuphead in 2000, but lacked the tools to continue. The brothers decided to try again following the success of indie video game Super Meat Boy, developed by Team Meat, in 2010. The character that became Cuphead descended from a 1936 Japanese propaganda animated film where a man with a teacup for a head morphs into a tank. The Moldenhauer emulated the animation because they found it strange, and “right away it stuck”. The brothers had previously tried a kappa in a tophat, characters with a plate or fork for a head, and about 150 different designs.
The animation techniques behind Cuphead are similar to that of the 1930s cartoons. Chad Moldenhauer, who had previously worked in graphic design, would hand-draw the animations and paint the backgrounds. He colorized the characters in Photoshop. The frame-rate is the only other alteration from the original process of the era. Gameplay of Cuphead features 60FPS, in contrast with 1930s 24FPS. Chad Moldenhauer also saw his process with its human imperfections as a reaction to the perfectionism of pixel art. Jared Moldenhauer worked on other aspects of the game, though they would discuss gameplay design together. Their studio hired a Romanian developer, Brooklyn animator, and Ontario jazz musician for the project. They sought to keep the recording processes of the time period as if the team were developing in that era.
The Moldenhauers described Cuphead as having a difficult, “retro game” core for its emphasis on gameplay over plot. Kill Screen described the developers as “obsessed” with run and gun fundamentals of “animations and exploits and hitboxes”. Over the development process, they have made multiple revisions to many gameplay elements, including how gameplay actions feel at the edges of platforms and how long players are disabled after receiving damage. They planned multiple difficulty levels, and chose to abandon a typical damsel in distress plot for one where Cuphead perpetually creates trouble for himself. The developers planned to surpass the Guinness World Record for number of boss battles in a run and gun game by having over 30 to the record’s 25.
Though the game was shown during the Xbox press event of Electronic Entertainment Expo 2014 to audience approval, Cuphead was not available to play. The game’s art was estimated to be 40 percent complete as of July 2014. Cuphead is expected to be extended via expansion packs with 10 to 15 bosses each, similar to how Sonic & Knuckles added atop the Sonic series formula. Cuphead is scheduled to release on September 29, 2017 for Microsoft Windows and Xbox One, with potential later releases for macOS and Linux. Cuphead will be an Xbox console exclusive, and support Xbox Play Anywhere. The game is being developed with the Unity game engine.