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The Player: 'Cuphead' gives new life to hand-drawn animation and big band jazz

The Player: 'Cuphead' gives new life to hand-drawn animation and big band jazz
"Cuphead" takes its inspiration from the cartoons of the 1930s. (Studio MDHR)

Video games often help define new entertainment frontiers, be they interactive, immersive or centered on virtual or augmented realities. Yet "Cuphead" resurrects a few nearly forgotten advances — namely the lost art of hand-drawn animation and the abandoned joy of big band jazz.

Though the fast-paced and brutally difficult action game looks to bygone eras, its everything-old-is-new-again tone doesn't exactly feel retro. By channeling the insanity of Walt Disney Pictures' "Silly Symphonies" and the surreal but rough-around-the-edges work of Fleischer Studios, "Cuphead" possesses an anything-goes childlike weirdness with a sinisterly adult edge.

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It's also not just a reminder of what's been lost, but in its success, an indication of what we miss. Released in late September for Microsoft's Xbox One and PCs, the game has already sold more than 1 million copies.

So while we might be awed by the picture-perfect work of Disney's modern-day studio Pixar, the exaggerated yet simple movements of the characters of "Cuphead" — the protagonist is, yes, a creature with a cup for a head who, in a two-player game, has a pal named Mugman — do more than fill us with nostalgia as they twitch and sneer with absurdity.

They have blemishes, such as clearly penciled lines, tummies that bob and pounce or confusingly elastic fingers, which in turn lends them all a sense of authenticity. After all, it takes a human hand to craft such splendid flaws.

"We really like traditional media and art," says Chad Moldenhauer, who with his brother, Jared, started the small Canadian firm Studio MDHR to create "Cuphead." He had also never animated before, which contributed to the game's essentially half-decade-long development time.

"That's what we've gravitated toward our whole life. The massive computer graphics push and digital art push makes sense," Moldenhauer says. "You can save a lot of money, but it was not the same quality to us as the old-school, hand-drawn art. We wanted to keep things that would make the game look alive like 1930s cartoons."

"Cuphead" fills its scenes with big band jazz.
"Cuphead" fills its scenes with big band jazz. (Studio MDHR)

Watch, for instance, a well-known early "Silly Symphony" such as "The Skeleton Dance." As repetitive as some of the backgrounds may appear, the characters live in constant motion — the fur of an owl shaking like static electricity and the skeleton limbs twisting and swirling in all sorts of unimaginable poses.

In a word, "The Skeleton Dance" feels fast. Now imagine playing a game in a universe inspired by such a creation. It's faster still.

"Cuphead," make no mistake, may be one of the most difficult games released in 2017. In it, our heroes went gambling at the devil's casino and lost their souls. To be free of Satan's clutches, they must round up those who owe the horned, furry brute a debt.

Largely a collection of increasingly insane battles with larger-than-life characters, "Cuphead" will have players dying regularly. Those who advance will encounter a number of head-scratching oddities, such as a pair of boxing, cannibalistic frogs who somehow turn into a slot machine, or a mermaid-turned-medusa who can use fish like machine guns and cough out ghost pirates.

Even with the extreme level of difficulty, animation purists may still want to hunt down clips of it online. It's wild to watch such frenetic scenes. Entirely hand-drawn — Studio MDHR only cheated when it came to adding color, which was done in PhotoShop — each "Cuphead" level also works as an individual short. While I could never beat the game's giant bumblebee, I was happy to watch others accomplish the task, smiling as she turned into a bomber plane, complete with red lipstick.

And if there's a secret weapon to "Cuphead's" colorful zaniness, consider it the music. Kristofer Maddigan, who studied jazz at the University of Toronto and has been a member of the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra since 2010, zeroes in on big band music of the 1930s, recording three hours of music with a 13-piece orchestra.

Though a student of jazz, Maddigan says that big band music wasn't his forte.

"I played jazz drums for a long time, and I've always enjoyed most of the eras of jazz," he says. "I've always loved Duke Ellington's stuff and I loved the big band sound, but it wasn't something I spent a lot of time really delving into. I think when you study jazz, typically a lot of stuff you end up studying is bebop and beyond, so late '40s onward. The early stuff isn't really typically part of the education."

But Maddigan's score is more than just functional. Some tracks swing with a Latin flair, others dip more into ragtime. Throughout, it's full of giant rhythms, and Maddigan recorded multiple versions of each track with different solos in an effort to avoid repetition for the player.

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"The Benny Goodman stuff, with Gene Krupa on drums and Lionel Hampton on vibes, was huge," Maddigan says. "Gene Krupa pounding away on the tom-toms is one of the defining sounds of '30s big band. That was something I used a lot. I was trying to pick out what defines the music, and then tried to use that in my own way."

Funnily enough, the score is where "Cuphead" may deviate most heavily from cartoons of the '30s — well, aside from the whole interactive part. Disney's "Silly Symphonies" scores were often closely tied to the action on the screen, with instruments mimicking voices or all sorts of more earthbound sounds.

"That wasn't an option for us," Maddigan notes. The nature of being a game relies on unpredictability, "so we were trying to match the vibe of the excitement level and not worry so much about making things exactly fit."

Moldenhauer had his own directive for Maddigan.

"One of the main things Kris heard a million times was, 'Can we make the song faster?' That's a fun ask," he says, "when the song is already super complex."

But Moldenhauer and Maddigan, both 38 and childhood friends, learned that things were definitely much harder in the days of our elders.

"When we landed on the style, one of the key elements was that the only reason we were going to do this game was keeping the same traditional aspects as the old days," Moldenhauer says. "If you would have told us how much work it was, we never would have done it."

"Cuphead" feels like a lost cartoon from the 1930s.
"Cuphead" feels like a lost cartoon from the 1930s. (Studio MDHR)

Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens

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