An Interview With Cuphead Artist and Producer Maja Moldenhau

"It Wasn't In Our Vocabulary to Compromise." - An Interview with Cuphead Artist and Producer Maja Moldenhauer 5

Ever since it was first announced during the Xbox Press Conference at E3 2015Cuphead has ranked high on everyone’s “games to watch” list.

Who could blame them—a small studio that promised to create a game by hand-drawing every frame using techniques similar to that of cartoons from the 1930s? It was such a unique idea for a game at a time where everyone else in the industry sought gritty, dark realism in their animation. It was exciting, but it left many wondering if the team would be able to actually complete what they set out to accomplish.

Unfortunately, a series of delays only added support to that idea and left many fans wondering if the game would ever see the light of day. So it was a big surprise to those of us who were waiting with baited breath when Cuphead finally got a release date at this year’s E3 Xbox conference. On September 29, 2017, the world would finally see why StudioMDHR took its time to make sure that their vision was realized in exactly the way they envisioned it.

And it paid off.

Having already sold over 125,000 copies in less than a week since its release, and receiving a Metacritic rating of 90% for the Xbox One version of the game, 86% for PC, and an “overwhelmingly positive” Steam user rating, Cuphead has lived up to the expectations of all who waited.

CGMagazine has followed our hometown heroes since Cuphead was announced and had a chance to speak with the team on a few occasions. It’s always exciting to see Canadians—especially teams from the Toronto area—on the international stage, representing our vibrant games scene to the world. So it was a pleasure to get one more chance to speak to StudioMDHR and Cuphead lead artist and producer, Maja Moldenhauer, one more time at this year’s Gamescom.

&Quot;It Wasn'T In Our Vocabulary To Compromise.&Quot; - An Interview With Cuphead Artist And Producer Maja Moldenhauer 5
Cuphead (Xbox One) -gameplay images via StudioMDHR

CGMagazine: So it’s been a year since we last chatted. Do you want to tell us about some of the new features that you have added and how Cuphead has grown since that point?

Maja Moldenhauer: Significantly. So we’re actually in the final stages of development right now. Very excited. We will be coming out on September 29th, for Xbox One and Windows 10. At the Gamescom demo that people are able to play this year, we have unlocked all of World One [and] most of World two. There are a couple of things that we kept locked down just for the element of surprise. One of the new functions shown is that you are able to equip yourself with multiple different weapons and supers. We have opened up the shop, where you can purchase those weapons to equip. There are brand new platforming stages that you can demo. It’s—just looking over my shoulder here [looking at one of the con-goers playing behind her]. He almost did it!

You have the ability to play in co-op and at any given time in the actual game itself, you can tap in mid-level with your co-op partner.

CGMagazine: And you changed the difficulty level!

Maja Moldenhauer: Oh that’s right. Well, we’ve added it an easy mode, just based on a lot of player feedback. So we added an easy mode and normal mode, which was our default. So basically in easy mode, the bosses have a little bit less health. They’re a bit easier to kill and there are fewer phases. In the normal mode, there would be an additional phase and there’s more health. And we had this in the plan from the beginning, in the actual game when you complete the game on normal mode, you unlock new game plus which is finely tuned. You said right back in the beginning [prior to the interview] that it’s finely tuned and for very elite players, so it’s really difficult. It sounds friendly but it’s really, really hard.

CGMagazine: Well it is really hard! [Laughs]

Maja Moldenhauer: [chuckles] You know it’s a steep learning curve. But when it clicks, it clicks.

CGMagazine: It’s really rewarding when it finally does click.

Maja Moldenhauer: Yes.

CGMagazine: It’s a fair hard. So it’s really fun to play.

&Quot;It Wasn'T In Our Vocabulary To Compromise.&Quot; - An Interview With Cuphead Artist And Producer Maja Moldenhauer 7
Cuphead (Xbox One) -gameplay images via StudioMDHR

Maja Moldenhauer: Yeah speaking of fair. So, as we have probably talked about multiple times in the past, we’re inspired by the games of the past which are difficult. They were challenging for sure. So we loved that. We do have some modern touches, progressions that we saved so you can pick up right where you left off every time you sit down to play the game you don’t have to restart the whole game over. You have infinite lives. If you really need to revive your co-op partner infinitely through the level, you can. And, like we have just discussed here, we added the easy mode.

CGMagazine: I know you guys committed right from the beginning to do everything completely hand-drawn. Have any plans changed on that front?

Maja Moldenhauer: No changes to that plan. We remained as authentic as possible to what we set out to do. We’ve worked on that from the get-go with no compromise: not for time, not for anything. Obviously, we were empathetic to a lot of people who were looking forward to the game [when] we had to delay it last time. But it just wasn’t in our vocabulary to compromise the vision or the art style or the process in the interest of time. We took the time that we needed and we’re delivering a game that we are highly satisfied with.

The entire game is hand-drawn. Pencil, paper, hand inked on paper. All the backgrounds are watercolour paintings. All the music is custom. Some levels even have 3D models where we have not used [computer generated] 3D as in like CG or anything like that. It’s literally hand curved. And then we’ve hand painted it and then lit it up in a makeshift studio. Makeshift being the operative word. Then taking the images around the entire Structure and then put that into the game. It’s reflective of how animation studios did things back in the ’30s. Sometimes they had like actual models in the background.

CGMagazine: Now that you’re just about done, how does it meet your expectations from the very start of the project?

Maja Moldenhauer: Well, at the start of the project looking forward, it was hard to see the game as it is today. Just because the scope of it had changed over the years and we kept adding more and more elements to it. We are ecstatic. It is exactly what we envisioned. We have fulfilled our dream in this game. There is literally no compromising anything. And the amount of time we took just wasn’t a factor for us. It’s going to take as long as it takes. Thank God the people [at Xbox] have been patient with us.

CGMagazine: Aside from allowing you the time you needed, how has working with Microsoft been through this process?

Maja Moldenhauer: A phenomenal partner. So we partnered with Microsoft back in 2015 and they have helped us tremendously from production to technical support to being here [at Gamescom] today. We would never be at Gamescom without their support. They have just been a phenomenal partner.

&Quot;It Wasn'T In Our Vocabulary To Compromise.&Quot; - An Interview With Cuphead Artist And Producer Maja Moldenhauer 1
Cuphead (Xbox One) -gameplay images via StudioMDHR

CGMagazine: Now, how much of the fan feedback at cons and player demos have gone into production to this point?

Maja Moldenhauer: It depends because we get an enormous amount of feedback of like, “You should have this, or you should have that”. It’s definitely weighted in terms of, “Okay is this feedback something that we would have loved to have in-game but we didn’t put it in and now we’re getting feedback?”, and at that point, we’re like, “Okay let’s do it”, because we didn’t want to [leave it out]. Or feedback that is just kind of out of the realm of what our original vision was, which we wouldn’t have incorporated. So for example, one of the biggest things we kept hearing was that the difficulty level was very challenging for some people. We took that and created a simple mode. You know it was quite a bit of work [and] effort but there were a large amount of people that were asking for it. So we did it. We definitely do listen. We read and looked over feedback. You just have to gauge it based on what the time is and based on whether it fits with our vision. We always want to be authentic to that and it’s a balance.

CGMagazine: Anything else you would like to share with the readers?

Maja Moldenhauer: Yeah. We’re just really excited to finally be coming out. We’re excited to be here. We’re excited about the reception. We’re so grateful for everybody who has ever even mentioned Cuphead or taken the time to play it. For you guys coming here right now and seeing it, it’s surreal. It’s a dream that we as a small family had, and seeing it come to fruition right now is, it’s a surreal time.

&Quot;It Wasn'T In Our Vocabulary To Compromise.&Quot; - An Interview With Cuphead Artist And Producer Maja Moldenhauer 3
Cuphead (Xbox One) -gameplay images via StudioMDHR

CGMagazine: Yeah. It must be very overwhelming.

Maja Moldenhauer: It’s weird to watch it. It is very overwhelming, coming from a very small suburb in Canada and being right here right now is uh…

CGMagazine: It must be incredible. [Chuckles]

Maja Moldenhauer: Weird. [Chuckles]

CGMagazine: Well that’s all I have. Thank you so much.

Maja Moldenhauer: No worries. Thanks for coming.

*Interview edited for grammar and clarity.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out our review of Cuphead.

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