Since its initial release in 2017, few games have garnered the kind of love and attention that Cuphead has seen.
Developed and published by Studio MDHR, Cuphead’s combination of retro animation, unforgettable characters, and tight (and challenging) gameplay has earned fans both in and out of the gaming world. Toys, fan art, a tabletop game and much more eventually led to Netflix launching The Cuphead Show, popularizing the characters even for those who had never heard of or played the original game.
But now, nearly five years after launch, the long-awaited release of Cuphead’s DLC, The Delicious Last Course, is finally upon us. On June 30, the expansion will be released for all platforms and PC, bringing an entire new island, new bosses, new visuals, and new music to the title.
SPIN spoke with Kristofer Maddigan, the composer and lyricist for Cuphead’s award-winning score, about his musical contributions to the new DLC.
SPIN: With how anticipated this DLC is by fans, what can people expect from it from a musical perspective?
Kristofer Maddigan: After the original game came out, I really thought that we had ‘kitchen sinked’ that soundtrack. It didn’t feel like there was much else we could have added. But in researching ideas for The Delicious Last Course, I realized just how many more musical worlds from that era we could explore.
A big development for this game was the decision to have a full orchestra to achieve that lush, early Hollywood, early Disney-era sound. While this seemed like a better idea before COVID restrictions made recording very challenging, our recording engineer par excellence Jeremy Darby figured out not only how to record safely, but to do so while achieving a wonderful, full and cohesive sound.
Some of this process can be seen and heard on our behind the scenes ‘Recording the Overture’ video released this past December. Other than that, I can’t say too much about the new music in The Delicious Last Course because we don’t want to spoil any surprises — although with nearly 120 musicians involved, I think there will be something for everyone.
Given Cuphead’s unique aesthetic, how did you go about crafting a score to match the visuals of the world?
Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, the founders of Studio MDHR, knew early on that they wanted era-specific big band for the soundtrack. As the original game expanded, so did the sound palate — which went on to include things like classic Joplin-esque ragtime, a barbershop quartet, and even tap dancing. A lot of what went into crafting the score was just spending the time to really delve into music from the era.
This time around, I got the chance to watch a load of classic films and soak in their scores, so it hardly felt like research at all. My mindset for the first game as well as for The Delicious Last Course was to think of things less as a 2010s composer writing ‘30s era music for an ‘80s-style arcade action video game, but rather trying to ask myself, “What if the golden age of big band, the golden age of Hollywood, and the golden age of video games existed at the same time? How would composers such as Ellington and Joplin, Steiner and Korngold write for video games?”
What were you most excited about when creating the new tracks for the DLC?
Having the support of a company like Studio MDHR has always felt like a huge blessing, and an opportunity that many composers wouldn’t have until much further into their careers. Any ideas I had — no matter how grandiose — would usually be met with “Sounds great, go for it!” They trust that I would attempt to do what’s best for the game, but also that I want to craft something that will stand alone outside the game. I think having that kind of approach can only help the end product.
Too many culture producers only look at the bottom line. “How much does it cost?” Studio MDHR recognizes the value of supporting and investing in things such as music for the sake of the music alone. As a long answer to a short question, there are indeed many very cool sounds and ideas that are new to the isle that players will explore in The Delicious Last Course. There are a couple of more “traditional” Cuphead tunes that were holdover ideas from the first game that never got fully fleshed out, but for the most part, this is an entirely new sound world. Just having the freedom to explore more styles and techniques, combined with the boost of confidence the first game gave me, made the whole process very exciting. I wanted to create a fitting send off to the world created in the first game.
How has it felt to see the reaction to Cuphead and its music?
I don’t want to speak for the studio, but I think I can say that we’re all still really blown away by the continued response. Cuphead has struck a chord with people, and I think it’s largely due to the obvious passion that just oozes from every aspect of it. Speaking personally, I knew after the 2015 E3 show — where the game really started to get a lot of buzz — that this game had the potential to reach a very wide audience, and that the music needed to be done carefully and correctly.
Not just out of respect to the art form and artists who created these styles of music originally, but also because Cuphead had the very unique opportunity to introduce these genres to a younger generation who may not have already been familiar with them. We have put some of the original charts from the game up for sale, as well as arrangements of certain tunes specifically tailored to high school jazz and concert bands. We listed them at deliberately accessible prices meant to get them into people’s hands, and the response to this has been really wonderful. I still get emails from young musicians or the parents of young gamers saying how Cuphead turned them on to big band or inspired them to pick up an instrument. That is the most gratifying response any composer could ask for.
How does your background as a drummer shape how you compose and write orchestral and symphonic music?
That’s a good question. I think there is a shorter answer that Cuphead’s music is highly rhythmic. But I think the broader answer is that — being trained as a percussionist and drummer primarily — I have had the opportunity to spend much of my life playing in groups surrounded by great music and great musicians.
I spent a lot of my formative years playing in rock bands, jazz groups and big bands, and my primary profession now is as an orchestral percussionist, so I think just being surrounded by many different types of music on a constantly changing basis is what has shaped my compositional process the most.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience working on Cuphead and its DLC?
It has been quite a ride. I would estimate that I spent almost as much time on composing the soundtrack for The Delicious Last Course as I spent on the original game — even though, duration-wise, there is less music. The music, much like this next game overall, is often a case of depth over breadth. Everyone on the team, myself included, pushed ourselves not to create an arbitrarily larger quantity of content, but to ensure that we created our most ambitious and highly polished work yet.
While COVID really threw a wrench into a lot of aspects of production, the music definitely benefited, as I was able to spend much more time refining the sound — especially as I had lost all of my live performing gigs. While the main priority is always trying to make sure the music is right for the game, much of the original Cuphead experience was just about trying to write as much music as possible and then putting it where it best fit. This time around, the music is much more tailored to specific areas or bosses. It has been a long journey, but I am very excited to finally get to share this music, and for people to get a taste of The Delicious Last Course.