Ever heard the expression “stuck in development hell”? Well, Cuphead and Mugman had their fair share of Hell in the original Cuphead, released what feels like a good year or two ago. But Studio MDHR is, well, only excitedly ambitious – condition well known amidst their indie contemporaries (Yacht Club Games, Motion Twin, Dodge Roll studios to name a few) – leaving them with additional content (or DLC) that has almost been in development as long as the original game. And what a journey it was.
What ingredients Kris used this time around to help Moldenhauer brothers go out with a proper bang.
To backtrack a bit, we’re talking about 2017’s cult-hit Cuphead, the co-op game known for its signature hand-drawn graphics, reminiscent of 1930s cartoons trembling with the energy of Fleischer Studios’ stuff; the screw-up-once-and-die difficulty that left one specific game journalist with a silly moniker “guy who couldn’t beat Cuphead’s tutorial.” Most importantly, the indie game that managed to bring video game music to whole new heights – something that’s evident by GRAMMY Awards finally adding a dedicated video game category – by becoming the first video game soundtrack to top the Billboard Jazz Charts. Of course, all this couldn’t be done without the help of Toronto-based composer Kristofer Maddigan who’s been helping Moldenhauer brothers to reach their childhood dream since day 1.
As all things usually go, aptly named The Delicious Last Course, the first and final expansion for the original Cuphead announced back in 2018, is a dish that grew out of its original proportions. (Which, coincidentally, also happened to another indie darling Hollow Knight released at the same time as the original Cuphead with its DLC-turned-sequel Silksong, also featuring a brand new female protagonist.) Yes, it adds only 11 new meticulously crafted bosses – in a game where, as one journalist puts it, “boss fights are a religion.” Or the meat of the meal, so to speak.
It’s not the belly-filling quantity but quality that matters, however. One particular boss fight has a lush claymation castle rotating in the background. Another invites players to one of the most head-spinning fights in recent memory that will surely leave some newcomers dizzy. There are magical tiny gnomes sticking from every corner while you’re fending off a screen-filling snow giant – all of them peppered with references to Disney animation classics.
And while you’re at it, staring at yet another “Game Over” screen or seeing what tricks the new star of the show, the always charming Ms. Chalice, has to offer – one can’t help but wonder: how much time, sweat, blood, and collective effort each one of them took to make? After all, we’re talking about over 25,000 frames of hand-crafted animation.
But while most of us cannot take our eyes off The Delicious Last Course’s mouthwatering graphics, we’re naturally more thrilled with Maddigan’s 30-track souffle which features a 140-strong orchestra and a range of new exotic sounds. Curious to learn what ingredients Kris used this time around to help Moldenhauer brothers go out with a proper bang, we got a rare chance to speak with the ever-busy maestro
First of all, congratulations on finally being able to show the world what you’ve cooked up the much anticipated The Delicious Last Course! How many years it’s been since you first started working on this project?
I started working on it right after the first one came out. So it’s been four and a half years since then.
Were you happy with the general reception of the ‘Delicious Last Course’ soundtrack? Were there any particular feedback/comments that stuck with you?
Yes, very happy. No particular comments stick out, but the feedback has been almost universally good. And for that I am very humbled.
Almost 120 people on the whole soundtrack.
How does it feel to finally be able to release The Delicious Last Course music into the wild?
Well, I hope people are going like it. It’s similar to the first game, but it’s a lot bigger in the sound world sense. The music is denser and it’s a bit more lush. It took me almost as long to write this soundtrack as the first game’s. So I’m excited that people will finally get to hear it.
The last time we spoke, you said: “if it becomes easy enough, that’s the time to quit. I always challenge myself to do bigger and I better.” Compared to the production of original soundtrack, what was the most challenging aspect of making music for The Delicious Last Course?
I think it’s always challenging to come up with what I’ll hopefully consider a strong melody. I don’t write very fast. I have to live with things for a long time to flesh them out. So it’s challenging just to come up with an idea in the first place, and then it’s usually a long process to make the idea sound as correct as it can. Then, of course, arranging it into something with the right instruments — equally important part of the composition process because it’s what instruments that you assign to certain things is just as important as the melody itself.
I’ve heard that this time around you had around 120 people working with you on the soundtrack. Is that correct, Kris?
Yeah, there’s been almost 120 people on the whole soundtrack. That includes big band orchestra, solo instruments, things of that nature. It’s basically almost three times as many players as we had for the original Cuphead.
That’s a huge upgrade! In terms of arranging, how much of a difference it had been compared to the original 40 people?
You have more options with that many instruments in a certain sense. Especially with the big band itself being a bit bigger. The first time around, the big band consisted of three trumpets, two trombones and four saxophones… Now, it was a full size big band — five trumpets, four trombones and four saxophones. Obviously, that’s more fun but it was also a challenge. I had to do a lot more studying on arranging for the orchestra stuff.
Did you feel more confident working on The Delicious Last Course compared to the original game?
Definitely. It didn’t necessarily feel easier. But I have more confidence in what I’m doing now. And I question myself less so often — learning to trust my instincts, to know if I’m on the right path, was something that I learned between the first game and The Delicious Last Course.
Did you start working on The Delicious Last Course right after the original Cuphead was released?
Oh, I don’t remember. I think originally it was supposed to come out in 2018. So, I guess, I probably started within the month after [Cuphead’s release]. I already knew what ideas I wanted to do for the next game. So I started working on those specific things. I think I was writing right away because the game was supposed to come out within a year. Then the game grew a bit, it changed and got delayed. COVID was terrible for a lot of reasons, but it gave me extra time to flesh out some ideas and do some writing.
What was your first response to The Delicious Last Course announcement — were you thrilled that you’ll get to do more Cuphead music? Or you were kind of like, “I just created this amazing soundtrack and I have to improve and make a whole new sequel to the original score?
If you’re asking if it was intimidating or something along those lines – then, no. I didn’t feel that way starting on The Delicious Last Course. Actually, I felt pretty comfortable going in again and I knew that I wanted to do something on a larger scale. You know, the success of the first game also allowed me to say things like, “I’d like to write for an orchestra. I’d like to write for a larger big band.” And the studio was like, “yeah, that sounds great, Kris. Do it!“ Chad and Jared, Moldenhauer brothers, were very supportive, which I’m extremely grateful for.
Does it take more discipline to keep up the quality and creativity of the original work than to create something anew?
It does. Like I said earlier, coming up with ideas no matter what is in a lot of ways, the hardest part for me. Whether it was for the first Cuphead or DLC, I still had to come up with them. That was the main challenge for me.
You often can be heard saying that you are a listener. So the research you do is listening to a bunch of stuff. What music you were listening to prepare for The Delicious Last Course?
Definitely a lot of early Hollywood and early Disney film scores. Leigh Harline and Frank Churchill who did music for the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) and “Bambi” (1942) and “Pinocchio” (1940). Then there’s Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who are incredible early Hollywood composers who really set the template for a lot of things. That was a lot of what I spent time doing. Which was fun because I got to watch a lot of old movies.
Did you have a favorite from all the classics you got to see?
The original “King Kong” (1933) is amazing. Then, “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940) has an incredible soundtrack by Miklós Rózsa. All of the Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s stuff is good. He’s got such an operatic sensibility to his writing. But Steiner, I feel, has a stronger thematic content in a lot of his music. It always works really well.
He’s great, isn’t he? How many hours would you say you spent watching these all time classics?
Kris: It’s hard to say. I probably watched like 50 old movies.
Moving on to the big questions, Kris. We have a brand new character, Ms. Chalice. What kind of preparation did you do before bringing her onboard? Does she have her own thematic sound?
She has her own theme in a sense. Cuphead isn’t really a story driven game in a lot of ways. When you play the game, you’ll hear her sematic motifs pop up occasionally. But I wouldn’t say that Ms. Chalice does have a specific sound because she fits in there just fine.
Is it true that this time around, instead of arranging a bunch of different tunes and fitting them as it goes, you had time to prepare each piece of music specifically for different bosses and sections of the new island?
Yeah. Every boss, every piece of music in the game (with a couple of exceptions) was written for what it was written for. That’s why I think the music of The Delicious Last Course is more cohesive compared to what you hear in the first game.
Did you enjoy this approach more?
It wasn’t as challenging because the ideas were a lot clearer visually. Also, there wasn’t as many bosses as in the original Cuphead – it would’ve been really hard to tailor each tune to each boss, I think. That’s why it was easier to spend a bit more time coming up with something special for each boss.
Speaking of bosses, would you mind walking us through your thought-process behind one of them, specifically “Snow Cult Scuffle”?
For this one, I just wanted to write another tune in the “Floral Fury” vein. More of a Brazilian style track but in Brazilian choro way. I just thought it would be funny to write something that’s a cold weather Brazilian tune that has all cold instruments in it. You hear the slay bells. Instead of piano solo you hear celeste solo, which has a very wintery kind of sound. I knew it was going to be a winter boss, but I wanted it to be like a Brazilian kind of tune. I thought that the juxtaposition was quite interesting.
Were there any tracks you had a hard time completing?
“Baking the Wondertart”, simply due the complexity of having two big bands in stereo interlocking with themselves, as well as the organ and rhythm section down the center of the sound.
In any case, it does sound amazing! Perhaps there were some exciting instruments you got to play this time around for the Delicious last course?
What you hear on “Snow Cult Scuffle” is one of our saxophone players playing a soprano C melody saxophone, which is very rare and very unique sounding instrument. It’s kind of like a cross between soprano and clarinet. It’s really neat. Then in “Bootlegger Boogie” we have a regular SML D saxophone, which was a slightly common instrument in the twenties and thirties, but fell out of favor. It’s has really interesting sound, something between A tenor and Alto. Organ and harpsichord were fun, the Novachord, and early Hammond organ was interesting. Obviously the ‘Hot Club of France’ style ensemble was interesting, as well as using much more choir and mallet percussion.
Were any of those instruments hard to acquire?
Some were very hard to find. One of the saxophones came from the other side of the country. We ended up with three female saxophones in total and it’s even finding one is challenging. But we put the word out. And just because it’s a neat instrument – and was around that time – we managed to find some.
Would you say the Delicious Last Course has bigger variety in terms of genres compared to the original game?
Oh, absolutely. Some very, very strange stuff going on. Some really interesting sounds and styles. I think some of the most interesting soundtracks are often RPG soundtracks. Because you can have 4-6 hours of music, and there’s so many different genres. If you listen to “Final Fantasy XI” or “Final Fantasy XII”, Nobuo Uematsu is doing loads of different styles of music on those soundtracks. And they work in the context of the game. So, for me it was simply trying to find more things that worked in the game, which was interesting. Plus, we haven’t really done that before.
Perhaps you went back and improved some of the original tracks since Cuphead and Delicious Last Course share the same world?
No. The original score is not getting changed. That’s way too much work.
The first one is fantastic and I love it. I’m proud of it. But this is kind of a big step up.
There’s one exception right? Porkgrind, Cuphead’s beloved merchant, also comes back with a revamped theme (“Porkgrind’s Provisions”). Could you explain what was your approach to keeping a fan’s favorite track the same but different?
Because we were already going with a more ‘Hot Club of France’ style in the game, I thought Porkrind should sound a bit more ‘Paris cafe’. The major difference is a reorchestration with accordion.
Finally, would you say that you are happy with the final product that you managed to create for Delicious Last Course?
Yeah. I think this soundtrack is much better than the first game compositionally speaking. It also sounds better, it’s much fuller. Our recording engineer, Jeremy Darby, the amount of work that he did just to keep people safe during recording without losing warm and full sound of everything – that’s pretty remarkable. I don’t know which tunes are going to be fan favorites – I don’t think there’s necessarily a “Floral Fury” or “Die House” on this soundtrack. But I think compositionally, for the most part, the Delicious Last Course is a better soundtrack. The first one is fantastic and I love it. I’m proud of it. But this is kind of a big step up.