Toggle spacebar is a bi-monthly column that investigates the great music that powers your favorite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt Converse with Kristofer Maddigancomposer of Cuphead and The Delicious Last Course, about Fantasia, recording with an orchestra of over 50 musicians, and the importance of music in the overall effect of games on people’s minds.
VSon your mind, already, has made a name for itself. The indie title – which had apparently been in development for eons before its 2017 launch – caught the attention of anime and gaming fanatics everywhere. The elevator pitch for the game seemed so unlikely, so decidedly impossible, that very specific types of enthusiastic nerds all over the world sat waiting for what promised to be a game like no other.
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Just like his inspirations, Cuphead is subversive and surreal – whether it’s its rubber hose animation based on the work of Fleischer Studios and early disney cartoons, or the tale of something not quite right here of two naive, cupheaded brothers wandering blindly in a deal with the devil himself, you can tell the game deeply and meaningfully respects the weird world and wonderful media in the 1930s.
But where the developers took inspiration from Japanese wartime propaganda films and age-old cartoons watched on grainy VHS tapes, the composer – a certain Kristofer Maddigan – drew inspiration from more recognizable areas: popular music of the 30s and 40s. The original Cuphead OST featured almost three hours of original jazz, big band and ragtime music, and for the DLC – or The Delicious Last Course, if you will – “didn’t want to do more of the same”. No, for that, he wanted to go further. Bigger. Dare I say, better.
“Although there is technically ‘less’ music in terms of duration in The delicious last dish, what’s there is often much richer and fuller than what’s heard on the original OST,” Maddigan tells me. “The full orchestra of over 50 musicians is obviously a big part of it, but even the big band – which could be considered the ‘core’ of the Cuphead sound – is bigger than last time.
The result is a richer, fuller sound than you’d hear in the base game – and one that’s perfectly suited for the DLC. Because, coincidentally, the animation is parallel to the music: there are as many animations in the DLC as in the base game. Between the changing bosses, the arenas that evolve as the fight progresses, and all the details that have been injected into the new playable character, Miss Chalice, the DLC isn’t just cheap horse armor. It’s a full-fledged game.
“There are almost three times as many musicians involved in the Delicious last course like in the original game, and I think it shows in the depth of the sound,” says Maddigan. “A lot of this can also be attributed to Jeremy Darby, our amazing sound engineer, who managed to record this while maintaining small Covid safe bands in multiple studios for many sessions. This soundtrack would have been a tough proposition without having to deal with a pandemic, let alone during one.
The original score was already stunning; whether you want barbershop, ragtime, big band, jazz, or anything in between, it’s got you covered. Cuphead won the BAFTA Games Award for Music in 2018, and rightly so – even a cursory listen will remind you of Duke Ellington or Count Basie, but still with something else filtering just below the surface. Playing through the DLC and listening to the soundtrack outside of it, it’s safe to say that Maddigan struck lightning twice.
“I didn’t really want The delicious last dish to be exactly ‘more or less the same,'” he tells me when I ask him how he “searched the depths” for more inspiration after creating nearly 180 minutes of rich music for the base game. “I knew after the first game that there were still areas I wanted to explore – like early Hollywood / early disney sound – but it wasn’t until I really dug and explored different musical avenues that a lot of the soundtrack started to take shape in my mind.
Maddigan explains that, musically, Studio MDHR dives a little deeper into the 1940s by The delicious last dish than on the base game – something imitated also in the style of animation. “Listening to some of the great RPG OSTs (Final Fantasy VI through Final Fantasy IX come to mind), there are often many different musical styles throughout the game,” says Maddigan. “So I kind of tried to compose as if I was creating a much larger sonic world. In a sense, I was trying to add my own element of ‘depth’ to the story.
And it’s not just the game music that Maddigan relies on to make the DLC work so well, not by a long shot. The name of the game’s composer and producer, Maja Moldenhauer, has been dropped Fancy in my preview sessions, and it was something I was keen to follow. Where Moldenhauer noted that the studio “strives to achieve this Fancy-like quality” – for Maddigan, the comparison goes beyond visual style matching.
“On a more technical level, it seems to me that [Fantasia] is something more related to a lot of games that aren’t Cuphead,” he explains. “In many cases, composing for interactive media now requires a very different approach to traditional film music; the music has to be thought of both vertically and horizontally, how the music will react and layer in real-time to the progress of the player.Music and visuals are much more obviously linked.
“With Cuphead, we didn’t think this was the right way to go, and instead felt that more standard song forms following a more linear progression would be more appropriate and accurate to the game’s aesthetic. However, in this area of linear song form, one thing that was different with the DLC compared to the base game is that the first time around I was just trying to write as many songs as possible and then we often paired them with a boss later. in progress. »
Phantom Express – a base game boss level – is a good example of this process in action. Studio MDHR told Maddigan that the melody would work well for the train, so the composer went back and added more “train” type sounds – but the genesis of this melody came before we saw this boss.
“In the case of the DLC, with a few exceptions where I had a riff that wasn’t fleshed out for the main game, every piece of music was written for the specific boss/scene/map etc. More thought went to match the music to the visual this time around. The music still doesn’t reflect the action, but in my opinion it often fits the setting better.
Cuphead is one of those games where you’re going to play it, maybe finish it (maybe not, it’s rock-hard and inspired by run-and-gun titles from the 8 and 16-bit era – which aren’t known for being generous to players), then listen to it ad infinitum afterwards. Maddigan and Studio MDHR know it too: the OST is available in FLAC and MP3 320 kbps formats, as well as vinyl pressings (of good quality).
Cuphead, no doubt, would not have had the success it has had it not been for the music – it’s an essential part of the overall tribute to the media of the past. This is integral to a player’s enjoyment of playing, to how players understand the world, even to the player who feels like they are immersed in a state of flux. The game wouldn’t be what it is without the music, just like Fantasia wouldn’t be what it is without its animations.
“I like to think that a lot of what people love about Cuphead is the music, yes, but it’s definitely in conjunction with the other aspects of the game,” says Maddigan. “Even though the gameplay and sound didn’t live up to the visuals, Cuphead probably would have been at least somewhat successful, as a visual curiosity if nothing else. The fact that the game is really fun, that it plays well, and that people seem to like the soundtrack, these are all factors that work together to create something bigger, something that exudes love and personality, and that resonates with a lot of players.
“There is something very honest about Cupheadand the player doesn’t have to live very long in that world to feel the care and respect that has been brought to the game. I think it’s the combination of visuals, gameplay, and music/sound effects that creates something greater.
CupheadAs Final Fantasy and Fancy before him, is an ode to the ever-changing relationship between visuals and music – a love letter to the inexorable bond that unites them. Even if you don’t like the challenge, Cuphead and The delicious last dish absolutely worth playing: there is nothing else in this world quite like it.
Cuphead – The delicious last dish launching June 30 on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.