It’s been a long time coming, but Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course is nearly here.
First unveiled in 2018 for a 2019 release, the add-on to the beloved 2017 run-and-gun game has been delayed a number of times. Oakville, Ontario-based Studio MDHR, rather understandably, has wanted to maintain a “healthy and sustainable” development cycle, and then COVID-19 happened.
Thankfully, The Delicious Last Course is finally set to release — for sure this time — on June 30th, 2022.
Ahead of the highly anticipated launch, I got to attend a hands-off group media preview with Studio MDHR, and it looks even more stunning and imaginative than I expected.
“One of the things we like to think about with this expansion for the game is that we talked about it internally as a depth expansion more than a breath expansion,” says Studio MDHR producer Eli Cymet of The Delicious Last Course‘s scope. “Ultimately, we really spent so much time over these last few years, polishing every facet of our game development acumen in terms of the quality of our animation, the quality of our concept and game mechanic design, and, notably, the quality of the soundtrack.”
On that note, Cymet lets us sit for a moment and soak in part of the new score, which is once again composed by Toronto’s Kristofer Maddigan. Over 110 musicians performed on The Delicious Last Course soundtrack, but in smaller groups at a time due to COVID, which made recording especially difficult. Thankfully, you can already see the fruits of their labour; the new pieces we’ve heard so far are just as wonderful as you’d expect, coming off Maddigan’s sublime jazz-infused music for the base game.
“Christopher Maddigan really challenged himself this time around to sort of plumb the depths of the 1930s and ’40s for musical stylings, genres, inspirations, riffs [and] hooks that he hadn’t really touched on in the first game. And he calls it shorter but denser, his soundtrack — [fewer] tracks, just so much richness to each one,” says Cymet.
“Chris took influences that we haven’t heard in the core game, from rococo to western-themed, but all with an underlining similar jazz feel,” added Maja Moldenhauer, Studio MDHR executive producer and studio director. “And maybe I’m biased because it is our game, but the music, I frequently play it while I’m cooking dinner. It’s just a beautiful soundtrack!”
After hearing a bit of the lovely overture, Studio MDHR takes us into the actual DLC. To access it, you’ll need to have beaten at least one of the Mausoleums in the main game. These were the short stages that had you protecting an urn by parrying each of the incoming ghosts. Once you meet this requirement, you can take a boat ride in the overworld to bring you to a brand-new section of Inkwell Isle, which is where The Delicious Last Course takes place.
“We like to call this our biggest Isle yet — both in terms of size and secret scope. There are quests, goals, secrets [and] hidden sort of sundries everywhere to discover — we’re going to let folks do that at the game’s launch,” Cymet teases.
On “D.L.C. Isle,” you’re quickly introduced to your objective: rescuing Ms. Chalice from the astral plane. Chef Saltbaker, a new character introduced in the DLC, can bake a goodie to help her escape, but he needs Cuphead and Mugman to defeat a series of bosses to gather ingredients. This is easier said than done.
A new challenger approaches
Immediately, Ms. Chalice stands out for multiple reasons, starting with her adorable and unique design. “She contains tens of thousands of new frames of animation and is not built on any character skeleton from the previous game whatsoever,” notes Cymet. These carry over across her movement in the overworld, regular boss fights and the shoot ’em up plane sections. Studio MDHR confirmed that the boss-free run-and-gun levels will not return in The Delicious Last Course.
But Ms. Chalice has also got a great deal of utility to go with her snazzy looks — chief among this, a double jump and roll while crouched, unlike Cuphead/Mugman, to afford her added layers of maneuverability. On top of that, her dash doubles as a parry for further options, and she even starts off with an extra hit point (HP).
That all sounds great, but you probably think she’ll make Cuphead — a game almost as well-known for its challenge as its visuals — almost too easy. Thankfully, Studio MDHR says careful consideration has gone into designing not only her expanded repertoire but its usefulness among the DLC’s intricately crafted bosses.
“I see it as just kind of like two different angles of how you might play. Chalice’s moveset is advantageous only in specific situations,” explains co-game director Jared Moldenhauer. He notes that because she basically consists of an “amalgamation of aspects of a few different Charms,” the trade-offs are that she has fewer customization options than Cuphead and Mugman. Her ability to duck and roll also requires her to be grounded, while Cuphead and Mugman’s Smoke Dash can be used in the air.
“So I wouldn’t go as far as saying like she is some form of ‘Easy Mode’ — it’s just that a certain set of players may find it easier to control with a double jump [and other abilities], and some might not,” he says.
Adding on to that, Cymet says Ms. Chalice is meant to add “spice and variety” to the combat experience.
“It is really a risk-reward scenario to think about playing as Cuphead and Mugman with access to a more versatile array of charm enhancements. Or playing as Ms. Chalice, if you’re a player who perhaps doesn’t want to focus on parrying as much with the timing factor, you can dash into objects and parrying will be taken care of for you, but you have to do so knowing that you are limiting your charm access in that way.” Cymet also points out that she can even work well in co-op, as her additional HP lends her “extra survivability” that can be used to revive a teammate using Cuphead or Mugman.
If all of that wasn’t enough, Cymet says the actual bosses themselves will ensure that Ms. Chalice doesn’t “break” the game.
“We think they’re going to be super fun and really inventive and creative, and I just don’t think we can emphasize enough how some of these challenges are going to be different from what players have experienced in the original Cuphead game. So we think that will offset anything that might make Chalice an ‘easier’ player.”
New bosses and Shots and Charms, oh my!
In the demo, we got to see one of these bosses — a wizard known as Mortimer Freeze — in action, and everything that Cymet was saying proved quite true. (This same boss was later shown off briefly at Summer Game Fest on June 9th.)
Right off the bat, I was impressed by the scope of the boss fight, which seems larger than anything from the original game. In his first phase, Mortimer alternates between throwing cards, minions and a giant whale at you before summoning a giant snowman to envelope him, which gives him the ability to roll around in snowball form or turn into a sentient fridge that shoots ice cubes. All the while, his cultish followers cheer him on in the background. Naturally, this variety required even more of Studio MDHR’s signature painstaking hand drawing and animation.
“There are single boss phases in this game that contain more frames of animation and detail than entire boss fights in the original Cuphead,” says Cymet.
“Having touched almost every frame of animation in the inking process, I can attest to the fact that the mileage on the animation that you’re going to see in DLC is significantly greater than in singular bosses you would notice in the core game,” adds Maja Moldenhauer. “I would say what would take a lot of the mileage in a boss from the core game is, on average, probably double in DLC. There’s just a significant amount of more detail, more background layers — [it’s] a really beautiful body of work.”
But it also leads to each fight feeling grander and more dynamic.
“We really wanted these to feel like exciting multi-phase experiences, and we also experimented, not just with the bosses themselves transforming but with the stages transforming — which is new to Cuphead — and moving to different areas and arenas,” says Cymet.
As an example of this, the next phase of the Mortimer fight has you hopping up out of this arena using platforms to head outside, where he’ll greet you in a dastardly new snowflake form. From there, he’ll fire snowcone rockets, ghostly spirits and even his own eyeballs. Considering this was just one boss fight, I’m eager to see what Studio MDHR has cooked up for the rest. To further tease us, Studio MDHR elaborated on some of the inspirations and goals behind designing the bosses.
It’s no secret that Cuphead was heavily inspired by 1930s Disney and Fleischer animation, and co-director Chad Moldenhauer says the team further tapped into that Golden Age, including ’40s-era works, when developing The Delicious Last Course.
“It sounds funny to say, but almost in the same way that Disney kind of slowly led up and released Fantasia with everything they learned throughout the ’30s era, we kind of wanted to follow in those footsteps and really push ourselves creatively — the fidelity of the art, the craziness, the areas that we couldn’t go through in the first game due to time and cost and the nature of that,” he says. “So I think people will be excited to see some areas where even we pinch ourselves every day when we see some of the stuff we’ve pulled off.”
“We like to imagine that the first game was basically a series of last bosses from a normal game. And then DLC is almost like, “What if every boss was the equivalent of the last boss in Cuphead with just that much extra work and art and patterns and joy and just really push each individual one to a new heightened level?” notes Jared Moldenhauer.
There will also be new Shots and Charms to purchase and equip. While we didn’t get to see too many of them, Cymet did spotlight a personal favourite: the ‘Crackshot,’ which shoots higher-damaging little diamonds that can break out into faster but weaker bolts. Meanwhile, its EX Attack (super move) is a turret that shoots on its own or can be manually launched at the enemy by parrying it. Of course, both options free you up more to jump and dodge. On the flip side, ‘Converge,’ another new Shot, widely fires three electric bullets that can converge for a tighter spread if you hold the lock button and aim.
“The goal for all the weapons was always to just offer a different way to play a boss — like how you could position yourself or how much damage you can give. So with the new sets of weapons and charms, it does offer a new way that you may want to approach different battles,” says Jared Moldenhauer. He also mentioned a charm that lets you regain HP upon parrying instead of having a super metre, which would certainly suit more defensive playstyles.
“You can go back and experience original Cuphead game bosses with all of these new charms and weapons that we feel really add a layer of strategic depth to speedruns and to both high score attempts and general play overall,” adds Cymet. That should add even more value to the “between three and four hours” average time he expects the DLC campaign to take you to complete.
Ultimately, Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course is shaping up to be everything you could have wanted from an expansion to the original game. It’s clear that Studio MDHR has put a staggering amount of time and effort into creating its most technically impressive, visually distinct and appropriately challenging bosses, with oodles of charm, to boot. This is one meal I can’t wait to dig into.
Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course will launch on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Steam and GOG on June 30th for $9.99. It’s also part of the Tribeca Games Showcase, which is spotlighting nine titles from around the world between June 11th and 19th. Those interested can play a demo from home during this time — learn more on that here.
Image credit: Studio MDHR