Cuphead was so highly anticipated when it was quickly revealed at E3 2014. The three-year wait was agonizing, but was worth it because of the game’s impeccable quality. This eerily reflects the story of the DLC — cleverly titled The Delicious Last Course — as it was announced at E3 2018 and is finally just on the precipice of its release. And even though it will probably lack the surprise this time around, this expansion still looks like another satisfying serving of Cuphead in all of its glory.
That was part of the design, too. Producer Eli Cymet said the expansion was a “depth expansion more than a breadth expansion,” meaning it was supposed to do what the base game did, but better. Cymet drove that home by speaking to how Studio MDHR prioritized quality.
“We really spent so much time over these last few years polishing every aspect of our game development acumen in terms of the quality of our animation, game mechanic design, and notably the quality of the game’s soundtrack,” said Cymet.
Studio MDHR still wanted to keep a lot of the game under wraps (it wouldn’t even share the new ways that players earn coins this time around), so a lot of these enhancements can only be based on the scant, edited footage out there and the sole boss fight it demoed (that was the same one that showed up at Summer Game Fest Live 2022). But it was one hell of a boss fight that did demonstrate the team’s point. It was against a frosty cult leader wizard named Mortimer Freeze that played in an arena in front of his devout supporters with northern lights flashing in the background.
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It’s quite a concept that only grows more intriguing as he shape shifts into infeasible forms that flow fluidly because of the game’s stunningly smooth animation. The forms are all chaotic, which is the point, and pretty when casually viewing or only focusing on the many projectiles on the screen, but the liveliness is more apparent when stopping to appreciate the details. The way the crowd cheers when he switches forms, where he pulls out the whale he slams on the floor, how one of his fastest attacks is a ghostly ice cream salesman, and how he licks his lips before he eats his own eyeball (it makes more sense in context) were all small, exaggerated touches that show that Studio MDHR’s attention to detail regarding animation is still almost unparalleled.
But Studio MDHR is not just resting on its laurels since it is doing more and trying to creatively push itself. There is significantly more inking and animation that went into each boss, roughly double according to their estimates, and all are as extravagant as a final boss. And Cymet said MDHR wanted to delve deeper and look into animation styles from the late 1930s and early 1940s and make a game that was their Fantasia, as in a culmination and refinement of what came before. Increasing the scale of everything while also trying to push forward was a lot of work, as explained by Art Director Chad Moldenhauer, but it was worth it to fulfill their vision.
“We still did things the hard way,” said Chad. “For the actual crazy animation we chase, doing it the old way just stacked up that many more hours of work. A lot of the bosses we worked with on larger animation paper so you’re drawing for a longer time. Who in their right mind would ever do this? But it’s the core of what we are chasing as a company so we will stand by it.”
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Many of the cosmetic changes do have gameplay ramifications since more animations mean more attack patterns to memorize. This is still at the very center of Cuphead, but The Delicious Last Course is also adding more ways to enjoy that satisfying core experience, like additional weapons, charms, and Ms. Chalice, the new playable character. Each of them has a unique function like a straight shot that homes shortly after it’s fired and a charm that heals players after a certain amount of parries and they all seem to seamlessly fit right into the game’s established mechanics. They even roll back into the base game, adding even more replayability to a game that already had tons of it.
Ms. Chalice, who can also be played in those old stages as well, is the biggest new addition and isn’t just a palette swap, since she’s an amalgamation of fresh and familiar abilities. She can double jump, has an invincible dash, and comes with one more hit point, and not only can she not equip any charms, players have to use up a charm slot as Cuphead or Mugman to summon her. It’s an unorthodox choice, one that seems like a limiting and arbitrary sacrifice for players who want to have more freedom with its newest roster addition. The restraints might end up being slightly frustrating in practice, but it does make her more unique, which was the point; a character with the same abilities wouldn’t be as enticing.
“We wanted to find a new way to balance and have more options with players, so having more weapons, charms, and even Chalice’s move set will offset certain areas of difficulty so it’s more about player choice and how they want to approach each boss,” said Lead Game Designer Jared Moldenhauer.
With the new levels, expanded tool set, more detailed animation, and additional playable character, it’s not hard to see why The Delicious Last Course took so long. And with all that time spent on DLC, it was a little surprising that this wasn’t just folded into a new game or sequel. It’s not unheard of as titles like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy started out as DLC before branching out on its own. But The Delicious Last Course was never pitched as that and stayed DLC, and part of the reason it just kept going as DLC was because of how it was framed: as a bow to place on the base game, one happened to be the victim of an ever-increasing scope.
“Part of it is a learning question for us because we may have announced the DLC a little too early, so that definitely was one portion of it,” said Chad. “We went into DLC wanting to make this really cool final send-off of Cuphead’s original story and it just blew up and a little bit of scope creep happened as we were going. When we see the final product, it works beautifully as a piece of DLC, we can see from the outside looking in that it could have been a stand-alone game. We still like to think of it as it working perfectly as a piece of DLC, as you can play a new character in the old game and explore the new world.”
More of the same Cuphead is likely enough to justify returning to it. But it seems as though Studio MDHR wanted to go above and beyond that. The team’s secrecy helps keep the expansion’s surprises in tact and while that does limit how it can be judged beforehand, the developer has more or less earned the privilege of keeping its cups close to its chest. The quality of the main game combined with the central tenets of the DLC and incredibly promising and mean that Cuphead might end up saving one of its best meals for last.