[Interview] Studio MDHR on Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course development, the future, and more
Posted on June 26, 2022 by Nicholas Serpa in Interviews, Switch
At a Summer Games Fest press event, we were fortunate enough to not only get to play a little bit of Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course, but also to speak with Maja Moldenhauer, Studio MDHR’s director and executive producer. In an interview with Nintendo Everything, Moldenhauer spoke about the development cycle of the game’s new expansion, the scope of its new content, physical release, and the future of the company.
You can read the full interview below or watch an abbreviated version alongside some new gameplay over on YouTube.
So, I mostly want to discuss with you the story of the development behind this DLC, but first, can you tell us a little bit about what players can expect from Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course?
Hi, I’m Maja Moldenhauer, Studio Director at Studio MDHR. The Delicious Last Course, which is what we’re previewing here at Play Days, is an extension and a new adventure to the Cuphead franchise, where we introduce The Legendary Chalice who’s trying to escape the astral plane, and together with Cuphead and Mugman, they must gather some magical ingredients to concoct a magical wonder chart that’s going to bring her back to life. It is our biggest island yet – it is five super-sized bosses, but many many more challenges and levels to discover, and we’re very excited for everyone to play it.
When developers are adding DLC to a game, sometimes the reason is because there are a lot of new ideas they wanted to explore that they weren’t able to fit into the main game. Would you say that that was the case with this expansion? If so, what new ideas does this expansion introduce?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, there’s no shortage of ideas, coming from the era and the gameplay homages that we wanted to pay tribute to. But like so many other developers can probably attest to, when you put out a game, there are so many things that make it on the cutting room floor. For us, it was more figuratively because of the costs associated with physically doing animation and not incorporating it, but it was in the back of our minds, and we couldn’t let go of it. And so, at the end of the day we thought, you know, so that we can rest our heads at night and feel like this is a complete chapter, we need to do this DLC. Incorporate Legendary Chalice as a main hero of the trio of characters as Ms. Chalice, and also continue to pay homage to these last few bosses that we always wanted to do.
At this point, you guys have been working on Cuphead projects in some capacity for over a decade – how long has it been altogether?
See, it’s difficult to quantify that, because we were a very small team of three when we started, and then you scale up eventually. But yeah, in essence, it was 2013, 2014 before this really started taking shape and form. The [email protected] team at Microsoft discovered us, and that’s when kind of we thought, you know what, maybe we should go big or go home. We’re so excited to have this also as an extension on the Nintendo platform as well since then. But yeah – it’s been a while, but it takes a lot of time to do 2D animation on paper and to capture the magic that we were looking to capture.
This is the final – and only – expansion that Cuphead will be receiving. How does it feel to finally be done with the game?
It feels amazing! I can’t actually put it into one word. Having gone gold (the other day) and knowing that we’re still about three weeks out from launch date, it feels amazing and incredible. I have to thank our entire team in terms of getting us to the point where we’re at right now, where we incorporated everything that we wanted into this game. We left nothing on the table – we took it to the next level from animation to music to backgrounds to gameplay, to the engineering behind it… we really hit everything that we wanted to hit. We’re very proud of it.
You said you took it to the next level in terms of animations and backgrounds. Could you elaborate on that and give us a sense for what that looks like in The Delicious Last Course?
We didn’t want to rely on the laurels of our past success. We really pushed the boundaries in terms of animation and where we could take it in an experimental mode. So, we’re really known for boss transformations – this time around, you’re going to see a lot of boss transformations, but also location transformations. So, between phases you’ll land in a totally different arena, which means almost triple or quadruple the background art and watercolor paintings done by Caitlin Russell – incredible, incredible work. The music itself is double the orchestra from the original game… so we had 65 people in the original soundtrack, and now we’re at over 110 for this one island. We almost liken it to taking it from the early 1930’s of Iwerks and Fleischer Studios’ cartoons to closer where we were striving of Fantasia… at the same time, trying to find a balance with making it congruent with the original game and not going too far off. But I think that fans will notice there’s a significantly more animation and layers and magic in this DLC.
The Cuphead Show on Netflix did not use the pen-to-paper cell animation that your studio is known for, but the development cycle for that show was much shorter than the development cycle for the game. Did Studio MDHR ever consider changing how to animate this DLC because of how the show’s animation was produced?
Yeah, so the Netflix Show, they did a bang-up job. We were mutually exclusive – our bread and butter is games, and we love gaming, and we’re going to stay in that space. The animation of the Netflix show stayed under the Netflix umbrella. We were executive producers on the show, but all that animation happened within Netflix Studios, and they took it in the direction that they saw it, and we love it.
Our guiding principle as a company is to remain true to what our vision is. Our vision is, number one, our people, and making sure that they’re happy, because happy people create a great product. Second is that we love 2D animation, and there’s a magic in putting pencil to paper in a digital age, and we’re trying to revive that – we’re trying to bring that back to life. The way that the incongruencies happen with, like, human error of drawing over frame and not having an undo button… the way that ink hits the fibers of a paper and splatters a little bit… that is what we needed to capture, and you can’t do that digitally. We understand that there are ways that we could have made this game much faster if we went digital, but that was just not our intent.
This DLC got delayed a few times, and I’m sure the pandemic played a part in that, but were there other factors that contributed?
I think one thing that Studio MDHR is notorious for is not putting timeline in our guiding principles. First and foremost, it’s quality – it’s making sure that we remain true to our vision. That will always come first. Whether that means an extra year, an extra two years – that’s what’s gonna happen. And making sure that it’s something that we’re very proud of, a premium quality product at the end of the day, and something the fans are actually going to be excited about, and that it’s something new and inventive and creative versus adhering to a timeline. Absolutely, the pandemic played a role. Luckily, we are a fully distributed team, so in terms of working from home, it was not an issue with us. But putting what I alluded to earlier in terms of making sure you have a happy team, putting their mental health at the forefront of things was a very important thing for us to do. So, it played a role in terms of timeline, but only marginally.
Can you give me a better sense of what the scope is for this new DLC?
It’s our biggest island yet. It is a natural progression from the core game, stemming off from island number three. It has five super-sized bosses, it has a number of other things to discover as well… which, we want the element of surprise out there as well, so we’re not really talking about it too much. But what’s really key – and my favorite component of the DLC – is our new playable character, Ms. Chalice. She is not a reskin of Cuphead and Mugman, she’s built from the ground up… thousands of frames of animation for her, unique to her individual supers, her dash parry and her invincible roll. She has a double jump, she comes with an extra HP, and we’re just very proud that she’s part of our trio of hero characters right now. And in order to access DLC, you don’t have to actually beat the core game, you just have to beat one mausoleum, and a mystery character will appear at a nearby shoreline or dock and take you over to DLC Island. So, you will still be able to access DLC without beating the core game. And for experienced gamers who have actually beat the game, they can use Ms. Chalice to go back and replay it in a whole new way with her new abilities. It will throw you for a loop.
Was this always envisioned as just an add-on – did you guys ever consider making it a standalone game, a standalone product?
Yeah! There was a discussion – it was a brief discussion at the beginning of the development in 2019 when we actually put pencil to paper. But ultimately at the end of the day, it fit this chapter of the Cuphead story. We really always wanted to have Ms. Chalice as a playable character, and so that fit, and storyline-wise it fit as well, so it just made sense for us to include it as a DLC rather than as a standalone game.
You mentioned that players can jump into this DLC pretty early on, so from a difficulty perspective, is this something that people who are new to the game will still be able to start and get through?
Yeah, absolutely! I would not reserve DLC to any level of gamer whatsoever. There is a different feeling or a different hormone that gets excreted when you beat a level where you’re just like, I did it! And so, we encourage even beginners to play DLC for sure.
People have asked in the past about a physical release of this game, and the response at the time was, well, maybe when the DLC is done, we’ll see. So, do you guys have any plans to do some kind of physical release on the Switch?
We can confirm we are planning to do a physical release, and keep your ear to the ground in the coming months – we’ll have more to share about that, but there will be a physical.
You guys have a costume in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and I’m just curious how that partnership with Nintendo came about – did Nintendo invite you; did you guys have a dialog with them?
The short story is they invited us. There really isn’t a long story, but yeah, they had reached out to invite us into that partnership and collaboration. That was a milestone in our careers. We have aspired and looked up to Nintendo our entire lives, so when that happened, it was a moment where we stopped in our tracks. I remember the day – we were in like the kitchen cooking dinner and feverishly being like, who has to go to what exercise? When that email came in, I was just like, oh my god, this is incredible. It was definitely just like a wow moment for us.
How closely did Studio MDHR work with Nintendo and Mr. Sakurai in making that happen?
I would say more high-level conversations, where we, you know – when there’s somebody who’s spearheading and leading the pack, you don’t tell them how to do what they do! We’re just like, here’s all the art that you might need, and you go and do your magic, we’ll stick with ours.
You guys have spent so long on this game, on this particular art style. Do you think Studio MDHR would ever consider branching out into a different style of art or a different style of game, or is this it?
What I can say is that we feel so intimate with having brought 2D animation on paper back to life. In terms of the feedback we’ve received, being like… “I never thought I would see this again” or “I never thought my skillset would apply again!” We will stick with 2D animation. We’ll stick with – in the foreseeable future – pencil to paper. But the genre? And what’s next? That is something you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for. But there are plans, for sure.
Now at this point, Cuphead has become a fairly large brand for you. You guys have a game, a show, you had a deal with Arby’s at one point…
That’s great… I love Arby’s! (laughing).
But like, you guys have this character that’s a brand now. Do you feel like, whatever you make next… do you think it will be able to separate itself from this character and brand that you’ve made?
I hope so! We just have so many ideas in our heads in terms of what we want to do next. And that is mapped out, by far. And so, being true to ourselves has always just been, let’s just do what we love… let’s stick to this map, and not be influenced by any other things that might have stuck or what didn’t stick. We really have tunnel vision in terms of where we’re gonna go, and I’m excited to bring that to the table.
Before we wrap thing up, when and where can people play this game?
Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course comes to the Nintendo Switch and all major platforms on June 30th, and we’re very excited for you to play it!
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited from its original transcript for brevity, readability, and clarity, but no changes were made to its overall content or meaning.