At the end of June, Studio MDHR will no longer be haunted.
That's when the studio is finally releasing its Cuphead downloadable content expansion, Delicious Last Course. First announced in 2018, the DLC started as a series of ideas that didn't make it into the original game; things like homages to games and classic cartoons, or inspirations such as the ghostly Cuphead character known as the Legendary Chalice. As studio director and executive producer Maja Moldenhauer explained, they were ideas the developers just couldn't let go--even if it would eventually take five years to realize them.
"There was nothing actually on the cutting room floor [when Cuphead was completed]," Moldenhauer said of the DLC, in an interview with GameSpot at Summer Game Fest. "When we did the core game, every piece of paper [used for animation] made it in. It was things that were in the backs of our minds [that made up the DLC], like homages to the cartoons that we loved or the moves that we loved, whether it was like an abominable snowman or a cowgirl or something like that, we were like, 'We would love a boss like that.'"
"It was all in our heads and haunting us," she said. "I don't think we would have been able to close this chapter without getting them out. The ideas were just too good to pass up and move on."
We got to spend some time trying out those ideas during Summer Game Fest, where Studio MDHR had one of the DLC's boss fights available to play, using Ms. Chalice, the living version of Legendary Chalice's ghost and Delicious Last Course's new character. Playing as Ms. Chalice feels very different from original characters Cuphead and Mugman, though.
Where the original characters have only one jump, but can get more air by using a parry ability on certain kinds of projectiles, Ms. Chalice comes with a double-jump from the, uh, jump. Her parry ability is a horizontal dash, which is perhaps more reliable than the jump parry, but doesn't offer her any additional motion as a reward for its execution.
Moldenhauer said that Ms. Chalice was an element the team had wanted to do more with in the core game--and in a very real way, Studio MDHR realized that ambition, thanks to the fact that you can replay all of Cuphead with Ms. Chalice. With the new mechanics, though, the idea wasn't to create a character who was easier to use than Cuphead and Mugman, Moldenhauer said.
"What we were doing was just trying to make it complementary," she explained. "So if somebody doesn't have a good fast-twitch double-jump to time parries, they have this parry dash. Vice versa, though, for me, I like playing with Ms. Chalice, but that's one component that I don't like. I don't like the after-effect when you dash parry and what happens with her--I'm not great with it. So I would prefer to play a parry-heavy level with Cuphead."
In practice, playing with Ms. Chalice requires something of a rewiring regarding the way you think about a Cuphead boss fight. Ms. Chalice's double-jump makes her a bit easier to use in terms of dodging big enemy attacks that required careful timing with Cuphead and Mugman. Parrying, however, is a huge part of a Cuphead fight: It not only allows you to instantly disable an enemy attack, clearing room on the screen that you sometimes need, but it also helps you charge up special abilities and EX attacks that allow you to deal massive damage to enemies. Where nailing a parry with Cuphead traditionally was enough to put you out of harm's way for a moment, thanks to the way the jump parry propels you into the air, Ms. Chalice's parry functions as if you absorbed the attack altogether. That can often leave you out in the open and means you might ignore more parry opportunities or find them more dangerous than you would have with Cuphead or Mugman.
Ms. Chalice has a couple other features specific to the character that can give you a leg up, b ut require tradeoffs. In order to access Ms. Chalice, you have to equip a specific Charm, one of the special items you can earn in Cuphead that give your character useful benefits. The Charm you get in the DLC swaps Cuphead or Mugman's place with Ms. Chalice--she becomes alive while one of them becomes a ghost. So using Ms. Chalice costs you that charm slot when you're playing. In addition to Ms. Chalice's other gameplay tweaks, though, the upshot is that, while Cuphead and Mugman have three hit points, Ms. Chalice has four, making using her a little more forgiving.
She also has a dodge roll ability that's unique among the characters, giving you a brief window of invincibility when you use it. The move can be very useful in the right circumstances to avoid damage in a pinch, but it's also highly dependent on the situation. In tight fights without a lot of maneuverability or requiring precise placement of your character, like the boss fight we played, the dodge roll wasn't that useful. Like all of Ms. Chalice's abilities, it'll be suited to some battles in the game and not others.
Our hands-on session gave us a chance to fight a boss called Mortimer Freeze in the level Snow Cult Scuffle, which GameSpot previously saw as part of a hands-off preview for Delicious Last Course. The wizard Mortimer starts out floating around the boss arena, harrying you with deadly tarot cards and living water droplets that march after you like soldiers. Damage him enough and he transforms into a giant abominable snowman, who also transforms into an icebox, dispensing angry popsicles at you like flying monkeys, and bombarding you with mortars in the form of exploding ice cubes. Finally, you climb up above the arena to stand on some rotating platforms, where you fight Mortimer in the form of a giant, magical snowflake. The snowflake form spits snowcones at you and likes to pop out its own eye, which flies around, blasting lightning across the battlefield. It's actually a bit gross.
Like Cuphead's other battles, Mortimer Freeze is no pushover--there are three total phases you have to fight through, each with its own set of mechanics. Staying alive in the fight is often a matter of careful positioning, like when the snowman summons icy swords from the ground beneath your feet, or when its ice cubes hit the ground and shatter into smaller cubes that arc overhead. Playing with Ms. Chalice took some getting used to and feels significantly different from the base game's characters. She excels in some areas, like leaping over the snowman as it transforms into a giant snowball and barrels toward you, but isn't necessarily perfectly suited to the fight thanks to her dodge parry. Playing with the character suggests that you might want to swap back and forth between Ms. Chalice and the original characters depending on the battle--although playing with her through the entire core game will definitely offer a new challenge.
Moldenhauer said that creating that new challenge with Ms. Chalice was also the toughest part of developing Delicious Last Course.
"It was easier developing her with the new bosses coming out because we hadn't defined what the gameplay looks like yet, versus retroactively having her fit and work with the existing bosses, because we didn't want to touch them. These are all the same, and she had to work with them, as well," Moldenhauer said. "That definitely was one of those most challenging components of all of this. Defining and coming up with different concepts and different bosses and boss fights and stuff like that, that comes very naturally because there are so many gameplay homages we want to play into, or reference art that we're looking at."
There are some new references influencing what you'll see in Delicious Last Course, as well, although Moldenhauer said the team made sure that the DLC doesn't look drastically different from the base game, even though it's taking cues from a few new sources. Influences are still coming from the animation of the 1930s, although Moldenhauer said Studio MDHR drew from works that came in the later part of the decade, such as Fantasia, as well as the cartoons that inspired the base game. Because the two parts were so closely linked from their inception, they're still very visually similar to one another.
With Delicious Last Course closing the book on this chapter of Cuphead, Studio MDHR may well be looking to the future--but Moldenhauer wouldn't let slip much about what the developers are thinking of doing next.
"There's no shortage of ideas in our heads. We're full of cracky, quirky things that we want to eventually get to," she said. "We love 2D animation, we love pencil to paper and what magic that brings in a digital age, so you can definitely expect that out of us. We're very open to different genres of gameplay. This was the first one out of the gate, and we'll have to see where it goes."
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