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Soundtrack review: Cuphead (Kristofer Maddigan – 2017)

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Soundtrack review: Cuphead (Kristofer Maddigan – 2017)



Cuphead is a run and gun indie video game developed and published by StudioMDHR. As the title character Cuphead, the player fights a series of bosses in order to repay a debt to the devil. The game was heavily inspired by the rubber hose style of animation used in cartoons of the 1930s, such as the work of studios Fleischer and Walt Disney Animation, seeking to emulate their subversive and surrealist qualities. Cuphead has infinite lives, keeps weapons between deaths, can continuously fire his blasts and has a quick dash ability that can be used at will. The player can also purchase more weapons and “Charms” from the shop using coins collected from the run-and-gun levels. Charms give the player special abilities like an extra life. Cuphead has a parry ability that, after successfully parrying five times in a row, enables Cuphead to perform a special move. Kristofer Maddigan wrote the score.

Neither this game nor the score would have been on my radar had a friend not turned me on to them; I searched for the game play and it was amazing how perfectly the 30s atmosphere and design were created. I have always been fascinated with how cartoons looked, moved and sounded in that age and the music well…you know how it sounds and you either love it or hate it. The score is 3 hours long, a very bold decision to release it like this and I was curious to hear it. The opening is a quiet saloon piano piece “Don’t deal with the devil” that sort of ushers me into the atmosphere of this game.

Then the 30s jazz mayhem starts; I am listening to “Introduction” and if it had a bit of noise on it I would have sworn it came straight from that decade; the music is created and recreated perfectly, with the various jazz horns, the frantic pace, the bass and the percussion; it is simply a joy to listen to these infectious sounds. I have been known to stay away from jazz but man when I hear this kind of music, I just want to turn the volume up. I wonder how the composer and performers managed to recapture the sound so vividly, so perfectly. And it’s not just he groovy/smoke coming out of the dance floor sound, it’s also the quieter piano one, carefully and slowly played which like I said reminds me of the old saloon sounds. I remember I watched as a kid cartoons from that age and as cue after cue comes along I get such a warm feeling of nostalgia and no matter how varied the pace and volume of the music might be it never leaves the confines of that period and from frantic to melodic, from flute to trombone, it’s the same delight.

I must admit I was expecting a full jazzy dance affair but I am discovering pleasant surprises and enjoyable changes of pace all through this score. The composer actually helps me remember or discover even better the entire soundscape of the 30s; this is not simply a retro score that imitates something, it’s a composition that recreates that world in the smallest detail. I have no idea how Kristofer Maddigan pulled it off and how much he had to study and research and listen but what he achieved here is stunning. Each instruments sounds just like it should and there is not a note that is modern or out of place. I can’t even imagine how much fun they must have head in the studio as the music was recoded.

As a personal preference I am more particular to the lively cues when the music goes wild with piano and trumpets. My feet almost hurt from bouncing under the table during those cues. For a non scholar like me that’s the epitome of the 30s sound. After listening to this score I just want to play the game, impossibly difficult as it is, just to experience the music in context and see how it fits with all the fighting and devils and weapons and al; but if we talk immersive, as in game scores needing to be, you can’t do any better than “Cuphead” because it doesn’t just immerse me in the 30s atmosphere, it tears down the present and builds an entire world around me where absolutely nothing, not even a spec of dust, can convince me that I live in 2017. This is a priceless and stunning score, a work of art that needs to get more exposure.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 163 / 163

Album excellence: 100%

Don’t Deal With The Devil (Instrumental)
Elder Kettle
Inkwell Isle One
Botanic Panic
Die House
Elder Kettle (Piano)
Threatenin’ Zeppelin
Treetop Trouble
Ruse Of An Ooze
Floral Fury
Inkwell Isle One (Piano)
Clip Joint Calamity
Forest Follies
Inkwell Isle Two
Sugarland Shimmy
Aviary Action
Inkwell Isle Two (Piano)
Carnival Kerfuffle
Fiery Frolic
Funfair Fever
The Mausoleum
Legendary Ghost
Pyramid Peril
Victory Tune
Hurry Up
Coin-Op Bop
High Score
Funhouse Frazzle
Inkwell Isle Three
Honeycomb Herald
Porkrind’s Shop
Shootin n’ Lootin
Dramatic Fanatic
Perilous Piers
Murine Corps
Junkyard Jive
Rugged Ridge
High Seas Hi-Jinx
Railroad Wrath
Inkwell Isle Three (Piano)
The Airship
All Bets Are Off
Inkwell Hell
The King’s Court
Inkwell Hell (Piano)
Chief Evil Officer
Admission To Perdition
Ominous Interlude
One Hell Of A Time
The End
Winner Takes All
Closing Credits

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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