Music Review – Cuphead

9/9

 

Instant Replay Value

It’s about 1am and I’m hunched over my computer, replaying the Cuphead level “Murine Corps” for what must be the 49th time (mostly because attempts 1-48 have gone awry). I’ve already finished the game, and I’ve even gotten a coveted “S” rating on this very level.

But the music in this stage is just perfect.

It rushes just enough to keep the song from dragging, and the horns play just enough behind the beat to give the song some weight. I can’t help but shimmy in my seat whenever I hear it.

And it’s not the only tune I experience that with. Across the board, Cuphead’s soundtrack rekindles that fiery hothouse jazz sound that made Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman household names, and it makes me want to play every single stage again, long after I would be done with the game. Stages are favorites not solely for their game mechanics, but primarily because the music is such a joy to listen to. Cuphead’s soundtrack is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Live Instruments Win Again

Often times with video game soundtracks, live instrumentation is a bit of a gamble; it’s likely more expensive to produce music this way due to the technical challenges of recording it and incorporating it into a gameplay situation. In my opinion, only a handful of games have incorporated a mostly acoustic soundtrack successfully (Super Mario Galaxy comes to mind instantly), and Cuphead easily falls into that category.

The recording and mixing quality of the music is stellar; you can pick out any section of the orchestra and focus on it with your ears very easily, and that is a testament to the tracking and mixing engineers who worked on these recordings. Small details and hits in the music are effective and discernible, glueing the songs together extraordinarily well.

As a wonderful bonus, the developers managed to take video of a couple of the recording sessions, providing a window into the process of capturing this fantastic music. Check it out:

Impeccable Writing

One thing that is apparent in Cuphead’s soundtrack is the way in which it’s matched with its level designs – run ‘n gun stages are lower key affairs with a stride piano foundation, while the boss battles tend to feature heavier rhythm and power. The initial boss stages tend to go for more marching style compositions, while the later stages kick into more Ellington-esque swing numbers. Flying stages are slightly whimsical, while club scenes are low down and heavy. The victory theme played after each successfully completed stage is a particular gem: a new addition to the 200-plus songs in history that were composed over Gershwin’s chord changes for “I Got Rhythm”.

The themes tend to match well with their bosses – a three-boss train battle starts out with a typical train whistle quote from the sax section, for example – and each piece features fantastic solo performances, a rarity in game music but a staple of jazz music that thankfully wasn’t overlooked in the production. Maddigan and company were approaching these compositions as songs first, rather than background music for gameplay, and it shows.

The verdict

If you have an extra 10 bucks to spare (on Steam), you owe it to yourself to pick up this soundtrack. It easily stands on its own as a collection of excellent jazz music, and is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s music library, whether they’re a gamer or not.

Buy the soundtrack from Bandcamp: https://studiomdhr.bandcamp.com/releases

P.S.: Because I have to brag, here’s my aforementioned “S” rating on Murine Corps, my proudest moment to date as a gamer. It also gives a good example of how the music plays well with the game:

  1. Nov 11, 2017 3:22 am

    Very Nice In depth analysis in this blog… look forward to seeing more of them. I can feel the passion and love you have of music and how it can compliment a video game

    • Dec 19, 2017 11:34 pm

      @Fredrick Saunders Sr

      Thanks so much, Fredrick! I wanted to try and convey the experience of playing the music with the game in the hopes that people will notice it more. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  2. Nov 11, 2017 5:27 am

    I’m not a gamer and this review makes me want to play the game…almost. Haha. I love the focus on the music. Something that often gets overlooked. Great writing!

    • Dec 19, 2017 11:33 pm

      @Ashley

      I agree, the music can be overlooked, especially in big website reviews. This is why I wanted to start doing this, so I could comment on the experience of hearing the music in a game, much like you’d comment on the experience of a soundtrack to a movie. thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. Nov 17, 2017 3:51 pm

    Indeed the live elements of the composition are are well in hand well in pocket and do well together where they do not overpower. The reviewer is correct.

    Edward, your passion for music TOGETHER with video games produced a nice marriage of thought. Great article.

    • Dec 19, 2017 11:32 pm

      @Meiko

      Thanks so much, Meiko, I really appreciate the comment 🙂

  4. Nov 18, 2017 12:22 am

    I’m not a gamer, but this review made me want to play the game. I looked to see if it was an app, and sadly it is not:( But I enjoyed listening to it as I read your blog. I was also able to pick out the different instruments. When are you going to write for games??? Great writing Ed. I enjoyed reading it.

    • Dec 19, 2017 11:32 pm

      @Angie Erickson Stevens

      Haha thanks Angie! I don’t know if I will ever get to the level where I am writing for games, but maybe someday! Yeah this game is only available for Windows PCs and Xbox One/360, but if you have any way to get the game, it is totally worth it. Not just for the soundtrack, but everything about it is amazing. Just be warned: it’s REALLY difficult, lol

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