With all of the rumors swirling on the web about something going on with Koji Igarashi -- what's Sword or Whip all about? Why's he suddenly in San Francisco discussing Symphony of the Night at Double Fine? -- I decided to take a tour through my interviews of the former Castlevania developer.
I've interviewed Igarashi a number of times over the years, so partly I was just feeling nostalgic seeing all this excitement around his work pop up again in the last week or so. But I also had the idea that maybe I could find some cool quotes that were otherwise buried somewhere in the web -- ones even I forgot.
I ended up charting his career a little bit, too, as I reviewed the text.
Igarashi, with series composer Michiru Yamane, at Konami's Tokyo HQ in 2003
In 2003, I interviewed Igarashi (along with series composer Michiru Yamane) for the first time -- in the days following Tokyo Game Show, at Konami's sparkling new Tokyo headquarters. It's a brief interview, but at least I got him to boil down the Castlevania series into a statement of purpose:
"KCET's other horror-themed series, Silent Hill, has very creepy creatures, but Castlevania has a different image -- like boom! the monsters are right there. So creepy and combating are the two elements. We're actually targeting to provide a combating action game for the world. That's the main focus of the game."
Games were in a transition then. Symphony of the Night was viewed as a throwback even when it came out in 1997; Silent Hill 2 looked like the future.
This interview took place before the first 3D, Igarashi-lead installment of the franchise, Lament of Innocence, had released on the PlayStation 2. In the end, Igarashi didn't seem to feel as comfortable working in 3D as he did in 2D. The results bear that out, but so do two quotes from the interview:
"Let's talk about this in terms of 2D vs. 3D. 2D is easier to understand -- where the monster is, where to attack, where to run, etc. 2D would be very easy to create. The graphics don't have to be very high quality, because every element of the game is obvious to the player."
And this answer, on why the game didn't have an interconnected, Symphony of the Night-style castle:
"I originally came up with the original game concept having fully connected rooms ... but it was really hard to understand. It's really hard to access as well, and solve the puzzles with that sort of map. I decided to break it apart into separate area maps, and keep the puzzles contained within each area."
Of course, games like Metroid Prime and Dark Souls eventually bore out the viability of this kind of level layout, but also prove that you need tremendous scope and skill to execute it in 3D.
The next interview of mine that I could track down is this 2006 Tokyo Game Show interview (where Igarashi is again joined by Yamane, who says some fun things about the soundtrack. I'd recommend clicking through if that interests you.)
But you can see that the experience of making the two 3D PlayStation 2 games, which weren't nearly as well received by the press and players as the 2D installments of the franchise, has humbled him somewhat.
"Let me just tell you that we're definitely going to work on next generation Castlevania. We want to. ... So what I want to do is, is I want to come up with a solid game[play] system first and figure out on which platform it would work better. ... I'm asking to get some comments -- what's good and what's bad for Castlevania?"
Igarashi also described God of War, which was still on its first installment at the time, as "like the ultimate format of 3D gaming, and at the same time I feel so jealous of God of War because they've done such a great work."
Of course, Sony Santa Monica was undoubtedly had more resources better development tech; it's a bit sad to see Igarashi react this way. This isn't just conjecture; I'd heard how under-resourced his projects were. They weren't treated as "triple-A," even by the standards the time, because Castlevania wasn't big in its home territory.
Of course, Igarashi did tease a PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 Castlevania game at Tokyo Game Show 2008, but it never saw the light of day:
In 2007, I interviewed Igarashi once again -- at the Game Developers Conference.
He told me he'd been playing both God of War and Gears of War, and was still thinking about next-gen Castlevania: "I will not imitate, because I'm going to be following up these two games, but we'll try to be that good on future Castlevania," he said. I wish we could have seen what he came up with.
When it comes to Castlevania history, this next quote holds an important point. Symphony of the Night was foundational to the franchise's next decade-plus -- it shifted direction from a linear, level-based series to a metroidvania franchise at that point.
Igarashi got a "special thinks" credit on Rondo of Blood, for the PC Engine.
Image from of VGMuseum.com.
But Symphony of the Night was actually a sequel -- the PC Engine's Dracula X: Rondo of Blood marked the first time Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo developers, who ended up helming the series, made a game in the franchise. And Iga's answer here reflects that:
"Many of the gamers in the U.S., or outside Japan, tend to think that SOTN is one of the Castlevania titles that made a drastic change to the series. But personally speaking, I think Rondo of Blood was the title that actually started branching out from the past Castlevania series."
At the time, Igarashi was preparing a PSP port of Rondo of Blood, which would mark its first release in the West, and he was thinking hard about the franchise's future: "... another reason I brought Rondo of Blood to PSP this time was to test case with the consumers if they would accept the linear type of game. Because, obviously, the linear type of game is not mainstream level design in the current industry."
He goes on to say that he'd like to experiment with creating bite-sized, but high-impact levels that would fit then-modern players: They want a cool game but don't have time for a metroidvania. At the time, pre-smartphone, the DS was home to both Castlevania and casual gamers. The DS Castlevania games didn't sell well in Japan, and I suspect he was feeling some pressure.
Symphony of the Night has overshadowed Igarashi's career
And here, he talks about the challenges of the Symphony of the Night legacy, ten years on from its release:
"... you know how when people's memory is not accurate and as time passes, they think's something's better? ... Nostalgia. So we know that we can't overcome if people think SOTN is the masterpiece. We can't overcome that part, or win over those Castlevania fans [who love] SOTN. ...if fans are still thinking that SOTN is the number one game we can't help it. We can't erase their memories."
Igarashi goes on in this vein:
"It's always in my mind, actually, to overcome SOTN. From my end SOTN made a drastic departure from the past series by adding the RPG elements to the game. That was a real evolution to the franchise. We want to do something like that for the future Castlevania series -- but then again we're thinking from a business standpoint, that bars to consider new challenges. Hmm. I guess I need to think and find to make a drastic change like we did for SOTN."
In the end, he never did find that drastic change. Portrait of Ruin (2006) and Order of Ecclesia (2008), the final two DS Castlevania games, both closely follow in the lineage of Symphony of the Night, albeit with some new flourishes.
And though he was clearly kidding -- he'd spoken energetically about the prospects for that "next-gen" Castlevania game -- this final quote seems bittersweet:
"I'm sorry... I'm getting busier and busier. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting too old. I'm just waiting for my lottery winnings and then I can leave Konami."
I got to speak to Igarashi again later that same year -- the same night he was signing autographs for attendees at the GameStop Expo, which back then was a closed mini-E3 in Las Vegas just for its retail employees. I interviewed Igarashi in a bar in the Mandalay Bay hotel after the event concluded for the evening.
At this point, it was beginning to become clear that Japanese developers were finding the PS3/360 generation of consoles a challenge, and Western developers had risen in prominence. Tastes were clearly changing. So I asked him about Western player preferences:
"Of course I listen to users in America, and their feedback. Actually, I listen to feedback from everywhere. But I don't develop games based on the markets; I develop games based on what I find exciting. I just develop based on what I love."
And this comment presaged something good: "Right now, I want to make the Castlevania franchise into something bigger. In that sense, Konami has supported me." Sadly, that support was (for whatever reason) lost.
I got the sense from this and other conversations that, as blockbuster, high-def 3D games rose to prominence, Igarashi's attention to detail, so crucial in 2D games, left him in danger of being overlooked:
"A lot of people think of 2D development as something that's simple, and very easily done, but think of all the assets, all of the small details, all of the little things that make it a really good game."
At another point -- and it may have been in casual conversation, I can't recall -- he told me that all of the 2D pixel artists he'd kept on staff to create the graphics for the Castlevania games on handheld platforms were beginning to worry about their future career prospects -- and in the Double Fine Let's Play, Igarashi said that all but one of the artists who worked on that game, an absolutely seminal example of pixel art, have by now left the game industry altogether.
Side note: If you do play Lament of Innocence, the first Castlevania game for the PlayStation 2, look past the sparseness of its environments and pay attention to just how beautiful the backgrounds are -- particularly the textures. Sure, the PS2 graphics look primitive by today's standards, but the care is obvious; it's interesting to see what was prioritized under the limitations.
Lament of Innocence
In 2008, Iga was prepping the DS game Order of Ecclesia, which turned out to be the final metroidvania-style Castlevania game he'd helm; he was also working on that "next-gen" Castlevania game that never saw the light of day, presumably, as it was announced at that year's Tokyo Game Show.
Iga had given a rousing 2007 GDC presentation (audio here) about keeping the flame of 2D game development alive; his public image was transforming into that of an iconoclast -- reflected in this answer, from our 2008 interview:
"To be honest, who I listen to the most is myself. Not to sound arrogant or anything like that, but the reason why I listen to myself is because I think really deep and hard, and I feel that if I can't tell it to myself, I can't tell it to the fans."
Of course, he recognizes that puts the responsibility for the series squarely on his shoulders: "If one of my games flops, I want to basically be able to say, 'Sorry. That's my fault.' I don't want to say, 'I wanted so badly for it to do well.'"
As I'm writing this, the Let's Play that Double Fine put up today is on in the background, and it's clear that Igarashi is both humble and confident. That's what really strikes me abut him, anyway, and it jibes with the image of the man I've met so many times.
For example, despite being the face of the franchise for so long (let's face it -- even with the three Mercury Steam-developed games, and the even in light of the fact that he departed Konami -- he still is) he is so eager to share credit for Symphony of the Night with other developers on his team, pointing out many details of the game that they created.
And he really cared about the success of the franchise, and wasn't opposed to shifting gears. He felt responsibility for it. Before 2010's Western-developed Lords of Shadow, Igarashi said this:
"It doesn't really matter where the game is developed. I want to be involved in it. I want to know what's going on. If we did decide to develop it in the U.S., I guess I'd have to move here."
Of course, David Cox (who has also left Konami) became the Castlevania series producer; Igarashi had the franchise take away from him, and his PS3/360 Castlevania game was canceled. Incidentally, I'd love to know more about what went on behind the scenes, there. I doubt we soon will, if ever.
Thanks to all that, there's quite a gap between this interview and my most recent one: It's from this year, after Igarashi left Konami. (Scheduling conflicts kept me from interviewing him when he spoke at GDC 2014; Leigh Alexander very capably handled that meeting for Gamasutra.)
When asked what makes the genre work so well, he said this:
"I figure it's the excitement of enjoying the adventure, mixed with gameplay that's easy to get comfortable with. I think the exploration element makes you feel like you're moving the story along yourself a lot better than with titles divided into stages. That, and I think having character-growth elements allows gamers to enjoy the story right up to the end."
Here's hoping that advice isn't all he has to contribute to the metroidvania genre -- hopefully, we'll soon see a game, as the speculation on the web suggests.