As we'd guessed from the Sword or Whip teaser site and other hints, Castlevania maestro Koji "IGA" Igarashi has indeed returned with a new game in the vein of the series that produced for most of the 2000s -- Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
Bloodstained, unsurprisingly, marks Igarashi's return to his signature style of game, the "metroidvania" -- so named for 1997's Symphony of the Night, which adopted a style reminiscent of Nintendo's Super Metroid and so codified a genre.
It's a clear attempt to give fans what they want: it's a side-scrolling adventure game with a gothic vibe, starring a new heroine, Miriam. Cursed by magic, she explores a demonic castle.
It's on Kickstarter now, of course, seeking funding not to make the game (that's essentially taken care of) but top-up the dev costs, expand the budget and the game's scope, and prove to Igarashi's financial backers that there is, in fact, demand for a game like this -- something his erstwhile publisher Konami clearly decided was not the case when the franchise was handed to Brit David Cox after years of Igarashi's stewardship.
The game is under development by Igarashi and Inti Creates, the studio best known for its contributions to the Mega Man series (including Mega Man 9 and Mega Man Zero, among others) and Mighty No. 9, the Kickstarted game by former Capcom R&D head Keiji Inafune, which is due out in September.
After Symphony of the Night, Igarashi followed up with no less than five more 2D "Igavanias" -- the nickname fans gave his games, which is Bloodstained's genre, officially speaking -- between 2002 and 2008, for Nintendo's handheld consoles. But amidst a rocky transition to 3D, he ultimately left Konami, with intimations that he would ultimately go independent and produce the game his fans were waiting for. A postmortem of Symphony of the Night at GDC 2014 seemed to suggest that might be around the bend. It's taken a bit longer than that, though.
Gamasutra had a chance to talk to Igarashi about his return, the Kickstarter campaign, and what makes it possible for him to strike out on his own in 2015. His responses -- touching on why he's even using Kickstarter if the game is already largely funded, the Japanese affection for mobile games, and whether or not he can sustain himself as an independent developer -- are frank.
A mock-up screenshot, released by Igarashi
I know you had reservations about going indie once you left Konami. What made this suddenly possible?
Koji Igarashi: I got the courage to go independent because of two well-timed things: Inafune-san's great success with Mighty No. 9, and an agent telling me there was definite interest from a few publishers out there. I've been a creator my entire life, and a creator needs to create. With no real opportunity to do so at my former publisher, I felt it was time to create once more after all these years.
What's keeping Japanese developers off Kickstarter in the numbers we see from Western devs?
KI: I think crowdfunding is still a very foreign concept and many of these creators just don't know how to build a successful campaign. It was nice to have strong support doing so or I wouldn't have been able to pull it off myself.
When you look at today's PC and console market, do you see a place where you feel like you, as a newly independent developer, can thrive?
KI: To be honest, I really don't know. But I can see the gaming industry polarizing the same way the movie industry has, with massive budgets and specific target audiences. By that rationale, I think there are still plenty of core gamers who would appreciate the types of games I make, so I think there's still hope for me.
The details I received say that the game already has funding -- can you talk about the source of that funding, and why you are also going to Kickstarter?
KI: All I can say right now is that after over a year of talking with just about every publisher out there, I was able to secure funding for about 90 percent of the game with the condition that I prove the market still wants an Igavania game. Kickstarter proved to be a great solution, as it would (hopefully) show that people still want an Igavania game while simultaneously providing funds for the core game.
That being said, I'm hoping to clear a few stretch goals so I can add some new features and modes that I've always wanted to do but was never able to in the past. Hopefully, the fact that I've been able to gather most of the investment myself will put to rest any fears that backers may have about this title not being released.
Bloodstained's lead character, Miriam.
The roses on her body are alchemic crystals -- a source of strength, but also a curse
We both know this is the kind of game your fans want from you. But is this the kind of game you most want to make, too?
KI: Yes -- this is exactly the type of game I want to make. I've always made what I enjoy and specialize in, and my fans have connected with me because of that. I see no reason to stray from what we've shared.
The genre of this game is "Igavania." Does being so personally identified with a specific design aesthetic create pressure on you?
KI: If we felt it would have been okay with Nintendo to use a name like "Metroidvania" in an official capacity like this, we probably would have. But we wanted to be sure to respect them. When building out the campaign, we needed a new genre name that would help describe this specific type of game, and one of the team members suggested "Igavania." I worried it sounded vain, but assumed it was a temporary placeholder and didn't pay much mind. So yes, now I feel quite a bit of pressure.
And with that in mind, how do you even approach creating a new game in this genre, and to live up to that label?
KI: I don't really focus on a genre when creating a game. I just try to build to my own style, which includes 2D side-scrolling exploration-heavy games. I want people to know they're playing a game of mine, and I want them to enjoy it. As for creating something new, if we manage to surpass the base cost and move on to stretch goals, I'll make sure to use my experience as a creator to try and give my fans something they'll love.
What kind of design changes do you want to make to the "Igavania" formula, and why?
KI: We're creating a new brand here, so I want to build up an all-new world, new characters, and new enemies, and make them all very deep and expandable. Collection is another key concept in the new game. There's a much wider variety of enemy drops, skills, weapons, and items. I want this to be a game people can really dig deep into and play for a long time if they enjoy it. My games have always allowed core gamers to use their skill to beat the game faster, while allowing more casual gamers to spend time to level up and clear the game. Completionist gamers should also be in for a real treat with all the crafting and forging we have planned for the game.
Have you been at all influenced by contemporary game design? How will you balance old and new and keep the game satisfying to both old and new players?
KI: That's a hard one to answer. I understand that some game mechanics have evolved, but there are still lots of new gamers playing Symphony of the Night for the first time and enjoying it. I think a truly good game doesn't fade with time, but new trends don't necessarily make it bad. The fans that will help my game succeed, though, are probably more interested in an IGA game than something they expect to fit a particular new type of gameplay. So I plan to focus on the core mechanics and basics that helped build that fan-base.
2003's Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance. Arguably the best Igavania after Symphony of the Night
You made many Castlevania games in rapid succession in the 2000s. But it's been years, now, since Order of Ecclesia. How does that gap affect you?
KI: I've certainly been through a lot, so perhaps there is some kind of effect there. The only thing I can say for sure is that the environment has changed since then. But it feels like only yesterday I've made those games, so I suppose the gap hasn't really affected me, since me heart and intentions are still in the same place. There's no telling if those around me end up seeing differently, though, from the outside.
I know you have strong feelings about both 2D and 3D gameplay. How are you tackling making Unreal Engine produce a game that lives up to your high standards of 2D gameplay?
KI: It really depends on how you define what's 2D and what's 3D, but I really don't see any problem with 2D gameplay mechanics. I think it's important to polish the presentation of a game over time. Unreal Engine has incredibly high standards of presentation, though, so I don't think we'll have any problems putting this game together.
We know the fans want heavy 2D gameplay, and that will be a focus with both visuals and gameplay. But going the traditional pixel route was never an option due to budget and manpower restraints -- games this extensive would require a unrealistic number of pixel artists, and Unreal Engine was a perfect middle-ground solution.
Tell me about your relationship with Inti Creates on this title. Why choose that team? How would you describe your working relationship and process?
KI: My agent Ben Judd actually introduced us. He said they've always loved my games, and developing an Igavania game was one of their dreams. As most people know, Inti really understands 2D, so it seemed like a natural fit. Once we started talking about the project, it all clicked, and I could feel the excitement. I was very fortunate that they'd also had a successful Kickstarter campaign and knew what to expect.
Ayami Kojima's artwork defined Igarashi's games from the PlayStation onward
You're collaborating with Michiru Yamane, but are any of your other longtime collaborators involved with this project? And where's Ayami Kojima?
KI: The other collaborators are still undetermined, but I wouldn't be surprised if one or two of them show up. Ayami Kojima unfortunately had previous obligations and was unable to join us, but we're incredibly proud of the current artwork and design, and look forward to seeing how it all turns out.
How come publishers can't seem to make games like this work, globally speaking, despite the obvious demand from fans, and the commercial opportunity?
KI: Probably because publishers naturally drift towards what they consider to be big-budget triple-A titles, or something that's new and cutting-edge. I think it's inevitable for them to pay less attention to popular but relatively smaller titles like my previous games, which they see as a little dated now. Maybe they doubt that such titles would sell in the current market, but that's where I'm hoping this campaign will prove otherwise, and demonstrate what the market really looks like.
You stepped into the mobile market after leaving Konami; you're far from alone. Mobile is dominating Japan now. I'm curious about your feelings toward that shift in the Japanese industry and (as important) the Japanese player-base.
KI: Games are usually something to fill our spare time, so if mobile titles are really enjoyable for consumers, then there's definitely a place for them. However, most of them are based on very simplistic gameplay, and that starts to get tiresome to people who are looking for something more stimulating -- something with more substance. I think these are the people who can be categorized as "gamers," while the category may not quite apply to those who prefer to kill time with simple, one-off games. So I feel the number of Japanese gamers in this sense will continue to decrease in the future.
For more from Igarashi, be sure to check out his Let's Play of Symphony of the Night with Double Fine, and this look back at over a decade's worth of interviews. He also recently offered advice and insight into the metroidvania genre in a Gamasutra Q&A.