Earlier this week, Koji Igarashi — aka IGA — launched a Kickstarter campaign for his grand return to video games after languishing in the bowels of Konami for half a decade. It managed to hit its half-million funding mark in a matter of hours and keeps climbing, with a month left to go.
Titled Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, IGA's new project trades heavily on his past as a producer of Castlevania games. The mockup images developer Inti Creates has published so far depict a heroine who bears more than a passing resemblance to Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia's Shanoa, as well as a handful of familiar demons to fight, such as Buer. It's basically the Mighty No. 9 of Castlevania games.
IGA worked on some of the greatest Castlevania titles ever made, including Symphony of the Night — the classic he hopes to surpass with this project.
That's a tall order, and creating a great Castlevania (or Castlevania-like game) isn't as simple as giving a hero a whip and letting them fight zombies. There have been plenty of terrible Castlevania games through the years, as some Castlevania clones that were even worse.
As a fan of the Castlevania series from the very beginning, I've been thinking a lot lately about what it would take to make a truly great and truly satisfying follow-up to Castlevania. It's not about the aesthetics, it's about the particulars.
I hope that, as development proceeds on Bloodstained, IGA and his team bear these distinctly Castlevania factors in mind.
These days, when newcomers play the old NES Castlevania games for the first time, they're often taken aback by how stiff the controls feel. Simon Belmon and his great-great-grandad Trevor had limited capabilities even by the standards of the day. Next to the Marios of the world, the Belmonts moved slowly and could only jump one of two ways: Straight up or in a perfect forward arc.
However, it's important to understand that Simon didn't merely move slowly; he moved deliberately. His capabilities may have appeared diminished compared to some of this peers, yes, but the most essential design lesson of Castlevania was that the game's creators built the entire world around those limitations. Enemies moved in a way that may have been challenging for Simon but nevertheless could be dealt with fairly by his concise skill set. Jumps and ladders and the timing of moving objects all matched up to Simon's capabilities. The sequel, Simon's Quest, was less scrupulous about this than the original Castlevania... but Castlevania III not only matched up to Simon's powers perfectly, it also offered avenues and shortcuts for three other characters with different skills as well.
This design discipline was largely lost over the years. 1993's Rondo of Blood may have been the last Castlevania to adhere to the classic philosophy of building creative challenges around a hobbled hero, as the move to non-linear RPG-influenced design loosened up the mechanics and feel of the series and abandoned the need for design discipline. But if IGA hopes to make a mark with Bloodstained and turn it into something other than a faint echo of an 18-year-old classic, he could do worse than look to classic Castlevania for inspiration. The good news is that he couldn't possibly have picked a better development partner for that approach than Inti Creates....
No one right way to play
In the beginning, Castlevania was about a guy with a whip fighting movie monsters. Bloodstained, based on the mock-up image, is about a woman with tattoos fighting beings from the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum with a glowing sword. The Castlevania concept has been fluid from the beginning, when the NES game played out as a linear platformer and the near-simultaneous release for MSX was more of an action RPG. Dracula's Curse added extra characters who could fling spells, climb walls, and even fly! Bloodlines introduced a character who wielded a spear, and Rondo of Blood's bonus character was a little girl who attacked by flinging cute animals. Even the Belmonts vary wildly from generation to generation, wielding their whip and their subweapons differently.
Again, less important to Castlevania than some overarching rule about how to control your protagonist has always been the need for each game to fit the way its particular hero or heroine controls. At its worst — say, Haunted Castle or Castlevania: The Adventure — the player feels overwhelmed and underpowered in the face of the level design and the monsters within. But nearly as bad is when you can waltz almost effortlessly to the end, as in Simon's Quest. If Bloodstained really is to be a Castlevania successor, it needs to offer that perfect balance between challenge and ease of play... a mark IGA's games have often missed.
The Simon Wraith
A few stages into Castlevania III, you meet a new kind of enemy for the series. It's a skeleton, yes, but a skeleton with a whip made of bone — Dracula fighting the Belmonts with a taste of their own medicine, as it were. Whip skeletons would appear throughout the series over the years, and in Harmony of Dissonance for Game Boy Advance we finally learned their name: Simon Wraiths.
In Japan, though, those guys had a different name: "Shimon." "Shimon" was also the Japanese spelling of Simon Belmont's given name, though it was written differently; Simon's name was written in a phonetic alphabet for foreign names, while the skeleton's name was written with pictographic kanji characters that mean "death gate." It's a clever little linguistic pun that doesn't translate into English — but nevertheless the effect did: Simon Wraiths were a devious mirror of the series' hero, a surprise that turned the expected inside-out. The Castlevania series never lost its knack for those little twists, and Bloodstained absolutely needs to keep that tradition alive.
The tower in the distance
Another classic trait of Castlevania has always been the sense of location it creates. In fact, my "Anatomy of Games" side project got its start entirely because of my love for the original Castlevania's meticulous commitment to making Dracula's castle real: Simon marched from level to level across a rolled-up map that accurately represented the ground he covered in his adventure, and every single brick and platform in the game made logical sense in its placement. It wasn't just a great and challenging game, it was a great and challenging game whose designers took the time to make all the conventions of platforming work in a real-world sense — despite the fact that the game's fantastic themes could easily have justified inexplicable floating platforms.
The best Castlevania games always tried to reconcile the need to create fun play spaces with a desire to create the illusion that you're in a "real" place that works according to real rules... even if those rules have been warped and distorted by Dracula's evil magic. The original Castlevania showed Dracula's tower in the distance at the midpoint of the game, revealing your goal and reminding you that your quest transpired entirely within the walls of a castle immediately before plunging you into the caverns below. Simon's Quest sent you traveling through a contiguous Transylvania before the journey wrapped up in the ruins of Dracula's Castle from the previous game. Dracula's Curse standardized the concept of the trip to the castle, offering multiple routes along a map of the haunted grounds around Dracula's home, something that would be repeated in countless sequels (even the less-beloved ones, like the N64 game).
Again, IGA isn't necessarily (or legally!) making a Castlevania game, he'd do well to try and recapture this element of the series he worked on for so long. His games sometimes had a tendency to degenerate into a series of aimless boxes rather than the thoughtfully structured environments of the classic series. If he aims to create a weapon game to surpass Symphony of the Night, restoring the sense of place that slowly ebbed from Castlevania after Symphony would be a great starting point.
The graveyard duck
"GET A SILK BAG FROM THE GRAVEYARD DUCK TO LIVE LONGER," said one of the most infamous bits of dialogue from Castlevania II. This made no sense! There was no duck in the game's graveyard area. And ducking did nothing either. For years, we assumed this bit of text was some sort of weird translation, right up until Retro Game Challenge for DS actually featured a duck in a graveyard and people began to dig up the fact that the Japanese version of Simon's Quest did indeed tell people to track down a goth waterfowl.
Turns out it wasn't mistranslated information; it was correctly translated misinformation. I interviewed IGA when Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin for DS debuted and asked if he'd ever make a game drawing inspiration from Simon's Quest. He seemed bemused. "Didn't everyone in that game lie to you?" he said.
But that was part of the charm of Simon's Quest — what helped make it memorable. The game could be confusing and sometimes enigmatic, but the mystery of the thing stuck with players. While I'm not suggesting Bloodstained's characters should lie and misdirect players (please, no), I'd love to see it recapture that sense of unfamiliarity and the unexpected. Games leave far too little for players to discover on their own these days, and by its very nature Bloodstained (whose buyers will largely have already prepaid for the privilege of playing through Kickstarter) has the luxury of not having to appeal to the widest audience possible by dumbing itself down.
Alas, poor Soccer Boy
When you travel to the inverted castle in Symphony of the Night — the secret second half of the game — the first enemy you meet is completely harmless: A headless skeleton who runs around trying to grab his own skull, which sits on the ground... and which he accidentally kicks away from himself every time he comes near it. In Japan, this guy was called "Soccer Boy," which is, you know, ha ha. In the U.S. version, however, they changed his name to Yorick, which is absolutely brilliant. Besides being a clever reference, it also helps ground the game in broader mythology; Castlevania draws on all sorts of fictional horror universes, from ancient Japanese lore to Mary Shelley. Why shouldn't it incorporate some Shakespeare canon, too?
Likewise, deep inside the foundations of the castle in Symphony of the Night, the series introduced the monster Legion for the first time. A mass of faceless homunculi that drop endlessly from a pulsating mass of bodies before shuffling slowly off-screen, Legion was one of Castlevania's many biblical references. This was another creature that received a new name for the American version of the game: Granfalloon, a literary deep cut taken from Kurt Vonnegut's countercultural novel Cat's Cradle.
Later games reverted Granfalloon back to Legion, which undoubtedly made nitpickers happy... but it always struck me as something of a shame. Those subsquent Castlevania games also featured such great localization choices as renaming the Hindu goddess Kali as "Curly," because apparently a four armed warrior woman just screams "Three Stooges." Names like "Yorick" and "Granfalloon" added a touch of literacy to Symphony of the Night (a game where Dracula quotes the book of Matthew as he dies, for crying out loud), but more than that they demonstrated a keen grasp of localization as an art rather than simply a 1:1 conversion from one language to another. Localization demands an understanding of the intent of word choices in the original language, going beyond simply the end results. Hopefully Bloodstained will feature a localization more in line with Symphony of the Night than with Aria of Sorrow — Castlevania's biggest fan base is in the U.S. despite its Japanese origins, and IGA's overseas followers deserve premium treatment.
Secret boots and peanuts
My favorite item in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a piece of equipment called the Secret Boots. They confer no notable stat bonuses, and their description reads, simply, "Discreetly increases height." And if you equip them, yes, Alucard stands one pixel taller. That's all they do. And that's awesome.
My second favorite item? The peanuts. Alucard can collect a veritable buffet of food items with which to replenish his health, and food in Symphony has a unique trait: You have to equip a food item to use it (rather than simply selecting it from the menu), and once used the food drops to the ground for Alucard to collect and "absorb." The description for the peanuts, however, indicates that they're difficult to eat... and, sure enough, when Alucard uses a peanut in combat, he flicks it into the air, where it flies in a slightly unpredictable arc. You have to catch it on the way down, otherwise the tiny two-pixel sprite will be lost forever and you'll miss out on its curative properties. A peanut's healing effect? 5 HP — not even worth the trouble.
Why do I mention these stupid little details? Well, that's precisely why: Because they're stupid little details. They weren't added to Symphony because they have mechanical or narrative value. They're just dumb little jokes the development team added for the heck of it, because they enjoyed working on such a massive and demanding game so much that they wanted to go above and beyond what was strictly necessary in order to amuse their fans. That's the kind of love Bloodstained needs in order to transcend merely being a Castlevania clone and achieve true greatness.
Persephone and the waiter
The Castlevania series — especially the ones created under IGA's watch — took plenty of flack for reusing art assets such as sprites. And IGA has even said that Bloodstained will be more expensive to produce than the Castlevania titles he worked on, because he and Inti Creates must build an entirely new bestiary (and their assets) for players to deal with. Clearly, this is a man who takes a pragmatic view on reusing assets.
And there's nothing wrong with that so long as the old graphics fit in with the new. Yeah, there are plenty of examples of aging sprites being regurgitated for game after game (Capcom's Morrigan sprite perhaps most infamously), but building on existing ideas can be a strength. Consider recurring foes in Castlevania like skeletons, which underwent all manner of strange permutations throughout the years... the most amusing of which was the waiter skeleton who would toss a curry rice plate at the protagonists. Eventually, this particular skeleton model led to the player gaining the ability to toss demonic curry at foes — an odd but amusing turn of events that never would have happened had IGA's team simply thrown out the monster after one game.
Likewise, the demon maid Persephone who debuted in the X68000 remake of Castlevania reappeared multiple times in IGA's games... and over time, her character evolved, with new frames added to grant her new powers. As with the skeleton waiter, players were eventually able to commandeer these abilities for themselves... and again, it was weird and quirky an unique. In this case, defeating Persephone conferred the ability to use a skull-shaped vacuum cleaner that could damage foes and whose suction power would disable any female foe wearing a skirt (rendering them defenseless while they held down their skirt to preserve their modesty).
These odd evolutions helped make Castlevania what it was in its latter days, and they could only happen as a result of asset reuse. I'm all in favor of Bloodstained (assuming it sees any sequels) building on itself. The important thing is that IGA and Inti Creates continue to be clever about it!
Images courtesy of VGMuseum.