"Whatever happened to Koji Igarashi?"
That's been the most common refrain from Castlevania fans after Symphony of the Night's director seemingly had nowhere to go following the 2008 release of Order of Ecclesia. After nearly seven years away from Castlevania, though, Igarashi's back, and with a project that just had to happen: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a spiritual successor to Castlevania which begins its Kickstarter campaign today. (As if that "Sword or Whip" teaser site didn't make this news delightfully predictable.)
In the years since his last Castlevania game, it's safe to say Igarashi's chosen genre has escaped its niche. Perhaps you could chalk this up to the lack of proper Castlevanias in our modern times, but plenty of indie (and not-so-indie) devs have picked up where Igarashi left off, delivering a wave of games that attempt to capture the same spirit of 1997's Symphony of the Night—just do a quick search for "Metroidvania" on Steam, and you'll see how popular his special sauce has become.
Bloodstained didn't strike exactly publishers as a sure thing. During an interview with Igarashi last month, Castlevania's former king was more than a little candid about his struggles with getting his new project off the ground through traditional means. "We had a great pitch," he says, "and we took it around to pretty every single publisher. And while it's not cheap because it's an original title, and you have to make assets from the ground up, it still wasn't something that was extremely expensive. Still, there were no publishers that were willing to take a chance on it. Which is kind of sad, because if you look at my experience both on making games that were financially viable and also making titles that had big fan interest and good scores, it didn't seem like a huge risk from my perspective to fund something like this. And yet, there seemed to be a huge disconnect between what publishers are looking for, and what fans want."
Like many developers of his generation who once held positions at major publishers, Igarashi has turned directly to his fans for the sake of funding. But it took Keiji Inafune's success with his own spiritual successor Kickstarter before Igarashi decided to take the leap into the sometimes-shaky world of crowdfunding.
"We're very isolated from the rest of the gaming world in Japan," says Igarashi. "And so, some of the information doesn't really come through to this side. And seeing that there was such a big user interest in funding and supporting an orthodox, side-scrolling title like Mighty No. 9, it showed me Western users really were putting their money where their mouth was. They really were passionate, and really were going to help their creators, basically, be independent and make the games they want to make. People who supported that game are giving other Japanese creators courage to step out on their own."
Take one look at Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and you're sure to get some serious Castlevania vibes. This new project features the same focus on Gothic horror, customization, item drops, and exploration as his brand of Castlevania, all focused on a central theme. According to Igarashi, "The key revolving concept that a lot of the different systems are going to be built from is the term 'stained glass.'" Though Dracula isn't likely to make an appearance, some familiar Konami friends will, like Michiru Yamane, whose soundtracks were synonymous with Castlevania during the Igarashi years. And while Igarashi hints one of his former colleagues—who he trusts without fail to bring him great ideas—might be attached to the project, he knows for certain development studio Inti Creates will be handing production of Bloodstained.
"In talking with [Inti Creates]," says Igarashi, "[They] were the ones that felt like a natural, organic fit. Not just because they have Kickstarter experience, but because in talking with them, they said, 'Listen, there's three games we've always wanted to make, ever since being an indie developer.' One was a Mega Man-type game—well, they're doing that. The second game was an Igavania-type game, so that fit with what I wanted to do. And the final was a Zelda game. That third part may be hard for them, but it's great for both teams to be able to make something they want to make."
Igarashi's use of "Igavania" to describe his genre of choice may strike some as a little strange; "Metroidvania" (or the rare "Castleroid") may not be the most elegant portmanteau out there, though it does a good enough job as a descriptor. Throughout our interview, the amount of times "Igavania" was uttered indicated a desire from Igarashi to reclaim this term for himself, if only because Metroid didn't serve as a direct inspiration for Symphony of the Night.
"People may suggest it was me that reinvigorated that subgenre," says Igarashi. "From my perspective, that's not really the case. When we made Symphony of the Night, the idea wasn't to make a Metroid-like game; it was actually to make a Zelda-like game. But the second [Symphony] was a side-scrolling game, it was compared to Metroid more than it was [compared to] Zelda. I understand why that is, and, honestly, Metroid's a fantastic franchise I love as well. So it's fine by me if they want to compare it that way. Honestly, the idea of exploring, and having locked gates that you need certain items or abilities to get through—a lot of those key features are already in Zelda games. In making Symphony of the Night, we just wanted to make a fun game. Games with an exploring element to them, where you get to kill a lot of different enemies: That's the core of what makes a lot of fun games fun, and we were surprised more people weren't doing that kind of design at the time."
As of this writing—before the Kickstarter's launch—it's tough to say anything definitive about the future of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night—though with the buzz the Sword or Whip teaser site and hashtag are generating, it's hard to imagine a world where were won't be playing this Castlevania successor within the next few years. And even though he hasn't touched the world of "Igavania" since the latter months of the George W. Bush administration, his mission statement hasn't changed one bit in the passing years.
"I've been making these games for 15-or-so years," says Igarashi, "and while that seems like a long time, I really haven't learned a lot. That may sound funny to say, but what I mean by that is Symphony of the Night is largely considered to be one of, if not the best Igavania game that's been made. Every time we make a new game... our goal is to make a game better than Symphony of the Night. If you look at the games that came after it, they are great games, but very few people consider those to be better than Symphony of the Night. So we always like to set the bar high, and until we come up with a game that's better than Symphony of the Night, that's still going to be the gold standard that we're trying to shoot for."