'Castlevania' Producer Koji Igarashi:

'Castlevania' Producer Koji Igarashi: "I Honestly Don’t Feel That I’m a Big Deal At All"

Koji Igarashi is credited as the driving force behind the classic 'Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Glixel

He's one of a handful of creatives who could rightly be described as a legend, but that's not how he sees himself as he works to finish his latest 2D extravaganza

He's one of a handful of creatives who could rightly be described as a legend, but that's not how he sees himself as he works to finish his latest 2D extravaganza

For years, Koji Igarashi – known as "IGA" by his fans – was MIA at the storied game publisher Konami. Though he helped create the legendary 1997 classic Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night for PlayStation, he spent the bulk of his next 17 years at Konami working on a seemingly endless procession of mostly handheld variations of the same theme. While stablemate Hideo Kojima pushed for an ever bigger canvas for his epic Metal Gear series, Igarashi – who in person is the very model of humility – plugged away on the franchise he gave birth to. He enjoyed some breakout critical hits like Aria of Sorrow on GameBoy Advance and Dawn of Sorrow on DS, but eventually left Konami in 2014 to pursue his own creative vision.

His work inspired an entire genre that's partially named in honor of his work — the 'Metroidvania,' whose name is a reference to the sprawling, contiguous design sensibilities that define Symphony of the Night and Nintendo's Super Metroid. These days, "IGAvania" is gaining currency, which reflects an attitude among Igarashi's fans' that his impact on the genre should be more overtly expressed.

Igarashi is now working with publisher Artplay which is overseeing his return to his preferred style of action game with Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night; notable for being both the genre that made Igarashi famous, and also for once being the biggest game-related Kickstarter fundraising project ever (before being overtaken a short time later by Shenmue III). With his recent public appearance indie game festival BitSummit, we caught up with IGA at his Tokyo office recently to talk about where he’s been and where his new franchise will take him in the future.

You made your name with Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night. You were the co-director, sharing the role with Toru Hagiwara. How did you guys work together?
Mr. Hagiwara was the original director, but when he was promoted and became the head of our division, he asked me to take it over the project from there. So it’s not like there was any conflict. He simply was promoted to a position that didn’t allow him to continue as the director, so I filled in.

What did you learn from him?
He is one of two people at Konami that I look up to as a mentor. He has two principles: the first is that he is passionate about making games fun and making people happy. Hagiwara also has a cunning sense when it comes to designating tasks to different teams to optimize the development process. I learned a lot about balancing that workload within the team from him. It’s a skill that is really hard to polish as a creator, but Hagiwara excelled in it.

Most of the Castlevania games you worked on have vastly different game systems. Why did you feel the need to alter them so frequently?
There are titles where we kept the same system. For example, from Aria of Sorrow to Dawn of Sorrow. But each Castlevania game is based on a character that has a different supernatural power. If we kept the same character with the same superpower, we could have continued to use the same system. However, we usually had different main characters because we didn’t want to make the same game over and over again.

'Dracula' as a game title is actually owned by Bandai Namco.

So if Bloodstained is a success, would you continue Miriam's story into a sequel, or would you change characters?

In regards to Symphony of the Night, when I took on the series, I made a conscious decision to preserve an established timeline. So some of these games are set in different centuries, with different generations of characters, so there is no character overlap except with Dracula. But there is an underlying continuity to the Castlevania world where Dracula exists. But, it’s true that there are some games that I didn’t work on that deviated from the timeline. For example, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, and the N64 games. These were separate versions of the series that were not consistent with the Castlevania series that I worked on. So, those outliers do exist.

But yes, I want to establish a continuity with Bloodstained. Since we’re building a new IP and we would like to see the game continue, we feel it is important to establish a common world and story. However, I can’t make any guarantees for the future.

We traditionally see continuity through the consistency of the protagonist, such as Link in Zelda and Mario, where the characters stay the same, but the scenarios change. In Castlevania, we don’t see the same constituents every time. Instead, it’s just the Castlevania name and Dracula. Will we see a similar approach in Bloodstained?
Yes, and "Death" or something similar that will appear in the game.

"Death" and "Dracula" aren’t characters unique to Konami games, though. So while you undoubtedly want to distance yourself from Konami’s series as much as possible, in theory you could use them.
"Dracula" as a game title is actually owned by Bandai Namco.

But, there’s no problem having a character named "Dracula" in a game?
No. I don’t think so. However, there are legal gray areas where it’s risky to make games that look like other IPs.

On the Bloodstained Kickstarter page it says, that the demon crystals have a "natural inclination to expand, eat away at host’s bodies," and since that is the source of Miriam’s power is this foreshadowing her eventual demise?
How far we show that progression and how it directly affects the gameplay is still in question, but as far as character motivation goes, we wanted the character to have special powers that they did not want, and to know that along with these special powers comes a progression towards death. So, Miriam has a heavy burden in life, knowing that she will eventually die. The character knows that her future holds a painful death. And since it's something she never wished upon herself, she is a tragic hero in that perspective.

Your past games have been pretty evenly split between male and female lead characters. Why did you go with Miriam for Bloodstained?
There are two big reasons. As a producer, I looked at what the market was telling me. It was clear that there weren't enough games out there with female leads, and I knew that by going in that direction, it would give us a "spark." And as a Kickstarter campaign, it's about getting more eyeballs, it's about getting more hits, more interest. And, sometimes making a decision like this will shake things up. So, I understand that it's a bit devious and crafty of me to do that, but at the end of the day, you need to make noise for an original IP and that was one of the choices that helped.

But, from a creator's perspective, the reason why I wanted a female character is that male characters are very dry. Typically, very straightforward and... just meaty. "I'm the main character and I kill the enemy. Done." It's very macho... a very blunt storyline. It's too "bash you over the head" obvious. To the point where if you go with a female character – and this is not speaking to their vulnerability or anything like that, I'm not suggesting that they are weaker – but there are natural progressions that you can go with a female character. Certainly different twists to the plot that you can't do with a male lead. It doesn't have to be romantic, but that's an option that exists sometimes. It's sometimes an easier jump to make. You see a female character that's protecting the male character in the game and normally you don't see that kind of dynamic. You can turn norms on their head just because they are in the minority in the current market, and that I find interesting.

It's interesting that you mention that male characters are typically portrayed in a certain way. Would you consider making a male character who's gay, or has a disability – something that differs from the typical male hero?

Ultimately, this is a mass-market piece of entertainment that a lot of people could potentially buy, and I don't know the culture of these scenarios well enough to feel that I can comfortably get inside it without disappointing or hurting people's feelings. So, the benefit of doing something new and innovative and choosing those different types of characters are definitely there, but there is an underlying danger that if you create that character with the best intentions and present it in the wrong or a stereotypical way, that you are going to end up alienating the very groups that you wanted to try and support.

And that's the irony – it's that you want to do good but through not having that point of reference, or not having enough knowledge, you're going to end up getting it wrong. So, I don't feel that I am comfortable enough to explore it. I'm not confident that I wouldn't end up doing more harm than good.

Did you consider anything specifically for Bloodstained?
We had a discussion regarding having a character with a disability. I always want to avoid having an enemy character that has a disability. Even if we applied this to the hero of the game or the main character, I have to be careful that it is not depicted as a negative... It's a very risky, emotional choice to make because you don't want to hurt people's feelings. Nobody wants to do that.

Why do you feel that your 3D games have not been as successful as your 2D games?
The truth is I was known at Konami as the guy who made games under budget, with little in the way of assets, a short schedule, and using older technology. So, the biggest problem with 3D is that 3D games require more money, newer technology, and topography where you actually have hills and valleys, which involves background art and modeling, and this takes a lot more money to make.

As a result, we ended up having to build games in 3D with budgets that were probably unrealistic. That's what I largely consider to be the primary issue with the 3D games I've made. If you look at these games, while they're not received super well, people usually like the core game system. They just don't like the background effects or they don't like the flat worlds; basically they don't like the things that would have required more money to create.

You've told me in the past that Konami didn't think there was demand for a high-res 2D game like Bloodstained. Publishers you've gone to with it have balked. Now that it's raised over $5 million on Kickstarter, do you feel vindicated?

Back when I was at Konami, the sales of the Castlevania games I worked on continued to drop year in and year out, mostly led by North America. So, what started as a $40 or $50 DS game, eventually dropped to $30 and then $20. I always felt that the Castlevania series had a core following that was willing to pay a premium price for a good game. That's what I felt our fanbase was made of – dedicated fans. But every time when the standard price of a DS game would drop, the sales team would tell me that we would have to sell the game for $30 instead of $40. I never agreed with them.

People list me as one of the triple-A producers in the game industry, like I'm a big shot, but I honestly don't feel that I'm a big deal at all. 

One thing I learned when we did the Kickstarter campaign is that people are willing to pay an even bigger premium over the standard packaged price for something if they feel they are going to get more value out of it and because they truly believe in it. So yes, I was right insofar as saying that the games that I make, these 2D Castlevania-style games, are games that people are willing to pay a higher price or premium price for so long as the game is good. And another thing I learned is that they are willing to pay even more than that to get the game that they want. So, that was my vindication – that at Konami, we were undervaluing the games that we were making.

How hands on are you in Bloodstained's development? You seem to be pouring your personal attention into this, as I imagined you would.
First of all, people list me as one of the triple-A producers in the game industry, like I'm a big shot, but I honestly don't feel that I'm a big deal at all. I feel like I'm just a creator, trying to make the best game I can with everybody else. That's probably why this sort of backer-supported relationship is fun for me. I'm kind of a game fan myself, so at the end of the day, it's just a bunch of gamers geeking out over games. I'm surrounded by this tribe of people who like games and are having a good time. We're all speaking the same language. It's a great relationship. If this was a publisher-backed title, I wouldn't be able to get it out in front of the public, I'd worry about how it looked, it would need to be perfectly polished, and I wouldn't be able to show it until six months before it was released. Even if I wanted to start a dialogue with the fans, it would be too late to change and implement any feedback I'd receive.

These people are already actively finding bugs that we didn't know were in there. We're getting all this information for free. They're passionate, they love being part of the process, and it's going to help us in the long term to make a better game. So, again, there are a ton of advantages for doing it this way.

So the term 'IGAvania' has begun to gain currency, as another way to say 'Metroidvania.' I've always wondered why Nintendo never teamed up with you and Konami to create a new 2D Metroid.
Nintendo is very careful about protecting their IPs and making any changes to their games. Around the time that I was proving that I could do multiple titles and do them well, Nintendo had shifted to Metroid Prime and they were having success turning their 2D games into 3D. So they probably decided from that point on that Metroid was going to be a 3D game series, and by that rationale, my style of games didn't really fit their criteria. That would be my guess.

But, let's say the fans demanded Nintendo team up with you to make a Metroid game, and Nintendo actually approached you to make one, would you do it?
I would be incredibly honored.