EGM IGA Interview
Source: Google Groups
Koji Igarashi, or "IGA" as he's credited in many of his games, is now the man when it comes to Castlevania, Konami's years-old vampire-hunting series. A veteran of games like Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow, he's now taking charge of what might be the biggest game in the series' history, the upcoming 3D Lament of Innocence.
Castlevania fans are understandably leery of any polygons intruding into the franchise — memories of Castlevania 64 loom unpleasantly large. But Igarashi has so far produced some of the finest games to bear the name, and he's backed up by the best design and musical talent from Castlevanias past. EGM's Shane Bettenhausen traveled to Tokyo to get all the details from the man himself, and hopefully his report will allay some of your persistent fears.
EGM: Did you always plan for Lament of Innocence to be fully 3D?
IGA: Yes, we did. We also knew that back when the Konami Kobe studio made it in 3D for Nintendo 64 it didn't go well, it just didn't fit with the classic game system. My team and I knew what had to be done in order to make it properly. And if we were going to make it in 3D, why not do it on the PS2, since it's the best selling hardware.
EGM: Please tell us about Lament of Innocence's story.
IGA: It's been warming up for the past five years, this story. Ok, in past Castlevania titles, there has always been the Belmont Clan and Dracula already established in the game — you just kind of accept that reality and fight against him without really knowing why. So, I wanted to take a different approach with my games. Both Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow didn't simply repeat the standard Castlevania story. With Lament of Innocence, I wanted to go back to the beginning, the origin of Castlevania, to explain "What is Dracula?", because when it comes to Dracula in books or movies, the myth is totally different from what we present in the Castlevania games. So, I wanted to explain where my Dracula came from and why the Belmonts became vampire hunters.
Back in Castlevania III, in the beginning of the game, Trevor Belmont is the destined vampire hunter who has been instructed by the Greek Orthodox church to destroy Dracula, but it doesn't explain any details on his backstory. I wanted to explain why Dracula came into being, and why the Belmonts are tied into this, and where the Vampire Killer whip came from. Plus... back in Symphony of the Night, I had said that Dracula is 800 years old, so I also needed to cover my tracks. [Laughs]
The player character in Lament of Innocence is Leon Belmont, who ventures into Dracula's castle when his fiancee, Sara, is kidnapped. It's set in the 11th century — the historical background is a time when the church had great power over the peasants, during the time of the Crusades. A monster invades and kidnaps Sara. Leon is a knight of a powerful Baron, and even though Leon has his own property, he's not allowed to act without the express permission of the church. He's not allowed to venture after her without the church's blessing. But he cannot wait for them to decide, so he throws away his title and betrays the church to save his beloved. He goes to the Dark Forest where the monster was last seen. In the dark woods there are lots of evil spirits and rumors of vampires (in fact, there are still vampire myths all over Europe and South Asia, but somehow people only seem to know about the myth of Dracula). When Leon goes after Sara, he doesn't know about "Dracula" or what vampire took his girl, he just goes in to save her.
It took five years, but before that all I had was a vague story line. But I was afraid that it wouldn't work as a game because the story was too expansive. I didn't want to put the story in the Castlevania chronology, I didn't want this to be just another rehash of the story. I wanted to debut on PS2 very dramatically, so that's why I went back to the origin of Castlevania.
EGM: Is writing the story your favorite part of the game?
IGA: I'm actually not a proper scenarist. I wasn't supposed to write it! But, yeah, I love the world of Dracula, and to express that in the story is really fun.
EGM: How important is the story in an action/adventure game?
IGA: What I care about is bringing in enough story as to not overwhelm or spoil the action. The story must elevate the experience. So, what I recognize is that the gameplay is the essential, basic part, and that the story simply adds to it. You know when the castle goes upside-down in the end of Symphony of the Night, you have to explain that through the story or else that would be meaningless and weird.
EGM: Was there any opposition in Konami to your wanting to make this the origin of Castlevania?
IGA: Konami gives me complete freedom for my story lines. I actually wanted to propose a really original game in the beginning that used only the whip and traditional subweapons — that's it. Going back to basics completely. But, we didn't go through with that.
EGM: Does this plot carry over into the time of Lisa or Alucard, or is this way before them?
IGA: Well, in Symphony of the Night, Dracula is 800, and Alucard is 400, so this is quite a while before Alucard's time. Dracula started to feel hatred towards mankind when his wife, Lisa was killed by humans... that's in the age of Trevor Belmont. But, with Lament of Innocence, the story is four centuries before that, during the time when Dracula becomes a vampire. At that point, Dracula doesn't feel hatred for mankind, but rather hatred for God.
EGM: Do you still have other Castlevania stories in your mind that you might want to do?
IGA: It's hard to fit in new games, since Dracula is supposed to revive only every 100 years. [Laughs] But yes, even if Dracula isn't in the game, Castlevania can still go on. For example, what happened after Juste and Maxim left the castle in Harmony of Dissonance? As long as you have Belmonts and an atmosphere that involves Dracula, you can have a good concept. I really feel that I want to draw upon some of these themes in the future. So, to solve the problem with the "every 100 years" issue I came up with the Aria of Sorrow setting. So, maybe my next game could talk about after Aria of Sorrow, where there is no Dracula. Or maybe a side-story, a brand new idea in a cyber Castlevania world where Dracula is a computer virus and the Belmont is the computer vaccine who must defeat him... or a game that recreates the Castlevania world through the eyes of Quincy Morris or John Morris... or one that explains the events of 1999, when Julius traps the castle in the eclipse.
EGM: Do you enjoy leaving loose ends in the Castlevania games, to let the mystery go on?
IGA: At a certain point in the stories, it's interesting to let it remain a mystery. I'm not going to admit that I don't do it on purpose... [Laughs] I have the parts in my mind that I could go back to and flesh out.
EGM: What do you think makes Castlevania so special to its fans?
IGA: First of all, the gameplay. But also, the vampire mythos is very appealing. Plus, the music is excellent. All three of these aspects are concentrated to appeal to the fans.
EGM: When Konami changed the name of the series in Japan from Akumajou Dracula to Castlevania, do you feel that was an important symbolic move?
IGA: Yes, just like with Silent Hill or Metal Gear Solid, the title is used on a worldwide basis, and everybody in the world recognizes it. Now, news flows so quickly with the Internet, so everyone will know things as soon as it's announced. Even if the subtitle is different, the main name and image will be the same, and will be recognized. That's one of the reasons I decided to rename the brand as Castlevania. The Japanese fans always expect both "Castle" and "Dracula" and if you don't give them both, they're angry. And, since there's no room left in the chronology, maybe my games won't always have the "Castle" or the "Dracula" so by changing the name to Castlevania, they just think it's a cool name, so they won't have the same expectations. That's why I did it! It was an ongoing idea, but when I was promoted to producer while working on Castlevania Chronicles, I had the opportunity to really think about the world, so that's when I made the decision.
EGM: All of your games have had two playable heroes after beating the game... so will Lament of Innocence have this too?
IGA: I really cannot promise you... it's really, really tough! Again, with Harmony of Dissonance, Maxim and Juste are both characters, and in Aria of Sorrow you have Julius and Soma as both heroic guys, but here you only have Leon, he's the archetype hero. Please, check it out as the development goes further... if you find it though, think that I really worked so hard to make the second character!
EGM: Would you make a Castlevania with a female main character?
IGA: Hm, there are difficult problems with that. As a gamer, I think that you become one with the character, and since Castlevania has a lot of male players, it's natural to have male characters. In Rondo of Blood, Maria was a silly, cute aside, but you still had Richter to make it serious. Plus, Mr. Hagihara (the director) had a playful sense of humor. He worked on Symphony as well, and he made the telescope part where, if you pan over to the left you can see a little mouse, and also where Alucard can sit down on the chair and prop his feet up.
EGM: After Tomb Raider, don't you think a female character is more acceptable?
IGA: It's possible I guess. Although, I purposefully left the Sonia Belmont character (from Castlevania: Legends for GBC) out of the official Castlevania chronology. [Laughs] Usually, the vampire storyline motifs, females tend to be sacrificed. It's easier to come up with weak, feminine characters. I'll think about it more in the future, though. It's tough to fit a female hero into the early history of Castlevania, but as you move into the modern day, females can then more easily become a hero.
EGM: How big is the staff compared to Symphony of the Night?
IGA: It's HUGE! Symphony had four main programmers, four designers, and two of those programmers were also working on other teams at the same time. So, really, the main team was about eight. And one of the programmers was drawing storyboards, and one programmer became general manager during the process. It took over two years to make Symphony of the Night. The Japanese voice-overs were done a full year before Symphony of the Night even came out.
Harmony of Dissonance had a team of eight as well. Well, nine if you count me. I wasn't really working. [Laughs] Aria of Sorrow had nine. Lament of Innocence has a main team of more than 30, and we've taken in the Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow teams. 30 is huge for me! I feel much safer with a smaller team. I want to carefully oversee every aspect of the game — luckily I have two good programmers, my right arm and left arm. One is Shinichiro Shimomura, who designed the Legion in Symphony of the Night. The other is Takashi Takeda, who directed Harmony of Dissonance, and he worked on Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps. He did all the multi-jointed enemies in those games. They're very reliable. I'm leaving it all up to them. [Laughs]
Back in the Symphony of the Night days, we worked a lot of long, sleepless nights. And one time, after submitting a version one of our guys went home. But, Sony quickly called and said that a serious bug hadn't been fixed. So the staff had to call his mom and tell him that he has to come back and work some more! Making a game is like building a sandcastle, you'll build it all up but then it will collapse and you'll have to do it all over again on a new platform.
EGM: Hardcore fans will surely love it, but do you think the more casual users will enjoy this game?
IGA: Well, I think the recent Castlevania games have broadened their audiences because of the experience points. Newer players could level up if they were having difficulty. But in this PS2 version, we actually had to give up the experience points due to the game's design.
Instead of that, people who are good at action game can advance at a normal pace, and less-experienced players can explore the world and spend more time with this game. You'll get pick-ups like more life-points that will make you easier to beat the game.
There's a drawback to an experience point system in an action game, especially for someone who's really good at games. If you are really good, you'll get those experience points easily and your character becomes stronger against your will. If your character becomes stronger only when you pick items up, trained gamers can choose not to pick those items up.
And when you play the game after you beat it, it will be a challenge for you to see how fast can you beat the game. If you take a shortcut, you won't be able to pick up many items, which makes the game harder to beat. That would be a motivation for playing the second time around.
EGM: Is Lament of Innocence more linear than your previous games?
IGA: Not really. When you look at the previous games, even though we said it has exploration elements, the game tends to be somewhat linear. In this PS2 game, five monsters shield a main path that leads you to Dracula's lair. And those five monsters are nested somewhere inside five big areas of the castle. Only when you find and beat all those bosses, the main path will be opened. At first you can choose which area to start with. We didn't finalize the English name of each areas, but they are a cathedral, an opera house, a garden, an alchemist's lab, and a dungeon.
EGM: Is there a central hub?
IGA: Yes, there's a so-called Select Room [Laughs] I'll show you later. It's not finished yet. [Laughs]
EGM: So, will some of the stages be familiar to past Castlevania players?
IGA: I'm not sure gamers would recognize them, but yes. Some of them are from past Castlevania games.
EGM: It's been six years since Symphony of the Night. Do you think we have to wait another six years for the next console version of Castlevania?
IGA: Will it be? [Laughs] I'll try my best. If this game sells a lot, I'll think about it [Laughs]
EGM: Many gamers didn't like the English voices in Symphony of the Night. Did you personally oversee the process?
IGA: That's not my fault! [Laughs] There's a scene in the arena where Alucard says: "Who are you?" It was so uncool and I wanted him to ask, "Who's there?" But I didn't have enough knowledge of English. So I thought there was nothing I can do about it. After the development, I was watching a movie. And there's a subtitle says "Who are you?" in Japanese. The actual line in English was "Who's there?" I thought that was a much better line... I guess other translators mess up with the details, too.
Here's another example. Although I don't speak English, even I can see the problem. This is an instance where I actually changed the line. There's a scene where Death steals all of Alucard's equipment. Originally Alucard says "Noooo!" It sounded like he was crying over the loss of his equipment. But what I really intended was, he's regretting the fact that he wasn't watchful enough to prevent that. So I looked through all the voices we recorded and I found the line "What?" I asked the guy who was in charge of the English version and the guy said it works. So I changed the line. So if you check the game, you'll find that Alucard actually says "What?" in that particular scene.
To tell you the truth, there's one thing from back then. I was told that the game doesn't need to have the English voice-over. But during the development, all of the sudden, we had to do that. So we didn't have much time to work on the English voices.
So let's talk about this time around. I don't want that kind of stuff again [Laughs] I want to make sure that the product would be good as possible. Last time the English voice-overs were recorded in Japan. But this time, it was recorded in Los Angeles. I myself went there to oversee the recording session.
Also, the motion capture sessions were done in Japan, but Greg Dale, from New York, directed it. He's also a well-known theater director in Japan. I have a lot of experience with voice acting stuff — Tokimeki Memorial is one of my works, you know. [Laughs] But I've never worked with live motion actors. It was really refreshing for me. And one of the things I noticed that even though the voice acting and physical acting are two different things, similarities exist in terms of expressing the feelings.
EGM: Did you look to any other 3D games for inspiration?
IGA: I seriously feel like I've looked at every 3D game ever made. [Laughs] If I'm referencing other games, I'm referencing all the games out there. There are many ways to build 3D games.
EGM: What part of adapting the gameplay in 3D was the most challenging?
IGA: In 2D games, it's easy to judge the distance between you and your enemy. But in 3D, it differs depending on the camera angle. Even if it's in same distance, you see it differently because of the camera angle. So it's really difficult to display the distance properly in order to make it work as a videogame.
EGM: Even good 3D games like Devil May Cry sometime have camera problems, right?
IGA: The camera is a really important part of this game. Games like Devil May Cry utilize a cinematic style of camera angle. It looks really cool. But in this game, we are using a videogame-style camera rather than cinematic style. We are focusing on presenting images that would work best when you play the game, rather than looks good when you see it. The camera angle doesn't shift. Since the main character uses a whip, if the camera sat behind the character, you wouldn't have the sense of distance from enemies. The camera has to be set somewhere up above.
EGM: The camera was problematic in the N64 Castlevania...
IGA: Yes, there are various problems in N64 Castlevania. One of them is it's simply not fun to control the character. And the biggest problem was that couldn't have the sense of distance when you playing it. We were really cautious about that point when making Lament.
EGM: You mentioned in a past interview with us that the PS2 Castlevania project was reset in some point in early production. What exactly was abandoned?
IGA: It's not something you can tell everybody. [Laughs] Basically, our concept didn't work well as a videogame. I felt that it wouldn't have been any good if we'd continued the project as what it was.
EGM: It was never programmed?
IGA: Well, there was only a design concept. It seemed fun. But I was skeptical about if the idea could be truly realized. So I reset the project.
EGM: The game runs really smoothly. Is that really important to the you?
IGA: The framerate is a solid 60 fps. My guys are doing a great job. That's the first thing I told them to do. It's really important in an action game. There are good games in 30 fps, but I wanted to be in 60. If the game stays on 30, we can do much more in the graphics department, but I thought the framerate is much more important. This may be a little bit of old-timer's thinking, though. [Laughs]