Making Games for a Specific Fanbase
Author: Ryan Payton
Date: 11 March 2005
Last month Konami hosted its own Gamers' Day event in San Francisco, offering media members a hands-on look at the newest titles in the long-running Castlevania series — Castlevania: Curse of Darkness for PlayStation 2, and an as-of-yet untitled 2D adventure for Nintendo DS. Since then internet forums have been buzzing about the two new games from Castlevania godfather Koji Igarashi, some upbeat about the new Castlevania on PS2, others curious over the new anime look of the Nintendo DS title. In an exclusive interview, Igarashi sat down with us to discuss his upcoming games and the buzz that has been surrounding them.
The interview took place in one of the most expensive plots of land within Tokyo — the newly minted Roppongi Hills — home to dozens of companies and Konami's new office and development studios (one led by Metal Gear producer Hideo Kojima). Konami's reception area commands a striking view of the hazy metropolis. Slate floors, illuminated hallways, and an army of security guards welcome the thousands of salarymen that call Roppongi Hills their office. Past the security checkpoints lie dozens of elevators that pulsate in a variety of colors. Riding upward gave us a sense that the business that takes place here is somehow more pivotal than the business going on in adjacent buildings. Igarashi took the same vertical path minutes after us, undoubtedly hoping his new Castlevania titles will too mark a pivotal point, at least in the gaming world.
Igarashi greeted us with his new business card. Gone are the Nanobreaker themed cards. Now he is sporting a more simple design that is marked with a gothic cross and "IGA" written in bold white print — he has obviously embraced the shortened nickname foreign fans have given him.
On this chilly Tokyo morning with a cup of Georgia coffee in hand (black, if you must know), Igarashi seemed ready to tackle any Castlevania topic — even tired questions about how his new games are influenced by the 1997 classic, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But 1UP has decided to take a different look at the tainted success of Symphony of the Night: Who's driving Igarashi? Is he in the driver's seat, or is it the fans' limitless demands that are guiding his projects?
IGA: I know that fans will always demand things, but it's interesting because there is diversity among Castlevania fans. Some are very excited about the change to 3D, others say that the game will be no good unless it's in 2D. [Laughs]
1UP: Do you find yourself implementing favorite features of past games into new projects because fans would like it, or because that's what you would personally like to do?
IGA: Actually, I have been pushed by the consumer. That doesn't mean I don't love the games I'm working on. I also have to think about not only the hardcore fans, but the female Castlevania players. They are a small portion of the fan base, but that's part of the reason why I wanted to integrate an experience point system into Curse of Darkness — to allow female gamers to enjoy powering up their characters.
1UP: By looking to please fans, do you find yourself being held back from creating the games you really want to create?
IGA: I find with 3D games right now that everybody is focusing on graphics and the actual gameplay is not progressing very much. We're going backwards in a way. As a game lover, I have lots of ideas on how to do a unique 3D game. Maybe doing something by experimenting with the hardware and making a game that looks and plays like a retro one, but one that is presented in 3D.
[Castlevania: Curse of Darkness marks Igarashi's second stab at bringing the Dracula slaying experience to PS2. The previous title, Lament of Innocence, garnered praises for its graphics and combat action, but fell flat in bringing the depth and exploration of 2D Castlevania games into a 3D experience. However, Igarashi seems upbeat about Curse of Darkness and is investing most of his time and developing funding in order to make it a triumphant representation of a 3D Castlevania game.]
1UP: It seems like your colleague, Hideo Kojima, went back to what fans loved about the original Metal Gear Solid and reintroduced them with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. He also inserts some jokes about things fans didn't like about Metal Gear Solid 2 into Snake Eater. Do you find yourself creating Curse of Darkness as a sort of homage to fans of Symphony of the Night?
IGA: I am looking back to Symphony of the Night when developing this game, but as you know 2D and 3D games are so different so I can't really say Curse of Darkness is a 3D version of Symphony of the Night.
1UP: What have you learned about making 3D games from Castlevania: Lament of Innocence and Nanobreaker?
IGA: With Lament of Innocence I wanted to focus on the action portion and make that really strong, but after releasing the game I noticed that consumers were looking for more adventure and character development. So now that I know what Castlevania fans are looking for, I decided to take that direction. As for Nanobreaker, I learned some things about presentation and the challenge to integrate various kinds of visual effects in the game, including some really ridiculous looking ones. [Laughs] When developing Nanobreaker we made it with hardcore action gamers in mind, which is one reason why the game's difficulty level is pretty high. Now that the game has been released we found out many gamers have found it to be too difficult.
1UP: So how will that influence Curse of Darkness?
IGA: I think we won't make Curse of Darkness as difficult as Nanobreaker. The experience point system we are implementing for the new Castlevania will help make it easier for some players.
1UP: You mentioned that Curse of Darkness will feature more exploration. How will you approach that in a 3D game?
IGA: With Lament of Innocence you begin the game with almost all the items, so it was up to the player to devise a strategy and progress through the game. That was the extent to which that game had exploration. With Curse of Darkness, as you progress you gain new abilities and experience points, which obviously gives the player a grander feeling of exploration. As for the stages, Curse of Darkness won't be as linear as Lament of Innocence. Rooms will be interconnected throughout the castle, but unlike previous Castlevania games, players will be able to roam outside of the castle as well.
[Before the tape recorders started rolling, Igarashi sat down and mentioned how busy he has been. He noted how both new Castlevania adventures would make their promised autumn release dates "girigiri," meaning "just barely" or "by the skin of our teeth."
Armed with a developer-only Nintendo DS (which has a shiny, dark grey casing and dull finish on the inside) Igarashi revealed a demo cartridge running the same trial version of the Castlevania DS game shown at Konami's Gamers' Day last month. He mentioned the warm reactions he received about the game and seemed genuinely excited about its ongoing development.
Igarashi's latest handheld game is in fact a sequel to 2003's Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, starring Soma Cruz — full-time pretty boy high school student and part-time Dracula slayer. While the side-scrolling action remains largely the same as it was on Game Boy Advance, the Nintendo DS hardware has allowed Igarashi's team to not only push beefier looking bosses and effects, but the handheld's touch screen is also being put to use. One room in Igarashi's demo version required us to chip away at ice blocks in the shape of a staircase in order to progress to a previously out-of-reach area.
To the initial disappointment of some fans, like many Nintendo DS games, the top screen in Castlevania features a map. But we found ourselves using the in-game map frequently now that we could view it instantly without having to pause the game.]
1UP: When beginning development of Castlevania on Nintendo DS, was it difficult to find a use for the second DS screen? It seems like developers are having a hard time using it for anything other than a map.
IGA: Well, one thing that makes it difficult is that the two screens have quite a big gap between them. That makes it hard for most gamers to view both screens a once. So with the two screens split we decided to focus the action on the bottom screen. And with Castlevania there is plenty of exploration, so having a map on the second screen works well. Back with previous Castlevania games there were many items that powered up the character, but it was difficult for gamers to really gauge what affect those things had. So on the second DS screen players can also view their character's status which offers this information without having to pause the game. This was especially true with Symphony of the Night where we found that most players ignored the potions that increased luck and intelligence. So hopefully the status information on the upper screen will influence gamers to use those power-ups a bit more.
1UP: You mentioned that the gap between the two DS screens makes it difficult to find uses for both screens. What if the DS was designed with little or no gap between the two screens?
IGA: Well, for a side-scrolling game like Castlevania, two seamless, vertically linked screens wouldn't help in this case. However, it would be nice to be able to use the stylus on both upper and lower screens. So, I guess in the case of Castlevania, maybe a map would still be the best idea. [Laughs]
[Last month's announcement of Castlevania on Nintendo DS was greeted with many cheers from fans of the three Game Boy Advance Castlevania titles. However some diehard fans expressed their disappointment that the Nintendo DS Castlevania does not feature the gothic art of Japanese artist Ayami Kojima, and instead sports a bright, Japanese anime-inspired look.]
1UP: Previous handheld Castlevania games featured the art of Ayami Kojima, but the new game for Nintendo DS features a very different art style.
IGA: Yes, we contracted the character art to an animation company in Japan. The reason being that Ayami Kojima is a very busy lady and I wanted her to focus on the art for Curse of Darkness on PS2. Basically, I was afraid to ask her for additional help. [Laughs] And from my perspective, the Castlevania demographic and the user base of Game Boy Advance doesn't match. The games may be geared for an older audience. So with that in mind we decided to do this game on Nintendo DS using character art that could appeal to everyone. I'm hoping to catch a younger audience with the DS Castlevania this time around. And of course Ayami Kojima is a terrific artist, but I think her art is best suited for an older audience.
1UP: So has this new Japanese anime style of character art influenced the gameplay at all?
IGA: Absolutely not.
1UP: Will this anime style be something we'll see in future titles after the Castlevania DS game?
IGA: I think that really depends on consumers' reactions. It's a bit of an experiment actually. I'm sure there will be people who won't like the anime style of the character art, but I remember back when we first started using Ayami Kojima's art there were many fans opposed to it.
[While we played the trial version of Castlevania on Nintendo DS, Igarashi mentioned that the in-game music would be of higher quality than that in the Game Boy Advance versions, and that his team is still working on drawing as much power as they can out of the Nintendo DS hardware.
After a few handshakes and goodbyes, Koji Igarashi headed back to work on his most promising titles in years. The Aria of Sorrow sequel on Nintendo DS already looks and plays like the best Castlevania since Symphony of the Night, and Curse of Darkness may finally be the answer to Igarashi's 3D-tainted nightmares by fusing elements of classic Castlevania games into a PS2-powered adventure title.]