By Jared Cornelius
I like to talk about classic and legacy games a lot. I often find myself wearing the rose colored glasses of nostalgia when thinking back on games, cartoons, and comics I thought were great as a kid. As an adult I can see how many of the things I liked as a child and teenager were awful. I was a big He-Man fan as kid, but thanks to Netflix I can confirm my suspicions that it was an awful show. Similarly games like the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Maximum Carnage that I played for hours trying to tell myself were good, turned out to be lousy cash-ins.
But once in a while I look back on a game where the tint of nostalgia doesn’t accurately represent how good something is, every now and then a title comes along that affects you in a way that changes your life and I mean that without hyperbole. Everyone who calls themselves a gamer has fallen head over heels for a title at one time or another, so what follows is honoring the man who made me fall in love with games again.
This week long-time Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi parted ways with Konami after twenty years of employment. If Igarashi isn’t a name you’ve heard of I’m not surprised but he’s a man who had a heavy influence of how 2D games continued to be published in an era when 3D was becoming the standard. But this all doesn’t start with Igarashi, let me take you back to 1986 the year the first Castlevania was released.
For anyone who had an NES, Castlevania should come to mind immediately. The 2D platform combat game would set in motion a long running franchise for Konami. During its NES hay day the series was famous among gamers for its difficulty and depth. As a child of the 80’s there was no internet, the only way you found out about games was on the playground, at the toy store, or in your local video rental shop.
Children on the playground would often describe Castlevania and be challenged that such a game even existed. At the video or toy store, covers would often be emblazoned in images that never correctly depicted what the game was about, Castlevania was honest about its accurate cover to game representation. At a time when horror movies featured larger than life monsters Castlevania felt like Monster Squad come true, fighting Dracula, the undead, medusas, Castlevania was a far cry from the colorful world of the Mushroom Kingdom. Castlevania would go on to spawn sequels on the NES, Gameboy, Super Nintendo, Genesis, and Turbo Graphx-16 producing quality 2D games every time.
In 1995 Sony would release the PlayStation in North America setting the stage for Castlevania’s biggest and most important release. The Castlevania franchise had been put in the hands of Igarashi who was a huge fan of 2D games. Igarashi reportedly felt that 2D games in many cases were to linear and short and desired to make a longer more engaging experience. Having enjoyed Nintendo’s Super Metroid, Igarashi would go on to create a similar style of gameplay that interpreted Super Metroid’s mechanics of large open world environments, RPG elements, and upgradable exploration based abilities. Igarashi’s team combine these mechanics with beautiful sprites animation and parallax scrolling environments, and a glorious soundtrack by noted Japanese composer Michiru Yamane.
It was a perfect storm of talent coming together to produce a beautiful, well-made video game called Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. At a time when traditionally 2D games were being made into 3D titles Castlevania became an important benchmark for 2D as some theorized that platform holder’s didn’t want 2D games on their new high powered consoles. The long running rumor having been the console makers, Sony in particular felt that 2D games shouldn’t be showcased on the PlayStation as the feeling was 2D was old and 3D was the hot new thing. However Castlevania did end up on the PlayStation in early 1997 and was received as a critical hit.
Gamespot.com called Symphony of The Night “Quite possibly the best 2D action side scroller ever.” While Edge Online said, “On the surface it looks archaic, but tucked just beneath is a game that throws the majority of PlayStation eye candy into sharp relief. Hardcore gamers will relish its classical sensibilities.”
Gamers would often tell almost fantastical stories about Symphony of The Night similar to the ones told on the playground when I was a child. Stories about the son of Dracula, secret passage ways, multiple endings, and upside-down castles. Symphony of The Night would turn into a long tailed hit for Konami as well, receiving a highly publicized Xbox Live Arcade release early in the systems life. Symphony of The Night would find its way onto the PlayStation Network, as well as the PlayStation Portable by way of Castlevania The Dracula X Chronicles and back to the Xbox 360 in Konami Classics Volume 1.
Symphony of The Night was viewed by many fans to be the finest 2D game released on the PlayStation and in no small part to Igarashi. Konami saw the critical success of the game and would continue releasing games in what had been dubbed the “Metroid-Vania” style for ten years. Igarashi would go on to critical acclaim releasing two follow up titles for the Gameboy Advance with Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow. The Nintendo DS would also have three critical successes in Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and Order of Ecclesia. Igarashi’s 2D Metroid-Vania style titles would go on to score highly on Metacritic, averaging a score of 88 across six games, winning numerous awards from various magazines and websites over their lifetime. Igarashi would become Konami’s go to on Castlevania titles, being given producing duties on the series less popular 3D entries Lament of Innocence, Curse of Darkness, Judgment, and the Lords of Shadows series. Most of the series 3D titles received middle of the road scores and in pure conjecture on my part I believe Igarashi’s heart wasn’t in the 3D games.
Igarashi wasn’t the originator of the Castlevania franchise, he wasn’t like Mega Man’s Keiji Inafune who created the blue bomber as a project in his spare time. Igarashi was a visionary of 2D gameplay who took an existing franchise and made it his. Since Symphony of The Night, Koji Igarashi’s name has been inseparable from Castlevania and with good reason. Despite leading the creation of six masterful pieces of gaming artwork, the influence of the games he popularized can be seen in other modern hits. Symphony of The Night wasn’t the first game to explore the gameplay characterized as Metroid-Vania but it did popularize it. Games like Drinkbox’s Guacamelee! Double Helix’s Strider, even Rocksteady’s Arkham games owe a small debt to open world exploration that Igarashi helped bring to the masses.
Koji Igarashi could often be seen at events in his cowboy hat carrying a whip. He’s an eclectic man who seems to know what he likes and wears his passion on his sleeve. Classic gaming personalities like himself and Keiji Infaune seem to have had enough of being told what to do by the companies they have given years of their lives to and that’s a good thing. As much as I’d like to see another game the caliber of Symphony of The Night or Harmony of Dissonance I don’t think that’s what Konami wants. After two 3D Lords of Shadows games it seems Konami is happy to continue its trend of 3D Castlevanias.
It’s been six years since the last 2D entry in the series and Xbox Live multiplayer Harmony of Despair and God of War want to be Mirror of Fate don’t count. If you read my eulogy on Irrational Games you’ll know I’m in favor of creative people chasing their muse. I don’t want someone stifled producing the same thing year after year, but it seems to me Igarashi was content with his role as Castlevania’s lord and master making the kind of games he wanted to make. Konami may own the Castlevania license and a trademark on the Belmont clan, but they don’t own Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman or the thousands of other creatures that inhabit mythology. Igarashi has already announced a new studio to make the games he wants to make and while I’m sad at the prospect of not seeing his stamp on another Castlevania, I’m excited for whatever comes next.
On a personal level Symphony of The Night was the game that drew me back into gaming after I had thought myself to mature to be playing video games. Koji Igarashi changed my life through the art that he and his studio produced and although my parents might have been content to keep that influence away from my life, I wouldn’t change a thing. Symphony of The Night and Koji Igarashi were instrumental in leading me to be interested in gaming and the gaming culture, so I guess you can blame him for me writing on Bleeding Cool.
Jared Cornelius is some guy from New Jersey’s coast who would have married someone named Belmont and named his son Simon. If you’d like to share cheats on the playground you can contact him @John_Laryngitis on Twitter.