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Where in the World is Koji Igarashi?

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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is releasing on Steam on August 27th. Originally released on the Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2010, this game rears its ugly head, returning once more to spread its evil not entirely unlike Dracula himself. Once again I find myself asking the same question I did in 2010. Where is Iga?

It’s not that Lords of Shadow is entirely a bad game, but it’s just that it’s entirely mediocre. It’s a checklist of popular design elements from the years leading up to its release all kinds of haphazardly thrown together.

It’s like someone played every action game released between say 2005 to 2008 with a metacritic score of 8 or higher and tried to compile their best elements into a single game. That sounds like it should be awesome, yet somehow the result manages to lose everything that made the original games it draws influence from appealing.

I found myself sitting there going “Oh look it’s God of War”, or “Oh look it’s Shadow of Colossus” because each element of the game felt entirely compartmentalized. Had the Lords of Shadow team found a way to produce the kind of genius alchemy needed blend each of the games mechanics into a single seamless experience then it would have been amazing.

As it is, it nearly feels like plagiarism, and out of all the games Mercury Steam drew influence from the one game series it ignores almost entirely is Castlevania.

Check out the above video. There are three things you should take from it, Dave Cox wants Castlevania to have a larger mass appeal, he wants Lords of Shadow to remind you of the original Castlevania, and he fucking hates Koji Igarashi with burning fury of 1,000 suns. Let me break it down for you.

Let’s deal with Castlevania “boxing itself into a niche”. Well, this is Niche Gamer. We like niche things, and one someone talks about making something “accessible to the wider market” what we tend to hear is:

“You know that thing you like? We’re going to take that thing, and we’re going to make it more like all the other things, and if the little things you liked about it get it the way of that, well fuck you.”  When they were doing this interview they were definitely very aware of this.

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I’m pretty sure this is why Mr. Cox talks about the original Castlevania a lot. However, what he apparently failed to realize is that the original Castlevania isn’t really a game about a guy in armor with a whip fighting monsters. It was not an action game. It was about platforming.

That’s why most of the enemies die is a single hit, why there are pitfalls all over the place, and why getting hit by enemies sends you flying backward usually to your death into one of the aforementioned pits.

The original Castlevania is a game about avoiding medusa heads and not getting knocked off the god damned stairs. Even though he talks about Castlevania a bit, I don’t think he really understood it. He talks about a lot of other games too like God of War, Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden , and I’m pretty positive they all played a much bigger part in Lords of Shadow’s development than Castlevania.

He even throws Street Fighter and Final Fantasy 7 in there – I don’t know why. Nothing from either of those two games made it into Lords of Shadow. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had Street Fighter style special moves and Final Fantasy style leveling system, but Lords of Shadow has neither of these things, bringing me to my final take away from this video.

He never mentions Symphony of the Night positively once. I find that extremely odd because it was at the time the most commercially successful games in the series, it was game that got most people into Castlevania, and it is widely considered one of the best games ever made.

I think the reason why David Cox is only talking about Castlevainia being one of the biggest games on the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and PC Engine – and that he stops short of mentioning the freakishly popular Playstation game, is because this is the first game Iga worked on.

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Iga was the scenario writer, a programmer and an assistant director on Symphony of the Night. His first lead role in development at Konami was as the scenario writer for a dating sim called Tokimeki Memorial. It was and still remains a massive success over 50 games later.

Rather than continue to work on a sequel, Iga passed Tokimeki off, and used his new-found popularity in the company as leverage to be reassigned to the Castlevania team. Iga had become interested in game development after playing Castlevania III on a roommate’s Famicom in college.

He went to work at Konami specifically to make Castlevania games. From 1997 to 2010 Koji Igarashi had been in charge of every major Castlevania release. The man made team members dress up as Castlevania characters at press events. He pretty intensely loves Castlevania.

When the game’s future was handed to someone else you’re not just talking about Castlevania going in a new direction. You’re talking about a man having his life’s work taken away, and the worst part is that its been left unfinished with only a few chapters left unwritten.

Igarashi’s Castlevania is an epic that spans centuries and several intertwining bloodlines of warriors destined by fate to fight the immortal incarnation of pure evil known as Dracula. The games do not tell the story in any particular order. Instead each game fills in a blank in the timeline and answers questions posed by other games.

For example, Dracula’s origin story is revealed in Lament of Innocence on the Playstation 2. Even though this game wasn’t released until 2003 it is the earliest game in the timeline. In the game we learn that the man who would become Dracula was an 11th century tactician who goes mad with grief after his wife passes away and becomes a vampire to cheat death.

While this game answers many questions, it is clear that the vampire who would become Dracula does not have the kind of power he displays in later games, and the story of how he goes from vampire to the very incarnation of evil remains untold. It’s widely speculated that Dracula makes a pact with the devil or something after the church burns his second wife at the stake for being the mother to his son Alucard.

We see her death during Alucard’s dream in Symphony of the Night. Perhaps the most well-known of the unfinished stories is The Battle of 1999. The game that was not only the final battle with Dracula, but it was also widely rumored to be Igarashi’s swan song.

One of Koji Igarashi’s most notable achievements with Castlevania was his ability to tie together not only games he had control over, but connect them to the games that came before. He created a sense of continuity and history within the games that made me look forward to each new installment.

While some were better than others, I always felt like I had to do and see everything in a new game because I might miss a piece of the puzzle that made it all fit together. Iga made sure Dracula’s castle kept some familiar rooms and showed signs of battles from past games.

He gave a reason for why candles in the castle drop money and items, which is the candles represent lost souls trapped in the castle, when you put them out you free the soul, and the soul leaves behind a gift to thank you. These little details like that made the game feel special.

Looking for little bit of lore like that made me play each game over and over and eventually go back to older games after finishing the newest release to see if I could find a new connection.

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Because he himself had once been a fan of the games, I think he was able to trust players more than most developers to dig deeper. I knew that if I played the game through to 100% competition that I would find something cool. There were times when I’d find something new on my third or fourth time through a game.

As time went on I began to understand how Igarashi thought, and it became easier for me to find secrets. It was like Iga and I were having a conversation through the games. It was an experience unique to Castlevania because it genuinely felt like he was as excited to tell the tale of each new chapter as I was to play through them, and care was taken to reward me for following the story through each new game.

Probably an important personal fact: I have spent almost my entire life discussing Castlevania lore with my friends who also play the games. This is how I bonded with the guy who would one day be the best man at my wedding. The first fight I ever had with my very first girlfriend in middle school happened because I wasn’t listening to her on the phone because I was playing Symphony of the Night.

It’s not only that Mercury Steam didn’t show respect to Iga’s work – it’s that by reconnecting all of those games, by erasing them from the timeline, this disrespected my history with the series. I can’t have conversations about the lore anymore because there will never be a definitive answer, and while I always have fond memories of the games, its bit tainted now because I’ll never know what happens in the end.

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After buying Castlevania games for most of my life, all I’m left with is an unfinished story, and the guy who was writing it gets window seated so that Castlevania can fail miserably at being God of War. The only reason this is happening isn’t because the games I was buying weren’t making money. It’s because Castlevania is a popular brand and someone at Konami thought it could make them even more money if it was God of War. This doesn’t make me not want to play Lords of Shadow, it kind of makes me not want to play video games at all.

It definitely made me want to not make games. It bothers me immensely that Konami let Castlevania switch hands without Iga being at least allowed to go out with some fanfair. Igarashi was a games industry auteur, and there are so few games that have the faces and names attached to them. Companies do everything in their power to make games into brand names disassociated from the actual human beings that make them memorable.

This is done to keep these people expendable and to increase profit. The fact that anyone even recognizes the name Koji Igarashi is a testament to how much of an impact he has made. After years of making successful and popular games Konami disposed of him, and allowed someone new to come in not simply to continue where he had left off.

But to erase his legacy and start over with the only explanation given being the need to appeal to wider audience? Assuming the games sales numbers online are accurate, I’m fairly certain the DS Castlevania games were selling within acceptable margins at the time because I was making DS games while these game were being released. You can be fairly certain that the decision to remove Igarashi was political.

I don’t hate Mercury Steam for making Lords of Shadow and I bare Dave Cox no ill will. I just miss Koji Igarashi. I miss the conversations I used to have with him through his games. I miss looking forward to the new Castlevania games. To me Iga and Castlevania are inseparable. Castlevania can’t be a Mercury Steam game. It’s not even a Konami game.

It’s a Koji Igarashi game, and the way Konami handled the transition makes me feel like buying the new Castlevania games would somehow betray Iga. It feels like there are two Castlevanias and the success of one means the failure of the other. It shouldn’t have to be that way. Castlevania deserves better than that. The entire industry deserves better than than that.

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John Sabin

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