“As long as I was able to make Castlevania games, it was fun,” Koji Igarashi says of his time at Konami. “But then, I wasn’t.”
There was never a game creator so in love with the mythology of his own series as Igarashi. As the producer of the gothic action-adventure series that has spanned nearly every gaming platform since the 8-bit NES, Igarashi didn’t just make Castlevania, he lived it. He’d show up at E3 Expo brandishing a fedora and a whip, looking like one of the vampire hunters (if not Dracula himself) from his games .
It couldn’t have felt good to be shoved to the side. Castlevania fans who enjoyed Igarashi’s style were perplexed to find the series had been handed over to Metal Gear Solid producer Hideo Kojima, with development outsourced to Spain. Igarashi, seeing Konami quickly shifting its focus to mobile games, moved over to that side. After years there, he didn’t release a single game.
Konami had left Igarashi behind, but it would take some doing before he could muster the courage to leave. “As soon as I graduated from college, I went straight into Konami. I’d never left Konami,” Igarashi, 47, says. “So that’s kind of a scary thing when you haven’t done something like that before.”
He soon saw a ray of hope. Keiji Inafune, the producer of Mega Man—another long-running series similarly neglected by its publisher—had quit Capcom and launched a Kickstarter to fund a spiritual successor to the series. “A Japanese creator could go out on his own, could be independent, and could successfully launch a new IP with the support of his fan base,” Igarashi said. “And of gamers, especially in the West, that still appreciated those sort of experiences.”
So today, Igarashi is launching his Kickstarter campaign for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night—essentially a classic Igarashi-style Castlevania without all of Konami’s trademarks getting in the way. It’s to be released for personal computers, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
It’s going to be more expensive to produce than a typical Castlevania, Igarashi says, because he can no longer re-use the assets from previous games to keep the budget low. But Bloodstained already has secured enough funding to proceed. “We have backing investment,” says Ben Judd, Igarashi’s agent. “Maybe it’s a publisher, maybe it’s VC, maybe it’s a wealthy individual. But it is … somebody that believes in the franchise.”
The Kickstarter, with a goal of $500,000, is intended to accomplish a few things. First, should it take off, it could significantly increase the game’s development budget. Second, the team hopes it will generate sufficient funding to print the game on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One discs for those players who’d rather not download. But a key benefit of the campaign will be establishing a connection between Igarashi and that Western audience of his.
“The developers often don’t realize they have this fan base in the West,” says Dan Moore of Fangamer, the American maker of game-geek shirts, books, and other memorabilia that Igarashi has partnered with for the Kickstarter rewards. “They certainly don’t realize how big and how vibrant it is.” Fangamer worked with Keiji Inafune on his Kickstarter, and found that getting fans involved created a positive feedback loop—when the game’s developers saw the fan art that was already popping up during the campaign, it “inspired them to keep going,” he said.
Moore says Fangamer will encourage backers to start creating fan art, funny Vine videos, and such around Bloodstained while the campaign is in progress. “It’s a new IP, they don’t know a lot about it yet… they’re not inherently invested in the characters yet. We want to help people do that.”
The Long Road to Independence
“Two, maybe three years ago,” Igarashi said, “Konami had slowly shifted its culture, as well as its business model. They started to have major success in the mobile space, and that was starting to be seen by the company as the future.” Igarashi still wanted to make console-style games, but with fewer opportunities to do so, he decided to try splitting the difference—join the mobile side of the company and try making console-style games for phones. It didn’t work out.
“It was very hard to try and find that fit, and bring that more gamey side without a huge focus on monetization, paywalls, and things like that,” he said. “That blend is much easier on paper than it is in reality.”
But even after making the decision to ditch Konami and seek funding for a new console game, it wasn’t an easy road. “It was a challenge,” he said. “We talked with literally everybody, all the major publishers. … Everywhere we went, no one seemed interested. Which was kind of a shock, because I would have thought that someone with my level of experience, and the number of hits I had been able to produce, would appear to be a safe bet.”
During this year of wandering, Igarashi still needed to pay the bills. “I’ve got a family, and I couldn’t just be out of work for a year,” he said. So he put his “dream game” on the back burner, and signed up to work with a Chinese game publisher to create … mobile games.
Eventually, Igarashi was able to convince these still-anonymous backers that there was enough fan interest in producing a new “Igavania” game to make it worthwhile. And he’s got some well-known development talent backing him up. Inti-Creates, developer of Keiji Inafune’s Kickstarted game Mega Man 9, is making the game. Michiru Yamane, composer of the beautiful music synonymous with Castlevania, is handling the soundtrack to Bloodstained.
Igarashi’s Kickstarter couldn’t have come at a better time. “Spiritual successors” to series abandoned by their publishers are making bank on the crowdfunding platform; Yooka-Laylee, a new game from the creators of the Nintendo 64 hit Banjo-Kazooie, is on track to bust the Kickstarter record for a game. More than that, the “Metroidvania” genre—the explorative, non-linear 2-D games best exemplified by Nintendo’s Metroid and Igarashi’s Castlevania—has been making a comeback this year with games like Axiom Verge and Ori and the Blind Forest that draw inspiration from the originals.
Perhaps more importantly, fans are just really, really mad at Konami this month. From all appearances, the publisher is rapidly continuing its shift to mobile gaming—Kojima is probably going to leave soon, and Silent Hills, his much-hyped collaboration with Guillermo Del Toro, has been cancelled (and its brilliant playable demo yanked from PlayStation 4’s servers). It’s not hard to imagine spurned fans throwing money at Igarashi just to send a message.
No matter how the Kickstarter ends up, it seems like Igarashi is ready to emerge from the darkness.
“As a creator, there’s a joy that comes from being able to release games and make fans happy,” he says. “That fan support is never gone, and has allowed me to be strong through these challenging times.”
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