Aria of Sorrow – 2003 Developer Interview
originally featured in Nintendo Dream magazine
Koji Igarashi – Producer
—The release of Aria of Sorrow is finally here. How does it feel now that it’s complete?
IGA: The reviews have been much better than I expected, so it feels like a huge weight off my shoulders. Our vision for this Castlevania game was to retain the fundamental gameplay of a 2D sidescrolling action game, but other than that, we wanted to cleave with the past and change everything else. We always knew we would be releasing Aria of Sorrow within a year from the last game, so it made no sense to just release another game with identical gameplay. A different gameplay system was the starting point for the whole development.
Fans expect a certain “Castlevania-ness” from any Castlevania game though, so there were things I was nervous about. One example, in particular, is the opening scene with the shrine maiden and the torii gate… that’s not something you’d expect to see in this series. Castlevania is also an important title to Konami for the overseas markets, and I was worried about how Americans would respond, but the response so far has been better than I expected, so I’m relieved.
A pre-cowboy hat photo of former long-time Castlevania producer and custodian, Koji “IGA” Igarashi. (2003)
—Up to now, Castlevania games have taken place in a medieval European setting, but suddenly we have Aria of Sorrow and it’s in near-future Japan… I don’t think anyone was expecting that. I can see how it reflects your desire to do something new, though.
IGA: That unexpectedness is exactly what we were going for. Also, and this is something I’ve been thinking for a long time, but the truth is, the Castlevania series is very restricted in terms of the stories we can tell. It would be well enough if we just ignored any story considerations and simply had players fight Dracula each game, but instead there’s this canon lore that Dracula gets revived once every hundred years—there’s even a whole chronology and timeline that’s been released! Of course, we released it ourselves, so I guess there’s no room to complain. (laughs)
As you can see by looking at the timeline, there isn’t any more space to insert new Castlevania episodes. That being the case, the only option for us was to try and take things in a new direction. And I really want the Castlevania series to keep going, so we had to come up with some new plan. That’s how we got to the idea of Count Dracula appearing in the future… it seemed kind of crazy at first, given the tropes of Castlevania: gothic horror, medieval Europe, Dracula’s castle. But that got us thinking, what if we used Nostradamus’ predictions about the world ending in 1999, as a way to bring to a conclusion that “chapter” of the Dracula saga. Then we could begin a new story, for the next generation. So we created the idea that Dracula is completely destroyed in 1999, which opens up the path for a “second edition”, if you will… it allowed us to put a period on the previous story and explore other themes. And that ties into the other gameplay systems—it’s why doing something new there was so important too.
—Why did you choose Japan for the setting?
IGA: There was actually a total solar eclipse in Eastern Europe in 1999. There were even rumors then that Dracula would come back. There’s something sacred and mysterious about eclipses, right? But most Westerners don’t feel that way about eclipses—to them, it’s nothing mysterious, just a shadow, you know? For the Japanese, on the other hand, eclipses appear in our myths (like Ama no Iwato), and they inspire a kind of awe in us. So I combined those ideas: in 1999, the same year there was an eclipse in Eastern Europe, Dracula is destroyed… and in 2035, there’s an eclipse in Japan, and something is awakening.
—There’s also no whip or subweapons, which had been staples of the series up to now.
IGA: We had gotten rid of whips before with Symphony of the Night, so there wasn’t much resistance to doing that again. But retiring the subweapons was a bigger deal. When we thought about what we could change in order to revamp the image of Castlevania, the only thing we hadn’t messed with in the past were the subweapons. They’re part of Castlevania’s identity, so we wanted to come up with a different system that would widen the gameplay possibilities while retaining the same basic control scheme the subweapons had. That was when the Tactical Soul system was born. It took a lot of bravery to change that fundamental part of Castlevania, but we really wanted to do something different, and not just on a surface-level.
—Can you say more about how you came up with the Tactical Soul system, exactly?
IGA: In the beginning, the idea was that the player would transform into different enemies. It was an interesting idea, but ROM space limitations were an issue, as were the controls, not to mention the amount of work it would take… we kept coming up against these walls. Also, and this is tied into the story, but it ended up making more thematic sense if you got your powers by stealing the enemies’ souls. Instead of transforming into the monsters, you dominate and possess them. We though that would be better… and it would be a far more reasonable amount of work for the team. (laughs) I think you’ll see this if you play Aria of Sorrow, but “domination” is a very important keyword for the game.
—There are over 100 different souls.
IGA: Yeah, and it was a real challenge coming up with all of them. I didn’t do them all by myself… which is to say, I put the staff through a lot. (laughs) The hardest ones were the enemies that didn’t have obvious abilities… like, what power does a crow have, exactly? (laughs)
—Hah, yeah, a crow is just… a crow. (laughs) Was it a group endeavor then, coming up with all the different soul abilities?
IGA: At first everyone brought their own ideas, yeah. If an idea had legs, we’d hand it right off to the main programmer, Shutaro Iida… “here, figure out which monster this works with.” (laughs) Of course there were also monsters who had a clear, obvious ability paired up with them from the get-go, but other than those, everything had to be created ex nihilo.
—It sounds like a real puzzle.
IGA: Yeah, it truly was. And we basically just did it all ad-hoc as we went. (laughs)
—I feel bad for the main programmer. (laughs)
IGA: Nah, well… he’s kind of a sad specimen anyway.
Shutaro Iida’s pet enemy, the curry-tossing Waiter Skeleton. In addition to his soul, which grants Soma the ability to also hurl weaponized curry at his foes, the Waiter Skeleton will occasionally drop the consumable item Beef Curry which, when used, restores a whopping 800 HP.
—Whattt… (laughs) You mean he’s like one of those skinny programmers who’ve worked themselves to the bone?
IGA: This guy lives off curry, and curry alone. (laughs) That’s why the Skeleton Boys1 throw curries, as an homage to him. (laughs) And you might notice that the enemies drop different foods, but there’s no longer sushi… that’s because he hates sashimi.
IGA: I remember asking him, “Sushi? Where did the sushi go?” and he was like, “Sushi sucks!” (laughs) But we added the curry, so there you go.
—Wow. Just another way Aria of Sorrow is a very special game. (laughs) Changing subjects, this was your second game for the Game Boy Advance. Was the development easier this time?
IGA: 2D games are easier to create. However, because everything is 3D now, it’s becoming harder to find pixel artists.
—Why did you choose the GBA hardware?
IGA: Partly is’s because Circle of the Moon sold very well for the GBA, and before that I had guessed that this would be the era of the GBA. Those were the main two reasons. In today’s world, if you try to release a 2D game on something like the PS2, it’s going to get lower ratings (compared with 3D titles). The hardcore fans still love 2D, but to the general market, it’s seen as something “lesser” than 3D, unfortunately. Symphony of the Night was a Playstation game, and many wanted to see a sequel for the PS2, but it turns out that making a 2D game for the PS2 is more difficult than you might think.
For the GBA, on the other hand, 2D is the standard assumption, and graphically it has similar capabilities to the Super Famicom, and the scale of the development isn’t too unwieldy. It’s nice, because a game released on the GBA gets reviewed and appreciated fairly as a 2D game. So yeah, taking all that into account, I can’t imagine making a 2D game on a different system. And I love 2D games, personally.
—IGA, you first got involved with the Castlevania series with Akumajo Dracula X, correct?
IGA: Yeah. For Chi no Rondo, I was just an observer. For several Castlevania games, I watched the dev team work in the same office right next to me.
Konami PR: You did help with the debugging though. I remember you saying “I want to play that!” (laughs)
IGA: I was writing the scenario for Tokimeki Memorial at that time. When I got tired, I’d go over to the Castlevania team and hang out, play the latest build of the game, and then head home. It wasn’t part of my job, it was just for fun. (laughs) One of the reasons I joined Konami was because I wanted to work on a Castlevania game, you see. I saw them working on Castlevania games for the SFC when I first joined and thought, man, that’s what I want to do. By luck, when the Symphony of the Night development got underway, I was given the opportunity by my boss to select the game I wanted to work on, and that’s what I chose.
Konami PR: You had been getting closer to the Castlevania team over the years. Still, it was a huge change from Tokimeki Memorial. (laughs)
From moe dating sim to gothic-horror action: the duality of IGA.
—You’re also a programmer—on Tokimeki Memorial you did both the programming and the scenario. But yeah, then your next game was Castlevania… just the title is a 180 from Tokimeki Memorial. It’s a huge leap. (laughs)
IGA: Everyone said that to me. (laughs) In my case, it was my paying job to write the scenario for Tokimeki Memorial, so I treated it professionally, but I don’t see myself as a scenario writer, nor did I join Konami because I wanted to write game scenarios. It was just how things turned out. (laughs)
When the first Tokimeki game was finished, I was told to start writing the scenario for Tokimeki Memorial 2. But at that time, I told my boss I had used up all my ideas for the first game, and I couldn’t do it. (laughs) They recognized the effort and success of Tokimeki, though, and allowed me to choose Castlevania for my next project. However, again, I wasn’t wanting to write the scenario. I worked as the director for Symphony of the Night, though I joined halfway through and took over from Toru Hagihara—he’s a big guy at Konami now. (laughs) He was the one who asked me to write the scenario for Symphony of the Night, and I dutifully said yes. (laughs)
—The worlds of Tokimeki Memorial and Symphony of the Night are so different though. Wasn’t it jarring going from one to the other?
IGA: It was a relatively easy transition for me, because I’ve always been a Castlevania fan. However… once Tokimeki started to take off in sales, they greenlit a drama CD, a radio program, and all these other things. They kept sending me scripts to revise and proofread while I was working on Castlevania. (laughs) That was the hardest part. They’d come to me asking things that I had already forgotten by that point. I was there trying to write all this cool dialogue for Symphony of the Night about fate and vampires and whatnot, and then I had to switch gears and write Tokimeki dialogue, like “Oh gosh senpai, I don’t know if I can walk home with you, I’m sooo embarassed.” (laughs) Those were tough days! My brain was a jumbled mess.
—In terms of story, Dracula was originally a classical horror story. But Castlevania has never been bound by those conventions.
IGA: It’s not something I pay a lot of attention to. My thinking is very simple. When I was writing Tokimeki’s story and script, I simple thought to myself, “What would make me happy to hear from a girl?” When I was writing Castlevania, I tried to think of cool dialogue, and I let my image of the world expand from there… sticking to classical horror just wasn’t something I thought about. I’m familiar with the source material though, so of course I use lots of the same key ideas: vampires, the night, demons, etc, and I figured that by doing that, things would take shape.
—I’ve noticed there’s a lot of musical terminology in the subtitles for Castlevania lately. Chi no Rondo, Gekka no Nocturne, Byakuya no Concerto, Akatsuki no Minuet…
IGA: Long ago, Castlevania games were made in Kobe, and the games made in the TYO office (Konami Entertainment Tokyo) were seen as more of a “branch” from the series. That’s why, in order to distinguish ourselves from the main Castlevania entries, and show, in a sense, that we were doing our own thing and having fun, we put “X” in the title, as well as the music terminology. We kept using music words to show that this was its own legitimate Castlevania series… but to be honest, I’m getting kind of sick of it, so we may change it soon. (laughs) I want people to see them as a series of related games, including Aria of Sorrow (Akatsuki no Minuet).
—How do you decide on the specific musical terms to use?
IGA: I borrowed composer Michiru Yamane’s music terminology book. For Akatsuki no Minuet, another contender was “aubade“, the word sounded really cool. But when I heard the songs that were called aubades (morning love songs), they were kind of bright and relaxing, and not quite right for Castlevania. (laughs)
I thought “minuet” matched the story themes better too, as it symbolizes the people who surround Soma and give him support, just like dancers accompanying each other in a minuet. I also had the idea for the kanji first (enbukyoku), and after that I added the furigana for minuet… we had already used rondo, and the image for waltz didn’t quite fit.
IGA and Castlevania series composer Michiru Yamane, seen here on the press tour for the 3D PS2 action game Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, a title released just six months after Aria of Sorrow.
Aria of Sorrow – 2003 Developer Roundtable Interview
Koji Igarashi – Producer
Junichi Murakami – Director
Shutaro Iida – Main Programmer
Hiroto Yamaguchi – Chief Designer
Soshiro Hokkai – Sound Director
—When you were coming up with the ideas for the different soul abilities, were there any disagreements?
IGA: In the beginning, I thought it would be interesting to have the same soul give a different effect depending on where you acquired it. But the staff vetoed that one, as it would have ballooned the amount of work. (laughs)
—Iida, do you have a favorite soul, or one that is particularly memorable for you?
Iida: There’s a boss called Balore, and at first, his soul gave you a laser beam attack. But there were already so many laser attacks, so we all agreed, “Ok, that’s it, no more damn lasers” (laughs), and we changed it to that fast energy punch attack.
Soma’s Balore Punch, formerly a Balore Beam.
—Murakami, you were the director Aria of Sorrow. What do you think the biggest difference is between Aria and the previous game, Harmony of Dissonance?
Murakami: From the design side, we had a brighter image in mind for the visuals, and we employed some tricks to make the stages themselves feel bigger.
IGA: The biggest difference is that there’s no dash this time. (laughs) In Harmony of Dissonance, it’s true that pressing L/R to dash was very convienent, but it also had the negative effect of making the stages feel a little small and cramped. (laughs) Using the front dash and back dash skillfully was part of the gameplay for Harmony of Dissonance, of course. For Aria, Murakami managed to achieve a dash-less gameplay that didn’t feel annoying or stressful. It turned out really well.
—This question is for chief designer Yamaguchi. In order to get the good ending, Soma has to go to a hidden area called the Chaotic Realm. What was your reason for adding this?
Yamaguchi: We’ve used the “reverse map” (like the Inverted Castle) concept a lot in the recent Castlevania games. We wanted to do something like that for Aria too, but the idea felt a little played out. We always knew that the final boss for Aria would be Chaos itself, and we were inspired by that line of dialogue Alucard says from Symphony of the Night: “This castle is a creature of chaos”, to make a stage that showed players the incipient form of the castle itself, still taking shape within that vortex of chaos.
We also had some concerns early on about whether those huge reverse maps were really too big and perhaps annoying to traverse, so we envisioned the Chaotic Realm as a single area.
—And why doesn’t the Chaotic Realm appear on the player’s map…?
IGA: The Chaotic Realm has a very linear layout, so we figured that even if you get a little lost you’ll soon find your way. Also, we didn’t want the Chaotic Realm to be the kind of area where you’re constantly stopping and checking the map to see where you are; we wanted it to be experienced as a single push to the final boss fight. Actually, we created the Inverted Castle from SotN with the same intention of it being a single level. It’s large, but if you have the bat, you should be able to proceed through it in one go.
—A Japanese torii gate appears in the opening scene, but will you be changing that for the western release?
IGA: No, it’s the same. And the voices are in Japanese too. (laughs)
Murakami: We actually wanted to add even more Japanese stylings to Aria of Sorrow, but we were afraid that would make it feel like an entirely different game/series… (laughs)
IGA: Yeah, we had thought about carrying the initial impact of that Japanese aesthetic through the entire game. We imagined a scene where the player scales the walls of Osaka Castle… (laughs)
—Like in Ganbare Goemon (Legend of the Mystical Ninja). (laughs)
IGA: Exactly. (laughs) There was resistance to that idea though, of adding more and more Japanese stuff.
—Why did you set the game in Japan?
IGA: Well, I know I keep saying that the protagonist of Aria of Sorrow, Soma Cruz, is Japanese… but the truth is, he’s actually a foreign exchange student living in Japan. That seemed like the best compromise for the character, given that Castlevania is very popular in Japan and overseas. That’s why I asked the illustrator Aya Kojima to “draw him like a Japanese person who doesn’t look very Japanese.” (laughs) And I’ve had people tell me he doesn’t look Japanese to them, so mission accomplished. (laughs)
Soma’s namesake, the infamous ruler of the undead and immortal scourge on humanity, Penelope Cruz.
—What’s the meaning behind the name “Soma Cruz”…?
IGA: I wanted a name that would translate well to foreign players. As for “Cruz”, well… at the time, Penelope Cruz had just visited Japan. It also has some associations with “cross” that I liked. “Soma” is taken from the name of the Indian ritual drink soma. And actually, director Murakami’s son’s name is Soma.
Murakami: It’s just a coincidence though. The kanji are different too. When I first noticed it, I was like, “No!”, but Iga said, “I just can’t think of anything else, sorry!” (laughs)
—This is kind of a specific question, but all of the different areas in Aria of Sorrow are connected by hallways, except for the Underground Cemetary, which is directly connected to the Underground Resevoir. Why is that?
IGA: That’s because it was originally part of the Underground Resevoir. However, as the development progressed, we realized we wanted the Underground Cemetary to have a different atmosphere, and in terms of the presentation, I wanted to pay homage to other games I respected. In the beginning of the development, we used those interconnecting hallways because we needed time to load the different music etc, but we later solved that technical problem, so we were able to directly connect the Resevoir and Cemetary areas.
—Hokkai, as sound director, I’d like to ask you about the sound effects. Did you create one for each soul ability?
Hokkai: Yeah, the Castlevania team staff really loves their sound effects. If they create 100 different abilities, then they want 100 different sounds. (laughs) I did my best to accomodate them, and there is quite a variety. After the release of Harmony of Dissonance, there were people who complained that the sound in that game was worse than the Playstation games. I thought it was a little weird they were comparing a GBA game to a Playstation game, but whatever. (laughs) So for Aria of Sorrow, I put more effort into the sound effects than I had in the previous games.
IGA: For Circle of the Moon we focused more on the music, and for Harmony of the Dissonance we focused on the graphics. But this time we were more familiar with the GBA hardware specs, so both the graphics and sound quality are a level up from before.
Clockwise from top left: Soshiro Hokkai, IGA, Junichi Murakami, Hiroto Yamaguchi, Shutaro Iida.