Castlevania – Developer Commentary
The development of the three Famicom Castlevania games has long been shrouded in mystery. Recently, a developer who was mentored by Castlevania director/creator/programmer Hitoshi Akamatsu in the 90s began sharing memories of their conversations in a series of tweets, which I've organized here by subject matter. While I usually stick to formal interviews for shmuplations, given the dearth of info on the early Castlevania games, I felt like this merited an exception.
Hitoshi Akamatsu, the creator of the legendary Castlevania, was my boss when I first joined the gaming industry.1 I asked him then, “Why do the Belmonts fight with whips?” He replied, “It matched the world of the game I wanted to create, and as far as weapons go, whips are great at repelling enemies. Also… because I love Raiders of the Lost Ark! (laughs)” He told me a lot of the developers at Konami back then were really into Western movies, too.
One time, when I was talking with Akamatsu about the right stance for casting a fishing line (for our development of Tsuridou), it suddenly occurred to me to ask him, “By the way, why does Simon have that hunchback posture?” To which Akamatsu replied, “Because he’s always ready to strike with his whip!” (laughs)
Akamatsu was very strict about being sure the player controls, the timing of the graphics, and the resulting effect of pressing a button were all very closely aligned. He was very particular about the way the controls felt, and making sure they were satisfying to the player. In Castlevania, he wanted controls where eventually, after playing enough, Simon’s movements would feel like an extension of the player’s own limbs.
I once said to Akamatsu that one of the hardest things about Castlevania was how easily Simon can be knocked into a pit and die from one enemy hit. He shot back, “Yeah, but look at it this way… Simon doesn’t die from one hit—Mario does!” I was like, Ah hah!
Akamatsu’s sense of game design was very deep. In Castlevania, the knife appears first so the player can get used to the subweapons. He made the stopwatch so you could get used to enemy attacks. Then the strongest items are the Cross and the Holy Water. And that was how he determined the order in which the items would appear to the player.
I once asked him about the fight with Death, and how insanely hard it was. He told me, “The game design idea there was to get players to understand how to use the cross and axe subweapons. If you can defeat him with only the whip, that means you’re really good.” I can’t defeat him with the whip alone. But if you read the movements of the sickles, I understand it is possible (albeit very difficult) to beat him with just the whip. Apparently the test players were able to do it.
I think he wanted anyone to be able to clear his games, because he told me his standard for difficulty was that he should be able to clear it himself.
I did ask Akamatsu once about why meat is used for health, actually. He said, “What do you mean—it should be obvious to players, right!” (laughs) He probably used moneybags as score items for the same reason, I suspect. (laughs)
The reason you only get one point for defeating Dracula in Castlevania was due to a bug: thanks to the very short development period, Akamatsu didn’t understand all the particularities of the Famicom CPU, and he set the wrong bit. It was supposed to be 10,000 points. (laughs)
In the original Castlevania, I asked Akamatsu about why Dracula’s head flies off when you defeat the first phase of the boss fight. He said, “The head there? It’s foreshadowing Dracula’s resurrection.”
Likewise, when the body parts scatter in every direction, that was also meant to show that Dracula will come back. Actually, the second monstrous form you fight was meant to be an “incarnation of the curse of man”, not Dracula himself. That’s why when Simon defeats him, he gets cursed. Like most people, I thought that was just a powered-up monster form of Dracula, and I joked as much in front of Akamatsu one day. He completely refuted that idea though. (laughs) “That is a monster borne from the curse of man.” He added, “In a truly peaceful age, Dracula would not exist.”2
Akamatsu also explained to me how the rotating gears in Dracula’s castle represent Dracula’s heart. They turn so long as Dracula is alive. That’s why, in the ending of Castlevania, the clock tower collapses, but the rest of the castle remains—Akamatsu said he intended that as a hint towards a sequel. It’s sort of his nod to horror movies, I think.
Castlevania II – Simon’s Quest
The title in Japan is “Dracula 2”, but in America it’s called Simon’s Quest, which Akamatsu came up with himself.
Given the “exploration action” nature of Simon’s Quest, I asked Akamatsu whether Metroid was an influence on the development. He told me, “If I had to say, I was thinking more of Konami’s own Maze of Galious.”
The zombies that appear in the towns at night in Simon’s Quest originally hopped around, like the Chinese Jiangshi that were popular at the time. People said they were too strong though, so Akamatsu reluctantly toned them down to just walking zombies. (laughs)
Castlevania III – Dracula’s Curse
Akumajo Densetsu represents the zenith of quality in both music and gameplay for the Famicom. I asked Akamatsu about why it was so good, and he said it was all done in an attempt to outdo the Ninja Turtles games.
During the Famicom era at Konami, the overseas sales for Turtles was Konami’s highest seller, and because of that, the Turtles development team was prioritized above everything else. The Castlevania team (and others like it which didn’t make a lot of money) had to survive on the scraps. There was a possibility for further Castlevania sequels on the Famicom, but it got pushed out by the popularity of Ninja Turtles.
On Director Hitoshi Akamatsu
Akamatsu really loved film. And when it came to his own creations, he had a film director’s eye. He talked about that “film” feeling a lot. He’d say stuff like “Respect the visual frame”, and so forth.
When I told Akamatsu how great I thought the music for Castlevania was, his reply was: “That’s because both the visuals and the music were made by people who consciously wanted to do something cinematic.” And for his part, he tried to add interesting gameplay.
It’s often been remarked that many of Konami’s games from the 80s featured H.R. Giger motifs. Actually, this was because Akamatsu had seen Alien and was raving about it to everyone, spreading its popularity throughout the company. The fact that he never used those designs in his own games, however, shows something of his trickster personality I think. (laughs)
After working on Castlevania, Akamatsu also developed the Famicom hidden gem “Jarinko Chie Bakudan Musume no Shiawase Sagashi”. He worked on everything, from the game design to the title logo.
Akamatsu’s sequels to Castlevania sold poorly, so he was demoted to working in one of Konami’s game centers, and then he quit. According to Akamatsu, Konami placed profits above all else, and developers who weren’t creating games that made lots of money were all eventually axed one-by-one. A number of them went on to do great work at Square Enix.
I asked Akamatsu what he thought about Chi no Rondo when it came out. He said, “I haven’t played it.” (laughs) At the time he was more interested in how one would go about making a game like Final Fantasy VII, rather than Castlevania, which was in the past. (laughs)
Castlevania III – 2012 Developer Comments
I was a developer on Castlevania III. The Famicom development structure at Konami at the time was basically to have a lead programmer, a lead character designer, and someone doing music (sometimes this would be someone from another department). There weren’t any dedicated “creator” types like Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear. A single programmer would act as team leader, and he would almost always be listed as the director.
For Castlevania III, all the decision making and planning was done in team meetings (the character designers often played a leading role in constructing the overall image of the game). As for the multiple characters, we were trying to figure out a way to both return to the roots of the first game, while also expanding the scope of the gameplay—and the multi-character system was the answer we came up with in our group meetings.
I worked on the story, the dialogue, the scenario (though I’m not sure if we actually had a “proper” scenario…?), the character backgrounds, and the maps (the backgrounds and floors). The programmers would then take those completed maps and decide where to place the items and enemies.
The “C” in Ralph C. Belmondo does stand for Christopher, though I don’t know if that’s officially written on any documents. As for confusion with the timelines, that’s probably just because different teams were making these games. I also wasn’t working there anymore when Castlevania Adventure was released.
Akamatsu didn’t seem like the kind of person who cared about those things very much either, so that’s probably why it doesn’t make sense. I don’t know anything about the whole Iga chronology and beyond.
Incidentally, I was very young when I worked on Castlevania III, and I was kind of a huge pain in the ass to the other team members. I only wanted to make a really good game, but when I look back on it now, I feel embarrassed beyond words at my insufferable behavior and attitude. If I ever had the chance to apologize to everyone I’d like to. My constant, unwarranted cockiness really upset the harmony of the team. I’m very sorry for that.
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This is a reference to yuukai’s work (as a planner) on fishing game Tsurido, at developer Vingteum. Akamatsu served as director for that game, which is the only confirmed post-Konami credit I am aware of.↩
The Japanese here is “hito no noroi”. The implication is that Dracula’s existence is somehow tied to the evil nature of mankind itself, an idea that would be explored in later games.↩
Although 2ch is notoriously anonymous, based on the comments below, my best guess is that this is I. Urata, the planner/character designer for Castlevania III. As above, given the provenance this too should be read with the requisite grain of salt.↩