Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance – 2002 Interview

Harmony of Dissonance – 2002 Developer Interview

Often considered the “black sheep” of the Castlevania GBA series, this Harmony of Dissonance interview with director Takashi Takeda and producer Koji Igarashi was originally featured in the Japanese NTT-PUB strategy guide and covers the game’s design and conception. Readers may be surprised to hear how much Takeda loved and drew inspiration from the early Famicom Castlevania games. I’ve also included the brief composer commentary from the HoD OST at the end.

Koji Igarashi – Producer / Writer
Takashi Takeda – Director / Planner / Monster Programming

—Have the two of you ever worked together on anything in the Castlevania series before?

Iga: Individually, we’ve worked on different Castlevania games, but this is our first time working together like this.

Takeda: IGA worked as the producer on Symphony of the Night, as you know. For my part, I’ve always been a Castlevania fanatic. In fact, you could say the reason I joined Konami is because I was so obsessed with Castlevania. When I was a new employee (about 7-8 years back), I was involved with Vampire Killer (Castlevania: Bloodlines) as a programmer.

But I soon learned there’s a huge difference between being an amateur on the outside able to criticize and say whatever you want, and being involved in the actual production… at a company you have to navigate everyone’s different demands, while leading your team and trying to realize your own vision at the same time. I came to appreciate just how challenging that is. (laughs) I remember thinking then, that if I ever had the chance to direct a Castlevania game myself, I wanted to make something that would leave me with no regrets. So I see this as my revenge match. (laughs) Having been given this chance, I poured my heart and soul into Harmony of Dissonance.

—Did you consult closely with Iga during the development?

Takeda: Well, we’re mostly on the same page, and know what the other person is thinking without them needing to say it. In terms of dividing up the tasks, seeing who did what, yeah, we talked a lot about that. I felt we were both very respectful to each other, in terms of checking whether we were encroaching on the other’s work.

Iga: Basically, I would propose ideas related to the world of the game and the gameplay systems I thought worked within that world. Then Takeda would work that up into something more systematic and defined, and present that back to me, and we’d figure it out from there. In the beginning that was the basic workflow, and then later I had a variety of specific requests that I added on. All in all, it was largely left in Takeda’s hands.

—Would you say the communication between the two of you went smoothly, then?

Takeda: It’s not like there was anything we couldn’t talk about. (laughs) In that sense, yeah, we never had any fights or anything.

Iga: It was a happy pairing, I think.

Takeda: Iga does have his own ideal vision of Castlevania, and maybe I veered slightly away from that… (laughs)

Iga: No, I wouldn’t say that. (laughs)

Producer Koji Igarashi (L) and director Takashi Takeda (R).

Takeda: I’ve been a Castlevania fan from back in the day, so my image of Castlevania as an action game, like the first Famicom entries, is very strong. Castlevania also has RPG elements too, but this time, I was very keen to make the action gameplay satisfying, to do it right. Of course you can’t deny the RPG elements, but I wanted first and foremost to have a game with solid, strategic action. I think in the first Castlevania game, your whip has a limited range, and this creates an interesting gameplay where the player has to figure out the correct, strategic spacing for each fight. A system with good spacing in the fights—that’s what I wanted to revive with this game. The ability to quickly adjust your positioning with the LR dash buttons was part of that idea.

Broadly speaking, I sought to find a system that would build on the strengths of the previous games while also presenting something to players that wouldn’t feel outdated or embarassing today in 2002. The enemies, likewise, can use the same positioning and mobility tactics on you, and will sometimes circle around and flank you, for instance… the movement was something I tried to pay special attention to.

Iga: The inclusion of RPG elements was meant to allow even unskilled players to make it to the end by leveling up. It was meant to open the gate a little bit, to a wider audience. I’d be happy to see the Castlevania developments continue in this direction—of first building a complete, solid action game, and then adding RPG elements on top.

—Is the Harmony of Dissonance staff the same people who worked on Circle of the Moon?

Iga: They’re entirely different, actually. Not a single person from Circle of the Moon worked on this game. The Harmony staff is composed of people from Symphony of the Night, as well as developers from Contra: Hard Corps—bona fide 2D game developers, in other words. Konami TYO (KCET, Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo) has a lot of veterans.

—Symphony of the Night featured the inverted castle, but Harmony has a “two-sided” castle?1 Where did that idea come from?

Takeda: We first decided to make this a map exploration-style Castlevania game (as opposed to the older stage action games). The first very first Castlevania game of that type was Symphony of the Night. Its inverted castle was a truly excellent idea, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you could present to players twice, so we needed to come up with something that could rival that. What came out was the idea of traversing a castle with two “sides”, a front and back or front and reverse, if you will. We also had the idea that the player wouldn’t realize he was going through a different castle at first, but would find that out as the game went on, and this idea seemed to give our game a good identity of its own, so that’s what we went with.

Iga: Also, I wanted to tell a story where the castle is revived. Dracula can only be resurrected once every 100 years—and the story has to be crafted within that constraint—so I asked myself, if our hero is fighting something now, what is he fighting? If the timing isn’t right for Dracula to be revived, then what is there…? Then I had the idea, that each human being has two hearts, and what about a castle that reflected those two sides… In my head, a “castle” is a symbol of power. To put it another way, one isn’t strong because he has a castle—rather, a castle is something possessed by the strong. I wanted to give that symbol of power a concrete form—to make it material—and those ideas set the stage for Harmony of Dissonance.

—Each “side” of the castle has a different last boss… what’s that about?

Iga: I wanted to have multiple endings. The idea was, first, players would get that first ending and be somewhat satisfied, but maybe they feel like something was missing, something wasn’t quite right. Then as they went searching and exploring for what was missing, they’d discover there’s a whole other area… and that idea took shape in the whole construction of the two-sided castle. The front side is the normal Maxim’s castle, while the reverse side is the evil Maxim’s castle, so naturally it made sense to prepare two different final bosses.

While Harmony of Dissonance is often considered the weakest of the three GBA Castlevania games, one of its strengths is the moody and evocative art design (which may reflect Iga’s more “psychological” take on the castle as described above).

Takeda: The most basic rule of these games is that they take time, and we tried to avoid a situation where the player makes a mistake and then all the time they spent up to then is wasted. The fact that you can achieve the first ending, and then go back to the same save point and see all the endings, that’s meant to reward players who played that far. And that way you won’t have a situation where players say “I just wasted 15 hours!”

—What about the third ending?

Takeda: Once the player realizes the castle is based on a two-sided design, it’s probably pretty obvious that there’s two endings, right? So if we wanted to surprise people, we thought we’d better add one more. (laughs)

Iga: You learn about the reverse castle pretty early, and we thought once you realize that, it would be cool to have there be one more layer. And the mechanism for that was Juste’s Bracelet and Maxim’s Bracelet. The backstory is that they were given to them by Lydie, but do you remember how in the very beginning, you’re equipped with Juste’s Bracelet?

—Yeah, you take it off right away though.

Iga: Right, right. Partly I wanted to rouse player’s memory about that, something they’d no doubt completely forgotten about. You also receive Maxim’s Bracelet as a key (to the Castle Top Floor), but what if that key were used again…

—I don’t think the way you unlock the third ending is very obvious. (laughs)

Iga: No, I don’t think so either. (laughs) However, in the first ending, Juste mentions the bracelet again, how it’s a memento, so I think if you’re paying close attention there you’ll figure it out.

In the easiest ending to achieve, Maxim is dead, and only Lydie and Juste are saved. Then in the Castle B ending, if you beat it without equipping the bracelets, only Juste is saved. Something about it doesn’t add up, right? That was why we created that ending.

Takeda: Another little hint for players, and I’m sure some have noticed it, but you know the how in the Game Over screen, there’s an image of the bracelet? That was our way of drawing players’ attention to the bracelets.

Iga: We fully intended for the first ending that players experience to be an unsatisfying one, you know, like “that’s it?” (laughs)

—Well, at least you’re being up-front about it.

Iga: Yeah. We deliberately placed the worst ending there. (laughs) I wanted players to search and explore, and when Maxim tells you he’s dead, for you to think ok, so how do I bring him back? The only real clue you have is the memento. I know it’s a bit difficult, but that’s how we chose to “hide” it.

The Game Over screen hinting at the bracelet’s importance. Unfortunately, HoD came out in 2002, when I suspect most players probably just went to a site like GameFaqs to discover the alternate endings.

—Speaking of hidden things, there’s numerous hidden modes for Harmony of Dissonance. Why did you decide to add the Boss Rush mode?

Takeda: Castlevania, to me, is the kind of game where after you beat it once, after awhile you start to feel like you want to play it again. And I also didn’t want to abandon the more casual, pick-up-and-play experience of Castlevania, and Boss Rush mode was my answer. Wouldn’t it be great, you know, to have something you could play for a quick 10 or 20 minute session when it pops back into your mind. I’m really happy that, as an “action game”-style Castlevania, we were able to add this mode you can play in short bursts. And while the map stays the same, I thought it would be cool to have a mode where you explore the map, but in more of an “action style” gameplay, which is why we added Maxim mode.

—Why did you include Simon Belmont, the protagonist from the Famicom era of Castlevania, for the Boss Rush mode?

Takeda: It’s awesome, right? (laughs) We felt like, in terms of the capabilities of the hardware, and just timing-wise, that it was now or never to bring him back like this. We went and tracked down the original pixel art too, which is a perfect 1:1 replica. (laughs) Though not all the animation patterns are the same. But we even re-created his slightly stiff controls too. (laughs)

—Did you put a special ending for beating the Boss Rush mode?

Takeda: Yeah. We added that after pulling an all-nighter, on a mental high. (laughs) I thought it would be weird to put the player through so much and then not have a reward or ending, you know… also, this is just a little easter egg, but when you defeat a boss and the magic orb falls down, if you catch it while jumping and whipping, the higher you are, the better message you’ll receive. In all the previous Castlevania games, I’ve always loved trying to grab that orb and strike a cool pose. (laughs)

Takeda’s comments above about wanting old-school action game controls, combined with Iga’s remarks about accessibility and RPG elements actually go a long way in explaining the way HoD turned out. While the “footsie” dash and floaty jump hearken back to the early Castlevanias Takeda loved, those elements are undermined by the OP magic system and overall low difficulty.

—Finally, please give a message to all the fans.

Iga: While this is a new entry in the Castlevania series, it’s also the first time we’ve adopted the Western title “Castlevania” here in Japan, and as such I think it’s turned out really wonderful. So please enjoy reading this strategy guide and getting every last ounce of enjoyment from Harmony of Dissonance.

Takeda: Creating Harmony of Dissonance took a huge toll on both body and mind, (laughs) so if players end up enjoying it I'll be extremely happy. Also, if you have opinions or requests for us, please send them to our Konami TYO office, addressed to the Dracula team—We will absolutely read them, so don’t be shy. They lift our spirits here. (laughs)

Harmony of Dissonance – Composer Commentary

taken from the Harmony of Dissonance CD liner notes

Soshiro Hokkai (Sound/Music Composer)

Hello there, this is Hokkai. I created all the music and sound for Harmony of Dissonance. First of all, I feel I should apologize to those who were disappointed. As you know, the songs in Harmony were primarily composed with the Game Boy’s PSG sound chip. In order to create a Symphony of the Night-level game on a more limited handheld platform, we had to impose some limitations on the music, and opted for PSG sound.

Moreover, as you may also know, owing to certain aspects of the GBA hardware, it is difficult to modulate the volume of PSG sounds. Nevertheless, I stubbornly persisted in trying to create rich, dynamic compositions. And in terms of the songs themselves, I did my best to return to that old progressive style of video game music. What do you think?

On this CD, I was blessed to work with veteran composer Michiru Yamane and the up-and-coming Takashi Yoshida (who did the Chapel of Dissonance remix). They both did a great job, and I’m very grateful to have worked with them.

Michiru Yamane (Guest Composer)

Greetings to all the Castlevania fans around the world. I’m Michiru Yamane, and I helped write the music for this long-awaited continuation of the Castlevania series on the GBA.

After writing the music for Symphony of the Night, I fell into a deep slumber… hah, well, not exactly, but I will say that writing the Boss Rush stage music for Harmony of Dissonance re-awakened me. It was quite nostalgic for me to be composing music once again with a limited number of voices, and in that regard, it felt quite fresh and was a lot of fun. I tried to pepper my songs with familiar melodies from the previous Castlevania games too, for all the Castlevania fans out there. If you play Harmony I think you will surely feel it’s a classic 2D Castlevania world. I hope you enjoy it fully.

Takashi Takeda (Director)

Man… what a tough, tough development this was! Looking back now, I can’t believe how much we tried to cram into Harmony of Dissonance. I often wondered, would this really work on a handheld…? I feel like it brought us to the end of our rope.

When I close my eyes, images of the days we spent sleeping on the hard floor of the development office fill my mind… ahhh. Every time, in the carnage of those insane final weeks, I always feel like “there’s no damn way I’m doing this again!“—and yet, one week later I’m itching to get started on the next project. It’s strange, isn’t it?

With such thoughts in mind, lately I’ve been listening to the Harmony of Dissonance OST here while I work on our next Castlevania game.

The Harmony of Dissonance OST. Given the rise of chiptune music, its overtly 8-bit stylings may have appreciated with age.

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  1. Honestly I do think that this game’s ost is the best videogame music I’ve ever listened to. Soshiro Hokkai is a misunderstood real genius. As a composer and pianist myself, I’ve been deeply influenced by Hokkai’s style and I also wrote some tributes to him. You can find my musical production in my Youtube channel “Francesco Breda | Classical Compositions & Beyond”, if you wish to have a look.

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