Koji Igarashi - The Man Behind the Games 1990-2006 by The Successor
oji Igarashi. That name has become known as time progressed. As a wee child, I never knew who was behind my favorite video games, like Super Mario Bros., Fantasy Zone II, Mega Man 2 and 3, Metroid, and… Castlevania! I didn't really care, either.
While the video game industry matured, the creative minds behind the games started becoming more visible. I think it was around the time of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that I first became conscious to this. All at once, the name Shigeru Miyamoto was being celebrated in all four corners of the earth.
It was then that I recognized who created Link, Zelda, and the Legend. Back in the days of A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening, I couldn't have told you who fashioned The Legend of Zelda series. All I knew was that it was made by Nintendo.
Next thing I know, I'm aware of such names as Gunpei Yokoi, Yuji Naka, Keiji Inafune, Hideo Kojima, Ken Sugimori, Koji Kondo, among others. This is good. It's only just that people be recognized for the work that they've done, and knowing who is behind the games adds another shade of personality to them.
Koji Igarashi, also known as IGA (a cool and clever nickname), of Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo is the driving force behind Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Castlevania: Curse of Darkness, and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.
With currently seven Castlevania titles to his credit, and likely more to come, IGA pops into gamers' minds when they hear "Castlevania."
Though IGA may not be as household a name as Paris Hilton, I believe it is safe to say that over this period of time, he's reached a degree of celebrity status among video gamers.
It all began for IGA after he graduated from college. He was supposed to begin work for an unknown company, but bumped heads with their Human Resource Department, and was fired before he even began. Thankfully, for IGA's sake, he had an adviser working at Konami, who invited him to hop aboard. By the year 1990, IGA was an official Konami employee.
His initial assignment was as a programmer for a simulation game under Konami's educational software department, but the project was never released. The earliest product to be released with IGA's input was Detana!! Twinbee, a shooter for the PC Engine system (known as Turbografx 16 in the U.S.).
IGA's achievements with Tokemeki Memorial allowed him the leverage to work on a project of his own choosing.
IGA's first taste of true success was Tokimeki Memorial, a popular dating sim in Japan that was about being in high school. Even though the game was a huge hit, IGA refused to do a sequel, harboring the mindset that he had done everything he felt he could with the original.
Having always loved Castlevania, and after being enthralled by watching the development of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood first hand, IGA asked his boss if he could be transferred to the Castlevania team. Because of Tokimeki Memorial's accomplishments, his request was granted.
IGA's claim to fame was 1997's smash hit, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the Sony Playstation. IGA wowed critics and gamers alike by presenting Castlevania in a way that had never been seen before, which worked brilliantly. Because of this milestone, IGA is known for revolutionizing the Castlevania series and taking it into a different direction from what it once was, which suits modern gaming more so.
By 1997, role-playing games had become more mainstream than they had been. Before, gamers were accustomed to levels one through eight, which were on a set track, and free roaming was a bit of a peculiarity.
In 1993, Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VI paved the way for a new RPG movement. Chrono Trigger, which arrived two years after, passionately supported it. Both are still considered by many to be two of the best games of their time.
Slews of RPG's appeared on the Super Nintendo, such as the Breath of Fire series, Tactics Ogre, Lufia, and more.
This all climaxed to the Playstation breakthrough that was Final Fantasy VII, which by 1997 had changed the face of gaming, considerably so. The status of RPG's then skyrocketed; gamers had a strong desire to go where they wanted when they pleased.
With the amount of hours that could be consumed while playing, the stories that you could lose yourself into, the strong bonds that could be made to the characters, and the massive worlds that awaited exploration, RPG's were considered deeper, more enchanting and spellbinding experiences than that of your average action game. This was an impression that gamers all over fell in love with.
Game series that were originally only action oriented felt the prevalent affects of these changes. A good example is Mega Man, which came out with the Legends sub-series. Capcom attempted to have a flagship, iconic character hop on the bandwagon by setting him in a story driven world, where he could roam freely, interact with other characters, collect things, and explore.
Capcom later released the Battle Network series, known in Japan as the .EXE series. This was another effort to put Mega Man in a trendy RPG sub-genre, in which young children have command of monsters, cards, beyblades, or in this case, Robot Masters, and challenge other kids to duels with them.
Although Toru Hagihara was the initial producer on Symphony of the Night (IGA took over later on), it was IGA's idea to transfigure Castlevania to fit more with the times. Castlevania was very popular on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but around the end of the Super Nintendo's lifespan, it had become somewhat of a niche series that didn't seem to be going anywhere special. Games like Castlevania: Bloodlines and Castlevania: Dracula X weren't having much influence or making a big impression.
IGA came up with many of the advancing ideas for Symphony, and halfway through production, he totally took control of the project as the head producer.
It was IGA's endeavor to make Castlevania more approachable to gamers by giving them a more lasting and fulfilling experience.
Taking into light the fact that video games were quite expensive, IGA did not want to follow prior games in the series, which could regularly be beat in one session, but rather give buyers more for their money. Finishing a game in one sitting was common a few years before, but again, because of the massively accepted RPG movement, and the fact that more data could be placed within games, short adventures became frowned upon.
"Some people just hate action games due to the length of them," said IGA when confronted about the issue.
The longevity of the games needed to be increased. To do this, IGA totally forsook the linear stage-by-stage format of past Castlevania games, and used Nintendo's Super Metroid as inspiration, incorporating its free roaming, and explorative game play. IGA borrowed aspects from role-playing games, such as the capability to find or purchase various armor, weapons, and accessories, and equip them to your character, in so doing affecting their statistic scores. This greatly increased the length, depth, and possibilities to be had while playing.
The game play was not the only thing that IGA acknowledged needed revamping. Role-playing games were considerably more story and character inclined than the action games of the past. Hence, as a first for Castlevania, IGA focused on the story.
Castlevania had essentially been regurgitating the same basic tale for over a decade, with a few exceptions here and there. In 1997, that was no longer tolerable in the video gaming world.
As a fan himself, IGA was aware to the rich history the series had, but it was all so broken up. At the time, everything seemed to revolve around Simon Belmont, as the games frequently used his adventures to determine when their events took place. But it was still quite vague in many aspects. IGA opted to form a bond with his two personal favorites in the series, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood.
The character that suited IGA's vision was Alucard, the long lost son of Count Dracula. Prior to Symphony of the Night, he was an optional playable character in Dracula's Curse, who played second fiddle to Trevor Belmont. This was a new twist for the series. The main character was not a whip-wielding, vampire hunting Belmont, but rather a vampiric denizen of darkness, with an affecting tale.
IGA went all out with the risks in this project. It was either do or die. Sink or float.
He would not stop with just completely overhauling the game play set up, or choosing an incredibly unlikely hero.
Looking to the covers of romance novels for motivation, IGA wanted to slant the vampire theme to a more romantic and elegant outlook, conflicting with the buff man 80's/early 90's sword and sorcery style that had become indicative to the series. This was an enormous gamble.
IGA took a huge leap in utterly reshaping the image of Castlevania when he recruited Ayami Kojima to design the characters for Symphony, and give them more sophisticated, cultured, and graceful designs.
The style of Castlevania was changed to something more mysterious and alluring, and the way vampires were portrayed was not as trite.
"The existing artwork does not do enough for the dramatic appeal of the game. To resolve this problem, we asked our illustrator, Kojima, to create more elaborate character designs." Declared the producer.
IGA and Kojima considered Alucard, and entirely renewed his look, completely doing away with the Halloween party image he had sported in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, and in so doing, magically created one of the greatest character designs that have ever graced video games.
Alucard was not the only Castlevania character to receive a stunning make over. Count Dracula became an image of prominence, wisdom, pride, tragedy, and authority with Kojima's breathtaking interpretation.
As opposed to the happy go lucky art of Rondo of Blood, Maria Renard matured into a graceful, slender beauty, and Richter Belmont took on the image of a young, adventurous, and fierce nobleman in his prime. With Richter, Kojima began a motif that would frequently be revisited in other Belmonts, which is the long, flowing coattail. This suited the Belmont Clan as much as the short armor of the past, but in a more dignified manner.
The dark priest Shaft became a figure of bloodcurdling occultism.
Never before had the characters in Castlevania been represented in such striking fashion. It was something distinguishing, memorable, and awe inspiring.
It was recognizable. It was Castlevania, and would not be mistaken for anything else.
The graphics for Symphony closely matched the change in artistic technique. IGA took something familiar, the style from Rondo, and embellished upon it so much, Symphony became one of the most beautiful 2-D games that was ever created. These graphic designing artisans put so much scrupulous detail into every little detail.
Everything was more grandiose than before. IGA strongly believed in Castlevania's aestheticism, and in his mind, it transcended that of an old 50's horror movie. IGA and his team created a world of beauty, sadness, and wonder. It was more than just the power of the Playstation; it was the imagination and ability of the team that allowed him to emit such powerful emotions through a game.
"Darkness and blood really give us the impression of aestheticism, the world of art and beauty - do you agree or disagree? That's the way I felt and how I interpreted the world of Castlevania."
Three luminaries that worked on Symphony of the Night. The music composer, Michiru Yamane (left), the producer / director / programmer, IGA (middle), and illustrator Ayami Kojima.
To fit the visual image, Michiru Yamane was selected to compose the soundtrack to Symphony of the Night.
At the time, Yamane had been with Konami for a while, and even composed the soundtrack for Castlevania Bloodlines. Her work for Symphony of the Night would herald her as one of gaming's greatest composers of all time.
The music was quite different from that of the other Castlevania games before it. Symphony of the Night was not just a straightforward action game. The game play was explorative; therefore, the catchy, upbeat tunes that would loop quickly wouldn't work as well.
Symphony of the Night was reshaping Castlevania, and carrying it above and beyond in many aspects. It is extremely difficult to say what the best element of Symphony was, but the music is a point of near common appreciation. Yamane's soundtrack was more majestic than its predecessors, and lent to Symphony's sense of classiness.
It was vitally important that the music fit. When asked where her inspiration came from, Michiru Yamane answered, "I look at the storyboards and background design." She crafted compositions that corresponded with the game so flawlessly, that even the most critical listener's expectations were greatly exceeded. The music was very successful, surpassing the high profile RPG game soundtracks that were heard at the time, and striking an emotional chord with nearly all that heard it. The soundtrack was instantly recognized as one of the finest to be heard in any game.
With deeper, longer lasting game play, fascinating character designs, a more developed storyline, a masterpiece soundtrack, and breathtaking graphics, Symphony of the Night had rejuvenated Castlevania, through Koji Igarashi's hard work, resolve, and vision. It had overcome near endless competition and is still remembered as one of the foremost highlights of the Sony Playstation, one of the most triumphant consoles ever.
Koji Igarashi had elevated the series out of its obscure state. He had revealed a way to remold Castlevania to work with modern gaming, without betraying everything the series had become. Symphony of the Night is still the most celebrated Castlevania game, and it would not have happened without IGA.
After Symphony, it is not entirely certain what IGA was doing at Konami. His division, Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, was no longer working on the Castlevania series. It had been passed on to Konami Computer Entertainment Nagoya (K.C.N.), and Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe (K.C.E.K.). Both studios would release a string of games that are some of the most criticized entries in the series.
Castlevania Legends on the Gameboy was made shortly after Symphony of the Night. It unashamedly attempted to ride on Symphony's success by including Alucard and giving him a character design that was very similar (yet drastically inferior) to his Symphony of the Night self.
It was largely considered to be a rushed, flawed, and incredibly under-whelming Gameboy game with an awkward storyline, which spat in the face of Castlevania III and suggested that Alucard fathered the Belmont bloodline of Vampire Hunters.
Castlevania 64 was the series' first foray into 3-D. It courageously yet awkwardly propelled Castlevania into the third dimension, stumbling clumsily along the way.
With the follow-up to CV64, Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, K.C.E.K. made a strange move. Remaking Castlevania 64 one year later on the same system, it had the same graphics, same music, and same settings, with some extra characters and tracks thrown in that the team had wanted to include the first time around.
This did not go over well, at all.
Many people were left jaded that they repackaged what was deemed a questionable game, called it something else, added a few extras, and sold it again.
With prior games being a bit sketchy, K.C.E.K. decided to revert to the formula that IGA had established years ago with Symphony of the Night. It was a rational action to emulate the qualities that were introduced in the most influential Castlevania game. Thus came Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.
Circle of the Moon was the first Castlevania game within a four-year span to be met with great esteem. Arriving as a launch title for the Gameboy Advance, it sold like hotcakes, and was regarded as one of the games to have if you owned the new hand-held.
Though Circle significantly lacked the luxurious artistry and imagination that was displayed by Symphony of the Night, the tried and true formula from the Playstation magnum opus was welcomed back with open arms.
2001 would mark IGA's reemergence to the Castlevania series. When Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (IGA's branch) absorbed K.C.E.K., due to Konami consolidating its development teams, IGA was once again handed the series.
Sitting in the producer's chair afresh, Castlevania Chronicles was his first priority. A game under the title Akumajou Dracula was released in 1993 only in Japan for the X68000 system. This was perhaps the closest thing the original Castlevania had to remake, even though it was a completely different game.
The first order of business for IGA was appeasing fans by re-releasing this title around the world on the Playstation. Rather than simply repackage the exact same game and make it playable on a more accessible console, IGA included an Arrange Mode, which featured remixes by Sota Fujimori for nearly every track from the game, giving Chronicles a more contemporary and big sound.
A difficulty selector was also integrated, allowing players the option to play on an easy mode, normal, or hard. Furthermore, an interview by IGA himself was available on the disc, along with an Ayami Kojima illustration gallery, showcasing her artwork for Symphony of the Night and Chronicles. The sprite for Simon Belmont, the playable character, was different, too.
Huge leaps were taken by Ayami Kojima in recreating Castlevania's original hero.
Simon Belmont was completely redesigned. IGA brought back Kojima and told her that he wanted something inspired from Simon's red and black clothing found in Vampire Killer and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest.
Ayami Kojima answered by giving the iconic character a striking new appearance. Tanned and muscled, with long, flaming red hair, and adorned with fur on his tense leather outfit, Simon was more bestial and barbaric than he had ever been. Yet, the thing that made it so fascinating was the stunning contrast she created in making him much more glamorous than ever, too.
Count Dracula was given a much more distinguished design than the tuxedo-clad villain from the original X68000 game.
Fans appreciated IGA's enthusiasm about bringing them a game that had once been very elusive, but in 2002, he would create a whole new adventure on the Gameboy Advance.
Though Circle incorporated many ideas from Symphony of the Night, Harmony of Dissonance was the true successor to the Playstation game, with IGA at the helm, directing a team of notables that worked on both Rondo and Symphony. Ayami Kojima's artistic style returned, and Michiru Yamane reappeared to compose some bonus tracks for the game.
"I wanted to pursue the style that I established with Symphony of the Night. Michiru and Ayami were working together with me. In that sense, I think it's great to be bringing these two back."
Harmony of Dissonance brought things back to the sense of dark majesty and aestheticism. Once again, the castle became a thing of intricate beauty and surreal environs. For Harmony, Ayami Kojima presented what is still some of the finest art to be found in the series. It was forlorn, angelic, ethereal, and dreamlike; having a mood different from anything Castlevania had seen before, or since.
The sensation of ethereal beauty that had been missing since Symphony of the Night returned with Harmony of Dissonance.
The video game itself emanated the same air as the official art. It immersed players within an otherworldly setting, which was both magnificently gorgeous and feather weight fragile, as well as utterly grating and morbid, sometimes making the transition within the space of a few seconds.
After a succession of games with heroes that were unlikely (Alucard), doubtful (Carrie Fernandez), or anomalous (Nathan Graves), IGA finally brought things back to basics with Harmony of Dissonance's Juste Belmont.
A full-blooded, indisputable member of the Belmont family, wielding the generations old Vampire Killer was once again starring as the main character. In spite of that, the story wasn't about Dracula's resurrection.
"A lot of you are aware of the legend that Dracula appears once every 100 years, resurrecting when people's religious belief in God is weakened. Belmont's is the family to fight against Dracula as vampire hunters.
But, a lot of you would then think, what the hell are the Belmonts doing the rest of the time?
We thought about it and came to the conclusion that whenever Dracula resurrects, the power he has attracts all other monsters and evils that were mostly dormant. In other words, The Belmonts' calling was to hunt all of these monsters, and at the same time train themselves to fight Dracula. Juste, the main character, was brushing up his skills to vampire hunt, but was hunting these other evils as well."
Another interesting twist to Harmony of Dissonance was that it was hailed as the first Castlevania game to not include Count Dracula. This went along with a big change that IGA made beginning with Harmony. The Japanese name of the series was changed to "Castlevania," in so doing abandoning the "Akumajo Dracula" title.
"The name Akumajyou Dracula is very well known. However, when we developed for overseas, we decided to make the title consistent. At that time, we took "castle" and "Transylvania" and combined them to make a new word. It was a name that we thought the overseas would accept rather well. In addition, the word "Dracula" limits the final boss to Dracula.
Unlike what many people are expecting, we would like to make a game that is not centered on Dracula. By focusing on Dracula, who only awakes once every 100 years, the theme of the game becomes very narrow. This time, we want to place our effort in other areas."
Though IGA's reasoning made sense, the move was awkward. Some found it odd that the name was changed after it had been established for sixteen or so years.
Though heavily criticized for its music, Harmony of Dissonance delighted players with its stunning graphics, unusual areas, magnificent artwork, and open ended game play. It quickly built a reputation as one of the best games for the Gameboy Advance, going head to head with such stand-outs as Metroid Fusion, Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past/Four Swords.