When Konami first published Castlevania in 1986, there was no way the Japanese video game company could have predicted that this homage to the Universal Monster movies of the 1930s and ‘40s would one day change platformers forever. Of course, Castlevania’s influence on platformers and non-linear action-adventure games would evolve over time as the series progressed.
Before Castlevania arrived on the scene, platformers were usually straightforward affairs: get from point A to point B without dying. The early Super Mario games, basically. But with Castlevania sequels Vampire Killer, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and especially the seminal Symphony of the Night, along with Nintendo’s Metroid and Super Metroid, platformers began to take a different shape. Together, these two franchises spawned the “Metroidvania” subgenre, which emphasizes exploration, backtracking, and role-playing to progress through the game. And even though this subgenre is most commonly associated with 2D side-scrollers, elements of it have even made it into modern 3D fare such as Batman: Arkham Asylum and Dark Souls.
The Konami of the ‘80s was a different company from what we know today. By the end of 1987, Konami had released Castlevania, Contra, Metal Gear, Gradius, and the casual gaming sensation Frogger. The ‘90s were just as good, with debuts such as Silent Hill, Policenauts, and Dance Dance Revolution (not to mention some excellent Ninja Turtles games). For more than 20 years, Konami was a house of innovation and AAA blockbuster hits.
Recently, Konami has shifted its business focus from AAA video game development to the gambling and mobile market, using its valuable IP to develop games for a wider audience. In 2015, Konami CEO Hideki Hayakawa told Nikkei, a Japanese news outlet, that mobile was the future of gaming and that it would be the company’s main platform going forward. While Konami still releases at least one console game a year, the popular Pro Evolution Soccer, the publisher has pretty much abandoned AAA game development. This means many of Konami’s other franchises have fallen by the wayside, including Castlevania.
Despite the fact that there hasn’t been a new Castlevania video game since 2014’s mediocre Lords of Shadow 2, there are still a few brave souls keeping this franchise and its Gothic horror aesthetic alive. In 2017, Netflix released Castlevania, an anime adaptation of 1989’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse for the NES, to rave reviews. And 2019 will see the debut of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, an indie spiritual successor to the Castlevania games created by legendary developer Koji Igarashi, who directed Symphony of the Night and is often credited as the creator of the Metroidvania style.
Adapting a video game isn’t easy. It’s almost the rule at this point: If your show or movie is based on a popular video game, it’s probably going to bomb. But then the impossible happened: Netflix’s Castlevania animated series became the first video game adaptation to receive a “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The series comes from the minds of writer Warren Ellis, director Sam Deats, and producer Adi Shankar, who have gone down in history as the first creators to successfully adapt a video game series. What’s their secret?
“I don’t think there is one,” Shankar says. “Because that’s like asking what’s the secret to adapting a book well? First and foremost, you’ve got to be a fan of it.”
Ellis was first approached to adapt Castlevania in 2007 as an 80-minute straight-to-DVD animated movie. While that project fell through, Castlevania was later revived as a TV series by Frederator Studios, Powerhouse Animation Studios, and Netflix.
Attached as executive producer was Shankar, a YouTube personality, director, and producer best known for his “Bootleg Universe,” a series of pop culture satire films that have deconstructed beloved franchises such as Power Rangers, James Bond, and Judge Dredd. Shankar has made it his life’s work to take the things he loved as a kid and present them as social commentaries. He approached Castlevania, a series he grew up playing, the same way.
“All these monsters have always been allegories for something else,” Shankar says. In the case of Castlevania, the creators used the Belmonts’ struggle against Dracula’s evil forces to explore questions of religion and politics. In fact, the show caught a little flak for what some viewers believe to be an anti-Christian message. What’s so interesting about the four-episode season is that Dracula is barely in it. A religious entity identified only as “The Church” is responsible for much of the misery that befalls the citizens of Wallachia and has banished protagonist Trevor Belmont, a heavy-drinking monster hunter and the only man who can stop Dracula, voiced by Richard Armitage (The Hobbit).
Shankar disagrees with the anti-Christian reading. Instead, he says the show’s criticisms are aimed at a more general target.
Explains Shankar, “It had more to do with the fact that, throughout history, you do have individuals who are able to consolidate power using organizations and to do bad things, right?”
While the filmmaker identifies first and foremost as a social satirist, what intrigued him about this project was how Castlevania reinterpreted Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic novel through an Asian lens.
“What’s interesting about Castlevania is that it’s a European story featuring a global icon, Dracula, created by a Japanese game company,” Shankar says. “So it’s almost like the Japanese interpretation of this European icon, and this European setting, and that definitely infused the DNA of all of it, so it ended up being this globally accessible [series].”
Shankar’s respect for the source material has certainly paid off and may even be the key to convincing Konami to make a new Castlevania game. The show’s success proves that audiences still love this franchise. Dracula might be down at the moment, but there’s more hope than ever that he, and the Castlevania franchise, will rise again.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Until that day comes, we have the master’s return to Metroidvania, Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Although the Castlevania series was already in decline in 2014 when he left Konami to pursue his own projects, Igarashi knew that there would be a void left behind by the franchise’s absence.
Bloodstained was first announced through a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that met its $500,000 goal within four hours and raised over $1 million in its first day.
“I have been gone for too long, and it’s time for a resurrection!” Igarashi said in the video introducing the Kickstarter. “Publishers of the world told me that gamers no longer care for this style of game, but I know they’re wrong!”
By the end of the campaign, Bloodstained had raised over $5.5 million, proving that fans were still hungry for this type of experience. Four years later, Bloodstained is still in development but is inching closer to a 2019 release.
The game tells the story of Miriam, an orphan who has been cursed by an alchemist and is slowly turning into crystal. The young woman must fight her way through a castle full of demons and other creatures of the night to find a cure. The plot and setting are as Gothic as it gets, and the presentation and gameplay—the side-scrolling combat, creepy monsters, and role-playing elements—all harken back to the golden age of Metroidvania.
Interestingly enough, Igarashi told Game Informer that he wanted to stay away from classic monsters altogether so that Bloodstained wouldn’t feel like a “half-baked copy” of his Castlevania work. Instead, he went all the way back to the 17th century to find the monsters that populate Miriam’s world.
“This time around, we based most of the monster designs on the book Lesser Key of Solomon,” Igarashi says. The Lesser Key of Solomon is a grimoire (or spell book) on demonology made up of five books based on the work of several occultists.
“As for creating each individual demon, we typically decide on the monster’s role and functionality, then use those attributes as inspiration for designing the physical appearance.”
Bloodless, one of the demons you’ll encounter in the game, can shoot powerful streams of blood at Miriam, which is why she wears a gruesome red dress during the fight. Vepar is a demon of the sea with six eyes, sharp teeth, and tentacles for weapons. Take it from someone who has fought Bloodless and Vepar during demos at PAX East and E3: Both of these bosses will wreck you in the same way that made Castlevania so difficult, but satisfying.
Igarashi had many more ideas for Castlevania games before he left Konami, and working on Bloodstained has allowed him to see his vision through. When Igarashi’s new game finally arrives on consoles and PC, it will carry the weight of his legacy on its shoulders, as well as the future of Metroidvania games. As for Castlevania itself? At least we have the anime, which impressed Igarashi, who collaborated on it back when it was still a movie.
“Yes, I did watch it!” Igarashi says. “If I were more involved, I probably would have added extra scenes, but I felt the people behind the series knew and played the games. I can’t wait for the next season.”