The Castlevania series is one of gaming's most famous franchises and has spawned a long line of video games as well as TV shows, albums and loads of associated merchandise. However, fresh insight into the development of the original NES / Famicom trilogy – unearthed by shmuplations.com – reveals that the commercial fortune of the series resulted in one of its key figures parting company with Konami under something of a cloud.
Twitter user Sonna Yuumi worked at Konami in the '90s and was mentored by Hitoshi Akamatsu, the director (and some would say key creative force) of the original Castlevania / Akumajō Dracula. Between 2015 and 2019, Sonna Yuumi posted a series of tweets concerning the creation of the NES trilogy, and these have been translated and compiled to create an interesting perspective on the genesis of these beloved games.
The full feature is well worth reading, but we'll post some highlights nonetheless. For example, Akamatsu said that the whip was the primary weapon in the series because he was a fan of the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, and he defended the rather harsh difficulty by comparing the game to Super Mario Bros., where the player would die after just a single hit.
It's also clear that Akamatsu's grasp of game design was quite advanced for the era:
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 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 clear be able to clear his games, because he told me his standard for difficulty was that he should be able to clear it himself.
Interestingly, it is also noted that during the development of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse – considered by many to be the best NES Castlevania, if not the best game in the series full stop – Konami was very much focused on the money-spinning Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise:
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.
Castlevania has always been synonymous with amazing music, and it would appear this tradition began with Akamatsu:
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.
Amazingly, despite the quality of the Castlevania games, Akamatsu was not exactly rewarded for his efforts. The sequels apparently sold poorly (we assume Sonna Yuumi is talking about Japanese sales in this case, although global sales could be included here), and he was demoted to working in one of Konami's game centres. Unsurprisingly, Akamatsu quit, citing his dissatisfaction with the way Konami treated its creative talent:
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)
Sadly, following his departure from Konami, Akamatsu appears to have vanished from the games industry.