It’s easy to pick out Koji “Iga” Igarashi in a crowd. Clad entirely in black, with a cowboy hat perched above a long ponytail, Igarashi looks the part of a renegade. Exactly what you’d expect from the man who brought Castlevania back to life with the seminal Symphony of the Night in 1997. He’s even been known — as was the case when I interviewed him at E3 last week — to carry around a whip, the favored weapon of Castlevania’s vampire-hunting Belmont family.
After leaving Castlevania developer Konami in 2014, Igarashi set straight to work on independently creating exactly the kind of game he’s known for: a gothic horror-themed action adventure. Given his career thus far, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a game designer who lives and breathes vampire-tinged action. But according to Igarashi, his decision to return to the themes and genre of Castlevania had little to do with his own personal desire. “It wasn’t really about me,” he says. “The genre was dying during that time when I quit Konami. But [the fans’] voices were very loud — they wanted to play that kind of side-scrolling game once again. I thought this is a great opportunity to give back to the fans.”
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was first revealed in May 2015, with a successful crowdfunding campaign that saw Igarashi’s ArtPlay studio raise more than $5.5 million on Kickstarter. (For a time, Bloodstained was the most successful video game project on Kickstarter, though it was eventually surpassed by Shenmue III.) Since then, the project has undergone a few changes. Originally slated to launch this year, Bloodstained has been pushed to 2018, while the Wii U version has been canceled in favor of the Nintendo Switch. And while the Kickstarter campaign showed off a game with more traditional 2D characters, Bloodstained has since shifted to a 3D style that retains the same side-scrolling perspective.
But even with a new visual style and without the Castlevania name, Bloodstained should feel intimately familiar to fans of Igarashi’s work. I played through a 15-minute demo at E3, and was transported back to my time with Symphony of the Night and its follow-ups. Like its spiritual predecessors, Bloodstained takes place in a sprawling castle, which you explore by fighting lots of demonic creatures and unlocking new abilities, which in turn open up access to new areas. It’s a subgenre known as “Metroidvania” or “Igavania,” named after the defining Super Metroid and Igarashi’s distinct take on Castlevania.
The demo didn’t take long to introduce this familiar structure. After a few minutes, I unlocked the double jump ability, which allowed me to make my way up a crumbling bell tower to a previously unreachable part of the castle. Along the way, I was attacked by all manner of dark, mystical beings. The action felt both fast and flexible as I fought off demon dogs, towering undead swordsmen, and scampering vampiric creatures using a combination of magic and traditional weaponry.
The weapons, in particular, added a refreshing amount variety and strategy to the experience. Each one I used — including a katana, a claymore, and that iconic whip — felt dramatically different from the next, making each a potential fit for different kinds of play styles and situations. The demo ended with a dramatic — and bloody — boss battle, against an evil demon who used blood as her weapon, raining the goop from above to deal damage. Bloodstained even sounds like its predecessors, with a soundtrack from longtime Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane.
Igarashi says, barring a few technical issues, he’s mostly happy with the state of the game. But it took some time to get to this point, and the process was longer than he had anticipated, largely due to his inexperience at creating a game at an independent studio. “At a bigger company, there were many talented employees who were already there,” he says. “When I started out doing a smaller project at a smaller company, it was very hard to find people that are experienced enough to work on the game. Since we just started out, there weren’t that many people who knew about us, so that was a great challenge that we faced.”
Bloodstained is currently on track to launch next year on a wide range of platforms, including Switch, PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Vita. “We’re in full production mode,” Igarashi says of the game’s current status. For now, he’s focused on his new game, and potentially building it out into a larger franchise if next year’s debut proves successful. That means that — at least for the foreseeable future — his creative endeavors will continue to be filled with demons, werewolves, and vampires. But that might not always be the case.
“When fans think of Iga, they think: ‘Who is this man?’ The fans think that he creates all of these gothic horror-style games,” Igarashi explains. “And I want to answer that demand. But it doesn’t mean that I’m particularly concentrated on that gothic horror genre. I could always make different kinds of games — that’s something that I’m also interested in.”