The lights are on
Koji Igarashi, the creator of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, departed Konami last month. While Igarashi didn’t create Simon Belmont’s first whip-cracking adventure on the NES, he revitalized the formula by adding in Metroid-style exploration and RPG mechanics. The PlayStation’s Symphony of the Night and its handheld follow-ups are revered as some of the best 2D action games ever, but Konami’s in-house development studio hasn’t delivered a true side-scrolling entry since 2008’s Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. With Igarashi free of Konami’s dragging feet, the developer hints his next project may be a 2D action game. These are the elements I feel Igarashi must include for a Castlevania spiritual successor to succeed without the iconic franchise name.
Keep Using Public Domain Monsters
One of my favorite things about the Castlevania series is that it’s a catch-all for every iconic monster from classic literature and mythology. This rogue’s gallery of abominations, from werewolves to mermen, is all gathered under one roof waiting for your punishment. The colorful cast of monsters isn’t limited to the Castlevania series, however. The beauty of Igarashi’s theoretical Castlevania successor is that it can tap into all these public domain entities without being slayed by Konami’s lawyers. The game wouldn’t feel right without floating Medusa heads and axe-wielding knights.
Speaking of public domain characters, there’s no reason Igarashi needs to avoid putting Dracula in his game. We understand if he wants to avoid using the Bram Stoker’s vampire for creative reasons, but I’d personally love for his inclusion. Dracula is among the most iconic video game bosses of all time, and fans never tire of sticking it to him time and time again. Would it be a true spiritual successor without a multi-stage climactic encounter with the vampire?
One alternative route Igarashi could take is to evolve Dracula’s role in the way fans hoped MercurySteam would with Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. The Belmont clan belongs to Konami, but Igarashi could inject a twist by letting players control Dracula on a rampage through his own castle. This seems like a natural fit when considering Alucard’s bat, mist, and wolf transformation abilities from Symphony of the Night.
Dozens Of Bosses
Speaking of Dracula, another cornerstone of the Castlevania series is its generous offering of varied boss battles. I loved hacking away at the mass of corpses that was Symphony’s Legion and fighting a giant mutant crab in Order of Ecclesia. I want re-envisioned battles with Frankenstein’s monster, mummies, Medusa, and all the classics.
Igarashi’s later Castlevania titles steered away from the classic Symphony formula in favor of trying out the fighting genres and a failed attempt at multiplayer. Some of the handheld versions added in annoying touchscreen mechanics. All these distractions are unnecessary in a great Castlevania-style game.
Symphony shook up the Castlevania formula by putting almost everything but a whip in players’ hands. Aria of Sorrow advanced the armory by adding in modern weapons like guns and grenades. I love being able to choose between faster, weaker weapons like daggers, more balanced swords, or slow, heavy battle axes. This freedom of play style enables fans to approach clearing out the castle however they please. The broader the weapon variety, the better.
Multiple Playable Characters
I may love a wide array of weapons, I also have a soft spot for the franchise’s iconic whip. Igarashi’s successor could simply allow players to select a whip among the other weapons, or it could be personified by a more traditional, alternative Belmont-style character. Many of Igarashi’s Castlevania titles, starting with Symphony, allow players to control an alternate character after completing the game. Making a whip-wielding monster slayer available from the start might help satisfy a broader spectrum of Castlevania fans. Castlevania: Bloodlines offered players characters with a whip and multi-directional spear from the get-go, and I loved it for that reason.
The difficulty of Igarashi’s Castlevania games has been all over the map. Symphony of the Night started out balanced, but the new leveling system and some overpowered weapons made it a cakewalk for some by the end (looking at you, Crissaegrim). On the other hand, many bemoaned Order of Ecclesia’s punishing difficulty and claim to have put it down in failure. The best path for a spiritual successor would walk a path between these ends of the spectrum carefully. It will require a conservative leveling system and expertly balanced enemies. No small task, but Igarashi is skilled enough to pull it off.
One Massive Castle
Dracula’s castle has been done to death in the Castlevania series, but it works for a reason. Igarashi has injected an impressive number of varied environments into the castle walls. Flooded caverns, haunted catacombs, and treacherous clock towers are all great candidates. While warping to different environments like pyramids is fun (a la Portrait of Ruin), I prefer the satisfaction of exploring every inch of a one connect castle with tons of secrets and shortcuts. For an added bonus, I’d be overjoyed if Igarashi took another stab at the inverted castle twist from Symphony of the Night.
Chances are high Igarashi will turn to Kickstarter for this rumored Castlevania spiritual successor. Similar to Keiji Inafune’s Mega Man-style Mighty No. 9 game, I think his team will begin by proposing a PC-only version, and then add stretch goals to add in handheld and console support. Given the series’ history on Nintendo portables and the convenience of having a map on the second screen, continuing that legacy is a good idea. But more importantly we haven’t seen a true, side-scrolling Castlevania on our TVs since Symphony’s release in 1997. It’s about time.
Sprite-based visuals were an important element that helped Igarashi’s Symphony-style successors work well on handhelds. Boot up Symphony of the Night and most of the GBA/DS games and they still look great today. The old school aesthetic works well for the series and if Igarashi is looking to please longtime Castlevania fans he’d be wise to maintain that look.
For more in-depth looks at the Castlevania series, check my ranked list of the series and this reflection on the series' iconic boss battles.