Opinion: The Belmont Chronicles – An Attempt to Detail the Series’ Origins

It’s embarrassing that Castlevania‘s creators are mostly unknown. How one of the most iconic gaming franchises of all time — despite its relative quiet in the past several years — could have its staff remain mostly anonymous despite over 30 years is dumbfounding. So I am taking on the impossible task to compile disparate information to try to piece together the mystery of the development of Akumajō Dracula.

So, in case you might not be aware, it was a common occurrence in 1980s Japanese development for game credits to either be nonexistent or to utilize pseudonyms. It’s a trend that, to some extent, continues to color Japanese game development (Leone, The Secret Developers…). For 1980s Konami, it was strictly enforced (Castlevania Wikia: Retro Gamer interview, Super Castlevania IV). For the original Castlevania, someone on the development team came up with puns related to the many monster movies they based the core design hook around to serve as the credits, and for a long time the actual people behind those goofy nicknames were left in the dark. According to composer Kinuyo Yamashita, she had no say in hers, “James Banana” (Legacy Music Hour). For Japanese publishers, Yamashita explained, “the Japanese style is very different from the USA. They are a lot more reserved and don’t want to give away their secrets. So I guess they felt like they had to protect their talent. And so they used fake names” (Legacy Music Hour). Along with the mystery of the people who worked on the game, the reasoning as to why Konami chose to create an action game set in Bram Stoker’s Dracula universe with a plethora of other classic villains culled from film, literature and myth also remains elusive, as is the concept of the Belmont family and their weapons of choice. For now, it may be best to compile what IS known, and try to stitch together what we can to form some quiltwork narrative on Castlevania‘s origin.

The easiest component of the dev team to sort out is the musical, thanks to the openness of Yamashita. Her interviews provide the most information known about the game’s development, as well as her frankness about composition credit. It’s because of Yamashita we know that Satoe Terashima is responsible for the franchise’s most iconic song, “Vampire Killer”, among others, and that Yamashita handled sound data and engineering for the game on top of much of the music, alongside others in Konami’s sound team (Legacy Music Hour; Square-Enix Music Online). We also get a brief glimpse into Konami’s inner workings, with Yamashita stating that their sound team’s “…expectations were very high. The long hours were too difficult for my body. So I had to leave” (Legacy Music Hour). We will return to Yamashita and Terashima later on in this series when we discuss the series’ music as a whole.

Outside of Yamashita, unfortunately, we do not have many other sources to look to for any concrete data. 1UP had an interview with Hidenori Maezawa, co-composer on Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, where he states he had a hand in Castlevania, but that was briefly lost to the void of IGN’s buyout of the site. Thankfully Jeremy Parish, the interviewer of the piece, archived it on his blog (although the coding of the site is deteriorating), and I can quote Maezawa’s own words: “…when I first joined the company they were working on Castlevania. I don’t remember clearly, but I don’t believe I took on a huge role in that game as it was my first project. But soon after that, I began creating sound effects and working on sound programming, which is how I built up to actually composing” (Parish, Compendium of Useless Information…). Maezawa notes he was hired for both his composing and programming skills, so it’s possible he was more involved in the graphical or gameplay components for his first game.

From there, leads dry up on people who actively worked on the game. The next best source I’ve come across is an interview published in Retro Gamer with Masahiro “Mitch” Ueno, a former Konami staff member who directed Super Castlevania IV. From Ueno we learn that Konami had the same primary team for the development of the three NES/Famicom Castlevania games, and in an unfortunately unpublished interview discussing the arcade Haunted Castle he reveals that Hitoshi Akamatsu was the director for them all (Castlevania Wikia: Hitoshi Akamatsu; Castlevania Wikia: Retro Gamer interview, Super Castlevania IV; Drake, Halloween RetroVision…). We do know that Akamatsu was an employee at Konami in the 1980s, and that he had a hand with other titles such as Time Pilot, Surprise Attack and Snake’s Revenge (Castlevania Wikia: Hitoshi Akamatsu; MobyGames: Hitoshi Akamatsu). However, Akamatsu has effectively vanished from the public view, and has never provided any interview to my knowledge. And the same can be said for many of the other speculated staff for Castlevania based on Ueno’s comments that the core team remained through the NES/Famicom trilogy: sound programmer Iku Mizutani (who joined Natsume in the late 80s and cited on Castlevania Wikia), producer Akihiko Nagata, programmer Nobuhiro Matsuoka, and artist Noriyasu Togakushi (listed on the Wikipedia page) are also all MIA now, silent on their involvement. This is all second-hand, and with the best resource available to historians — the veterans themselves — not making their stories known, we have to rely heavily on secondary sources to try to build any semblance of a record.

So, for now, this is the best I can produce on the creation of Akumajō Dracula, but I do have one tidbit on the localization to wrap up this initial foray into the Belmont Chronicles. The localized title of Castlevania was by Konami of America senior vice president Emil Heidkamp, who felt some “discomfort with the religious connotations of the title Akumajō Dracula, which he believed translated as ‘Dracula Satanic Castle'” (Wikipedia; Harris, Console Wars). Now, 32 years on, we know more of how Castlevania’s American name came into existence than the actual design work that laid the foundation for one of gaming’s most iconic series. If new details emerge, I will happily update this post, but it is time to close the coffin on the prologue and look at the NES/Famicom trilogy as a whole in Chapter 1.

Sources:

Websites:

https://www.polygon.com/2015/9/30/9394355/the-secret-developers-of-the-video-game-industry

http://castlevania.wikia.com/wiki/Masahiro_Ueno#Retro_Gamer_.22Super_Castlevania_IV.22_Interview_.282013.29

http://legacymusichour.blogspot.com/2011/07/legacy-music-hour-episode-36-kinuyo.html

https://www.squareenixmusic.com/features/interviews/kinuyoyamashita.shtml

http://www.siliconera.com/2011/12/17/the-story-of-the-konami-code-and-early-days-of-nes-development/

http://castlevania.wikia.com/wiki/Castlevania_(video_game)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castlevania_(1986_video_game)

http://ringsandcoins.com/retrovision-who-created-castlevania/

https://www.anatomyofgames.com/2012/08/02/2d-simon-belmont/

http://www.vgmpf.com/Wiki/index.php/Castlevania_(NES)

http://www.denofgeek.com/us/games/castlevania/258652/castlevania-a-horror-game-90-years-in-the-making

http://www.telebunny.net/toastywiki/index.php/Games/HidenoriMaezawa

http://castlevania.wikia.com/wiki/Hitoshi_Akamatsu

https://www.mobygames.com/developer/sheet/view/developerId,100574/

Books:

Harris, Blake (2014). Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (First ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins. pp. 200–201.

Katala, Kurt (2014). Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents Castlevania (First ed.). Middletown, DE: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. pp. 4-7.

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