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

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. This has been updated as of 6/2/2019 with additional information on Director Hitoshi Akamatsu and the design notes from the recent Anniversary Collection.

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 has remained elusive, as is the concept of the Belmondo (Japan)/Belmont (English) 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. The recent Castlevania Anniversary Collection has some design pages from the original game — the most intriguing bit is the revelation that the hero was originally named Peter Dante, grandson of Christopher Dante. Alas, no reasoning is given for the change to Simon Belmondo/Belmont. Also, having Peter whip diagonally upwards and downwards were in consideration at this early phase. The breadth of power-ups was also much expanded; a stake, garlic and pistol subweapon, meat giving speed up boosts versus health refills, a POW icon that served as a healing item, a werewolf transformation (which may  explain why no werewolves made it into the first game — this would eventually be fulfilled in Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness via Cornell), a guardian spirit that worked like Beat in the Mega Man series, a Bible to grant invincibility, and the sword Excalibur working as a screen clear (the crucifix would end up in the game to serve in this role). Unfortunately, no credits are provided on who produced the notes, but it does illuminate details previously unknown about the development of the title.

As for other leads, 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). This has recently been collaborated by a series of tweets by a former Konami employee on Twitter and Tumblr (Castlevania – Developer Commentary). The employee, who was mentored by Akamatsu in the 1990s, provides an unprecedented perspective on the development of the series. However, I do wish to be cautious about stating that this is not reliably confirmed, but will go ahead and share some of the insights provided within these posts.

The employee asked Akamatsu about the Belmont’s proclivity towards whips; apparently Akamatsu adored the Indiana Jones film franchise and wanted to include a whip as a subtle nod. It also gave Simon a good range that worked with the mechanical flow of the gameplay. Simon and Trevor both lean a little forward as they walk or stand still; this was due to Akamatsu feeling that the heroes would always be ready to strike with the Vampire Killer. Simon’s movement was a major component of Akamatsu’s focus:

Akamatsu was very strict about being sure the player controls, the timing of the graphics, and the resulting effect of pressing a button were all very closely aligned. He was very particular about the way the controls felt, and making sure they felt satisfying to the player. In Castlevania, he wanted controls where eventually, after playing enough, Simon’s movements would feel like an extension of the player’s own limbs.

While Castlevania would be considered a challenging game, with a few difficult encounters with Death and Dracula at the end, Akamatsu didn’t want to make the game impossible.

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 think he wanted anyone to be able to clear his games, because he told me his standard for difficulty was that he should be able to clear it himself.

As for Death, probably the hardest boss in the game:

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 him 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.

There is also a fascinating piece of lore about Dracula:

In the original Castlevania, I asked Akamatsu about why Dracula’s head flies off when you defeat the first phase of the boss fight. He said, “The head there? It’s foreshadowing Dracula’s resurrection.”

Likewise, when the body parts scatter in every direction, that was also meant to show that Dracula will come back. Actually, the second monstrous form you fight was meant to be an “incarnation of the curse of man”, not Dracula himself. That’s why when Simon defeats him, he gets cursed. Like most people, I thought that was just a powered-up monster form of Dracula, and I joked as much in front of Akamatsu one day. He completely refuted that idea though. (laughs) “That is a monster borne from the curse of man.” He added, “In a truly peaceful age, Dracula would not exist.”

Akamatsu also explained to me how the rotating gears in Dracula’s castle represent Dracula’s heart. They turn so long as Dracula is alive. That’s why, in the ending of Castlevania, the clock tower collapses, but the rest of the castle remains—Akamatsu said he intended that as a hint towards a sequel. It’s sort of his nod to horror movies, I think.

The last major note relates to Yamashita and Terashima’s score:

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.

However, Akamatsu has effectively vanished from the public view, and has never provided any interview to my knowledge. According to the developer cited above, after the two Castlevania sequels he directed lacked the sales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles carts (which Akamatsu tried to outdo with Dracula’s Curse), he was demoted from director to staff at one of Konami’s game centers in Japan. Naturally, he quit soon after. The developer comments that Konami did this frequently with staff who couldn’t turn profits, a sad tradition that has motivated the company to the present day.

Sadly, the disappearance of Akamatsu is the same fate shared 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

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)

Halloween RetroVision – Who Created Castlevania?

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/

castlevania

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.

Games:

Castlevania Anniversary Collection Bonus Book, Castlevania Design Archives section.

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