Castlevania and Metal Gear Go Separate Ways
Konami gave the world Castlevania in 1986, a side-scrolling monster massacre series known for its blood-linked Belmonts, whip tricks and, eventually, sprawling maze-like Castle Draculas. A year later, Konami unveiled an even more popular franchise, Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear, an escalating espionage series, known for its smoking Snakes, morose code-named foes, and tactics-baiting base raids.
Both series have become cornerstones for Konami and in many ways have stuck to certain elements, especially after defining editions on the Sony PlayStation, Metal Gear Solid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Even in an industry built on familiarity, change is inevitable. For Konami, that change can move forward and backward, illustrated by two of its biggest 2013 releases, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate.
Thirsty Metal Gear fans were given a white-haired elephant with 2001’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. A sudden switcheroo after the first act pinned players with the new, fairer, whinier protagonist Raiden, irking those hoping to get their fill of the franchise’s traditional mulleted avenger, Solid Snake. Konami went on damage control in Metal Gear Solid 3, letting players pilot an even grizzlier Snake who had an eyepatch and ate game. MGS3 even went so far as to berate Raiden with a flamboyant spoof, Raikov. Raiden would return in Metal Gear Solid 4, resurfacing with a heavy makeover; cybernetic implants and a nihilistic outlook on life. While Raiden’s introduction was seen as a departure, Robo-Raiden set the stage for the biggest tangent the series would ever know.
Meanwhile, Castlevania withheld from focusing on the third dimension, as dictated by Symphony of the Night. Two 3D PlayStation 2 Castlevania entries barely blipped on the radar, while a whopping six games on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS became the series’ true anchors. These games emphasized 2D exploration and earned half the etymology of ‘Metroidvania.’ It would only be fair to note that these Koji Igarashi games, Symphony, Circle, Harmony, Aria, Dawn, Portrait and Ecclesia are some of my favourite adventures.
Konami producer Dave Cox’s favourite entries are Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and Super Castlevania IV. “They were the games that inspired me to work at Konami,” says Cox. “They’re the games that made me want to make games.” Cox’s first project at Konami was, Symphony of the Night, something he says, with some hesitation due to how corny it sounds, “was fate.”
Cox’s biggest project, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow developed by MercuryStream, was eyed to be an original IP, despite incredibly obvious influences from Konami’s fearless vampire killers. Cox showed a version of the game to Konami’s senior management where Kojima, who had never worked on a Castlevania game, aligned himself with the project. Soon after Lords of Shadow joined Castlevania’s lineage, and while the idea of remaking Simon Belmont’s first journey existed, the game would become Castlevania’s hard-reboot. Foregoing generations of Belmonts and cursed hunters, Lords of Shadow created an alternate dimension, starting with new blood Gabriel Belmont.
“We’ve shown Gabriel as a man, we’ve shown the world as it was,” says Cox. “Now that we’ve established Dracula we can really move towards the darker elements the Castlevania series is known for.”
Cox admits that, while many critics enjoyed Lords of Shadow and sales were some of the highest the series have ever seen, he felt guilty that the game is almost unrecognizable to the rest of the mythos. There were certainly whips and monsters, but the game played more like God of War, and looked uncannily like Pan’s Labyrinth instead of its namesake. It’s a mistake that Cox hopes to revise with Mirror of Fate. “We want to be braver,” says Cox, “brave enough to take those character designs and story in a new direction, but be a little bit more confident to bring the old stuff back in.”
From the outset, Mirror of Fate feels like a rewind. It’s structured like the original few games, particularly Dracula’s Curse, with forward moving in linear-ish levels dotted with secrets. In the first half-hour, you’ll encounter re-imagined mermen, and later the demented shanking flea men. The game’s stars are re-imagined title-fighters, Simon Belmont, Trevor Belmont and Alucard, each playable in different chapters.
Yet, the game is still a 2D-translated version of Lords of Shadow’s 3D experience. Hack-and-slash fights come at predestined moments with puzzle and platforming segments. It’s a game that will disappoint those (like myself) hoping that the 3DS entry would feel like the other handheld Nintendo offerings, but Cox feels it’s for the best. “Deliberately, we haven’t made it a Metroidvania,” he says, “I think that’s something to stress.
“We see the original Castlevania as being this pure Castlevania. You haven’t had any other iterations or creators putting their slant on it. We should always look back to that with designing enemies and levels.”
While Cox and MercuryStream looked for ways to reel a tangent back, Kojima Productions struggled to find a new way to play Metal Gear Solid. In 2009, Kojima teased and dangled a new sword-action focused Metal Gear experience starring the cybernetic Raiden from MGS4.
Behind the scenes, the game struggled to marry fast-action cutting with the espionage Metal Gear was known for. A hushed cancellation in 2010 led to a furious resurrection in 2011. Yuji Korekado, Kojima’s right hand, who, like Dave Cox, had been involved with the series since its seminal PlayStation outing, had become creative producer. It’s when Kojima Productions met up with the younger but inspiringly absurd developer Platinum Games that Revengeance was felt. Elegantly stupid Revengeance.
“Kojima came up with the name Revengeance,” says Korekado. “We had mishaps developing that game internally, and we wanted to have a Revengeance of coming back with this project, making it something we could release, which we accomplished through Platinum Games.”
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is absolutely unlike any other Metal Gear games, despite taking place in the same timeline. Enemies like Gekkos, which could be hours of work to deal with in Metal Gear Solid 4, are commonplace foes for Raiden’s neon-glowing electro-blade.
The story and certain designs are still handled by Kojima Productions, but Platinum’s paw prints are all over the game. It’s hard not to be reminded of the developer’s Vanquish and Bayonetta antics when you’re taking a talking robot dog with a hand on its back (holding a chainsaw) to task with slow, precise, cutting motions. Does this level of power make Snake less relevant in this universe? “He has an easier time defeating those as a specific type of element,” says Korekado. “But I think that comes down to the definition of what is strength and what is real power.
“I was very, very surprised by the way Platinum Games destroyed the frame we were working with in Metal Gear Rising,” he continues. “We have been working for a very long time with Metal Gear games, and inside our hearts we had a beacon, that, if it’s a Metal Gear game then we have to do this or we have to not do this. We just had those kind of alignments inside of us.”
As development went on, shifting responsibility to Platinum Games seemed more like an amazing decision. Metal Gear games are defined by playing possum in the grass, patiently waiting for the moment to strike or evade your enemies, while strategically maintaining resources. Platinum’s games are defined by protagonists with guns for stilettos, chainsaws for arms and special moves you can only achieve by power sliding along the floor. Between the two was shocking harmony.
Regardless of future, traditional Metal Gears down the line, Korekado isn’t afraid of staunch reception. Platinum Games was able to accomplish feats, like making a slow motion ‘Blade Mode’ work, or making a Metal Gear game with, gasp, shorter cut-scenes. Newness is often feared, but done right it can redefine the classic.
“If we want to create something new,” says Korekado, “we can go that far, or, we have to go that far.
“I believe that we’ve made a game that Kojima Productions would have never made on their own,” says Korekado, “I don’t think we made a game that only added what is best from each other, but we actually improved what each studio could do better. The differences in opinion we had, there was a specific chemical reaction from both studios. It really was a collaboration, it was very good. I don’t think that’s very common. Given the chance I’d love to work with them again.”
Gamers often bang on the doors for something completely new in the same breath as asking for sequels. When those two things become one, it becomes a surprise risk. Good game or not, fans can get into a tizzy when reinvisioned protagonists return with a haircut. Completely reworking the world and mechanics for its two most precious franchises is a bold risk for Konami.
Handing over those franchises to younger studios could be the secret ingredient to success. In a way, it’s like selecting a sophisticated fan to take Metal Gear and Castlevania to places that Konami would have never thought possible.