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Tracking down the obscure mind behind Castlevania

By Jack Yarwood. Posted

In 1987, Konami released Castlevania (known in Japan as Akumajō Dracula) for the Famicom Disk System. The side-scrolling adventure about monster hunter Simon Belmont and his quest to kill Dracula became one of the company’s most beloved games, inspiring countless sequels, spin-offs, and even a Netflix TV show. But strangely, to this day, fans know very little about the man who created it: Hitoshi Akamatsu.

Akamatsu didn’t give many interviews during his career in the games industry. There are barely any photographs of him, and his list of credited projects is frustratingly incomplete. This has given rise to a number of rumours about his time at Konami, though barely anything has actually been confirmed. We therefore set out to clear up some of the mysteries and misconceptions surrounding the developer, speaking to those who worked alongside Akamatsu at Konami to uncover more about him. Not only did talking to his former colleagues reveal a more accurate picture of his time at Konami, but it also gave us a better understanding of the circumstances that surrounded his eventual departure from the company.

Osaka to Kobe

Masahiro Inoue is a former producer who worked at Konami on arcade games like Gyruss, Crime Fighters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He first met Akamatsu in 1983 at Konami’s original headquarters in Osaka, where they were both working on arcade games, and was able to provide us with a little more information about the mysterious developer. According to Inoue, for instance, before Akamatsu worked on Castlevania, he worked on a game called Finalizer - Super Transformation, a vertical shooter released in Japanese arcades in December 1985. This makes Finalizer the earliest title we know of that Akamatsu worked on at Konami.

Dracula’s head flying away at the end of the original Castlevania was purportedly meant as a tease for a possible sequel.

The game puts players in control of a transforming jet as it battles across a scrolling land-mass meant to represent the United States. You could play alone or with a friend, with the goal being to rack up as many points as possible. Akamatsu worked as a programmer on the title but went uncredited, as was common for the time. The majority of early Konami games never featured comprehensive credits, with creators occasionally hiding their initials or surnames on high score screens or in secret messages. This makes deciphering who did what a total mystery unless you go directly to the source. But finding other employees from this period can be just as difficult, given how many have since left the industry.

Nevertheless, what we now know for sure is that following the development of Finalizer, Akamatsu moved from the arcade department to work primarily on NES games. His first release for the console is unknown. What is known, however, is that in 1986 he began work on what would be his most well-known title, Castlevania, taking on the role of director.

Akamatsu was directly involved with Castlevania’s design, as can be gleaned from conversations with his former co-workers at Konami as well as tweets by Sonna Yuumi – a sub-planner who Akamatsu later mentored at another studio he worked for, Vingt-et-un Systems. Between 2015 and 2019, Yuumi tweeted about his conversations with Akamatsu, regarding Castlevania’s design, which were then translated into English by shmuplations.

The hints in Castlevania II often led to players getting stuck from trying to replicate what lying townsfolk had told them.

According to these tweets, Akamatsu, like many others at Konami, was a big movie buff, and wanted people to feel like they were playing through a classic horror film. This explains the rogues’ gallery of movie villains that appear from the Mummy to Medusa to Dracula himself. Akamatsu also loved Steven Spielberg’s 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which explains why the protagonist Simon opted for a whip over a more traditional weapon like a sword.

Booting up Castlevania today, one of the things that’s striking is its difficulty compared to other NES games. It’s very easy to get hit while jumping from one platform to another and fall immediately to your doom, or struggle with some of the game’s more challenging bosses, like Death or Dracula. When Yuumi questioned Akamatsu about this, the older developer simply highlighted the inclusion of subweapons, which make the game substantially easier in some cases, and joked about his creation being less punishing than Super Mario Bros. where players can die in one hit.

Akamatsu apparently wanted Castlevania II’s town to be populated by leaping zombies at night. This was changed to reduce difficulty.

Castlevania is now regarded as a classic, and commonly appears in ‘greatest games of all time’ lists. Of course, this success wasn’t all down to Akamatsu but others on the team as well, including composers Satoe Terashima, Kinuyo Yamashita, and Hidenori Maezawa, as well as several uncredited artists and programmers. In the eyes of Konami, a sequel to the game was a no-brainer, but before work got underway, there was another project that required Akamatsu’s attention.

The Goonies II and other NES games

In 1986, Konami released a Japan-only adaptation of The Goonies for the Nintendo Famicom. This was a loose adaptation of the 1985 Richard Donner film about a group of kids on a quest to find the treasure of the pirate, One-Eyed Willy. It’s not known whether Akamatsu worked on this original game, but when it came time to direct the sequel, Konami approached the Castlevania director to take the lead on the project.

The Goonies II is one of the few games Akamatsu gave an interview for, with the article appearing in the short-lived Konami-published magazine, Monthly Nanda. In that article, he’s not only pictured, but was also asked where he got his ideas from. Luckily for us, a Twitter user named Kutsurogi scanned and uploaded the article, with another user, Arc Hound, providing a translation on his Tumblr blog.

In case the cinematic influences weren’t obvious enough, Castlevania III made it explicit by incorporating a film reel on its title screen.

Speaking to the interviewer, Akamatsu said: “Game ideas can be gotten from anywhere. Not just movies, music, or sports, but also from the littlest things in everyday life, such as trying to slip out of school in order to play. That’s sufficient enough for one game.”

In the case of The Goonies II, the plot was a direct sequel to the events of the first film, with the Fratelli gang escaping from prison and kidnapping Mikey’s friends, along with a mermaid named Annie. The game’s a side-scrolling platformer, with players fending off enemies with slingshots and yo-yos to rescue the other Goonies. There are also some first-person sections where Mikey can talk to NPCs to unlock hints as well as new items.

The Goonies II released for the Famicom in March 1987; a North American version was released later that year, while Europeans had to wait until December 1988. Regardless, the game received positive reviews from publications like CVG and Famitsu, and has become something of a curiosity today among collectors, given Donner never directed a true sequel to the film. According to our sources, development on Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest started almost immediately after work on The Goonies II finished, with Akamatsu once again taking on a role as director. Castlevania II wouldn’t be a straightforward sequel, however.

For the second game, Akamatsu decided to change the formula from a haunted house action-adventure to a role-playing game filled with towns, swamps, and various dungeons to explore. This was partly inspired by the growing popularity of RPGs at the time, including Konami’s own Knightmare II: The Maze of Galious.

You play as Simon, with the goal being to collect five parts of Dracula’s corpse and vanquish the demon vampire for good. To achieve this, you need to talk to the townsfolk for information, grind hearts for better equipment, and navigate the open world to tackle its dungeons.

Over the last two decades, Simon’s Quest has become somewhat of a black sheep in the series due to its differences from the other NES games as well as the difficulty of its puzzles. Koji Igarashi, director of 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, has stated the game didn’t leave a good impression on Japanese players, due to its lying NPCs and long loading times. Meanwhile, in the English version, some riddles were mistranslated, making them hard to solve without a guide. Regardless, Castlevania II is still a fascinating evolution of the original game, and even inspired Igarashi’s later work on Symphony of the Night.

As for what Akamatsu did after Castlevania II, a clue was left for us in the Famicom-exclusive Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu. A debug password contained the name of its development staff, with Akamatsu being the first listed. It’s therefore believed that after working on Castlevania II, he went to work on another Dragon Scroll game that same year. We showed it to various former Konami employees, who believed this to be the case. They also confirmed that Akamatsu worked on other NES games in senior roles, including an adaptation of the slice-of-life comic Jarinko Chie in 1988, and the non-canon Metal Gear sequel Snake’s Revenge in 1990.

In 1989, Akamatsu worked on his last Castlevania game as director, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. This was a prequel focusing on the adventures of Trevor Belmont, Simon’s ancestor, and his own battles against Dracula’s evil forces. Akamatsu went back to the classic platforming of the original Castlevania, but tried to combine the non-linear approach of Simon’s Quest. This time, players could take multiple paths through the Transylvanian countryside and even pick an additional player to use alongside Trevor. The reaction to Castlevania III was arguably more positive than for its predecessor, with reviewers for magazines like Famitsu and Total! enjoying the return to the classic formula. Sadly, Akamatsu never got to work on any of its sequels.

In 1990, after finishing work on Snake’s Revenge, he switched to Konami’s arcade division to work on new projects, and in the years following, the development of Castlevania games bounced between different teams for different platforms, before finding its way to Konami’s Tokyo development centre. This is where Castlevania: The New Generation and Super Castlevania IV were developed, and explains why so few people who worked on those later Castlevania games met Akamatsu in person.

The Arcade Years

It’s at this point that history gets a little muddy. There’s a rumour that after Castlevania III failed to outperform Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the company sent Akamatsu to work in one of Konami’s game centres as punishment. But this has never been proven and comes second-hand from Yuumi, who didn’t work at Konami and admitted he was only speculating.

According to the former Konami employees we spoke to, what actually happened was that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a huge success, especially in the North American market, so Konami was encouraged to work on more licensed games. Akamatsu, seeing this success, was disappointed that his games never sold as well, because the teams working on the best-selling games would often receive huge bonuses for their work. In 1990, therefore, Akamatsu moved to Konami’s arcade division, where he assisted with several games. This included the arcade platformer Surprise Attack, where he did some programming and design work, and 1992’s Astérix, a licensed game based on the French comic, where he was credited as ‘Narunopapa’, as confirmed by its co-director Masaaki Kukino.

Kukino was able to shed some light on Akamatsu’s departure, as he was actually meant to co-direct another title with Akamatsu after Astérix – a basketball game called Slam Dunk that released in Japanese arcades in 1993. According to Kukino, however, Akamatsu abruptly left the project during development and joined another department, becoming a clerk at a Konami game centre, and all of his work had to be redone. It’s not known whether this move was voluntary or not, with some suggesting it could have been for user research.

It’s clear from our conversations with former staff, though, that he had difficulties when he rejoined Konami’s arcade division. As Kukino told us: “I respected him when [we] worked on the same team, because of what he and the Castlevania team accomplished and because he’d been in the business two years longer than me. But as development progressed, I realised he wasn’t fit to be a team leader because he couldn’t decide on anything. He’s credited as the director on the [Astérix] game that he and I teamed up for, but in reality, I’m the one who really made all the decisions and directed the game.”

Akamatsu disappeared for a few years after he made the move to working in one of Konami’s game centres, but after leaving the company he found himself directing games again. In 1997, he was the director on Tsuridō: Umitsurihen (loosely translated to The Way of Fishing: Sea Fishing Edition) at Vingt-et-un Systems. This was a studio specialising in fishing sims that publisher OZ Club had partnered with to make an enhanced port of an earlier System Soft PC game for PlayStation. Akamatsu worked at Vingt-et-un Systems for the next few years, helping out on the company’s vast library of fishing games. He eventually left the games industry for good in the early 2000s, according to Inoue.

It’s still not known what he makes of Castlevania’s success or his creation becoming an acclaimed Netflix series. But hopefully, he understands the significance of what he started. And, who knows – maybe one day he’ll come out of hiding to share his side of the tale.

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