A Postmortem for the Castlevania Series
What Happened and Why Konami is No Longer Making "Proper" Castlevania Titles
Fans of the Castlevania series tend to think of their favorite franchise as a "flagship" for Konami, one of their great franchises that stand tall with Contra, Metal Gear, and all the rest of the Japanese company's franchises. Maybe at one point that was true, but when video games were still working their way through the NES era and mega-franchises sold around a million copies, instead of in the tens of millions. But as the video game generations marched on, the cultural cachet of Castlevania faded.
That's not to say the series wasn't still cranking out great games. Certainly, from a critical perspective, Castlevania was a top-tier series that consistently cranked out winning titles. Most games in the franchise were well received, and even when the series did hit a stumbling block, such as the transition into 3D gaming with Castlevania for the Nintendo 64, the games still were considered "decent", just not as good as what the series could publish (which was a fairly high bar to achieve, frankly).
Consider, for instance, the first three mainline games in the series. The original Castlevania was a massive seller at the time, with over a million units ending up in the hands of gamers (and, through re-releases, that number has increased to over 1.57 Million since). However, both its sequel, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, and the third game, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, sold far less than that first game. While it's understandable that Castlevania II might have scared off some fans (that is an oddball title), Castlevania III is considered a classic of the franchise, a game that took the mechanics of the original game and refined it in every conceivable way.
While some titles have sold well in the series -- Super Castlevania IV benefited from being a near-launch title for the SNES and gained the reputation for being a "showpiece" for what the console could do, while Castlevania: Circle of the Moon similarly had near-launch status on the Game Boy Advance and capitalized on the burgeoning Metroidvania genre to sell over a Million units -- most games were met with only modest returns, with most consistently selling only around 200,000 units. While that's not bad, those aren't sales befit for a Triple-A franchise.
What is probably most surprising to a number of fans is that the one game held up as the pinnacle of the franchise isn't also its best selling game. That title would be Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and, when it first came out, it was actually considered something of a disappointment. It was released during the general transition of video games from 2D to 3D game play and, at least in the West, the game was considered "dated" and "old" (thus why Konami quickly rushed Castlevania 64 into production). The game took time to pick up sales and, eventually, become a solid hit for the series, but it wasn't an overnight success.
All of that helps to explain, at least to a certain extent, while Konami has, in recent years, seemingly given up on the franchise. When your franchise, at best, can be expected to sell 200,000 units, no matter what is done, it's difficult to devote the kinds of resources needed to continue the franchise. The budgets for Triple-A titles continues to increase and either the series would have to go through cost-cutting measures (such as putting out three Nintendo DS games -- Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, and Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia -- on the same engine), or the series would have to be culled so the company could focus on other projects. That's business.
Fans do give Konami a certain amount of flack for this decision as they have, in recent years, put the series on ice (all except for mobile titles and a series of erotic gambling machines). But it's not as if the company completely abandoned the series; they did try to give it a relaunch, giving the IP over to development studio Mercury Steam for the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series, and while we at The Inverted Dungeon aren't fans of those games, its hard to argue with the fact that Konami did manage to goose the series for some much needed sales. The first game in that series, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, sold over 1.75 Million units, the kinds of numbers Konami needed (and expected) from a flagship series.
Unfortunately, even then, that big sales boost was only temporary as the following two games, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, sold units more in line with the standard Castlevania titles, around 200,000 or so, (give or take a few ten thousand). With that kind of precipitous drop-off in sales despite continuing to attempt to support the series, Konami's executives likely took a long look at the series and said, "this just isn't worth it." (Although they likely said that in Japanese.)
We at The Inverted Dungeon liken this decision to the U.S. television channel, FOX, which got a lot of flack back in the day when they canceled the cult-favorite TV series Firefly from writer/director Joss Wheddon. After that, and the resulting blow-back, they gave Wheddon a second chance with Dollhouse and even supported that series long after it was shown to not be a success, granting a second season on the promise of the idea. That second season also failed. FOX gave a struggling series a chance then, and Konami tried the same for a long time before finally pulling the plug.
That's not to say the series is absolutely and completely dead. The company has tried twice, so far, to launch a mobile games in the franchise, both with the eventually canceled Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls and the developed for Chinese markets Castlevania: Moonlight Rhapsody. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the franchise is seeing success not with video games but in the on-going Netflix anime. The company continues to look for ways to use the IP, to grow it for new audiences, and to try and get Castlevania out to the masses.
This isn't an essay defending the company, mind you. A series like this, which is still beloved by many and has consistently high critical response, should be a series that sells well which begs the question: why did Castlevania get to this place? Probably the most likely answer is Konami simply not understanding how to nurture the series for a Worldwide audience. The big games in the series were soon followed by titles that could be considered missteps. We've already mentioned Castlevania being followed by Castlevania II, an oddity that probably hurt the sales of Castlevania III with fans not sure what kind of game they'd get.
There's also Super Castlevania IV which didn't see another sequel on the SNES until Castlevania: Dracula X, a game that felt like a step back for the series. And that's before we even get into the bungling of that port from Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, with Konami execs deciding the SNES title was "good enough" and steadfastly refusing to release a better port for years.
We could also point to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and how Konami freaked out and went in the opposite direction, cranking out not only Castlevania 64 but also Castlevania: Legends. Both of those games, mind you, were met with shrugs but from fans and from the general audience. It took four years for the company to publish another game in the vein of Symphony and, wouldn't you know it, that game, Circle of the Moon was a success.
So, of course, once they had a hit again the company immediately changed everything. The team that worked on Circle of the Moon, KCEK, was removed from Castlevania despite the fact that their title had just sold over a Million units. The reins for the series were instead handed back to Koji "IGA" Igarashi who, in fairness, did create the sublime Symphony of the Night. But even then, IGA ignored what KCEK did for their game (considering their title a "misstep"), and went off in his own direction. His games, from that point forward, went back to selling in the 200,000 range.
(We do feel like we should also mention we enjoyed IGA's games and look forward to ever new Bloodstained game IGA and his company ArtPlay create.)
In essence, there's plenty of decisions on both sides of the equation. We can see where Konami is coming from but, with the perspective of hindsight, it's also possible to see how the company managed to put their series in this position. Konami may have had to best intentions with many of their decisions when it came to the series, but more often than not their wild swings back and forth across the series hurt the series more than it helped. Well meaning bad decisions are still bad decisions at the end of the day.
For now, then, the series lays dormant. There is always the possibility the series could come roaring back to life; other game companies have found success reviving their franchises in digital-only continuations (Ghosts 'n Goblins Resurrected being just one example that springs to mind), so if the studio found a third-party that could crank out a title that suited the desired of fans for a smaller budget it could find moderate success with Castlevania. But that's only if the company wants to follow that route eventually. For now fans of the series simply have to wait, watching as other regions get mobile games while mainland Japan is treated to one weird erotic gambling machine after another.
Until the series is brought back to life, like Dracula via the schemes of his minions, we sit and wait and wonder what a new, proper Castlevania might look like.