Before I jump into my feelings on this Kickstarter and how it fares for women in games, I have to make a confession: I am a certified massive Castlevania fan. By massive, I mean that I own over 50 games in the series between re-releases and U.S./Japan copies. It’s also no coincidence that my last name starts with a ‘B,’ but I’ll leave that one aside. So when I heard that famed Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi, also known as IGA, had left Konami to make his own game … actually, I was a little worried. Konami had clearly lost interest in his games, and rumors of Igarashi’s inability to garner interest in his project were floating around the internet.
This week, however, my worry subsided as rumors were squashed by his Sword or Whip teaser website and Kickstarter announcement for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Joined by development studio Inti Creates (Mega Man Zero, Mega Man 9, Azure Striker Gunvolt) and long-time Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane, Igarashi’s Kickstarter has created a lot of buzz in gaming communities. Bloodstained is set to be an action-based platformer with RPG elements in the vein of the Metroidvania-style Igarashi popularized (which he has now renamed “Igavania.”) In just four hours, the project broke its $500,000 goal and has in two days surpassed $1.7 million. With 30 days to go, Bloodstained has achieved eight of its stretch goals, and at the time of this writing, is only $15,000 away from its ninth goal.
While Igarashi’s video for the project doesn’t show any game content, the Kickstarter page provides snippets of concept art and information about the story and its characters. Of interest is the game’s female main character, Miriam. While her design and backstory seem largely reminiscent of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia‘s Shanoa, I can’t say I’m really bothered by it. In the end, it’s the music, gothic atmosphere, and platforming action that brings me back to these games. While Dracula may not appear, the concept art’s visual style, gothic theme, and unique use of both stained glass and roses offers more than enough to make up for it.
Miriam’s appearance in this project gave me an opportunity to take a moment to analyze the female characters in my favorite game series, specifically the Igarashi-led titles. In the grand scheme of gaming feminist analysis, I think it’s important to look objectively at Castlevania as a series that hasn’t (often) shied away from using female characters.
The obvious starting place for this discussion is the aforementioned Shanoa. Quickly considered a fan favorite and internet “waifu,” Shanoa was a female protagonist that raised a lot of discussion. She’s a powerful woman, able to take on Dracula by herself despite lacking the Belmont bloodline. Order of Ecclesia was largely about Shanoa’s origin and her quest to gain the strength needed to stop Dracula. Many people, however, have written Shanoa off as a “waifu” character, a fan service romantic interest for both the game’s villains and the player. This viewpoint, in my opinion, is unfair, as it misses an important aspect of Shanoa’s relationship to Albus, her former partner/enemy and love interest. You see, Igarashi actually modeled Shanoa after his own wife, using the relationship between her and Albus as a love letter to his own marriage. In this way, it becomes easy to see why so many fans latched onto her, as Igarashi’s passion for her is a defining element of her character.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin provides the next obvious choice with Charlotte, one of the game’s dual main characters. Charlotte is in some ways a more realistic character, typically acting as the level-headed foil to Jonathan’s emotional outbursts. While perhaps not as well fleshed out as other characters, she never comes off as a trope airhead or ditzy magician. She’s often more competent and clever than her counterpart, though not as physically strong. However, Portrait of Ruin also includes two sisters as villains, who add to the amount of female presence in the game. That said, these aren’t cookie-cutter villains, either—they are sympathetic and interesting, as well as [slight spoiler warning] playable bonus characters.
Lastly, in the list of playable characters, is Maria from both Castlevania: Dracula X and its sequel, Symphony of the Night. While Igarashi only had a minor part in the development of Dracula X, he would take the game’s already awesome child character (and arguably better than the main character in terms of gameplay), and age her into a killer young adult. Sure, there’s some nonsense about her possibly falling in love with Alucard in fairly hetero-typical fashion, but the important thing is that she arrived at the castle first, managing to explore it with nothing but some doves and her own awesomeness. Also of note is that her whole reasoning for being there was to find and rescue Richter, Dracula X‘s main character, who has fallen victim to mind-control. As a kid, Maria was a better fighter, but as an adult she’s also stronger willed, too! Sadly, she was not a playable character in the original Playstation release, possibly due to time/budget reasons. However, she was included in the Sega Saturn version, as well as the PSP Dracula X Chronicles with slightly more story.
Not every Castlevania scores as well in this regard, however, especially when it comes to NPC heroines. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and its sequel, Dawn of Sorrow, both have a mixed bag of female NPCs. Yoko Belnades, a church-sponsored witch (and bonus character in Dawn of Sorrow) is light-hearted, attractive, and fairly capable as a heroine, though nothing much to write home about. Mina Hakuba, the main character Soma’s girlfriend, is used as a minor damsel in distress trope for only a few seconds in the beginning of Aria of Sorrow, before becoming largely irrelevant. In Dawn of Sorrow, this is somewhat inverted, as Mina is seemingly used as a damsel in distress to force Soma to become a villain. [Spoiler warning] In reality, though, it’s only an illusion used to trick Soma, as Mina is actually perfectly fine.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance has its own damsel in distress trope in the character of Lydie Granger, a cute country girl kidnapped to get the story going. While she’s definitely just a pointless waste of a character with little dialogue and no real importance beyond being the damsel, in a way she’s almost doubly irrelevant. Most of the game’s story seems to be centered more around the friendship of the main character, Juste, and his best friend Maxim. Ultimately, it’s Maxim’s jealous desire for Lydie, not Lydie herself, that sets the game in motion and brings out our old friend Dracula. On some level, this almost adds a layer of homosexual subtext, as Maxim splits between good and evil, trying to hang onto his friendship. This subtext is so strong that both Juste’s and Maxim’s friendship rings are required to open the door to the final boss. One could easily re-write the game without poor Lydie, and just create a story about gay men torn between their love, fate, and Dracula. That said, I still find her character design adorable.
The last point to mention is Castlevania Legends, a Game Boy title released only eight months after Igarashi’s own Symphony of the Night. While Igarashi did not work on this game, it’s important to note in an analysis of Igarashi because of his reaction to it. Castlevania Legends is a classic-style platformer, focusing on Sonia Belmont, the “first” Belmont to battle Dracula. This is the first game in the series to have a woman as the solo main character, which elevated it in the minds of those looking for more women in games. However, Igarashi would later completely remove this game from the series canon timeline, which angered some gamers, initially including myself.
His reasoning given in interviews was that it strayed too far from the timeline and was an embarrassing game. Some people took it as a sexist attack on female protagonists, but looking back, I can completely understand his reasoning. The game’s story is a mangled mess in terms of the established series timeline, especially when it comes to Alucard. In the game’s true ending, Sonia is seen as having given birth to a baby, which is implied to be Alucard’s ¼ vampire son Christopher. Which means they had sex between the game’s cutscenes. And now the Belmonts are all part Dracula … what? Screw it, Iga was right to ditch this.
All in all, Koji Igarashi may not be a shining beacon of feminist, LGBTQIA+ content in gaming by Western standards. Regardless, he is someone who isn’t afraid of putting female characters in lead roles and giving them strong personalities. It’s important to note that in the Japanese culture where he creates his games, this concept of an interesting, strong lead female is still somewhat against the norm, especially in gaming. I highly recommend you check out and contribute to the Kickstarter campaign for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night to show that female characters in games are viable! In an industry that seems to flip-flop between armor-clad males and goofball magical girls, Igarashi often brings just a little taste of richness to gender in his games. It’s like the difference between a cheap beer and a fine wine, except with Igarashi you toss the wine glass on the floor when you’ve had enough!