3 décembre 2022

[INTERVIEW] Kurt Kalata, author of Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Castlevania

Note : This is the English version. For the French one, just click here !

Ceci est la version originale de l’interview. Pour la version française, cliquez ici !

Following the publication of a book dedicated to Castlevania, I’ve decided to interview its author, Kurt Kalata, whose name is familiar to lots of western fans of the series as he’s also the creator of a reference website, The Castlevania Dungeon

Kurt Kalata (c) ledenezvertKurt Kalata and his book !

Hi Kurt! Thanks for accepting the interview! Please could you introduce yourself first?

Hi! Well, I’m obviously a huge video game fan, particularly of classic Konami and Sega games. I’m in my early 30s and live in New Jersey, about an hour outside of New York City. I’ve written for assorted outlets over the years, but beyond The Castlevania Dungeon, I also created The Contra HQ (which also hasn’t been updated in a very long time!) and Hardcore Gaming 101, which I still run.

Can you tell us the story behind the creation of the Dungeon? How did you get involved in such a website and how did you see it grow up?

When I entered eighth grade, my parents bought a computer, which was my introduction to the internet. At the time, we had a very slow modem and could only access Prodigy, but eventually we upgraded, subscribed to America Online, and I could access the World Wide Web. As for the creation of the Dungeon, there were three main things.

For starters, I always loved video game magazines. I would pour over them constantly with the ones I subscribed to, and hang out at bookstores to read them. So, I wanted to create something like that. Before I had proper internet access, I had this graphic design program, I can’t remember the name, but I created sort of a digital encyclopedia for Sierra’s Space Quest series, that categorized all of the recurring elements and details and stuff. I think I may have tried to sell disks for this, for maybe a few dollars, but I don’t think anyone ever bought one! Anyway, with access to the WWW, I discovered the concept of home pages, which were the big thing that all of the computer magazines were talking about. So of course, I wanted to create one about video games.

The Castlevania Dungeon logoThe Dungeon‘s banner

The second reason was that I discovered emulators. Being able to include good quality images is very important for a visual medium, so the fact that emulators could take screenshots played a big factor. This was in the early days of video game emulation though, the NES emulators weren’t great, the Genesis support was very poor, and my computer couldn’t even run the SNES emulators. But still, it caused me to dig my own old video game systems out of the closet, and reignited my interest in console games.

The third reason also has to do with emulation, kind of. During this time, I also discovered the MSX computer line. No one in America had heard of these things, and it received a lot of support from Konami. So it was like discovering a treasure trove of lost video games, all of these Contra and Gradius and Metal Gear tie-ins I hadn’t even heard of before. Since I discovered the MSX2 game, Vampire Killer, I wanted to make sure more Castlevania fans knew about it.

The website began in either late 1996 or 1997, on a two MB account on Geocities. Eventually I signed up other Geocities and Tripod accounts through the help of friends to expand the site and host music files. This was before MP3s, so they were all fan made MID and MOD files, and things like that. After a little while, we received an offer from Gamespy, who was creating a subsite called Classicgaming, who wanted to provide free hosting with unlimited space. So I took them up on that offer. The Castlevania Dungeon stayed there until Gamespy closed down the servers, which IIRC was in 2008 or 2009. The site only received sporadic updates after I had graduated high school, mostly because I was busy with college work or had begun devoting my time to Hardcore Gaming 101, which launched in 2004.

Let’s talk about your book now! Considering that today any information or picture about Castlevania is available on the net for free (and the Dungeon contributed to that situation), why did you decide to write a book on the series?

Going back to my love of old video game magazines, the feeling of flipping through a book, looking at screenshots and reading reviews cannot be replicated digitally, even using something like a tablet. Print-on-demand publishing became more viable thanks to a company called Createspace, who offered easy distribution through Amazon, and cheaper prices than anywhere else. So, I decided I wanted to publish something like this. I wanted to go with either adventure games, which I had rediscovered thanks to SCUMMVM and DOSBox, or Konami games. I went with adventure games and worked on that project for about three years, until 2011.

For my next project I wanted to go back to Konami, but the adventure game book ended up proving to be a lot of work, especially from an editing standpoint. So, instead of one big book on Konami, it would become several smaller books on specific subjects. The smaller sizes also made color printing more viable, so it could be much more visually attractive – the adventure game book with laid out in MS Word, with black and white images.

Originally I planned to do Castlevania, since it seemed like converting all of the old Castlevania Dungeon reviews would be straightforward. But somewhere along the line, I became obsessed with replaying a lot of old Sega arcade on MAME. HG101 also had a number of Sega reviews already completed, so I decided to work on that first, which was published at the end of 2012.

The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures & Sega Arcade Classics Vol. 1Kurt’s previous books

After that I returned to work on Castlevania. But when I began assembling it, also realized that many of the reviews on the Castlevania Dungeon were quite poor. The writing style varied drastically, since they’d all been written over a period of at least a decade. Some were outdated, others were just really bad. All of them had to be edited to some extent, but many had to be almost entirely rewritten from scratch, which is partially why it took much longer than I anticipated.

Beyond the information freely available on the Castlevania Dungeon, there’s the Castlevania Wikia. Now, I HATE Wikia. HATE HATE HATE it. Not the Castlevania one in specific, but all of them. The design is a disaster, it’s cluttered with ads, and it’s almost impossible to browse it, you have to have something specific in mind you’re looking up. The fact that it’s such a mess makes something like a book more approachable.

There are also pros and cons to crowd sourced content like wikis. On one hand, you have a lot of people that can add stuff, and dig things up that no one else might have found. And since anyone can edit it, if one person has to leave for some reason, or is uninterested in a specific subject, then someone else can easily pick up the slack. So there are a lot of more detailed things that Wikia is better for.

On the negative side, there’s no editorial oversight. So the entries are inconsistently detailed, occasionally poorly written with badly sourced content, plain old fan conjecture, or obsession with minutiae which doesn’t matter to anyone outside the writer. That element of chaos makes it very difficult to view things as a whole, whereas a website curated by a staff or a single person can better pick what to present. Also, wikis have to be objective, so you can’t include reviews or anything.

As in France we’ve had two books about Castlevania similar to yours in the last years (one fan-made with lots of pictures and a more “official” / journalistic one just with texts) – though the cover artwork by Rusty Shackles is absolutely original and a genuine homage to the series – I’m wondering whether you’ve gone through some difficulties to publish your book with pictures under Konami’s copyrights or not…

America has a doctrine called “Fair Use” that allows us to image copyrighted images if they’re in support of an original work, or some kind of critical analysis. This is why, for example, there are web video programs like The Angry Video Game Nerd and The Nostalgia Critic, they use copyrighted works in the same way. Since the focus is on reviews, we are legally allowed to use screenshots/artwork/etc. to accompany them, and we don’t need permission from Konami to do so. If the focus was solely on artwork, or was full of strategies, or was a “guide” like some parts of the Castlevania Dungeon were, with just enemy information and stuff, that might be on shakier legal ground. The book has some parts with this, but it’s not the main focus.

There are certain rules we have to follow though, like we can’t use official company logos, because we aren’t allowed to present ourselves as something that can be mistaken for an official product. That’s one of the reasons why the cover and logo were originally designed.

HG101 Castlevania front cover (c) ledenezvertHG101 Presents : Castlevania‘s front cover !

Besides, the pictures are all very small and spoils the fun of reading, especially the galleries at the end (which constitute a very good idea though), so why did you choose such a book size?

Cost. Color printing is still expensive nowadays! A larger book would mean larger screenshots, and maybe slightly more content (some articles did have to be trimmed to fit), but it would either (A) become too expensive to purchase, or (B) become unprofitable.

Thanks to your long experience of the franchise, you focus a lot on the games themselves (without forgetting some short paragraphs about the inspirations, the characters or some regional differences, among other aspects), including quite a deep interest in the Castlevania clones, and we can see that you always try to be fair with each episode, justifying your opinion through concrete aspects of the games (game play, level-designs, etc.) but you never really try to go further than forms, leaving substance aside. In other words, your book seems just like a mere update of your work on the Dungeon i.e. rather filled with information than genuine analyses – with sadly no (subjective or objective) conclusion on the franchise – so I’m still wondering about the real gain of your book for long-term fans… Do you think you could have gone further in your critiques or didn’t you want to upset some categories of fans?

A lot of it has to do with the way I approach writing at Hardcore Gaming 101. Readers are typically familiar with the subject they’re reading about, and usually already have some kind of opinion. So if, as a writer, your opinion is too strongly worded, they will probably tune you out and complain. So, I like to take a middle ground approach. There’s no such thing as a fully objective review, but when it comes to subjective opinions, they need to be solidly argued. Of course, not everyone will agree with your arguments no matter how well you present them, so it can still piss people off, but I feel that approach works a little bit better.

Some opinions just get down too much to personal taste, so I don’t promote these arguments too strongly. For example, as far as Metroidvanias, Symphony of the Night is my favorite, and there are a lot of solid reasons as to why I think it’s the best. Beyond that, my second favorite Metroidvania is Portrait of Ruin, which is not a popular pick! It’s mostly because I really like the music, and I like the connection between it and Castlevania : Bloodlines. But these solely come down to personal preference, I have a hard time saying it’s “better” than Dawn of Sorrow or Order of Ecclesia, so I don’t make my opinion too strongly known in the review.

As both a writer and a game fan, it also helps me become more open minded. It’s one thing to play and enjoy a video game, it’s another thing to play it and try to understand why other people enjoy it, even if you might not personally. For example, when Lords of Shadow first came out, I hated it. I got to the end of the second chapter and quit. I didn’t play it again until a few years later when I began work on the Castlevania book (I hadn’t written a review for the Dungeon at all for the game). I knew the game was successful and it had its fans, so I thought it was important to understand why people liked it. In that process, I also came to…not really enjoy the game, but come to terms with it. There are a lot of admirable things about it, particularly the art design. And I played through Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2 with a similar mindset. I don’t really care for that modern style of action game, and these games didn’t convince me otherwise. That still shows through in the reviews I wrote, but hopefully it can at least explain some of the series’ good points to those who don’t like it at all.

Hardcore Gaming 101 logoHardcore Gaming 101‘s banner

I admit, I was also a little worried that fans of Lords of Shadow would dismiss the whole book if I wrote nothing but negative things about the series. The assessment is still slightly negative overall, but I think I did a good job of explaining why I felt that way.

As for the franchise, it’s hard for me to really given an opinion as a whole. There are at least three separate subseries, plus one-offs that go outside the genre, like Judgment, Harmony of Despair, the PS2 games and the N64 games. The only thing I can say for all of them is that they almost always have outstanding music, even the bad ones!

Talking about Castlevania lovers – you seem to be more a Classicvania fan than a Metroidvania one – what’s your opinion about the (huge) split between the different categories? How do you understand that an evolution which should enrich the series and its lore rather divides players and eventually may lead the franchise to its death?

Did I give that impression? I didn’t mean to! 🙂

I think it may have come off that way because the Classicvanias were more associated with my childhood, and I spent a lot of time playing them, especially since they were so difficult. Even as an adult, I find them more easily replayable. I don’t always have a long time to sit down and devote to a video game, but I can still play an older Castlevania game for maybe 30 minutes and enjoy myself, even if I don’t beat it. On the other hand, the Metroidvanias require a longer time investment, and due to their longform nature, aren’t as easily replayable. I’ve replayed Symphony of the Night many, many times, usually once every few years, but for the other Metroidvanias, I think I’ve played them through maybe twice: once when they originally came out, and again for updating the review for the book.

Personally, I find them difficult to compare: the old apples and oranges cliché. They both have strengths and weaknesses. Because of this, it’s natural to have a divide between fans. For a long time, it probably had to do with the fact that arcade or classic style platformers, the kind where there are a handful of levels and limited lives, were not considered profitable on 32-bit and portable consoles. So that’s why the focus was on Metroidvanias, and Classicvania fans become jealous.

With digital distribution, I think Classicvania-style games are more viable again. That would be better, because both audiences can be catered to. Konami tried this with the Rebirth series, but I don’t think they did that well. That probably had to do with the fact that they were on the Wii, a system with a terrible digital platform. I think if they were to try again on the PS4/XB1 or on the PC with Steam, they would see better success, but many Japanese companies seem reluctant to try this.

HG101 Castlevania back cover (c) ledenezvertHG101 Presents : Castlevania‘s back cover !

Being a long-term producer in the history of the series, IGA has many disciples all over the world but also many critics, regarding his choices about the franchise. What did he really bring to Castlevania according to you?

Mostly, he campaigned for consistent releases. Between 2002 and 2010, there was something like an average of one Castlevania game per year, very unusual for what was, at that point, not really a AAA franchise anymore. The result of that is that some of the games seem to have low budgets, which affected the console releases more than the portable ones, IMO.

Other than that, he also tried to create a consistent canon to connect all of the games. It was something that, in the early days, was cool to do as a fan, the idea that there was this multi-generational family destined to fight against Dracula. So from a broad, storytelling standpoint, he tried to connect them. On a micro level, though, the individual plotlines were often not that great.

Many fans also criticized the Lords of Shadow games for various reasons, among which they didn’t have the feeling to play a Castlevania game but rather a compilation of some elements of other contemporary games. Nevertheless, their background is quite deep and there are many allusions to long-term fans in these games; do you think that these games lost the spirit of their predecessors and that only the Japanese can give a unique flavor to the series – although the roots of the franchise come from the West?

The Castlevania series has always had its roots in European architecture and mythology, so it makes sense that Konami would use a European developer. And that’s where the Lords of Shadow series is the strongest, with its art design.

The bigger issues have to do with the gameplay. There are a lot of unique tropes Castlevania has built up over the years, down to the ways that the characters walk or the sound effects when they pick up items. For example, there’s a huge difference in approach between Classicvania and Metroidvanias, but you can feel these commonalities right off the bat. Lords of Shadow has basically none of this. There are allusions to past games, but have little similarities other than the names. I think that even if they used the same music style as the older games, then classic fans would find them more inviting, but as it stands, it feels more like a game that’s inspired by Castlevania, rather than an actual Castlevania.

Let’s talk about Konami itself now. Do you think the Japanese firm has made good choices about Castlevania? It has often been a matter of remakes or not-so-interesting compilations if we try to get a distant point of view, and the limited editions are often a shame (like the late Lords of Shadow 2 one for instance). Do you think Konami is digging Castlevania’s own grave by dealing with its fans in such a way?

I don’t agree with every move they’ve done with the series, but they’ve certainly tried, which is better than I can say for a lot of long running series. It’s also hard to deal with fans, considering, as mentioned before, there are basically at least three different series, so there are three different sets of fans!

As much as I enjoyed the portable Metroidvanias, they were definitely a niche, and catering solely to niches just isn’t sustainable. Some of their attempts to diversify were total failures, like Judgment, while others I just didn’t like all that much, like Harmony of Despair. And Lords of Shadow, the first one at least, did pretty well, but I also think Konami misread the reasons behind it success, which is why Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2 didn’t do so well.

Again, I hope that they consider digital distribution as a way to consider classic-style games in the future. They might not be big budget, and they might not make millions of dollars, but it should still be worth catering to.

After the Lords of Shadow trilogy, and the successive resignations of IGA and Dave Cox from Konami, how do you imagine the future of Castlevania? Do you see it cursed or bright?

A lot of the producers responsible for keeping classic Konami series alive have left the company. But that doesn’t mean the series will die. The producer of the Western developed Silent Hill games left the company, but it was revived by a different part of the company. Vampire fiction is particularly popular nowadays, even if that audience doesn’t necessarily cross over with Castlevania, so I think someone will pick up the franchise again with a reinvention, after the sting of the Lords of Shadow games have worn off.

Let’s finish with a “simple” question: what’s your favorite episode and why?

This isn’t so simple! 🙂 For Classicvanias, Dracula X for the PC Engine is the best, just because it’s so huge and rich, with so many branching paths and little oddities. Even so, I think Bloodlines might be my favorite, just because I like the Europe-traveling theme, playing as the spear-wielding Eric is a lot of fun, and I love the Genesis FM synth.

For Metroidvanias, Symphony of the Night. It looks and sounds the best of the Metroidvanias, the level design is better than most, and the world feels richly detailed with lot of little touches, which weren’t as numerous in the GBA/DS titles.

Do you have a last word or thought for the readers of my website?

There are still some things to finalize with the publisher, but my Castlevania book will be translated and released in French in the future. So if those plans come to fruition, please look forward to it!

Thanks a lot for answering my questions, Kurt. I wish you good luck for your current and future projects!

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