So you want to learn about Castlevania, huh? Nowadays, that’s not too tough. Just plug it into Wikipedia – you’ll have more information on the series than you could conceivably know what to do with. With just a few minutes of “research,” you’ll be able to fake your way through any cocktail party conversation about the Belmont family tree. It’s highly unlikely that anybody has actually ever had a cocktail party conversation about the Belmont family tree, but, hey, hypothetically, you could do that.
But it wasn’t always that easy. In the “early” days of the Internet, video game coverage was still primarily relegated to magazines, and retro gaming coverage wasn’t necessarily high on their priority list. If you wanted to immerse yourself in the apocrypha of any given game series, Wikipedia wasn’t an option – you had to rely on websites maintained by the most hardcore of gaming fans.
For the Castlevania series, that website was the Castlevania Dungeon. From its earliest days, the Dungeon was enthusiastically overflowing with information about every title in the series, including some that were completely unknown to Western audiences. Created and maintained by Kurt Kalata, the site was the go-to destination for all your Castlevania needs. Wanted to play that rare version of Akumajou Dracula for the X68000 that had yet to make it out of Japan? The Dungeon had your back. Curious about the secret ending buried deep within your Symphony of the Night disc? The Dungeon had the audio rips at the ready.
These days, Kurt’s the Head Editor over at Hardcore Gaming 101, where he recently compiled his tremendous wealth of Castlevania knowledge into written form – yes, he literally wrote the book on Castlevania (which you can, and should, purchase here). While that book, Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Castlevania, now serves as the definitive compendium of vampire slaying knowledge, the Dungeon still persists to this day. Recently, I had the privilege to chat with Kurt about the creation Dungeon and the early days of gaming fan sites. Whether you’re an old school gamer, a fan of Castlevania, or just nostalgic for the good ol’ days of Geocities, I think you’ll find his responses both enlightening and entertaining. Enjoy!
In an effort to capture the spirit of the early days of the Dungeon, we’ve populated the interview below with images and audio from the early incarnations of the site. All credit goes to their original owners and creators, and many of them are still available on the Dungeon to this day.
LET US GO OUT THIS EVENING FOR PLEASURE. THE NIGHT IS STILL YOUNG!
SSBC: I believe I first encountered the Castlevania Dungeon back in early 1998. North American Saturn releases had slowed to a crawl at that point, and my local Electronics Boutique had started importing Japanese titles. Eager to play a “new” release, I picked up a copy of Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight off the shelf, only to run into a wall of indecipherable Japanese text. Desperate for help, I dialed into AOL and turned to the Internet for answers. That search led me to the Castlevania Dungeon. The vast wealth of Castlevania knowledge collected on your site helped me complete one of my favorite games of all time – so first and foremost, thank you for that.
KK: You’re welcome! I remember picking up Metal Slug, Radiant Silvergun and the Konami MSX Antiques Collection at Electronics Boutique back then too. I remember them stocking Nocturne in the Moonlight, but I already had it by that point.
Lots of folks were Castlevania fans back in ‘90s. What inspired you to go the extra mile and create a website? Now, it’s easy to get a functional website up and running. Back then, though, it was considerably more difficult, and the prospect of any kind of ad revenue, compensation, or recognition was remote at best. Undoubtedly, you invested a lot of time, effort, money, and care into the Dungeon – was it just for the love of the game(s)?
Well, it wasn’t too difficult really. HTML is super simple to learn, and both Geocities and a lot of ISPs were giving out space as an incentive to create home pages (though space was always an issue: Geocities offered 2 MB back in the day). But, this was free, so I never really spent any actual money on it. Conversely, I never really received any money either. Any of the folks that redesigned the site after that worked on it for free too, even though I kept it updated. No one really expected any compensation for it, because it was before the days of Adsense, crowdfunding or any type of monetization. Eventually, we were allowed by Gamespy to host ads, but for a site like the Castlevania Dungeon, it only brings in pennies a day.
In a lot of ways I tended to operate in a bubble. I created something I thought was cool, and if other people thought it was cool too, then I was pretty happy. I still kinda go by that philosophy nowadays, though I also take in feedback to improve my own work. And for anything commercial, I need to take into account whether it’d be worth the time investment to create it. But otherwise, it’s just something I find personally fulfilling – criticizing games, cataloging recurring elements, digging into development trivia, and so forth.
How quickly did the Dungeon take off? For lack of a better term, when did you feel that you’d “made it” as a fan site? Now, you’re recognized as one of the definitive authorities on Castlevania, appearing on podcasts and even writing a book. Did you ever imagine that you’d be perceived as such?
I can’t remember when I started it – 1999, maybe – but when I created a forum and a community became established around it, it began to feel like people were paying attention to it. Years later, I’d meet people that were part of the retro game scene, become friends with them, and then they’d realize, “hey, you created The Castlevania Dungeon didn’t you?” It’s still weird when the Internet meets real life.
You founded the Castlevania Dungeon back in 1996. By the time I encountered it in 1998, it was practically bursting at the seams with information about Castlevania. The site appears to have grown quite rapidly. The emulation scene (as well as the Internet in general) was exploding at the time, but the Dungeon contained information about games and systems that were practically invisible to American audiences at that point. I had no concept of what an MSX or Sharp X68000 were until reading about them on your site. What was your primary source of information back in the early days?
One of the main reasons I created the site was because I discovered emulation, and with it, the MSX. I was a big fan of Konami games, and they were a huge supporter of that computer, so discovering all of these alternate versions of my favorite NES titles (Vampire Killer, Contra, the “real” Metal Gears) was like uncovering a treasure trove! I wanted to share that discovery with people.
New information usually came from people that e-mailed me with things – usually folks that were a little older and were either big into the import scene or lived in Japan. For example, for a long time, no one really knew about Haunted Castle, the arcade game. Someone might have vague recollections of playing it a decade ago, but it wasn’t covered in any gaming magazines and it was never very popular. The only proof that it even existed was that someone had scanned the front of a soundtrack CD that had a small, cropped image from the game (it was this album). I remember the night it was added to MAME. I was super enthusiastic, but of course, the game isn’t very good, so it was a huge letdown. It was similar to the X68000 game – I think there was a scanned box shot somewhere, but no one really knew what the X68000 was until someone discovered a Japanese-developed emulator and some disk images, so I uploaded it on the site and everyone was able to play it.
How exciting was it to discover the “hidden” ending files for SOTN? Were there any other “discoveries” that you remember fondly?
It was pretty cool! Someone had released a utility to read PlayStation sound files and discovered those there. It fueled rumors that it was possible to obtain this ending, but since no one knew anything about it, eventually we gave up hope and realized it was probably something that was planned but never implemented. As for other discoveries, the existence of the “lost” Castlevania games mentioned above, the arcade and X68000 games, were exciting finds.
Though the Dungeon stands on its own now, for a while, it was affiliated with (or at least hosted by) classicgaming.com. How did that relationship come to pass, and how did it end?
At the time, the Dungeon was spread across a few Geocities and Tripod accounts, which were obtained with the help of a friend. Including music files, it was probably about 8 MB or so. It was a pain to manage. Around that time, Gamespy had just started a spinoff site, Classicgaming, that was also offering free hosting to fan sites. It was actually started by a guy named Kevin Bowen, who also starred in the legendary Something Awful film Doom House. Through the site, I had been chatting with Jeff “Deuce” Nussbaum, who had created a similarly themed site for Ninja Gaiden. He had applied for hosting on Classicgaming and suggested I do the same, and we were both accepted, along with a bunch of other great sites.
The relationship ended because IGN bought up Gamespy at some point (I think it was around 2009 or so), and they decided that it wasn’t worth keeping Classicgaming around. So, basically, we were around from about the beginning until the very end. Thankfully, the cool folks at Kontek offered to continue hosting all of the Classicgaming sites, so most of us made the jump and have been there since.
Has your work on the Dungeon led to any interesting interactions with Konami, or any of the individuals involved with the development of Castlevania?
For a long time, it was incredibly difficult to interact with game companies, outside of customer service reps. Around the time that Koji Igarashi took over the series in 2002, I tracked down their PR contact info and requested an interview. They acknowledged the request, but they said that he wouldn’t talk to “fan sites.” A few years later, I was doing freelance work for a larger site and attended E3, where Konami was showing off Castlevania: Curse of Darkness. I tried again to arrange something through their PR agency, but they still didn’t take me seriously and never responded to any emails. Eventually, I did get to interview Igarashi through e-mail, when writing a 20th anniversary article for 1up.com.
Outside of that, the only contact I had was a few months after I’d published the Castlevania book, which was a terse message from their licensing manager, who said “this book is not licensed, remove it from sale immediately.” So I took it off sale, sent him copies and made it clear that everything it in fell under Fair Use, since it’s a book of reviews and criticism, rather than anything that might be considered infringement. I never heard back from them, but I reissued the book with an “UNOFFICIAL!” sticker and rewrote the Amazon description to make it clear that it wasn’t affiliated with Konami. I haven’t had an issue since, though I’m a little bummed that one of the only major interactions with a company that I’d unofficially supported as a fan for over 15 years amounted to a takedown notice.
Over the years, the look of the Dungeon has changed, and you’ve had various folks assisting you with the development side of things. Is there any particular incarnation of the site that you’re particularly fond of? At the time, I remember thinking that the old “frames/no-frames” selection page with a choice between 8-bit Trevor and 16-bit Richter was the coolest thing since sliced bread.
I like the current design actually! That was done around 2006, I think. It was right before the E3 I mentioned above, and I wanted it to look more professional, so that Konami would take it seriously. But of course, it still didn’t work!
The old design had red colored fonts. At the time, I thought it was cool, since it had a horror theme. In retrospect, it was barely legible. We did change the background, originally it was the bricks from the title screen of Super Castlevania IV, but then we used something else from a totally different source that was darker to make the text more readable.
In the introduction to Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Castlevania, you perceptively note that due to the series’ longevity, Castlevania fans come from many different age groups and enjoy the series for many different reasons. Have you perceived any notable differences in how both younger and older fans engage with the series – and you, for that matter?
It’s hard to tell because it’s not clear how old anyone on the Internet is. I feel like it’s easier to start with classic Castlevania games, then move on to Metroidvanias, rather than the other way around. The Metroidvanias have much more fluid controls, so I hear people complain that they aren’t used to the “bad” controls of the older games. And they aren’t really “bad,” so much as deliberate, but it does take some adjusting.
The only thing that Classicvania and Metroidvania fans have in common is that most of them have an extreme dislike towards the modern Mercury Steam developed titles. I hated Lords of Shadow at first, too. Honestly, if I didn’t have to review them for the book, I probably never would’ve bothered to play them. Over time I came to accept them, though I still wouldn’t say I actually “like” them.
Just looking at archived versions of the Dungeon makes me wistful about the simpler, early days of the Internet, when animated gifs were “amazing” instead of “corny,” and things like a menu styled after a life bar were true innovations. Is there anything you miss about those early times? Is there anything you don’t miss?
There was certainly more variety in the design. Nowadays, most sites are developed using a CMS, which are rigidly defined, so you lose some of that uniqueness. Everything begins to feel the same. The Web 1.0 “standards” were indeed pretty ugly! But no one knew any better.
Actually, the same could be said about video game magazines then versus now. They used to be more colorful and enthusiastic. Nowadays, the writing quality is more mature, professional, and definitely better, but there was a charm in that old amateurishness.
You started the Dungeon as a teenager, and recently, in preparing your book, you had the occasion to revisit nearly 20 years of your own work. I imagine that was both a rewarding and challenging process. In delving back through time, did you rediscover anything that made you that made you particularly proud? Conversely, was there anything that made you cringe?
It was mostly “I can’t believe these typos have been around for like a decade.” Most of the reviews had been rewritten when I was in college, so it wasn’t SUPER painful; but a lot of it was still quite bad. I hadn’t really developed a style or cohesive tone, so it was GameFAQs review quality level of writing – Dumb jokes that were probably funny at the time, but were actually cringeworthy.
Also, a lot of it wasn’t necessarily terrible, but outdated. We were all super excited for Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance when they came out, but with time and a greater sense of perspective, their problems became a lot more apparent. There are other things, flaws and strengths, that became apparent when viewed through the greater context of the series, too.
Giving the reviews an overhaul took a lot more time than I anticipated, though. The book ended up coming out over a year past when I’d originally planned.
What’s your favorite memory associated with the Castlevania Dungeon?
Beyond making discoveries about “lost” Castlevania games, I remember leaving on my computer all night to download a ROM for Castlevania Bloodlines, which I’d been searching for forever. It was on a server in Asia, and it was transferring extremely slowly, even for a 14.4k modem. I had to make sure my parents didn’t find out the next morning because they’d get mad at me! On top of that, the emulator I was using still wasn’t great at the time: it ran extremely slowly, the status bar didn’t show up, there was no sound, tons of glitches, etc… Lots of memories about early emulation, I guess. I was ecstatic when NESticle was released, because the only other NES emulators out before then were fairly poor. I also remember that when Magic Engine was released, the guy who had done the site redesign burned me a copy of Dracula X and mailed it to me, so I could finally play it, since there was no way in hell a 16-year-old could’ve afforded a Turbo Duo and a copy of the game. Even though I was stuck playing it with a keyboard and a high frame skip, being able to play that fabled game was magical.
Do you have any plans for the Dungeon’s future? The book does a great job of capturing the spirit of the site, but the Dungeon itself hasn’t been updated since 2012. Unfortunately, there really hasn’t been much to say about Castlevania since then – is HG101 the place to go for any Castlevania updates in the future?
The guy who still runs the Castlevania Dungeon forums said that he was going to get together with the web developer of the current incarnation to do a complete overhaul, and I was going to provide the updated reviews I did for the Castlevania book to post on the redone site. I’m not sure what the status of this project is though. Unfortunately, I don’t really have the time to upkeep it myself anymore, even juggling real world tasks and HG101 often proves overwhelming.
What exactly did you do to this poor, plagiarizing bastard? That’s one hell of an apology.
I can’t remember honestly! From the sounds of it I probably posted something in an update with a link to that site, telling people to demand that he take it down. From the sounds of it, everyone else was probably pretty mean! Nowadays, that would be called dogpiling, and it’s not really the best thing to do, but back then, how did you deal with plagiarizers?
There were a few times where that happened – where I found some other websites copy/pasting stuff from the Dungeon. One time I saw that it had been translated into Spanish, though, which I was okay with, even though it had been done without my permission.
What other fansites from the ’90s do you remember fondly?
The Ninja Gaiden Home Page and Metroid Database were great. The latter is still around on Kontek. The Gradius Home World is still around and hasn’t changed much. Soundtrack Central still exists, and a lot of my old reviews are still there, I think. Zophar’s Domain isn’t really a “fansite” since it’s all about emulation, but it’s still heartwarming that it still exists.
Again, I’d like to thank Kurt for taking the time to speak with me, and for the countless hours he’s dedicated to covering Castlevania on our behalf. Though the Castlevania Dungeon is approaching the ripe old age of 20, it’s still an amazing resource for Castlevania fans of all ages, and I would recommend it to anybody interested in learning more about the series. Kurt’s latest work can be found over at Hardcore Gaming 101, which is a fantastic site in its own right. You can find him on Twitter at @HG_101.
As for me? I’m still here, and you can reach me on Twitter @subspacebc.