(Vampire: Master of Darkness) might have began as a blatant Castlevania ripoff, but it found its own identity and can be remembered as a SEGA classic.
Ya know, Nintendo used to be a giant asshole. Well, they still are in some ways, but they were way, way worse during the 8-bit era when they known as the Hitler of the video game industry.
Like, for instance, did you know they’d make third-party publishers sign an agreement that forced them to only develop games on Nintendo platforms and not on any competing console?
Many people attribute this tactic as a primary reason for the Master System struggling to gain a foothold in North America.
The copycats …
Because of this, SEGA was forced to develop similar games of popular franchises found on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Games like Congo Bongo, Golden Axe Warrior and Vampire: Master of Darkness were all games SEGA developed or published that were, more or less, copycats of games popularized on Nintendo systems.
One franchise that was noticeably absent on the Master System was Castlevania. Sure, it eventually found its way to a SEGA console when Castlevania: Bloodlines was released on the Genesis in 1994, but Konami’s hugely popular, vampire-slaying classic first made its way to the NES in 1986 and had several sequels that all were exclusive to the NES on home consoles.
Due to Nintendo’s publishing policy, SEGA’s poor Master System never got a Castlevania game of its own. So, instead of trying to go toe-to-toe with Nintendo for the rights of Castlevania, SEGA did the next best thing and made a Castlevania game of its very own.
And the legend goes …
Enter Vampire: Master of Darkness (Known as In the Wake of Vampire in Japan), which was developed by SIMS and released in late 1992 on the Master System and 1993 on the Game Gear. The closest Castlevania game we can compare Master of Darkness to is Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, which was released in 1990.
Instead of taking on the role of the whip-slinging Simon Belmont, the game stars Dr. Ferdinand Social, a parapsychologist, who is investigating a series of murders that happen each time there’s a full moon. Up to this point, the murders have been attributed to Jack the Ripper, but Dr. Social is too smart for that shit and knows some true dark magic is at work.
So, one night, during a full moon, Dr. Social uses his Ouija board, and it gives him the message, “Vampire. Killer. Go to Thames. Caution. Caution in the wake of … D R A C U L A.” So, Dr. Social begins his quest to defeat Dracula, and the first level begins with him investigating along the Thames River in London.
They say she’s the same …
From the outset, the game looks and plays just like your standard 8-bit Castlevania game. Hell, the music even sounds a bit Castlevania-ish.
Dr. Social’s movement, jumps and attacks are all similar to Simon’s, but he seems to be able to get around better in his environment. The control is very tight, and he can also squat and move in a weird duck-waddle kind of way. As odd as it sounds, it’s actually really handy when an enemy is shooting at you, as you can duck, slowly waddle over to him and beat him to death with your walking stick.
There are more interesting differences SIMS added to the game to differentiate it from Castlevania, too.
Unlike Castlevania, where Simon only had the whip, Dr. Social has many weapons at his disposal. While he starts the game with a puny knife, he can pick up other primary weapons, like a walking cane, rapier or an axe. Each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses. The walking cane and rapier are good for attacking enemies at a longer range, but are weaker compared to the axe, which is the strongest primary weapon in the game, but also has a shorter range.
Also like in Castlevania, there are secondary weapons that have limited uses, like bombs, boomerangs and a pistol. For the most part, each of these secondary items have their own unique advantages, and there are instances when each of them can come in handy, like if you need to hit a troublesome enemy on a platform above you, you can throw a boomerang that will curve upward and damage the bad guy.
Dr. Social can even find a potion hidden away in a wall that restores his health. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to resort to moldy turkey like Simon did!
An exercise in un-frustration …
Playing through Master of Darkness, you’ll find the game isn’t anywhere near as difficult or as frustrating as Castlevania. I can’t remember how many times, as a child, I bit and gnawed at my NES controller in a fit of rage when Simon got knocked backward from an enemy and sent flying down a pit to his doom. While that can happen on occasion in Master of Darkness, the likelihood is far less as Dr. Social doesn’t seem to be pushed back as far as Simon did.
In all, there are five levels, with three stages within that are capped off with a boss battle, which aren’t really all that hard. While the first level would have you believe the enemies might lean on the generic and boring side, as all you encounter are bats, dog/wolves and finely dressed gentlemen who are quick to pull a gun and shoot you, the enemies become much more diverse and unique the deeper you go in the game.
The second stage, for instance, Dr. Social finds himself exploring a wax museum, where wax figures are set throughout the level. Once you come close enough, some of these figures come to life and attack you. Within these levels are also animated furniture and paintings. In later levels, you fight skeleton knights and KKK-looking wizards. It’s in many of these enemies where Master of Darkness carves out its own identity.
It doesn’t take an incredibly long time to get through Master of Darkness’ five levels, but each level is a lot of fun to play.
Although I wasn’t one of the unfortunate gamers a long time ago who only owned a Master System or Game Gear and couldn’t get their Castlevania fix, I think I would have been thoroughly satisfied with Master of Darkness if I had. While the music isn’t as iconic and the overall story is less grandiose, Master of Darkness is a fine game that actually improves upon Castlevania in several ways.
SIMS should be applauded in their creation. It might have began as a Castlevania ripoff, but it found its own identity. It’s just a shame SIMS never got a chance to make a sequel because I think there was a lot of potential to make it a successful franchise.
Just remember, “You should always be careful when walking at night … when the full moon shines.”