Master of Darkness (SMS) Review

Master_of_Darkness_Coverart

 

The Short

Pros

– Solid Castlevania ripoff on the Sega Master System (and Game Gear)

– Excellent music

– Large arsenal of weapons and sub-weapons

– Graphics look fantastically spooky, with some good animations

– The whole “Jack the Ripper Era England” time setting is woefully underused; glad to see it here

– “House of Wax” level is both creepy and inventive

– Gameplay is tight and controls are very responsive

Cons

– Pretty easy compared to Castlevania

– Sometimes dropped items downgrade your weapon. For shame!

– Level designs are a bit bland

– A bit obvious in its Castlevania pandering

– It can be hard to walk down on stairs for some reason

– Only five areas each with three stages each (15 levels total)

– SMS version only released in Europe! What’s up with that?

Are you getting a familiar vibe?

Are you getting a familiar vibe?

The Long

You may have noticed a theme these past few reviews, the theme being Castlevania. Lots and lots of Castlevania. So why is this weird game showing up here? Well, because the Sega Master System (a system woefully underrepresented in my lexicon of game reviews) never got a proper Castlevania game, but it did in fact get this thing…Master of Darkness (also known as Vampire: Master of Darkness for the US Game Gear release). It’s about as shameful a copy as you can get, but despite its obvious…uh…let’s say “inspiration” from the famous Gothic platforming series, Master of Darkness still does some pretty cool things all its own, and is one of the best games on the Master System.

Too bad you have to import it (the SMS version was Europe only! Thanks Obama! Or wait, 1992…thanks…George Bush Sr? Bill Clinton?)

veryfamiliar

This looks really familiar.

Murder is afoot in ye olde England. Bodies have been turning up dead, and it’s up to you, a stalwart gentleman and enforcer of the law (or something) to get out your cane and beat the ever loving crap out of the homeless. Or…zombies, I think they’re zombies. But there’s for sure guys with guns that you pummel to death in this game, which is fantastic.

What is cool about Master of Darkness is it actually tries to have a sort of thematic story. The first boss is Jack the Ripper (like, the actual one) who you find out is in league with Dracula to be all evil and stuff. At the start and end of each stage you get some cool text and graphics explaining where the story is going, which is more than any of the early Castlevania games gave you.

I also really dig the setting. If you liked Bloodborne or Dishonored, this is the same time period. The industrial revolution is just kicking off, and the streets are full of rats and apparently gross monsters. Did I mention the first weapon you get is a cane that you use to beat ghosts to death with? This is pretty much my dream game.

A duel it is, fine sir!

A duel it is, fine sir!

Gameplay-wise, Master of Darkness is Castlevania. You have monsters that move slowly, bats that fly, etc. There are stairs that suck to walk up and down on. Your jumps you have to dedicate yourself to, though there is a bit more in-air control here. You don’t have as delayed attack as the whip with most weapons, but larger ones (the sword) do have a brief wind-up. Actually, let’s talk about the weapons, because it’s  something Master of Darkness does that’s different and cool.

Hitting floating white masks (which I guess are the “candle” equivalent in this game) will drop powerups. Unlike Simon, who was tied to just an upgradable whip, our hero here can pick up a wide assortment of weapons. You start with a crappy knife (which is the only one that I feel is just bad all the time). You can get a dapper cane (fast, medium range, medium damage) a sword (slower, longer range, medium damage) and…a hand axe (short range, maximum damage). Yeah, the axe didn’t really fit the theme, but whatever. You can swap whenever you find another powerup, but the game likes to be a jerk and drop the knife from time to time, so be careful to not pick it up.

You also have subweapons, though there are only three. Here, there are no “hearts,” weapons just come pre-equipped with a set amount of ammo. You have a gun, which is basically the “knife,” bombs (the “axe”), and the boomerang. The boomerang is supposed to be the cross, except unlike the cross it doesn’t pierce (it just goes away on impact) making it substantially worse. Of all these, the bomb is really the only useful one, particularly against the final boss. Can you guess how you use subweapons? If you said “Up + attack,” you know how video games work.

It ain't London if someone isn't getting gruesomely murdered.

It ain’t London if someone isn’t getting gruesomely murdered.

The gameplay itself is pretty straightforward. There are five stages, each with three levels. After each level your health is restored (making this easier than Castlevania) and the last stage is always a boss. Bosses are actually pretty easy…truthfully, this whole game is a lot easier than Castlevania, but that’s ok. The locations you go to are all pretty cool. My favorite is stage two, a wax museum, where frequently some of the wax dummies in the background come to life and attack you. That’s a neat idea!

Oh yeah, there’s also a clock tower level, because “Castlevania did it.” It even has swinging pendulums you jump on. Really.

I guess the question is: is this game as good as Castlevania? To that I say, “not really.” It doesn’t have that difficulty factor, nor the super deliberate level design that set the best of the series apart from other platformers. That being said, Master of Darkness is still a ton of fun to play, even for a straight ripoff. The controls are responsive and tight (even if stairs still suck), there are lots of creepy enemies and themeing, and it’s a bit easier for those who thought Castlevania was a little too rough.

Point being? It’s one of the best platformers on the Master System, and certainly a great 8-bit platformer in general. If you liked Castlevania, you’ll feel right at home here, and probably enjoy the differences they stuck in.

Plus, you know, spikes n' stuff.

Plus, you know, spikes n’ stuff.

Graphically, I think this game looks fantastic. I’ve always enjoyed the way Master System games look, kind of a weird combination between MSDos games and NES games, though usually more colorful. I particularly like the England-cityscape backgrounds and the gritty look of the whole world. It’s a great looking game on Sega’s 8-bit system.

Sound effects are a little…drab. The getting hit sound is pathetic, though I do appreciate the good “thwack” sound when you beat a zombie to death with your cane. Music, on the other hand, is excellent throughout. While the first stage’s song does get a little repetitive, it evokes the similar creepy feel that Castlevania games do. It’s not quite as good as Castlevania’s iconic tunes, but it comes pretty damn close.

As it stands, it’s a crying shame we here in the west didn’t get this game on our Master Systems. It’s one of the coolest games on the systems, and a solid Castlevania knockoff with some great tricks of its own. We did get the Game Gear port, which is essentially the exact same game just with a slightly smaller field of view (the Game Gear and the Master System were almost identical tech, just one was a handheld), so it is possible to play the game without importing or emulators. However, if you can pony up the cash to import the PAL version (it’ll play on an American Master System), I’d say it’s totally worth getting if you’re a collector.

Master of Darkness surprised me. I went in expecting a bland Castlevania knockoff, and left with it secured as one of my favorite 8-bit platformers. Few flaws notwithstanding (and honestly most of the flaws are borrowed from its source material), Master of Darkness is a great vampire-murdering replacement for those without the NES system, at least until the Genesis came out and they got the best 16-bit Castlevania

Plus, I beat Jack the Ripper to death with a cane in an alleyway. Best game ever.

Four out of five stars. 

Suck it, Jack. Though I do like your stylish purple attire.

Suck it, Jack. Though I do like your stylish purple attire.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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1 Comment

  1. I like the idea of an easier Castlevania. Will have to check this one out some day.

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