Monday 27 June 2011

Master of Darkness

Hey look it's Aku-... erm.. "In the wake of Vampire"... supposedly not a Castlevania game at all.

And I'm sure you'll believe that. This is Master of Darkness for the Master of Systems - the Sega Master System. Also available for the Sega Game Gear if you prefer cramped conditions and dead AA batteries. Dracula has plunged nineteenth century London into darkness and it's up to "Dr. Ferdinand Social" to sort him out. Will he ever learn!?!

Cloned games are always good fun, but it's amazing a title like this was allowed to exist, especially considering Nintendo's forced culling of Great Giana Sisters back in the day. Developed by SIMS and published by Sega in 1992, Master of Darkness another attempt to crush Nintendo and its buddies at their own game. A bit like the relationship between Final Fight and Streets of Rage, except the better product isn't as obvious.

Master of Darkness is effectively a Castlevania game, right down to the button mappings. A demonstration that Sega hardware was just as good, if not better than Nintendo's range of grey boxes. Had you not known better, you might even assume this belonged in the Castlevania timeline - Dracula was due to show up in the 1890s and that's exactly the time period Master of Darkness takes place in.

I don't know what the Japanese have against Dracula, but Master of Darkness is the second tale to claim that the vampire has an army of monsters, as well as being hell bent on plunging the world into darkness. This time they claim he's also Jack the Ripper. And hell he's probably the AIDS virus. And responsible for the economic downturn between 2007 and 2008. Why not? Konami thinks his minons started the first World War.

Whereas Castlevania typically sends out a Belmont with a whip to rid the world of chaos, Master of Darkness sends a scientist... in a suit... from the not-so-notable "Social" clan, as just because we're setting the tale in England doesn't mean we have to pay attention to the language. "Ferdinand Social" (seriously that's his name) walks around London looking for Dracula and meets various freaks along the way. There's no castle... but you do pass through a clock tower if that counts.

Really there are only two things that set this game apart from the Castlevania series. One, you don't have a whip - Dr. Social uses an array of knives, axes and cutlasses to do his dirty work (but even then not all Castlevanias use the same weaponry). Two, the world isn't littered with floating candles housing hearts... there's floating face masks instead, and they can house all sorts of things. Actually scratch that point, it's pretty much the same thing, to the point where you actually wonder if this was officially licensed at some point.

Any detailed description of the game could easily be copied and pasted to a similar Castlevania review. Your job is to get from point A to point B, hitting enemies, making sure not to be hit yourself, and travelling up and down staircases. There are health powerups hidden in walls (though it should be noted they can also come from floating masks), if you're hit, you get knocked back (potentially to your grave), and you have a secondary weapon which is utilised by holding Up and 1.

Make no mistake, this is as close as Castlevania clones could possibly get without being absorbed into the series. There are barely any changes to the formula bar a few nice features to lower frustration levels. For example, colliding with enemies doesn't take away a quarter of your life bar anymore. Also each "round" is split into three "levels", resulting in a longer (but less varied) game.

Master of Darkness makes a few minor improvements to the way things are run, several of which were adopted by Konami's series in the years that followed. Being able to change direction in mid-air is one, being able to jump off stairs is another. It's clear that you have more control over Dr. Social than you would, say, Trevor Belmont in Castlevania III, but he is limited by the fact none of his weapons have the same range as the Castlevania vampire killer whip. And that he has a stupid name.

Thankfully the secondary weapons still make up for the primary weapon's shortcomings. Though there are fewer secondary weapons than in the original Castlevania, you get to use bombs and guns. You heard correctly - guns. The array of enemies differs from Castlevania too - though you get the usual band of skeletons and zombies, you also get to stab real human beings. Somewhat ironic that in order to solve a murder, Dr. Social needs to partake in several more. The bosses aren't as fun, but to compensate, there's cutscenes, and they're legible too.

Master of Darkness is an interesting concoction, taking you along the River Thames and through several bizarre locations (like a house of wax figures). Unlike Castlevania there's a greater emphasis on fighting things - sometimes the game refuses to let you move until you've killed all the enemies on screen - the beat-'em-up mentality. However at the same time, at other sections of the game enemies will respawn if they're out of sight, so there's a feeling that perhaps not much thought was put into this one.

The level design is more forgiving than Castlevania most of the time - it's not pit-free and it still likes to watch you die, but there seems to be fewer unavoidable enemies in this release. In fact, it's very easy to defend yourself, the only issue being the slight delay between repeat attacks. This delay, along with the lower range attack can leave you defenseless for a fraction of a second.

One of the major hurdles of overcoming a Castlevania game is you have to surpass the work of Konami's quality control team, delivering something that excels both in the graphic and sound departments. Though I certainly believe that Master of Darkness is on par with the NES Castlevanias in terms of gameplay, the graphics are definitely murkier. More detailed, but when cobbled together to form a level, not as exciting. Poor old Dr. Social also has a nasty habit of blending in with his surroundings, as do some of the enemies.

Predictably the music is a few steps behind too. The Master System is a lesser being than the NES when it comes to audio, but there's no memorable themes like you might see in an average Castlevania game to help it on its way either. In fact, in some cases the audio is flat-out bad - each "round" shares the same music, and repetition becomes a noticable concern. Things aren't so much "good" as they are "good enough" - whereas they're not ruining the game, they're not beating Konami's efforts.

However Master of Darkness still stands as a very nice Master System game... it just lacks the same build quality as the NES Castlevanias. As a Game Gear game, it's top-notch, because the Game Boy competition really wasn't as good in the early years, but I can't help but feel it's a concept that was perhaps best suited for the Sega Mega Drive. It's true that the Master System needed a Castlevania game in its library (what with the Mega Drive getting Bloodlines in the months that followed), but by 1992 I feel it was too late to make much of a difference.

But even today I would think Master of Darkness is a game worth owning, it's just that I'd probably put the NES trilogy on the list first. It lacks the polish and the memorable settings of the Konami Castlevania series, but it's still a solid platformer worthy of your attention.


  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention... I just got a Master System Converter the other day, and I've had trouble working out what games I should get for it. And it's cheap as chips as well!

  2. Hey, I own that game!
    I myself noticed all the stuff you said.
    It's not a bad game, but it's not too memorable.