Genre: Action Developer: SIMS Co. Publisher: Sega Europe Players: 1 Released: 1992
The Master System only had the occasional support from third party developers in its history, so sometimes Sega itself had to come up with games that would give owners of its not-Famicom/NES console experiences that were similar to what Nintendo’s monolith had to offer. For those who wanted The Legend of Zelda there was Golden Axe Warrior, for those who wanted Metroid there was the original Zillion, and for those who wanted Castlevania there was Master of Darkness.
Developed by SIMS, which also developed Ninja Gaiden & Aladdin for the Master System, Master of Darkness is a very obvious, and in many ways, blatant Castlevania clone for those who chose Sega over Nintendo. While it only saw an international release on the Game Gear and is indeed available on the 3DS Virtual Console, there was also a Master System version of the game that was exclusively released in Europe, as it was essentially the only region (minus Brazil, of course) that still supported the console by 1992. Since it is so similar to Konami’s iconic franchise, I’ll try to stop referring directly to Castlevania after this point, if only to keep the review from sounding redundant. That being said, however, SIMS did change up the gameplay in a number of ways, some of which actually make Master of Darkness a superior product at times.
Dr. Ferdinand Social is a psychologist in the 19th Century who has been investigating the cause behind a series of serial killings around the River Thames in London, which most people attribute to Jack the Ripper. After using his Ouija board to gain a clue (because Dr. Social is also into the occult), he’s given a challenge by none other than Dracula, who dares him to head to the Thames in order to see for himself what’s going on. While it’s not exactly the most thrilling story out there, it still is a nice change of pace, and between each stage is a short series of images & text that advance Social’s journey from the Thames to the Wax Doll Museum, to a graveyard, and so on. Master of Darkness plays up its horror influences very nicely, and each stage is distinctly different from each other in terms of visuals & even enemies. The influences are also just varied enough to not make the game feel aesthetically like a direct clone of what it plays like.
Gameplay is very much what you’d expect from this game, with Social normally having to traverse through five “rounds,” which feature three stages each (minus that last round, which is a single stage). You’ll go left-to-right, right-to-left, & even the occasional up or down at times, and each stage within a round is noticeably large enough to truly be called “stages.” Pressing the 1 button makes Social attack, and though he starts with a dinky little knife there are some new weapons that can be acquired from white masks that are mysteriously hanging from mid-air. The stake gives Social a lot more reach but not much else, while the saber gives him even more. Finally, there’s the axe, which is super-strong but requires Social to be very close to his enemies to properly use. Just be careful, because the game devilishly likes to hide knives inside white masks, especially before bosses, weakening Social just when you don’t need it.
Alongside those power ups are secondary weapons (or “sub-weapons,” if you prefer) that Social can pick up & use for long-range attacks, by pressing 1 while holding Up on the D-Pad but have limited uses. The pistol is basic, but effective, and gives you the most uses for each pick-up. The boomerang, like implied, comes back the way it came after being thrown. The dynamite is tossed upwards & does heavy damage but comes with few uses. Finally, there’s the pile (i.e. what you use to hold down things like tents & boats), which is super-rare but delivers the most damage to enemies, even going through them to hit more. There are also a few items to pick up for things like increasing score (jewelry), gaining 1-ups (voodoo dolls), & eliminating all enemies on screen (diamonds). Yes, these are almost exactly like things you can pick up in Castlevania, hence why I’m not trying to constantly bring up that series anymore.
While Master of Darkness plays like that franchise, though, SIMS does improve on what came before it in some ways. Probably the most notable one is the fact that SIMS removed one of Konami’s most annoying design choices for its early Castlevania games: Stiff jumping. While this is an 8-bit game, it takes influence from Konami’s 16-bit entry the year prior, Super Castlevania IV, by allowing Social to move around while jumping, done by pressing the 2 button. This makes maneuvering & jumping so easy & natural, you can even duck walk, but SIMS makes sure that platforming is accordingly adjusted, so while it’s easy to move around it’s still not exactly an easy game. The difficulty curve here is generally nicely done, starting off pretty easy before ramping up to pretty tough in the last stages. Sadly, though, the bosses aren’t exactly too difficult, with simple attrition doing the job once you find out the basic patterns; the secondary weapons are a big help, too.
Visually, Master of Darkness looks excellent. Being a later Master System title, SIMS was able to pull a lot out of Sega’s aging hardware and can easily match up with any of Konami’s NES Castelvania entries, if not beating them in some ways. The extra screen space, compared to the better-known Game Gear version, is a godsend & makes it just fine to react in time, though there are plenty of annoying enemies that float about, ready to ruin your jumps. The music by Yoko Wada & Takahashi Horiguchi, while not quite as instantly memorable as what Konami made, is still simply outstanding, truly fitting of the horror theme, & well worth listening to on its own. At the very least, the music for rounds one & three are truly iconic. The sound effects, in comparison, are much simpler but do the job just fine, though the pistol does sound surprisingly wimpy; no wonder it’s the weakest secondary weapon.
Overall, there’s no other way around it: Master of Darkness is a completely unabashed clone of Castlevania, from the horror theme to the gameplay to even the way the secondary weapons behave just like the sub-weapons for the Belmonts. Still, it doesn’t really matter in the end, because Master of Darkness is an excellent Castlevania clone, and in some ways, like the jumping, it even surpasses the NES entries it was obviously aping. It may not have the sheer difficulty that its inspiration has, outside of the last two rounds, but that doesn’t diminish the fun. Sadly, I was all ready to say that, even with it being a Europe/Brazil-exclusive, Master of Darkness isn’t too expensive… But upon checking again the game has gone up heavily in price, now commanding at least $50. Luckily, there’s the 3DS Virtual Console for the Game Gear version, under the name Vampire: Master of Darkness, but it’s a shame that the Master System version has become much less available, because it truly is a superb game that any owner of the console should have.
SCORE: 9 out of 10