If you can’t be original, at least be fun. When one game becomes a trendsetter, a legion of me-toos are always sure to follow. It might not be fair to call all first-person shooters from the nineties “Doom clones,” but as Doom set a standard, the label stuck. The wave of fighting games that followed Street Fighter II: The World Warrior were a bit more scrutinized, with one publisher even being sued by Capcom for copying their iconic classic a bit too closely.1 That case was thrown out, but another infamously inspired game, the Great Giana Sisters, garnered immediate attention from both players and Nintendo itself for its extreme similarities to Super Mario Bros., causing Nintendo to take “direct action” to take it out of circulation without a lawsuit even needing to happen.2 Konami, however, must have never heard about Vampire: Master of Darkness. It may not have attracted any legal attention like Fighter’s History and The Great Giana Sisters, but there’s no getting around that Master of Darkness is a shameless Castlevania knock-off. The hero trots along at a Belmont-like pace, they can only jump in definable arcs without much air control, and those stairs look awfully familiar…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
A game with as many covers as its villain has faces.
Developed by SIMS, a company that was most likely the result of a joint venture between Sega and the much-smaller company called Sanritsu3, Vampire: Master of Darkness was originally released in Japan for the Sega Master System under the more dramatic title In the Wake of the Vampire. A European release soon followed with the pulpier name Master of Darkness, but was passed over for the North America. NA didn’t get totally screwed, however, as a later Game Gear conversion of the game finally made its way to the US, renamed yet again to Vampire: Master of Darkness. Perhaps the “Vampire” was added to clarify what players were getting into, to capitalize on it reaching the US during a high point for 90s vampire popularity, its various Game Gear and Sega Master System versions nestled comfortably between the releases of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992 and Interview with the Vampire in 1994. Whatever the name, perhaps “Castle of Vania” would have been a more fitting moniker. Before I poke further fun at how derivative the game is, it should be said that Master of Darkness is still good on its own merits. If you’re going to rip anything off, steal from the best. It worked for Gamera.
While I’ll get to the numerous ways in which Castlevania is “homaged,” it should be said that the game’s setting of 19th century England has never been done before in a Castlevania game.4 The adventure begins when some evil goings-on by the River Thames attracts the attention of a young psychologist and paranormal investigator. Our hero has a name that, to this day I will wonder if it is brilliant or stupid: Dr. Ferdinand Social. I don’t know if “Social” is a common British surname or if it was chosen to be ironic,5 as a paranormal investigator who walks around at night with weapons doesn’t strike me as being a particularly social person. He unironically believes in the power of his Ouija board to tell him Dracula is somehow involved with the increased body count around London as of late.
The first level both looks cool and has some great music.
So the first level starts at Thames, where you only need about twenty seconds for the blatant parallels to Castlevania to kick in. You’ll notice somewhat creepy masks floating around the first area, generating items when struck in a fashion all too similar to Castlevania’s candelabras. They’ll carry new weapons, sub-weapons, health potions, gems that wipe the screen of enemies, orbs that only exist for worthless points, and the occasional extra life. You can also find health potions in walls, which at least keep better than the whole beef roasts one can commonly mine out of the architecture in a Castlevania game. Hounds and bats harass the player regularly, with bats having a more erratic flight pattern than Castlevania’s fodder. It really does seem like Konami’s flagship series in all but name, although Dr. Social wears a dapper suit instead of leather armor.
Our protagonist seems dorky but is a capable combatant!
He may have a far dorkier name than any of the Belmonts,6 but Dr. Social does have two things over most of them: A snappier sense of fashion and better controls. He’s able to change his direction midair, something rare for Castlevaniai before Symphony of the Night became the series standard. He’s also able to crawl across the ground,7 and can jump off stairs at any time (but not onto them). He can only attack left and right like many old platformer characters, but just being able to change which way he’s going while in mid-air is a huge help. Dr. Social is also surprisingly hardier than he looks, where most enemy attacks only draw half-a-point of life out of his eight point life gauge. How can the dapper Dr. Social take up to sixteen hits while beefy barbarian man Trevor Belmont can only take four to six? Maybe in the world of Master of Darkness Victorian England just has the greatest damn healthcare in history.
Dr. Social’s overconfidence in his defense causes him to think poorly about his offense. He starts out with a fairly useless dagger with poor range and damage output, but new weapons are fairly common. Not too far into the first stage, you’ll find what looks like a cane with much improved range and power, although the game manual swears this is actually a really large stake. You can also find a rapier with slightly better speed and range at the cost of power, and a strong axe which deals heavy damage but is almost as short-ranged as the dagger. All three are an improvement over it, but you must beware, as some masks will drop daggers that return you to your crappy starting state. While it’s your main weapon at risk instead of your sub-weapon, the dagger should nonetheless be avoided at all costs (yet another Castlevania parallel as many games in the series also feature near useless butter knife of a dagger).
The variety of useful weapons stands out compared to Castlevania games of the time.
There are also four different sub-weapons, though instead of being used via a universal ammunition like Castlevania‘s hearts, they each give Dr. Social eight uses per pick-up and can be stacked upon each other as long as you stick to grabbing the same one repeatedly. The weakest is somehow the pistol, which comes with sixteen rounds but it may as well be the dagger in terms of how desirable it is. Perhaps Dr. Social forgot to arm his gun with silver bullets? Bombs are thrown in an arc, boomerangs (which are not cross-shaped) fly as you would expect them to and, near the end of the game, powerful spikes become the choice sub-weapon to grab.
You get to slay a fair variety of beasts with these weapons. In addition to the aforementioned hounds and bats, Dr. Social will also run into rowdy hunchbacks, thugs with guns, floating banshees, possessed chairs and paintings, skeletal knights, cultists with projectile-firing swords, and what game of this sort would be complete without obnoxious large dive-bombing hawks. It’s not quite as delicious an enemy variety as most Castlevanias, but there’s just enough to give you a fair challenge despite the familiar tradition of those damn bats knocking you into pits still being around. If you can survive them, you should be able to handle the bosses, especially with the axe handy. The first one claims to be Jack the Ripper, jumping around a lot and stabbing you with a saber, which is probably what the actual Ripper did, great attention to detail Sanritsu. The second one appears to be an elegant lady before she pulls a bait-and-switch, summoning a large skull that flies about in somewhat arbitrary patterns.
If this guy didn’t break so much Dr. Social wouldn’t even know he exists!
Out of the six boss fights, half of them are against Count Massen, a dangerous vampire nobleman who wishes to revive Dracula. Thankfully, each fight with Massen is completely different, and he even wears new suits for each encounter. It may be a bit of a cop out instead of facing entirely new bosses, but it’s really no different from encountering Robotnik repeatedly as the only boss in Sonic the Hedgehog, with a different death machine for every zone. They’re tougher than the pretty straightforward first two bosses, with the first battle having him circle around a clock tower shooting at you like a maniac, and the second having him teleport while conjuring semi-homing fireballs, not unlike a certain other vampire.8 The final battle against Massen involves hopping on rising platforms to reach him while avoiding stakes, with victory resulting in his certain death as he gives his life to resurrect his dark lord. This leads into a final battle with the actual Dracula, which is an unfortunate anticlimax due to it being noticeably easier than at least the last two confrontations with Massen.
Disappointing finale aside, it’s still a hell of a trek through merry old England to give Dracula the staking he deserves, but some may wonder if this is the ideal game for doing that when the Castlevania series exists. Yes, I know I’ve kept drawing parallels between Master of Darkness and its obvious inspiration, but I can’t emphasize enough how plagiarized it all feels. Stage 3-3 is the biggest evidence that they’ve took more than a just a few beats, as it features both a stained glass chapel hall and a clock tower with swinging pendulums, all way too close to the first two stages of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse to be a coincidence. I don’t know how this game could have been made without provoking Konami’s lawyers, though it’s likely it just didn’t get enough attention to be noticed. Very few games from the Game Gear and Master System received widespread recognition for their time, and even when the public at large learned that that the system existed, it was mostly for Phantasy Star, Alex Kidd, and Wonder Boy among a few others that were not Master of Darkness.
Though drab at a glance, there’s a nice variety of scenery in each level.
It may be a blatant clone, and it’s a wonder how it didn’t attract more attention for being such a ripoff, but if you’re a fan of Castlevania, that’s exactly why it’s worth playing. If it were to be looked at as a “lost” Castlevania game despite some changes to the rules like the jump control and the weapon system, that alone makes it a good-to-great Gothic action game regardless of who made it or what system it was made for. Streets of Rage and Star Wars: Dark Forces are no less better games for being heavily influenced by Final Fight and DOOM. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying literal plagiarism and theft is okay. If Master of Darkness used the exact sprite of the giant Medusa boss from the first Castlevania or played the song Bloody Tears,that would be wrong. Stealing actual assets is obviously a big no-no for widespread game distribution, a scruple which does not deter folks from selling poorly-coded Mario hacks.
However, most of these pirate carts are junk and Master of Darkness is certifiably not junk. Some of its elements may graze a little too close to Castlevania’s territory, but there’s technically no crime in a developer being inspired by a previous work and basing it as the central guideline for their own creation, just as long as they don’t steal any code from the basis in question. Besides, most game companies weren’t dunderheads who would be so brazen to nick some lines out of another company’s microchips.9 The most famous lawsuit involving game plagiarism wasn’t even an issue of code theft, but an allegation by Universal Studios that Donkey Kong was an unauthorized rendition of King Kong, a stupid claim that backfired when it became apparent that Universal didn’t even hold the rights to King Kong at the time and ended up losing $1,800,000 dollars to Nintendo over the whole ruckus.10 I’m not exactly a wellspring of game lawsuit knowledge, and maybe it happened more often than I assume, but I would think most of these cases would get thrown out if there would be no evidence of actual resource thievery. The only prominent example of a successful lawsuit I can find is Atari beating Philips for pointing the finger at K.C. Munchkin as identical to Pac-Man, but there had been almost no (if any) preceding cases that Philips could have cited to protect themselves, and the lawsuit was just a sketchy move on Atari’s part to crush a competitor while trying to cover up how much the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man sucked.11
I’m way off the beaten path here, but the bottom line is that, barring out-and-out programming theft, “ripoff” games can still be very fun in their own right. Master of Darkness may as well be Castlevania with a Victorian flair, a premise that the Dreamcast-bound Castlevania Resurrection would have followed were it not cancelled. It controls better than the other 8-bit-vania wannabes, its graphics make full use of the Sega Master System’s palette to depict waterways, wax museums, graveyards and other such macabre locales, and its music is actually pretty good for the system’s hardware.12 There’s nothing near quite as catchy as what was coming out of Konami’s house band, but that’s a steep cliff to reach anyway, and Master of Darkness’ music still comes out appreciable on its own. The bosses may be slightly disappointing, but that’s the only fault I can find for this lost gem of the “vampire” sub-genre for games where you either killed and/or played as the accursed bloodsuckers. It’s available now on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console, although that’s the slightly inferior Game Gear version which gives you less of the screen to work with. It’s still good even in portable form, but the Sega Master System version is the way to go if you can, though it was unfortunately not released in North America. However if you can, it’s worth taking a stroll in the powder-blue suit of Dr. Ferdinand Social and slaying the supernatural because a Ouija board toldja so.
Read a nice preparation for how that turned out here.
This book has a bit of background information on that.
Learn a bit more about this convoluted connection at GDRI.
At least not until Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin came out over a decade later in 2006.
Michael has been writing about games for several years, and most of his work can currently be found under the name Sotenga on Hardcore Gaming 101. He got really lazy and started just continued playing games without writing about them. This didn't help him escape his Podunk town confinement, so now he's back to writing, getting the gears turning and hoping for a prosperous career in virtual entertainment. That makes money, right?