Given its gothic setting, focus on melee combat and inclusion of Dracula as the final boss, it’s little wonder that Vampire: Master of Darkness was compared to the famous Castlevania series when it launched on the Master System and Game Gear back in the early ‘90s. Developed by SIMS — which at the time was a second-party Sega studio — the game is a relatively shameless attempt to clone the winning formula of Konami’s legendary franchise which isn't as successful as it could have been, but remains reasonably compelling all the same.
Set in London at the end of the 19th century, the game stars psychologist Dr. Social, who is trying to unravel a series of bloody murders which are initially blamed on Jack the Ripper, but soon discovers that Vlad Tepes himself is the guilty party. Social’s quest takes him through London’s grim underbelly where he is forced to contend with rabid dogs, floating spirits, reanimated skeletons and other creepy foes.
Social may be following in the well-worn footsteps of the Belmont clan, but his arsenal isn’t quite as spectacular. He’s restricted to knives, swords and axes, all of which have a shorter reach than the iconic and powerful Vampire Killer whip seen in Castlevania. Secondary weapons are more useful, but have limited ammunition. These range from pistols to bombs and quickly become essential when it comes to dealing with some of the game’s more challenging enemies — of which there are plenty.
The developers were so hell bent on slavishly copying Konami that Vampire: Master of Darkness not only shares Castlevania’s penchant for hair-pulling difficulty, it often surpasses it. There are countless moments where avoiding damage is practically impossible unless you memorize every nook and cranny of the surprisingly long levels. Foes often leap onto the screen with little warning, hitting the main character almost immediately. As if to acknowledge this issue, Dr. Social has been given almost superhuman levels of endurance and is able to take plenty of damage before he succumbs. Even so, taking hits you don’t feel you can reasonably avoid soon becomes frustrating.
It’s a shame this issue exists because once you get into the groove, Vampire: Master of Darkness is quite an enjoyable experience. Social controls very well, and is very responsive to your movement and commands. Questionable enemy placement aside, the game’s foreboding levels are also well designed; the stairs look identical to those in Castlevania and there are some backgrounds which look like they've been lifted wholesale from the more famous series, but you can tell the developers have made a genuine effort to give the game its own atmosphere wherever possible.
The same can be said of the game’s presentation. Graphically, this is arguably superior to the NES Castlevania titles, and benefits from the increased colour palette of Sega’s hardware. However, the developers have been careful not to make things too bright; each level has a grimy appearance which only serves to accentuate the oppressive feel. The transition from the Master System — on which Vampire: Master of Darkness was originally developed — to the portable Game Gear hasn’t been totally without incident; like so many ports from the domestic hardware, the visuals have been “zoomed in” thanks to the lower resolution of the console's screen, and this only serves to make avoiding opponents even trickier.
Aurally speaking, SIMS was always going to have a hard time matching the fantastic tunes present in the early Castlevania titles, but it does a good job regardless; the opening level theme is slightly repetitive but it creates a suitable feeling of terror and suspense. The rest of the tunes follow a similar theme, eschewing the often toe-tapping jingles of Konami’s series for a grimmer — and arguably more fitting — sound.
Despite the niggles relating to the game’s often unavoidable foes, Vampire: Master of Darkness still manages to provide a solid alternative to Castlevania. It doesn’t quite reach the same levels of brilliance, and you could argue that its impact is lessened on the 3DS eShop because Konami’s game is also available for purchase — a situation which obviously wasn’t the case with the original release back in the early ‘90s — but SIMS’ effort is still worth inspection. In fact, if you consider yourself to be a fan of Castlevania, then you’ve even more reason to try this out — if only to see how another developer tackles the same general theme as Konami’s seminal action platformer.