There are few classic games series as well known as Castlevania. The original trilogy on the NES is infamous for its difficulty and is still beloved, and the SNES version is regarded as one of if not the best game in the series. Castlevania wasn’t just limited to Nintendo consoles early on; it had releases on both the Genesis and Turbografx-16 though they aren’t as well remembered. There were even releases for portable consoles, the Game Boy had several that are generally well regarded, but sadly the Game Gear never received a Castlevania game of its own. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A full color, portable Castlevania experience is just what the Game Gear needed to get some interest brewing. Sega, it seems, was aware of this glaring lack of tough-as-nails action platformer in their portable library so they made one. Vampire: Master of Darkness is totally not Castlevania… in name only; everything else seems to be pretty spot on. So without further ado let’s jump into it.
This is a really pretty game and that is in no small part to the game’s theme, we’re not trudging through the same old castle over and over, this time we’re traversing through Victorian era London and my goodness it is packed with detail. From the Thames, to the sewers, to the rooftops, even a waxworks museum, you will traverse many unique locations all with their own theme. I really don’t have anything negative to say about this, the flicker is nonexistent, and only does exist when it’s needed for exploding enemies and invincibility frames. The backgrounds are spectacular with you being able to seen Westminster Abbey and Big Ben in the background of stage one of the first level transitioning into shops and housing and finally ending in the warehouse/industrial district by stage three. Level two isn’t as visually complex as the first level but it still has some excellent coloring and the whole ‘House of Wax’ motif is no doubt inspired by the Vincent Price film. But the final stage of level two has you platforming around the rooftops and it looks so damn good! Level three, the level I finally lost on, has you trudging through a graveyard and through a passage hidden in a mausoleum until you’re jumping your way around a cathedral full of stained glass windows, apparently the final part of level three has you in a clock tower which is totally not something that Castlevania loves to do. The enemy design is fantastic, and while there are some repeat enemies like bats, thugs, ghosts, and zombies, the unique enemies are awesome. Wax dolls, armored skeletons, and even straight-up furniture will try to murder you on your quest to slay Dracula and they don’t make it easy. Well, the graphics are spectacular; do the sounds also hold up? If I recall Castlevania always has great music so if we’re trying to copy it then the music must be excellent.
The music is pretty darn good, and it’s actually original music, not just copies of Castlevania’s though they do sound very similar. Each level has its own theme that is used through each of the three stages with a boss theme at the end. Sadly the music isn’t quite as memorable as Castlevania’s but my goodness they put some effort into it. From what I can tell the sound effects of the game don’t overlap the music too much so there is minimal audio cutting which keeps everything sounding smooth. Good graphics, good sound, call me crazy but I think the gameplay is going to be great as well.
Well yes, of course it is! It’s not perfect but it gets as close to its source material as it can while remaining somewhat original. What Sega did was take the movement controls from Super Castlevania IV and package them with the gameplay from the original trilogy, because we can all agree that the controls from the NES games were the main reason why those games were so difficult. So yeah, you can control your jump in mid-air and the knockback is minimal, but don’t let that fool you the game will find other ways of killing you. The first level is a cakewalk, large slow moving enemies, thugs and zombies, punctuated by faster moving enemies ,ghosts and dogs, with the bats rushing you and them off-screening themselves, health pickups are abundant and the platforming is quite easy. All in all Level one is a great introduction level and the three stages introduce you to several themes you’ll be encountering through the game in relative safety.
Level two is Satan’s asscrack. You’ll initially encounter fast moving enemies that beeline towards you and require you have a higher damage weapon to kill them (later), these aren’t all that bad but you’ll now encounter what will make this game incredibly difficult for you for the rest of your playthrough, the bats. The bats are assholes, in level one they were easy to avoid and they just killed themselves off-screen but now they circle around and won’t die until you kill them, they are the equivalent of the Medusa heads from the NES games. They will situate themselves around staircases or tight platforming and are incredibly difficult to hit on account of their small size and high speeds. You will also be accosted by sentient furniture that is also very difficult to hit because of all the unpredictable jumping around they do, all the while you will be shot at by thugs and rushed by ghosts. But this is all manageable apart from one thing, there are almost no health pickups, you get maybe one per stage as opposed to the four or five from the previous level. You will die a lot on level two.
Level three introduces a new element that the previous two didn’t have in abundance, puzzle/challenging platforming, with the introduction of pitfalls and stair combat you’ll spend less time fighting enemies and planning your next jump. The bats are still here but in far fewer numbers amd they behave slightly differently again. Instead of flying in a circle the bats now fly in straight lines across the screen, until you kill them, they are easier to dispose of since you actually have rooms to hit them. The health pickups are back thankfully but I couldn’t get through this one, a particularly difficult jump got me every time and I eventually ran out of continues.
Unlike with Castlevania’s collectables from candles nonsense here you hit floating masks that will drop a weapon, item, or useless crap. There are four types of weapons: the dagger which is useless, the saber which is useless with a long reach, the stake which kills most enemies and has a good reach, and the axe which will kill almost all enemies with one hit but has the same reach as the dagger. Whatever you do stay away from the dagger and the saber they just won’t kill anything and are stupidly difficult to hit anything with. In a fit of cruelness however the developers decided to make every other weapon you find from masks a dagger or saber so be careful when breaking them open. There are also secondary weapons that you can collect: A gun (the knife), bombs (holy water), boomerang (the cross), and the projectile (the gun but better). You’ll never really find many places to use the secondaries apart from a few places in level two to dispose of hard to reach bats and enemies. You can also get an emerald that kills all enemies on screen and a voodoo doll that acts as a 1-up.
Overall this is an excellent game to add to your Game Gear library though I feel it would have been better off as a Master System game, but then again you can say that about most Game Gear games. If you want tough as nails action platforming that is Castlevania in all but name then Vampire: Master of Darkness is the game for you. This is where we come to the most crucial part of the game though, the price, because nobody is going to pay a crap ton for a game no matter how good it is and this is where VMD falters a little bit, it is expensive. People are asking from between 22 and 55 dollars for a loose cartridge with or without the manual, and boxed copies are around 70-96 dollars. Honestly if you can find a copy for 20 dollars or less then I’d say go for it, there’s nothing else quite like it on the Game Gear that’s for sure.