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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Master of Darkness

Still reeling from the horror of SMS Batman Returns, I now turn my attention eagerly to a platformer that shows the Master System could indeed pull off an atmospheric gothic adventure with a dramatic and well-presented storyline woven in …

Master of DarknessJust for the record, I have never played Castlevania, though I am aware that this game is often accused of ripping off that illustrious title. However, while Castlevania, as far as I understand, is based in a medieval setting and draws its inspiration from classic horror films, Master of Darkness is a much more Victorian offering, with a dash of Jules Verne-type Steampunk, but mainly inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the novel rather than the film, which had its own – far inferior – SMS game), pulp penny-dreadful fiction, and Spiritism. In-game enemies include Jack the Ripper, poltergeists, evil waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s, a child medium possessed by an evil spirit, and Count Dracula, who is actually depicted as he is described in the novel (in the close-up shot you will see of him if you fight through to the end) in contrast to the monstrous, demonic figure he cuts in Castlevania.

No-one thought to include Sweeney Todd, alas, but we can’t have it all. ;)


With a view to getting the bad news out of the way first … Level 1 contains some railings and animated trees which haven’t been masked properly, and have ugly black outlines, which is a shame as the backgrounds are generally of very high quality for an 8-bit game. Also, some of the animation on the sprites is a tad stiff, but no worse than in the 16-bit Revenge of Shinobi.

Now for the good: with few exceptions, both sprites and backgrounds are of excellent quality. The level settings are distinct, even from one “act” to another, and really enhance the sense of a journey. For example, for the first set of three levels (first “zone”, so to speak) you begin in the vicinity of London Bridge, traverse the river Thames, and finally fight your way through seedy East End docklands to a showdown with Jack the Ripper. All of the levels continue this sense of progression, and are linked with well-drawn and annotated cut-scenes that really help to set this game apart from the average action platformer (As a side note, SMS Strider also had cutscenes, but no amount of icing could redeem that particular cake). There are several animated elements in the backdrops, the highlight of which comes in the “Epitaph” church clock tower level, with swinging, 16-bit Sonic-style pendulums on multi-sprite chains, and intricate patterns of gears and wheels in the background.

An enlightening video of Master of Darkness in all its Victorian glory.

There are many enemy types, and no confusion over what they are meant to represent: the zombies look thoroughly rancid, the skeleton soldiers as menacing than their relatives in Golden Axe, not to mention attack dogs, bats (with annoyingly erratic attack patterns, but they do keep you on your toes), eagles, flying vampiresses (who either patrol or act like homing missiles, so eager are they for a bite), poltergeist-haunted furniture, knife-throwing dwarfs in robes (possibly Victorian Jawas … definitely the silliest-looking of the game’s enemies), haunted waxworks, gun-toting ruffians, and bosses after every third level. These guardians are rather small, but they give you a good fight until you have worked out their patterns, whereupon they are easily trounced … which seems quite fair to me, as I prefer a game with a learning factor.

There are several weapons available – 4 melee weapons (knife, sword, stake, and axe) and 4 limited long-range weapons (pistol, grenades, boomerangs, throwing stakes) – all of which are clearly animated. There is only one generic white explosion for everything (except your own death sequence), which does get a bit tiresome, but we can assume it is saving sprite memory, bearing in mind the quality and variety of the graphics.

The end sequence isn’t much to write home about, though I have seen many worse.

90% (Good, detailed graphics throughout, and on occasion apt to be mistaken for 16-bit quality.)


Never the strongest link with the Master System, but Master of Darkness does a commendable job of squeezing some pleasantly spooky and well-instrumented tunes out of the old Z80, including incidentals riffs, boss music, cutscene music, and a different theme for each set of levels. Some are better than others (level 3 is excellent, level 2 is simply grating) and all could benefit from being longer, but the musical variety certainly adds to the gaming experience. One need only contrast the interminable, unvarying music that plays through all of the levels of Strider, and the effect it has on a game already gravely in want of atmosphere.

Sound effects serve their purpose, though there is nothing particularly of note. One wishes, for example, that Dracula might manage a digitised scream when you finally dispatch him. Nothing disgraceful, though.

75% (Surprisingly good music, serviceable SFX.)


The awkwardness of climbing up stairs and trying to hit the very pesky and unpredictable bats may put you off at first, but this is a game that rewards persistence. The rules are the same each time you play, so careful progress and observation will enable you to evade and destroy enemies who may have wiped the floor with you previously. There are a few annoying, unannounced pitfalls (Recommendation: do not take a fall unless there is no other way to go) spikes wipe out a very harsh amount of energy compared to baddies, and dying deprives you of your long-range weapons, but it is definitely a winnable game, even without the built-in cheat mode (that would be telling … ;) ).

The different melee weapons all have their appropriate uses (except the knife, which is rubbish and should be replaced forthwith). The sword has great range, but its poor damage can be a risk when fighting bosses, who go down much more quickly with blows from the short-range axe. This adds a small but welcome strategic element to combat. With the long-range weapons, the best choices are the grenades (especially for the last boss, hint, hint) and the throwing stakes. The boomerang is a bit pointless, though it does animate quite nicely.

Power-ups are liberally spaced, but beware of picking up unwanted weapons, as replacement is automatic. Enemies respawn instantly if you backtrack, so never forget to clear an area thoroughly (always with an eye on the time limit). As mentioned before, the bosses tend to be tough at first, but careful observation of their patterns will pay off. The last two-stage boss is quite a challenge (unless you took that previous hint). Not the most difficult of games, but not a patronisingly easy one either. Apart from one or two slight annoyances, very well-balanced.

80% (Unoriginal, Shinobi-esque stuff right enough, but why not try an old and successful game formula in a new setting? The selectable weapon system and occasional simple puzzles add a little variety, but the combination of solid platforming action in an atmospheric, well-presented setting is what really makes this game work for me. Nor does it hurt that it is fair and winnable.)



Frustrating to begin with, but one that I keep coming back to, with some of the best presentation on the Master System and a gripping gothic atmosphere. A rewarding and dramatic game that might not quite hit the top rank of 8-bit platformers, but still puts a good few to shame.


gnome said...

Never heard of Master of Darkness up until now, and I must say, I'm pretty sure I'll like it. Must be the setting I believe. Or the write-up.

And to think I never really cared for Castlevania...

Anthony Burns said...

I am personally a sucker for anything Victorian and Gothic. Strange that I never really bothered with Castlevania (but I never owned an NES, and only found out very recently that it had been on the C64 as well).

Hope you like Master of Darkness, anyway, and please don't hold it against me if you find that you don't. ;) At least it shouldn't be hard to get hold of it for free (for MEKA, at least, if not for the online emulator).

gnome said...

Quite interested in Victorian and -more so, due their more democratic nature- Gothic aesthetics myself. Oh, and already gave Master of Darkness a try and it really seems quite nice. Love the style too!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Never would've known there was a SMS castlevania clone!

gnome said...

Amazing, eh?

MG said...

what a great game - had a sudden nostalgic moment and found this site.

i never got anywhere near the end, i wasnt very patient or skilled back when i was a kid. but remember it was one of the first games that made me feel genuinely on edge and ill admit, a bit scared!

i loved my master system...