Obscure Gems: Vampire: Master of Darkness (Sega Master System/Game Gear)

I was surprised to discover there was a Castlevania clone for the Sega Master System and Game Gear.  This game takes so many elements from Castlevania that it very closely rides the line of being considered a bootleg, although I wouldn’t accuse it of crossing that line.

You play as a psychologist named Dr. Social.  He gets instructions from his Ouija board to track down Jack the Ripper at the Thames River, which eventually leads him to fight through a castle to stop the resurrection of Dracula.  If you’re surprised by that bit being pretty close to Castlevania, you better buckle up because we’re just getting started.

This game is an even bigger fan of Castlevania than I am.

I want to state up front that while I’ll be poking fun at this game for ripping off so much from Castlevania, I’m not making any claims that the game is bad for that specific reason.  I wouldn’t consider this game to be plagiarism.  I was originally excited to play this because it was a Castlevania clone, and I might have skipped it otherwise.  After all these years, the fact that this game is so derivative of the beloved vampire-killing franchise gives this title a special charm it otherwise wouldn’t have.

That being said, here’s a teleporting Dracula shooting fireballs out of his cape.

One innovation that makes this game stand out from Castlevania (and this game desperately needs any last bit of originality it can manage) is the 4 different main weapons you can find and equip.  Instead of using a whip for the entire game, Dr. Social can use a knife, a sword, an axe, and a hammer.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t really add any variety to the game because only two of the weapons are actually any good, and I would make the case that the hammer is the only one you should ever use.

When you start the game or resume after a death, the game gives you a knife as your main weapon, which has low damage, short range, and is the worst item in the game.  Oddly enough the game keeps trying to give you the knife back as if there was any reason at all you’d want it.  Perhaps they were trying to make it like the poison mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels.

The knife can be a huge problem for the player because it tends to appear right before bosses, including the final boss, which can severely weaken you.

Don’t get the knife.  For any reason.

The axe is a viable option because it seems to deal the most damage, even though the range is about as bad as the knife.  Dr. Social swings it over his head, but it really isn’t an overhead strike you can use for aerial enemies, except in certain strange circumstances when the game’s hitboxes do weird stuff:

Based on my experimentation, this weirdness with the axe is impossible to exploit consistently enough to be useful.

The sword is okay, it boasts good range but deals terrible damage.  You won’t be heavily disadvantaged if you accidentally pick one up, but you should avoid the sword in every case and instead opt for either the hammer or the axe.

In my opinion, the hammer is the only weapon you need to use for every single area of the game.  It has good range combined with the second best damage of the four main weapons.  Some enemies will require an extra hit to kill, but those few high health enemies aren’t that big of a threat.  Just bonk them one more time.  The hammer is balanced and reliable enough to get you through every threat in the game.

The hammer is the first powerup you’re given.  Just keep it for the rest of the game.

The way the game handles subweapons is strange.  You pick up a subweapon and it has its own ammo count which you can increase by getting the same powerup again.  If you pick up a different subweapon, you lose all this accumulated ammo.  You get powerups by breaking little floating masks instead of candles.  And the level designer’s favorite thing to do apparently was put these masks right over pits and spikes, so you have to blindly grab them before you have time to figure out what you’re grabbing.  This results in a lot of unintended consequences that make the game less enjoyable.

It’s interesting how playing a game attempting to imitate Castlevania but having an inferior powerup system really made me realize how brilliant Castlevania really is.  The universal Heart resource for subweapons is great because you can freely switch subweapons and experiment with different strategies.  This game’s system isn’t an improvement.

I’m sure the subweapons in this game are more useful than I’m making them out to be, but I barely even used them for the entire game.  The gun and the boomerang suck because their damage is so low.  The bomb is actually good, and if I ever play this game again I’ll use it more.  It travels in an upward arc like the Axe in Castlevania, though much slower.  The stake does really good damage and can really help out with bosses, but it only starts to appear at the end of the game.

The bomb is pretty good.

Try to get as much stake ammo as you can and save it for the bosses.

I do appreciate that the “kill everything on screen” powerup is always put in places where you really need it.

Make no mistake about Dr. Social, he’s an absolute tank.  He’s got about as much defensive power as a fully geared-up Alucard from Symphony of the Night.  To make things even easier on the player, this game is incredibly generous with health powerups.  Remember in Castlevania when you’d strike at a wall and be disappointed the blocks didn’t break?  Not in this game, just about everything that looks like it could be a breakable wall actually is, and most of the time there’s a health potion.  You can really fumble your way through this game, get hit constantly, and still make it through to the end.

This isn’t a very difficult game, and it’s very short.  Those two facts together mean you’re likely only going to ever play this once.  Maybe someone out there can make a romhack that increases the difficulty.

Health powerups hidden inside breakable walls, just like your other favorite game!

Castlevania IV was already out by this point, so they got the shimmy crouch walk in.

However, Dr. Social stands up if you try to crouch-walk him off a ledge, which makes this happen.

This game is pretty fun for the most part.  The level design is my biggest gripe, even though there’s also many instances of brilliant level design in this game.

Of all the things this game copied from Castlevania, it loves stairs the most.  There’s way more stairs in this game than even the stair-iest Castlevania game, and the real bummer is it doesn’t feature the upgraded stair mechanics from games like Castlevania IV or Rondo of Blood, such as being able to land on steps by jumping.  You always have to start climbing from the bottom, as well as a very specific spot at the bottom.  Combining stair climbing with combat doesn’t work quite like you’d expect, and leads to awkward moments.  The stair climbing in this game is not so egregious that it ruins the entire game, but I definitely am not fond of it.

I blame the bad stair controls for how terrible of a video game player I look right here.

If you’re not lined up in the exact spot you’re supposed to be, Social won’t climb stairs.

There’s some really weird leaps of faith in this game that end up with you hitting spikes.  Spikes are just all over the place in bizarre places, and sometimes it seems you’re just supposed to hit them and jump out of them to get through a level.  As already stated, Dr. Social can take a huge amount of hits, so that’s pretty much how you end up playing the game.

This is one weird area that was fixed in the Game Gear version.

There are some parts of the levels that I thought were pretty lame or unfair, here’s a couple:

I’m spoiling this for you because this jump sucks.  Scoot as far to the right as you can and then jump.

These falling blocks are cheap. Nothing up to this point in the game indicated that these blocks can fall, and it doesn’t happen again.

As for the good parts of the level design, I really enjoyed the branching paths of some of the levels.  You can also find hidden shortcuts to help you finish the level faster.  There’s also little challenge rooms that have a specific objective, like moving to one side of the screen to defeat an enemy that continuously spawns others.

The last level, the Labyrinth, is the best.  It’s a big maze and you use trial and error to find the exit.  Something about the way it was executed was really fun.  Make sure to remember your path through the maze, because if you die on the boss you have to go through it again.

A group of enemies were programmed to just commit suicide for no reason. I’m just as confused as you are. 

With how weird this game is sometimes, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was intended and not actually a glitch.

The writing in this game is pretty decent, and the cutscenes that play after you beat a boss are quick and enjoyable to read.

If you told me there was an Iron Maiden song called Vampire: Master of Darkness and these were the lyrics, I would have believed you.

The problem with Vampire is how much it pales in comparison to the games it strives to imitate.  Again, Castlevania IV on the SNES was already out by this point, and this game’s very simplistic enemy and boss designs really look really amateurish by comparison.  I don’t think you should always use direct comparison to other games in a review, but in the case of something like this, it’s definitely warranted.  If Vampire: Master of Darkness was actually part of the Castlevania franchise, it would be the weakest in the series, maybe only beating out Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.

So what did I think of Vampire: Master of Darkness?  I spent the entire game agonizing over this question.  While playing, I was constantly taking note of all the things in this game that suck, but I couldn’t deny that I was consistently having fun.  The level design is the game’s weakest feature, but it wasn’t enough to turn me off the game entirely.  The game ends on a very strong note, which is probably what made me ultimately arrive at a positive impression of the game.  I really enjoyed the last level and the final boss, and I finished the game in a good mood.

Then I played the Game Gear version, and it was a lot better.  It’s essentially the same game, except the levels were redesigned to fit the smaller screen.  A lot of the level design problems the Sega Master System version had weren’t present and it’s a much better experience.  Something about the game works better with a tighter play area.

I had a lot more fun with the Game Gear version.

But, please make no mistake here.  This just barely squeaked its way into the Obscure Gems series, and could possibly be one of the weakest games I will review under that category.  The game has an abundance of flaws, and it’s not much of a challenge, but ultimately I would consider the superior Game Gear version to be an Obscure Gem.

Castlevania fans will find it an amusing curiosity, and it’s definitely a game you want in your library if you own a Sega Master System or a Game Gear.  The Game Gear version is the one I prefer, so go for that if you can.

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16 thoughts on “Obscure Gems: Vampire: Master of Darkness (Sega Master System/Game Gear)”

  1. Hey Mike and James. I was just wondering if you guys will do a Mike and James Monday with the game snacther for the sega cd? Lots of your viewers probably don’t k ow about it but it’s a great gem to play. Thanks

    1. +Bob
      If you loved Snatcher, I think you’ll consider it’s spin-off “SD-Snarcher” quite interesting. It’s like the original one but adapted to its new RPG genre. In contrast to the original, the characters are featured in a chibi art style.

  2. I agree pretty much with everything you said about this game. I got to play the GameGear version and I must say I did enjoy it, although it was pretty average. It’s a decent game and I recommend it to people that like the early Castlevania games. Greetings from a Romanian fan Mike, I wish you a Happy New Year 🙂

  3. I had this for the game gear a long time ago. I have no idea how you ended up enjoying it. Terrible controls, blocky movement for the character Sprite, and difficulty set to “random.” Maybe my GG was a little old, but the buttons weren’t sticking, so far as I remember. Glad to hear that others could get a kick out of it.

  4. I always felt that this one copied almost everything about Castlevania except for the fun. There’s enjoyment to be had for sure but it’s not something that lends itself to repeated plays like you mentioned. Still, I’m glad to own it on the Master System. I had only tried the beginning of the first level of the Game Gear version not long ago. At that point it seemed the same to me. The repetitive, droning music made me not want to play it much further so I just assumed it was mostly the same and shut it off. Interesting to know that there are differences!

  5. Another great obscure gem is the Golden Girls 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I love tabletop jigsaw puzzles, and when you combine that with the Golden Girls, you get so much exciting fun ! The last time I put it together, I downed a handle of Jack Daniels, and had the time of my life !

  6. I’m loving this blog! I had no idea this game existed and it kind of makes me want to check it out now. Love everything you and James do at Cinemassacre! J&M Monday’s are some of my fave YouTube videos.

  7. I would love to see you livestream this one, with all your Castlevania content, ‘Inferior Imitations’ like Vampire would feel right at home. <3

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