While many of us remember Sega for bringing out their own original properties, it’s also undeniable that several of their works were incredibly derivative in nature. This seems even more true on the Master System and Game Gear, where, if they weren’t releasing sub-standard ports of their arcade hits, they were openly mimicking other popular 8-bit games. Golden Axe Warrior comes immediately to mind, as does their attempt to turn Alex Kidd into their own Mario-style mascot. Axe Battler takes a stab at Zelda II, with decidedly mixed results. But no one, it seems, remembers Master of Darkness.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: You play as a hero armed with an upgradeable weapon, several sub-weapons, destroy floating objects to reveal powerups, climb staircases, and even break walls to find life-restoring items. You take on all manner of undead and ghostly beasties (including a few with maddening movement patterns), eventually culminating in a battle against Dracula himself.
If you guessed this was Castlevania, no one would fault you, because that’s the exact template Master of Darkness uses. You pick up colored gems that stand in for money bags, potions instead of meat, and there’s even a clock tower level in which you ride a pendulum across a pit, Castlevania III-style. The game hearkens back to a time when Sega was desperately trying to bottle the same lightning Nintendo had, despite its 1992 release.
The game is still good, with some small differences. Your main weapon actually changes, with a knife, axe, hammer, and sword to wield, all with different ranges and strengths. You have much more control over Dr. Ferdinand Social, with the ability to change direction while jumping, crawl forward, and even jump off of (but not onto) staircases, inspired more by Super Castlevania IV than the original trilogy. The controls are tight, so it’s actually more fun to play than other games that aped Konami’s seminal classic.
At the same time, however, there is really no palpable sense of fear in the game, because it’s very easy. If you come in expecting Castlevania-level difficulty, you’re going to be disappointed (or relieved). Other than a tricky maze sequence in the last level where you’re more likely to die from running out of time, it’s just not that tough. Enemies don’t hit very hard, and potions are more generously placed than Castlevania’s meat. It’s easy to blast through in an afternoon, and you probably won’t pick it up again for quite a while.
The game was also ported to the Game Gear. There, the game fares less well. Just as many console-to-handheld ports maintain too-large sprites, so too does this game. Some concessions to the format were made, but it still feels cramped. If given an option, play the Master System version. But it’s still playable, and apparently coming to the 3DS eShop. If you’re craving a little Castlevania on the go, it’s certainly a much better option than Castlevania: The Adventure, regardless of name cachet.
Article by Lee Hathcock
GameSpite Journal 12: Master of Darkness