Sunday, 19 November 2017

Master of Darkness Review - Vampire Freaks

So according to the October Nightmares reviews on here, I’m co-reviewer now. Funny, I always considered myself the literary equivalent of a crack whore that you occasionally sling one up out of pity. Either I got a promotion and nobody told me, or Iron’s subtly buttering me up for another issue of Prime Cuts. I must be vigilant.


Perhaps it’s because Halloween’s just gone, or perhaps it’s because I’ve recently been to Whitby, but I’ve found my love for the classic monsters rekindled recently. I won’t be re-reading any of the books though, because I’ve read them all before and they’re boring as shit. But what else are you to expect from a time when only toffs were allowed ( and able to) write and you paid them by the word? You get overly-written pomposity about toffs being toffs doing toffy things and inexorably saving the day in the process.

Little history lesson for you, Dracula was not the first Vampire story ever written. That debatable honour belongs to The Vampyre by John William Polidori, a whole 78 years prior. There, lesson over.

Dracula’s fame has always been a mystery to me, because whereas Frankenstein’s Monster yearns to understand the meaning of his existence (as do we all, but we aren’t all sewn together from bits of other people, so his need is a bit more immediate) and Dr Jekyll is experimenting at being a metaphor for the duality of the human spirit, Dracula... vants to drink blood. That’s it. He moves to London, because it’s a hotbed of decadence, excess and tight corsetry, and he wants in on that action. You could argue that the Christopher Lee incarnation was motivated to turn the woman with the biggest knockers, and you could also argue that Dracula’s coming to London symbolises the Eastern customs and religions encroaching on the West and fears of the British Empire being on its way out, but that’s your A-Level English Lit lesson over. That one’s on me.

Bonus one for you, Lucy and Mina’s turning, and the three hot vampire chicks raping Jonathan Harker represent the growing sexuality in women vs their oppression at the hands of coitophobic men. Because it took a drunk Irishman to point out that women like to fuck too, but I digress.  In reality, Dracula never had any proper motivation until Coppola. While this makes him the most monstrous of all the classics in a sense, because despite looking the most human, logic and reason can’t define him, it does make it difficult to find reasons to keep making films about him, which is probably why he didn’t do much in the Hammer films apart from give the big-titted women his red-eyed glare and not much else.  And yes, like all good horror franchises gone bad, Dracula has already been to space.

But Sam, I hear you cry nasally, I thought this was a game review? Stop talking about shitty old books and tits. Sit down, sonny Jim, I’m segueing into it.  It’s called a 3-act structure.

Fact is Dracula is here to stay. Recent media have been trying to make him more sympathetic, though if becoming a damned and hellish vampire is your first option for fighting off the Turks rather than, oh say, using your own army, then you’re not the most forward-thinking Christian warlord.  That’s one of the many reasons Dracula Untold should have stayed untold. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow gave us a proper history and motivation for the vampire lord, but only let us play as him when he’s being a miserable cunt rather than at the height of his evil reign. Shame really. I wanted to terrorise some lesser beings. This is why there should be more Legacy of Kain games.

Speaking of segue games, we’ve finally got to that Dracula game I’d like to talk about.

Master of Darkness (1992) appeared in the twilight years of the Sega Master System, the precursor to the Mega Drive (Genesis to my imaginary US fans). The Master System’s reign ran from 1985 to pretty much the very moment the Mega Drive blew it out the water (1990), so it’s understandable to see why Master of Darkness went under the radar, 2 years after it was overtaken.

Like many games that are the last for their console, it’s one of the best for it.  It’s basically a Mega Drive game, it just didn’t come out for it.  It got good reviews at the time though, possibly because a Dracula-based action platformer was yet to come to Sega.

I should have put this at the start of the review just for marketing’s sake, but I’ll say this now: This game shits on Castlevania. It does. Castlevania’s problem is that it’s a mish-mash of different things.  Vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, Mummies, Gorgons, it was all over the shop and gave no reason why they should all be in the same place.  Master of Darkness has streamline and structure. The main villain is Dracula. Oh sure, he has his acolytes, but the game actually has a coherent narrative told through text and blurry pictures between stages.

Set in Victorian London amidst the Jack the Ripper murders, Dr Social’s investigations into them take him to a Ouija board that hints of the true goings on. From there you track down Saucy Jack himself, a countess in charge of him, and Count Massen, believed to be the main villain, who is just a pawn for Dracula himself.

If it sounds as schlocky as a Hammer Horror film, that’s because it is.  But the game manages to cram a lot of atmosphere into its 8-bit screen. The opening level begins by the river Thames, and it looks just as grimy and uninviting as you’d think, with wisps of fog in the background making the buildings appear as black shades. The second level sees you in a wax museum battling the mannequins themselves. Only some come to life, but you won’t know which ones until they do.

Then there’s a cemetery full of zombies, skeletons and cultists, Count Massen’s castle, complete with his secret laboratory full of Re-animator-style experiments, then finally, the labyrinthine lair of Dracula himself. And I do mean labyrinthine. The level only has about 8 screens and they loop continuously unless you know the right way to go through them, and there’re all four directions to choose from.

Only 5 levels, but apart from the last one, each is split into 3 stages with a boss at the end of the third. Standard setup. This game looks like a Hammer horror film and is given the same attention to detail as what Nightmare Creatures had in 1997. Even the music is in the same spirit of the Hammer classics, despite being bleeps and bloops (and something else that I’ll get to shortly).

One thing to point out is that Master of Darkness is very hard. Life for Dr Social is rough as he gets brutalised by everything from robbers, ghosts, mannequins, zombies, and yes, bats. Can’t have a Dracula game without those little bastards. Like a goth lass to tacky pewter jewellery and over-estimated sexual expectations, they go hand in hand. One of the difficulties comes from the enemies having different attributes, but all looking the same.

The bats, for example, all move differently.  Some follow a set flight path and all you have to do is avoid them. But some follow you and won’t leave you alone, usually waiting until you’re half way over a chasm before hitting you mid-air. You won’t know what they’re going to do until they do it. Same goes for the zombies. Some are slow, some are fast (Linfords we used to call them back in the Resident Evil 2 days) and take more damage.

Fortunately, Dr Social is packing a small arsenal. Hate to make another Castlevania comparison here, but who chooses a whip as their main weapon? It’s ridiculous. Call it a magic one all you want, I don’t care, I’d want a sword and a shield. Social starts out in the mean streets near the Thames like the local braggarts and ruffians, packing a dagger, but can upgrade to a rapier, an axe, and his trusty cane. They have different levels of damage and different ranges and for some reason the cane does more damage than the sword. Maybe it’s a better conduit for his toff powers. Secondary weapons include a gun, grenades, wooden stakes and a boomerang. Who would choose a boomerang though, seriously? It’s Victorian London, not post-apocalyptic Australia.

Like I mentioned earlier, the music carries that horror film vibe to it, but a bit more up-tempo. That is until you get to the bosses. It’s worth not attacking the bosses straight away just to hear all of this, because what you’re treated to is an 8-bit shredding guitar solo. If played on a real guitar it’d have everything from pre-bends and legato to tapping to sweep-picking in there. I’m very tempted to learn this solo.

Like the film Count Dracula (1970), it’s an often forgotten gem in the vampire’s library. His games have crossed genre many times, with point ‘n’ click adventures Dracula: Resurrection and Dracula: The Last Sanctuary, and whatever garbage that Sega CD thing was supposed to be, the Prince of Darkness has tried it all. I’m surprised he hasn’t got one of those creepy dating sim games that the Japanese love so much. If you only play one Master System game in your life though, I’d recommend this one.

Anyway, this game came out at just the right time to fan the flames of my childhood Dracula obsession. He was always my favourite monster. So much so I secretly stayed up late one night to watch the Coppola film and my teacher at school said my reading age was far above the curriculum, so asked me to bring a book from home to read. I brought Dracula.

I was a weird kid, I know.

Enjoyed this piece? Then 'like' The Crusades of A Critic on Facebook. Sam also has a novel which can currently be viewed here, and features ten times the swears, snarc, and rage of the above piece.