12/04/2012

MASTER OF DARKNESS (MASTER SYSTEM)

A chill fog creeps through the cobbled streets of Victorian London. Dark forces perform sinister rituals beneath the sickly light of a full moon. A young psychologist smashes a ghost's head in with a hammer. Welcome of the macabre world of Sega's 1992 Master System seems-kinda-familiar-em-up Master of Darkness!


Or Vampire: Master of Darkness, or In The Wake of Vampire: this game has a few titles, but they all serve to inform you that you're going to be facing darkness and vampires. It should be called There Are Fucking Bats Everywhere: the Videogame, but we'll get to that. First, settle down and prepare for a grisly tale...


I'm pretty sure that's werewolves you're thinking of, but go on.


This dapper fellow meddling with powers he cannot begin to comprehend is our hero, young psychologist and part-time paranormal investigator Ferdinand Social. A distant relative of Demolition Man's Edgar Friendly, perhaps? Anyway, while Ferdinand is pissing about with a Ouija board like a teenage girl at a slumber party a terrifying message is revealed to him.



Jack the Ripper is actually Dracula? Okey dokey then. Feeling that as an inexperienced psychologist he is the best-equipped person to handle this demonic threat, Ferdinand sets out to the banks of the Thames with naught but a song in his heart and a knife in his pocket.


And here we are in the Big Smoke, ready for whatever evil comes our way. Before I go any further, you've all played or at least know the general details of Castlevania, right? Oh good, because that'll make things a lot simpler. Master of Darkness is, to be blunt, a rip-off of Castlevania. Dracula is the villain, the levels are filled with the same feeling of gothic horror, Ferdinand uses a melee weapon complemented by a sub-weapon system identical to the one found in Konami's whip-crackin' masterpiece and there are so many staircases made of diagonally-arranged square blocks that any Belmont would feel right at home. A knockoff it may be, but don't be disappointed - this is still a damn fine little game.


It's an action-platforming adventure - guide Ferdinand to the end of each stage, jumping across London's poorly-maintained waterways and rooftops while defeating the enemies that cross your path. Luckily the jumping isn't in the Castlevania mould and you can alter your course once airbourne. That creepy mask over on the right isn't an enemy, by the way. It's Master of Darkness' equivalent of the Castlevania candle, a background element you can destroy to get power-ups. The two gentlemen with the strangely-proportioned legs are enemies, and they're perfectly willing to shoot at any psychologist that wanders into their territory. Luckily this game was developed in Japan so guns are almost useless as a weapon...


...and swords are far superior. Unimpressed with the whip as a tool for slaying evil, Ferdinand can pick up four different melee weapons. You start out with a knife that has all the range and stopping power of a kitten's sneeze, but luckily you soon come across a rapier to replace it, as well as an axe and a hammer. Aside from the knife, which you should avoid like it was a syphilitic tramp, the other three weapons all have their pros and cons: the rapier has the best reach but isn't quite as powerful as the others, the axe does the most damage but has a tiny range and a weird arced hit-box and the hammer is somewhere between the two. The hammer is my personal favourite, partly because of its all-round attributes but mostly because I like the idea of defeating the ultimate evil by hitting it with a sledgehammer.


You can expand your arsenal by picking up a variety of limited-use sub-weapons, activated (unsurprisingly) by holding up while you press attack. The first one you find is a pistol, but as I mentioned previously Master of Darkness treats firearms with the kind of contempt usually reserved for compensation lawyers - the bullets are extremely weak and not even particularly fast. The bombs are the equivalent of Castlevania's axes and are slightly more useful, although it can be difficult to hit things with them. Better still are the boomerangs, which act a bit like the Cross. Sega must have had some deep undercover neo-Luddites working on this game, because it seems that the more primitive a weapon is, the better. This is confirmed later in the game when you get access to the stakes, which are far and away the best of the sub-weapons and consist of you hurling at stick at the bad guys.


Speaking of bad guys, I've reached the first boss. It’s Jack the Ripper, and he looks like he wasn't content with all the murders and decided to steal from Willy Wonka's wardrobe too. For some reason, he speaks like a pirate.


There he goes, leaping through the night sky in his top hat like Sailor Moon's Tuxedo Mask but with a compulsion to murder prostitutes. This isn't a particularly challenging fight - all Jacky Boy does is hop around the screen, occasionally trying to stab you - and once you manage to get a hit in he stops in his tracks and you can start really whaling on him. You might think, what with the Ripper murders being in full swing and Scotland Yard desperately trying to find a suspect, that standing in the middle of a London street and hacking at someone with an axe would attract a lot of unwanted attention, but Ferdinand Social received a vague message from a Ouija board and by God he's not gonna let anything stop his mission to destroy Dracula.


I have no idea who's talking here. Dracula? Isn't that a picture of Jack at the bottom, though? Maybe Drac just saw a bargain on a job lot of purple suits and bought one for himself and everyone in his employ. Whoever it is, they disappear into the night but not before telling Ferdinand to head to the Wax Museum... if he dares!


Oh, so you dared, then? Good, good. I have no idea why the entrance to the wax museum is in a cave but hey - it looks cool, right? Master of Darkness acquits itself very well in the graphics department: these screenshots don't do it full justice, but everything is smoothly animated, the art style is good and there's very little slowdown and sprite flicker even with plenty of things on the screen.
I'm sure you've already figured this out, but some of the waxworks come to life and try to kill you. Yeah, yeah, I know - it would've been more of a shock had this just been a normal wax museum, but Dracula's particular brand of evil is nothing if not predictable.


This is more like it! Opulence, class, large purple rectangles mounted to the walls. Everything you'd expect from the genteel and refined Victorian era, plus poltergeist furniture. I assume it's actually furniture possessed by a malevolent spirit and not a waxwork of furniture possessed by a malevolent spirit. There are also hovering ghost women who seem more confused than actively evil: they just float back and forth as though they can't remember where they left their car keys.


Oh hello, you must be the boss. What a smashing frock you're wearing. Say, are you doing anything later?


Well, there's no need to get like that and summon a giant skull to crush me beneath its bony weight. Again, this isn't the most challenging battle in the world because the skull moves fairly slowly and the amount of damage you take if you do get hit is far, far less than in a game like, ooh, let's say Castlevania. Soon enough, you've hit the skull the arbitrary amount of times require to halt its evil plans and it turns out the girl was merely a poor, unwitting conduit for these terrible forces. Yeah, that's what they all say - get in the Containment Unit, lady.


Well, that all makes sense. Time to head to the graveyard and its accompanying church.


It's time to talk about bats, I'm afraid. You see those three red-and-black, vaguely bat-shaped things? Yeah, those are indeed bats. In the Castlevania article I talked about Medusa Heads, about how they're some of the most frustrating enemies you'll ever encounter in a videogame, what with their tendency to fill the screen, crash into you and knock you off platforms and into spikes. Well, at least the Medusa Heads had the good grace to restrict themselves to small portions of one or two stages. This is not the case with the bats of Master of Darkness. They are everywhere. They're the first enemy you encounter and they appear on damn near every subsequent screen of the game, waiting for you to come near them so they can dive-bomb you, fluttering around while you're trying to fight the actual enemies and generally being an absolute nightmare for the entire game. It is to Sega's credit that these leather-winged pricks don't completely ruin the game with their constant presence, and I can say with certainty that I hate them far, far more than I've ever hated a Medusa Head or similar enemy. In short, bats - fuck you.


Okay, let's calm down by looking at these lovely stained glass windows. Aren't they nice? I think calling this place a church has rather undersold it - we're into "vaunting, cathedral-sized testament to God's glory" territory here. It's a fun section, with some good platforming that's challenging without being frustratingly difficult and there... hang on. Don't move. There are three goddamn bats in that picture.


Bugger me, it's like Where's Wally if Wally was a bat and he was determined to see you fall to your death and land on the cold stone below, your internal organs forced out of your body through the sheer force of your impact. And I though the constant Zubat battles in Pokemon were infuriating.


Look, forget the bats - let's just enjoy the nice music, shall we? Ahh, that's soothing. Master of Darkness has a uniformly excellent soundtrack composed by Fumie Kumatani, an actiony-horror mix that owes much less of a debt to Castlevania than the rest of the game and is some of my favourite stuff to have ever come out of the Master System, music-wise.


Just in case you thought I was over-exaggerating Master of Darkness' debt to the Castlevania series, here we are at the clocktower stage. I say "clocktower" but this thing has about five pendulums. No clock needs five pendulums. I don't think this is even a church; it's a storage area for Castlevania's repair materials.


We've reached the boss, and while the faintly Fist of the North Star-looking villain spouts off about how he's going to kill us and whatnot, Ferdinand has turned around and is about to walk right off the clock face. That'll show him.


Finally, a boss who puts up some kind of a fight. That fight is mostly made up of this guy flying around and throwing tomatoes at you, but he's still tougher to beat than Jack the Ripper. As always, the best strategy is to avoid his attacks until he floats nearby and then clobber him, stunning him momentarily, letting you get a few more hits in and proving once and for all that hammers are better than tomatoes in a fight.


Who? Apparently Count Massen is a spooky posho who lives in an old castle and dabbles in the black arts. I cannot believe that this guy was not top of the list of suspects when these dark rituals began.


Nature abhors a psychologist, and as you start stage four (the "laboratory" stage, supposedly) you are instantly assaulted from all sides by dogs, bats and what look like overweight hummingbirds. You want to cut down on the nectar, mate, maybe try switching to a low sugar alternative. Unfortunately for nature, humanity in general and Dr. Social in particular has mastered the use of tools, and by this I mean they've mastered the use of hammers for hitting things.


Still not really looking like a laboratory, but never mind. I've stumbled into a trap here, because in an attempt to mix up the gameplay this stage contains a few trap rooms. To escape you have to kill one specific enemy, and I suggest you do it as quickly as possible because while said enemy is still alive they can summon an instant supply of reinforcements. In this case, the head villain is (wait for it) that candelabra in the middle of the room. Not the most intimidating of opponents, but a servant of evil is a servant of evil no matter how small they are or what their silver content is.
You might also have noticed that the candelabra is boxed in behind some walls. This is where the challenge comes in - to clear these rooms, you generally have to make your way all around the room in order to get within striking distance of your target, usually involving navigating around spikes and making tight jumps. I, however, have plenty of stakes. You know I said they were the best weapon by far? This is because when you throw them, they travel through enemies. And walls. And pretty much anything, really. So the trap rooms are much less fiendish when you can just line yourself up with the target and throw a stake. Job done, let's move on. I feel like I've cheated, but then again I need all the help I can get.


Oh and just so you know, there is an actual laboratory down here. It's got spinning electric orbs that I deftly avoided with an almost supernatural grace and skill, before I realised they were platforms. It's got bats and hunchbacks, naturellement. It's also got an awful lot of the wax dolls from stage two, although their "ha-ha-I've-come-to-life" gimmick has worn rather thin after the first two or three hundred times.


Count Massen's back. He's got a cape now. Yup.


He's still using the unholy power of tomatoes to fight his battles, but at least these ones look a little more magical. This boss fight is... well, it's sort of like the standard Castlevania Dracula battle. Massen throws an attack at you, turns into some magical tomatoes, floats around the room for a while and then re-forms somewhere else. You can only hurt him once he's re-formed, so it's all about trying to guess where Massen's going to reappear and then standing nearby, hammer raised. It's hardly the most taxing encounter, and the difficulty level in MoD is definitely much lower than it's illustrious predecessor - I don't think Death needs to worry about losing his position as Dracula's right-hand skeleton, anyway.


I have to wonder why Count Massen didn't use this magical power - the power to teleport people to a prison cell - at the start of the fight. The only explanation is that Massen is a colossal idiot.


Of course, Ferdinand is such a badass that he immediately kicks down the iron door of his cell and batters his skeleton guard to death.
Stage five is the final stage, and unlike the previous stages it isn't broken down into three shorter "acts". No, stage five is (ugh) a maze stage. The whole level is one big map of interconnected rooms, all filled with patrolling enemies and spike pits. I'm really not a fan of this kind of labyrinth stage, but at least getting through the rooms themselves is fun. A lot of this is down to Master of Darkness' impeccable controls. Unlike in so many other 8-bit games, our hero controls smoothly and reacts quickly whenever you press a button with no real clunkiness except from the occasional problems with getting Ferdinand to start walking down stairs. He's fine once he's on the stairs, but sometimes he gets a little confused about making the first step, bless him. On the whole, though, he's a joy to control and his smooth moves really make MoD a joy to play.


Maze stages are all well and good, but things get frustrating when you're playing a maze stage with a hidden exit. If you're planning on playing MoD, (and I can wholeheartedly recommend that you do,) then here's a free piece of advice that will make this final stage much more enjoyable: in the bottom-left corner of one of the rooms, there are two horizontally-connected bricks that you can break. Armed with that information, you won't have to suffer the ignominy of dying because you ran out of bastard time looking for the bloody hidden exit. And what is beyond the hidden exit?


Count Massen just never learns, does he? Apparently his teleportation spell warped you all the way to Transylvania and stage five has been taking place in Dracula's castle. With that knowledge, go and look at the other screenshots of this stage. Notice anything? Yes, Dracula has filled his castle with large, sharpened wooden stakes. Pointy bits of wood, fatal to vampires when so many other booby traps are not, litter every available surface. I know Vlad's not likely to be down in the dungeon or anything, but why would you take that chance? What other additions did he make to his castle? "I know, I'll put these new windows on the south wall to make sure they catch the sun!" "Who wants to take part in a class on how to cook with garlic?" "Crucifix delivery? Yeah, just shove them in my bedroom!" No wonder Massen's doing all his dirty work.


Speaking of which, his plan to defeat Ferdinand also involves pointy bits of wood. Spikes pop up from under the floor while small platforms randomly hover around the room. It's fairly obvious what you need to do, and it's actually pretty good fun hopping around the platforms, trying to get close enough to Massen to show him that it's hammer time and he should indeed stop.


Of course, that's not the end of the fight and once Massen has taken enough damage, this happens. I'm still not really sure what's going on here. Am I fighting Massen again? Or is this actually Dracula himself? I hope it's the former because if not the other monsters are going to be giving him grief about this defeat for a long time. If you've got some stakes left (and there are plenty in the final stage) then this fight is embarrassingly easy. You see those four vampires up there? They spin around at the top of the screen, and only one of them is real. Normally it'd be quite hard to find the correct one and hit him without taking damage yourself, but if you've got stakes then you can just move to the far left, jump up and throw a stake across the screen. It'll travel through all the vampires, hurting the real one, and you'll land safe and sound. Do this a few times and congratulations, you've completed Master of Darkness!


Like I say, Dracula is never going to live this one down with the other monsters. Castlevania's Dracula may be defeated approximately every four weeks or so, but at least he's doing battle with a centuries-old family of divinely-blessed warriors armed with a weapon specifically made for killing vampires and not a psychologist with a mallet.
Disappointing final boss aside, Master of Darkness is a bit of a gem. The graphics are great, atmospheric and moody whilst still being sharp and clear, and the music is excellent, some of the best on the system in my opinion. The gameplay is where it really shines, though: it's nothing new, but Sega have taken the basic jump-n-stab, Castlevania style gameplay and given it its own identity complete with smooth controls, interesting level design and a good difficulty curve.


Of course, it's not perfect. The boss battles can be rather underwhelming, (although I always like to fight Jack the Ripper in my videogames,) finding the exit of the labyrinth is a pain and dear god those fucking bats. You could complain that, yes, it is just a clone of Castlevania but I really don't have a problem with that. At the time MoD was released there had never been a Castlevania game released on a Sega console, (funnily enough MoD is most like the Megadrive/Genesis Castlevania: Bloodlines in setting and overall feel,) so as the next best thing this game fills that gap and fills it well. I'm sure there are people out there who will tell you that MoD is better than the NES Castlevanias, and while I wouldn't go quite that far it's a good enough game that I can see their point.


This is a game I really enjoyed playing, and if you're in the market for some well-presented eight-bit action-platforming then Master of Darkness will fit the bill- just don't come crying to me if you develop an irrational hatred of bats.


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