Let’s not beat around the bush: Vampire: Master of Darkness is a blatant rip-off of Castlevania, but it’s a good one. It was developed by SIMS Co., Ltd. and published by Sega for the Master System and Game Gear in 1992.
The plot is convoluted, but interesting. In it you play a psychologist called Dr. Ferdinand Social, who is investigating a series of murders in London. The story leads Dr. Social to infamous murderer Jack the Ripper who he discovers is using blood and dead bodies to perform a dark ritual to resurrect famous vampire Count Dracula. Also participating in the ritual is Count Massen – another vampire – and a mysterious woman, called “Psychic Girl”, who is possessed by an evil demon called “Skull Spirit”.
The game is spread over five stages, each divided into three levels, with a boss battle at the end of each stage. The stages comprise of: the Thames River, the House of Wax, a cemetery, Count Massen’s castle, and finally a laboratory. Throughout each stage Dr. Social battles zombies, bats, dogs, wolves, ghosts, skeleton knights, wizards, and ghost maidens, using his primary and secondary weapons. Primary weapons are close-range weapons with no ammunition requirements, like swords, walking canes, and axes, and secondary weapons are long-range with limited ammunition, including pistols, boomerangs and bombs. Just like in Castlevania the player can only carry one primary/secondary weapon at once. When you pick up a new one it replaces the previous one.
Graphically, Vampire: Master of Darkness is impressive on the Game Gear, with well-drawn, atmospheric backdrops and decent animation on the sprites. Scrolling is fast and smooth. The music is pacy and also reminiscent of Castlevania, but suits the game well – especially the slower pieces during cut scenes.
Gameplay-wise: if you’ve played any Castlevania games before everything will be familiar to you. There are stairs that you can walk up and down, just like in Castlevania, and you can jump fairly athletically. Falling into water will instantly lose you a life, but otherwise the life meter in the top left-hand corner of the screen will indicate how close you are to death. There’s a timer that counts down on each level, which must be adhered to, and completing a level will total up how much time you had left upon completion and award you a points bonus relative to it.
If I had any complaints it would be that a small number of backdrops are quite busy, making it difficult to see what’s going on in the foreground, but that doesn’t happen very often. Also, some of the boss battles are difficult. But otherwise Vampire: Master of Darkness is a fine game on the Game Gear – arguably one of the best on the system. Is it better than Castlevania? Hell no! Especially when compared to something like Symphony of the Night or Harmony of Dissonance, but it’s a pretty good clone nonetheless.