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Review by tankMage (February 2016)
Author’s Note: I’ve changed the shoe for this game from a C+ to a B+ after replaying it recently. The problems mentioned in this review can get annoying, but the game is still pretty good, especially in light of other SMS offerings.
Master of Darkness is a highly regarded Sega Master System title, but I just couldn’t see what was so special about it. It’s an OK game that is very rough around the edges. The title is plagued by several minor technical issues and poor design choices that made an otherwise pleasant experience annoying at times.
A lot of sprites and tiles are recycled, which detracts from the game’s graphical quality slightly, but overall the title has a great atmosphere and well made effects. The sense of gloom in this game is almost palpable thanks to the gritty color palette and a setting that is in line with gothic horror. Some of the areas, like the Thames river and House of Wax, were fairly original and gave the game some much needed visual flavor. Unfortunately, the animations in this game were extremely simple, even for an 8-bit title and Dr. Social himself appeared to be pantomiming a rabbit as he hopped over pitfalls.
The music in this game is mediocre at best. There really was not very much effort or imagination put into the BGM, it’s the sort of stuff you would expect from a generic horror game made in the 80’s/90’s. The sound effects are stock as well, but I’ve heard worse, so Master of Darkness passes muster here.
The controls handle tolerably well and don’t suffer from the sloppy physics and slow response times 8-bit games are infamous for. Dr. Social must be related to the Belmonts, because he has the same slow deliberate pace, which may be irritating to some players. The jump mechanics feel loose at first, but I grew used to them quickly and realized that the player has excellent control over how the good doctor moves in mid air.
Ok, the story is goofy. Ouija boards, Jack the Ripper, Dracula and old London town are all played out horror tropes, but the tale this title weaves has a lot of charm and the dialogue has the campy feel of an old horror movie. I’m not sure if the devs were going for B movie type of story, but they succeeded in doing so.
This is where you will find most of Master of Darkness strengths and weaknesses. The core gameplay of MoD is very solid, but a number of minor flaws in design along with hit detection issues hurt this game a lot. The most obvious flaw was enemy hitboxes being larger or smaller than their sprites suggested. To make matters even more confusing, enemy (or Dr. Social’s) hit boxes seemed to have blind spots that made the game feel inconsistent. Sometimes I would swing my weapon to attack and hit thin air when the creature was clearly a few steps away from me. Other times bats would fly right through me; I even stood still and watched one fly through Dr. Social and not damage him three times before hitting him on the fourth fly by, which ruled out the possibility of video lag.
The mention of bats brings up another design issue: these buggy bats were a constant nuisance in every level. To make matters worse, sometime the bats would circle Social, while in other instances they would fly straight for the player, making them unpredictable. Level designs were also mediocre and the game often failed to follow its own rules when it came to collision with walls and blocks. Sometimes you could jump through overhead blocks or couch walk through them, other times Dr. Social would hit his head and potentially fall into a pit when trying to jump through block to clear an obstacle. Stair cases were painful to deal with (hmmmm just like a certain NES game this title emulates) and I often had trouble traversing them. These issues made the levels a nuisance to trek through.
Powerups were placed in a devious manner. Unlike in other games, weapon upgrades are not linear improvements. It’s entirely possible for a player who had the ax (best melee weapon) to accidentally pick up the dagger (worst melee weapon). This angered me initially, but looking back I think it was a clever mechanic that forced the player to be cautious. Speaking of powerups, MoD has a great variety of weapons that handled in their own unique ways. It took some skill to use the ax properly due to its limited range or effectively bomb an enemy due to the weapons slow movement and arcing trajectory, which gave the game some much needed depth.
Finally the levels, bosses, and enemies are all stock horror stuff aside from a few surprises that spice things up. Many of the bosses were fairly easy to defeat, however, and there is nothing epic about the final battle. The familiarity of this game’s design actually worked in its favor, because the player mostly gets what one would expect from an 8-bit horror game in Master of Darkness.
Underneath all of its bugs and eccentricities, Master of Darkness is a good game (although a touch overrated). I had a great time playing this title, but I couldn’t give it a higher score, because of its faults. If SIMS had polished the game up a bit, I think it would have been a gleaming gem, but as it is, Master of Darkness is a diamond in the rough.
I gave this game a middling score, because of it’s problems, but I think it’s a title anyone who is interested in 8-bit action games should check out. It’s not terribly hard (in fact I would have beaten it in a single sitting if not for time constraints and controller issues) so players new to the genre should find it manageable and veterans looking for a break may like it. Master of Darkness is also decent introduction to the Sega Master System.