Name: Master of Darkness (aka Vampire or In the wake of the Vampire)
Format: Sega Master System
Master of Darkness was a game which brought together two of the greatest stories / urban legends of the 1880s and 90s in England - those of Jack the Ripper and Dracula.
Essentially, this is a horror themed 2D platformer which is very, very similar to the NES's Castlevania range. There are platforms, enemies to kill, diagonal stairs, weapon pickups, and all sorts of occult / evil related enemies. In fact, that is a theme which shrouds the whole game - for example, extra lives are not gained through a heart shaped pickup or any one of a number of similar cliches, instead, the hero picks up a voodoo doll to get an extra chance at playing through the dark, broodily lit levels.
Special mention should go to the hero of the game - Doctor Ferdinand Social, a psychologist deeply interested in the supernatural. The story starts with the pre title screen sequence, which tells us that near the turn of the century in London, the coming of the full moon always heralded a grisly murder. In the morning, a new body would be found, always completely drained of blood... Next we are shown the good doctor using his Ouija Board (like you do). He receives a disturbing message telling him to go to the Thames, but it also advises "caution... caution... in the wake of Dracula..."
If this was your average doctor, he'd probably just shrug and go back to prescribing paracetamol, but oh no, not Ferdinand Social. He immediately puts on his best threads (a sort of cool blue suit which he strides around the rest of the game in) and heads on down to party with the undead minions at the Thames.
The game has a very well crafted learning curve, like many other 2D Platformers. The first round (the game is divided into 5 rounds, each with 3 short levels, concluding with a boss each time) which is set by the side of the Thames is reasonably simple, and can be completed with virtually no problems. The perpetually reoccuring elements of the genre such as bottomless pits return, but thankfully in the first round they do not pose much of a problem, and all jumps necessary can be made without too much fuss. There are a few difficult areas - most notably the bats which do not follow completely predictable patterns - they will take one of a number of paths, depending on where you are relative to the bat when it wakes up. However, the game becomes much more challenging later on, with all sorts of nasty jumps complete with similarly nasty enemies. The last few rounds are very challenging, and include such set pieces as rooms which lock themselves and fill with enemies when you enter, and which you can only leave when said enemies are defeated.
Like Castlevania, you are provided with a melee weapon but can acquire more damaging implements as you go along. The default weapon is a short range, low damage knife, but if you find the right pick up you can have either a sword (most range, but low damage), a staff (medium range, medium damage) or an axe (same range as the knife, but brutal damage). A possible bug which could also just be a dodgy decision is that it is quite possible to accidentally slash a floating head (all pickups are either found by attacking the walls, or by attacking the mysterious floating white masks which pepper the levels, in a similar way to the candle holders from Castlevania) which contains the bog standard knife. Whether this was put in the game to keep you on your guard, or whether no one thought it was annoying, I don't know. I have found that on repeated playthroughs you either learn which masks contain knives (masks contain the same thing each time) and avoid them, or you learn to attack a mask in such a way that you don't automatically pick up whatever's inside.
In addition to the short ranged weapon, players can also pick up limited use long range weapons - the pistol (complete with silver bullets, the manual claims), the boomerang (which returns, but instead of you being able to use it again, it simply takes out enemies behind you. Even so, a good weapon), bombs (which have an arcing throw which needs getting used to) and the rarest and best of all, the Projectile. That is actually what the manual calls it, but suffice to say it's an enormous silver bullet shaped thing which takes out everything in it's path. These come with limited uses per pick up, but if you pick up more of the same item, the ammo is added on. Picking up a different kind of weapon will see your uses of it go back to the default.
The boss at the end of each round is usually a quite satisfying challenge, but is not too hard as to be unfair. This is helped by a sensible amount of damage resistance from Ferdinand Social - he has 10 life circles which act in a similar way to hearts in the Zelda series. Finding potions (either in walls or masks) will restore a fair amount of your life, and so the game is never really unfair. The boss battles were different each time - Jack the Ripper at the end of the first round is pleasingly hard to hit, mostly because he plays the Quake III: Arena trick of not stopping jumping. Other bosses have different techniques, such as the possessed girl who conjures up a floating skull which then proceeds to fly around the screen. Suffice to say as well, that the battles improve as the game goes on, and the final battle with Dracula is very impressive.
The graphics for the game are, in my opinion, very good considering the platform, and the time it was made. This was released towards the very end of the Master System's life, and the graphics respect this, with some very detailed renditions of Victorian England. I'd say the Thames level is my favourite video game rendition of London apart from the second level of Metal Slug. I have to admit, though, that is in a slightly different league. The music is slightly ropy, but very in keeping with the theme of the game.
I must mention the second round, the House of Wax Dolls. Clearly based on Madame Tussauds in London, this is a geniunely scary level, where dolls attached to walls come to life and attack you. However, not all, of the, just some... which makes it very disturbing as you walk along, wondring which of the dolls beside you will come to life and try to disembowel you. Admittently it's not quite as pant wetting as System Shock 2, but it's as close as an 8 bit system will get.
Overall, I can highly recommend this. It is easily found in ROM form on the Internet, but I am lucky enough to own an actual working cartridge. I'm not sure about availability on Ebay etc, but either way, it emulates perfectly if you lack time or money to find it elsewhere. It's a very accomplished Castlevania-em-up, and while it doesn't do anything particularly revolutionary and is a little short, while it lasts, it's excellent.
Owning the cartridge.
Playing the ROM in Meka for... errr.. research purposes.