Some nights are made for torture, or reflection, or the savoring of loneliness.
-Poppy Z. Brite
The arcade was almost empty at midday. Being homeschooled had its perks. I was waiting to get on Darkstalkers but there was an older kid on first player, and I’d never dream of jumping on player two to interrupt and challenge someone who was a senior in high school. His friend walked up while I was hanging back and said “You’re playing stupid game? C’mon. Street Fighter.” And the guy just got up and left. His character died and the continue counted down from nine to zero. I was confused but I popped my quarter in the slot and hit start.
What’s with treating Darkstalkers like the silly, unwashed, pimply half-brother of Capcom’s more popular fighter, Street Fighter II? It’s a perspective I’ve run into more than once. Which is ironic since Darkstalkers has always seemed to me like a themed doppelgänger of Street Fighter II, its spitting image, practically.
Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors is an arcade tournament fighting game released by Capcom in 1994 and later ported to the first PlayStation in 1996. It has all the speed (turbo) as Street Fighter II and even features several characters who are clones of Ryu and Ken. It even uses the exact same gameplay system as Street Fighter II. What keeps Darkstalkers unique in my opinion are its far more interesting characters, inspired by iconic movie monsters and folklore rather than just being martial artists and brawlers. Capcom has historically churned out a lot of games themed around supernatural darkness and folklore, and Darkstalkers feels like the pinnacle of that trend.
The vampiric princeling, Demitri Maximoff, is holding a tournament on Earth to see who has the right to rule the underworld. The Darkstalkers slink from the shadows to answer the call. It is then that the fire-born alien Pyron arrives to consume the planet, providing the final challenge for the warriors of the night.
There are ten playable characters and two bosses.
Demitri is one of the main characters of the game, obviously, a vampire of Romania whose castle only appears under a full moon. He’s an opulent, charismatic, well-dressed and vicious pyrokinetic. Flames leap from his flesh. At times he drops his refined appearance and the monster underneath shows through, when even his cape becomes bat’s wings. He’s basically Ryu so far as his skill set goes, the classic hadouken replaced with the Chaos Flare fireball.
Morrigan Aensland is undoubtedly the most popular character in Darkstalkers who has appeared in every entry in the series and several other related games, because… reasons. She’s a seductive sorceress from Scotland, vampiric succubus and ultra-vain princess of the realm of darkness, an embodiment of temptation. Tired of the dull power struggles and her caged existence in the underworld, she frequently invades the human realm in search of a good fight for pleasure, living for nothing more than the excitement of battle. She’s a hedonist. Stylistically, Morrigan is Ken. Her skill set is almost identical to Demitri’s with the major difference being her aerial capabilities, such as her dash lifting her off the ground and her assortment of anti-air attacks.
Jon Talbain, stylized as J. Talbain in the game, is an Englishman who suffers from hereditary lycanthropy, making him a werewolf from birth and a dichotomy of two natures. A loner, expertly trained fighter and martial artist trained in Jeet Kune Do (evinced by his pants and belt), Talbain’s name in Japanese was Gallon, “hungry wolf”. He fights to lift his curse and regain his humanity. Lean and muscular, werewolf Talbain fights with intense speed and ferocity, at times unrelenting in his assault. Indeed attacks like his trademark Wolf Cannon push back the enemy and bring him in a closer proximity to bring his deadly claws to bear. His Climb Laser backwards kick is strikingly familiar because it seems to be a clone of Guile’s from Street Fighter.
Felicia is the opposite of J. Talbain, the light to his dark. She’s a playful catgirl who was raised by a nun and dreamed of becoming a pop star. Discovering that the world was full of prejudice against those who are different, she desired to become famous in order to bridge the gap between the Darkstalkers and the humans. Bright if not naive, Felicia dances even in battle. Even her name means “Happy”. If her optimistic character seems unusual among the typical vampires and zombies, that’s because the catgirl is based on the Japanese bakeneko, a supernatural creature. The bakeneko is a cat who has aged enough to acquire unusual abilities like shapeshifting, standing on two legs, manipulating the dead, and attacking humans, even killing its previous owner. Felicia is never that dark in Darkstalkers. She is however incredibly fast and may be the swiftest character in the game. Her attacks are limited to quick jabs and nimble strikes but she is capable of stringing together long combos. She’s been compared to Street Fighter’s Blanka and Chun-Li.
Bishamon is a samurai inhabiting a suit of cursed armor (Hannya, “the armor of hate”), a ghost and powerful swordsman. Most of Bishamon’s history is a mystery but even as his tsukumogami armor (an item that becomes sentient after 100 years) pushes him on a killing spree through the ranks of the Darkstalkers, if he defeats Pyron, he lifts the curse and the armor from his body and becomes a priest to atone for his sins. Two Japanese ghost fireballs follow him at all times and even become part of his attack patterns. Bishamon is modelled after the Soulless Samurai, ronin who would go to any lengths to become unstoppable. Bishamon nearly achieved that level of power but his is a story of tragedy and regret. His moveset is complex and not recommended for beginners.
Lord Raptor was an Austrailian rockstar who died on stage, which would put a damper on anyone’s plans. Fortunately for him, he was brought back as an undead ghoul. A loose cannon and visceral freak fighting for nothing but more power. He’s the horror-themed villain to horror-themed villains. If you think he’d be slow because he’s a zombie, think again. He’s a quick and clever fighter who can transform his limbs into various cutting weapons, buzzsaws, blades and chainsaws. He uses his old guitar as a weapon and even has a teleporting move to further confuse his opponents. He’s ferocious and unpredictable with a frighteningly long reach and rictus grin.
Victor is the opposite of Lord Raptor. He’s a hulking, super-heavyweight fighter and grappler, a formidable powerhouse of strength. Victor von Gerdenheim is fashioned after Frankenstein’s monster. He was created by a mad scientist of the same name, who dies shortly after Victor is “born”. Believing he can impress his “father” and be accepted, Victor answers the call and challenges the Darkstalkers in battle. Though he possesses the mind of a child and is one of the slowest characters in the game, Victor is powered by electricity and can takedown unwary opponents quickly with his charged barrage of fists. With several grabbing moves and a tornado like spin, he’s definitely Darkstalker’s Zangief.
If you thought Victor was sluggish, wait until you play as Anakaris. We can maybe excuse a bit of dragging of feet. This monster is a huge 5,000 year old Egyptian pharaoh who ruled an empire before being embalmed. He fights back the Darkstalkers in an attempt to regain his authority and restore his empire, and nothing, not even death, will stand in his way. Easily the slowest character in Darkstalkers, Anakaris suffers from a floating jump. Only the most skilled players can make up for this disadvantage by playing up his air strikes and tremendous reach, which makes me think of Dhalsim from Street Fighter II. Anakaris can also bring a series of powers to bear which seem to come from nowhere: his arms extending the length of the screen or disappearing underground to punch up beneath opponents, dropping sarcophagi down from above, grabbing his foes from a distance, eating projectiles, cursing enemies into harmless forms, guard cancelling, using his own body as a trap, and teleporting to the complete opposite ends of the screen. Lots of potential but lots of patience required.
Rikuo is a merman from the Brazilian Amazon River. His name is a misspelling of Ricou Browning who portrayed the title character in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Rikuo one of the last survivors of his race that was decimated by a catastrophic earthquake. He later meets Aqueria, a female mermaid, and together they attempt to repopulate their race. When Rikuo learns that Pyron caused the fall of his race, he is enraged and vows to confront and defeat the alien menace. His unique and foreign physiology allows him to morph parts of his body into other aspects of marine life: his arms can become spikes, tentacles or crab claws, his lower half can become a hardened seashell, and he can expand his stomach like a puffer fish. He also has the tongue of a frog and the sonar capabilities of a dolphin, albeit with deadlier effects than their natural counterparts. Rikuo isn’t generally someone’s first choice but he is capable of unleashing a host of slippery and tricky illusionary attacks and feints. He relies on his powerful dashing moves and multiple stun attacks, as well as his backward dash which at first appears to be a retreat until he bounds back into an upward kick, catching his opponent off guard. And he’s also my favorite character.
The last of the playable characters is Sasquatch, who, as his name suggests, is a sasquatch/yeti/bigfoot/mountain ape, dwelling in the Rocky Mountains. He leaves his village after sensing Pyron’s presence, volunteering to face the Darkstalkers on their territories before they invade his own. Don’t let his cute face fool you, Sasquatch is a primal fighter. Even the flick of his giant finger can send an opponent reeling. On top of that, he brings a host of frigid attacks to the game with his frost breath and the freezing blast of his nostrils. He may look slow but he’s surprisingly nimble and makes up for a below average reach with sheer strength. He can even fit his opponent inside his mouth. That’s a fun trick for parties.
Huitzil is the game’s first boss and an unplayable character in Dakrstalkers. He’s the Vega character from Street Fighter II. He is a member of an army of ancient bipedal robots constructed by Pyron 65 million years in the past with orders to destroy all organic life on Earth. They succeeded in wiping out the dinosaurs but became trapped beneath the ground after an earthquake, only being reactivated after they were unearthed by the Mayan civilization. Armed with lasers, bombs, drills and other mechanical armaments, Huitzil serves as Pyron’s lieutenant and the final test of might before facing the alien overlord himself.
And finally there is Pyron of course. Wreathed in flame with long horns like a minotaur, he stands between the Darkstalkers and ultimate rule. But beating him is no cakewalk. Pyron has evolved over millions of years and the lives of the Darkstalkers are like barely noticeable ants before his all-consuming hunger. His is a wildfire on a galactic scale, flame incarnate.
Who will be the new master of the night?
The 8-Bit Review
Darkstalkers has some of the best animated 2D graphics there are, hands down. It’s style helped to fuel the 2D appeal of the Marvel vs. Capcom series and its visuals became a foundation for the future of 2D, pixelated characters. Each of the Darkstalkers have a tremendous amount of different animations from their own attacks to being cut in half, stabbed, burned, stunned, poisoned, cursed, incapacitated or otherwise killed. The backgrounds for each stage are by no means awful since they’re rendered in colorful vibrancy with plenty of things happening in them, but they’re the weakest element of the game’s visuals simply because the character sprites are so fluidly animated. Further, the cutesy, anime-influenced emotes of the characters tripping or getting punched around helps to bring a little levity to the game’s otherwise dark source material and keeps it from being too morose and morbid. And the action is never sluggish, even on the slowest speed setting, which works well with the seamless animations.
Although the game is fundamentally Gothic-horror and the characters that most fit that description (like Demitri) feature songs that evoke pipe organs and despair, the OST still leaves room for characterizing some of the weirder lot. This is never out of place as each of the unusual stages are accompanied by unusual tracks. For example, Lord Raptor’s music is a dirty, grungy rock, Rikuo’s is as upbeat as Zumba, Bishamon’s is distinctly Japanese, Anakaris’ is the stereotypical playlist of the pyramids, the Sasquatch’s sounds playful and innocent, and Felicia’s is a mewling rendering of hyper-pop. The soundtrack perfectly fits the characters, further helping to bring descriptiveness to some of these bizarre and outlandish personalities.
Darkstalkers utilizes a six-button system of light, medium and hard attacks. It also features a two player battle mode, three separate speed settings, the introduction of air blocking, crouch walking, combo chains and a special meter which builds up during battle and allows the player to unleash devastating abilities. Special attacks are inputting similar to Street Fighter II with the proper directional commands followed closely by punch and kick buttons. Some of the inputs even carry directly over from Street Fighter II. Darkstalkers can be extremely fast paced, which takes some working up to. It seemed to me to be one of the fastest out of all of Capcom’s fighters.
Because its speed, Darkstalkers can be a hard game to learn, as in the case of any new fighter. Of course, it has the Street Fighter II similarities going for it, if you’ve happened to play that series and go right to Darkstalker’s clone-characters, but if you’re jumping in blind expect a steep uphill climb though once the top is reached, you’ll realize it really wasn’t that far away. This is especially true with some of the playable characters with more unorthodox approaches to battle and their wacky or over-complicated move sets, chief among these being Anakaris, then Bishamon and Lord Raptor, in my assessment. Low accessibility has a high pay off, eventually, but it was hard for me to get good at Darkstalkers, particularly only so far as my allowance money allowed.
After I got good as the slippery fish, Rikuo, things were somewhat of a breeze. I could even beat some of the older kids at the arcade by taking them unawares. But I always had trouble beating Huitzil and then Pyron. I still do. Ramping up the speed setting only makes things harder, where timing becomes absolutely crucial, but it’s almost like your soul eventually comes to crave the frantic pace. Darkstalkers was harder for me than some other fighters but that difficulty-level didn’t take away from its enjoyment.
Criticized for failing to achieve the kind of gameplay depth to be found in Capcom’s other fighters (sorry, but it’s impossible not to compare them), Darkstalkers is nevertheless extremely fun. This was a cabinet I looked for in arcades simply because I thought other fighters looked boring compared to this game’s energy and presentation.
Darkstalkers features a wide variety of characters from different backgrounds, cultures and inspirations. As the uncontested horror-themed fighter, it stands virtually unopposed. It helped to create some of the most recognized and iconic characters in the Capcom roster. Though it relies much on the Street Fighter series, an interesting concept goes a long way.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I had Street Fighter II for the Super NES but I was never truly into any tournament fighting games until I met Darkstalkers in that one dim arcade. When the game was ported to the PlayStation, I picked it up and refined my amphibious skills as Rikuo, but by then my local arcades had traded the Darkstalkers cabinet in for newer titles. I think there was maybe one place that still had it after ’96, but I can’t be sure. Memory, y’know? And playing the game at home never really had the same kind of thrill as playing in the arcades against some random guy I’d never met before, coupled with the rare pleasure of absolutely dominating that perfect stranger. Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors was never as popular as other fighters and never achieved the same status as Street Fighter II, but it was always one of my favorite go-to games if I had a few quarters handy.
Aggregated Score: 7.8
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Categories: Game Review