Franchise Festival #46: Darkstalkers

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we will be darkly stalking the facts about Darkstalkers, a woefully forgotten fighter franchise by Capcom. Key sources include Gavin Jasper’s 2017 recap of the series for Den of Geek and Pat R.’s comprehensive overview on Hardcore Gaming 101.

Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. I can find no source for the header image (it was pulled from a wallpaper aggregator website), though it appears to be an official piece by Capcom. Where two release years are presented in the article below, the first is Japanese and the second is North American.

Background

Following the success of Street Fighter II, Capcom sought to leverage that game’s engine to create a new intellectual property. Accounts on the origin of the studio’s next fighting game differ. Series producer Alex Jimenez asserts that the project began as a licensed tie-in to create a video game based on the classic monsters of American film studio Universal. The Darkstalkers: Official Complete Works art book, on the other hand, attributes the original idea for a monster-based fighting game to a Capcom staffer named Akimoto; according to series art director Akira Yasuda, there was never any plan to license Universal characters. Whatever the case, the first entry in this rather odd series was in production by 1993.

Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors (1994/1996)

Each member of the team working on Darkstalkers was assigned to create a character and an associated stage background. This led to the development of ten playable characters, including Demitri Maximoff, a vampire; Morrigan Aensland, a succubus; Felicia, a cat person; Jon Talbain, a werewolf martial artist; Anakaris, a mummy; Bishamon, a possessed suit of samurai armor; Rikuo, a merman; Sasquatch, a sasquatch; Victor von Gerdenheim, a Frankenstein’s monster-esque creation; and Lord Raptor, a zombie rock guitarist. Two non-playable bosses are also included: Huitzul, a Mayan security robot, and a cosmic energy being called Pyron.

The character selection screen is highly reminiscent of Street Fighter. Credit: MobyGames

Gameplay is virtually identical to Street Fighter II, as Darkstalkers is built directly on that game’s engine. Both are traditional one-on-one 2D fighting games in which each player or AI combatant  seeks to reduce their opponents health gauge to zero. The first major mechanical difference is the introduction of air blocking. This allows players to cancel enemy attacks in mid-air.

Anakaris attacks with a big mummy snake arm. Note the Special Gauges at the bottom of the screen. Credit: MobyGames

A Special Gauge also fills as the player sustains damage or inputs combo moves. While flashing, this permits players to execute overpowered versions of their standard special attacks. A flashing gauge can also be used to power an EX attack, a distinctive special move that might turn the tide of a one-sided fight. These moves must be used quickly, as the gauge will diminish rapidly if left unused. This gauge seems to have been inspired by Capcom competitor SNK’s Art of Fighting (1992), though the application of the gauge has more in common with Super Street Fighter II Turbo (1994); this game was in development at Capcom during the same time as Darkstalkers.

A powerful projectile attack. These would become standard in fighting games, but Mortal Kombat (1992) and Darkstalkers (1994) are two of the titles that pioneered the mechanic. Credit: MobyGames

In addition to the greater mobility offered by air blocking, Darkstalkers places a heavier emphasis on projectiles than Street Fighter had done. These attacks would go on to feature prominently in most fighting games, but Darkstalkers was a pioneer in moving battles away from exclusively or near-exclusively hand-to-hand combat. Surprisingly, projectiles can be used to overcome and push back enemy projectiles in Darkstalkers.

Even sustaining damage leads to amusing sprites, like poor werewolf John Talbain losing his fur when roasted by Pyron. Credit: MobyGames

While its mechanics were largely derivative of Capcom’s more famous fighting game, its visual design was a major step forward for the genre. Street Fighter II, a trend-setter in many ways, had comparatively bland visual design. Fighters were stiff and painted with relatively muted colors. Darkstalkers, on the other hand, rendered its characters as garish, highly articulated sprites. This could have been criticized as an impediment to clarity, but was instead celebrated as one of the game’s core virtues.

Special attacks tend to feature sprites expanding or contracting cartoonishly. Credit: MobyGames

Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors debuted at Japanese arcades in 1994. Americans would need to wait until 1996 for a largely faithful PlayStation port produced by Psygnosis. While this version would fail to deliver some of the arcade edition’s audio/visual flair, it was nonetheless hailed as a unique title in an increasingly crowded genre.

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers’ Revenge (1995)

Unlike its predecessor, the arcade version of Night Warriors would be published in Japan and North America almost simultaneously. Little more than a month separated the releases, though Europe would receive the game only two weeks after Japan. A SEGA Saturn version would be released in all three territories one year later.

Character win screens, like this one featuring succubus Morrigan, are brief but provide a touch of personality. Credit: MobyGames

Gameplay represents a slight iteration on Darkstalkers’ foundation. The primary mechanical additions are Hunter Chains, in which players can combine strong and weak basic attacks, and recovery rolls. The latter technique involves the player character rolling forward or backward when recovering from being knocked down. The former would go on to inform how combos are handled in the Marvel vs. Capcom crossover franchise.

Victor’s recovery roll, in which he backs up with a rather emphasized posterior, is pretty silly. Credit: RedSevenNine

The EX Gauge has been tweaked too. Players can now store up multiple gauges once they are full, allowing the strategic deployment of powerful EX attacks without the risk of the gauge diminishing. ES attacks represent weaker special moves, making use of a smaller portion of stored energy.

The character selection screen is larger and more stylized than before. Credit: RedSevenNine

Two new characters are introduced. Donovan Baine is a human/vampire hybrid who serves as the game’s protagonist. Hsien-Ko, on the other hand, is a traditional Chinese ghost. In addition to these new fighters, the first game’s bosses have been made playable in its sequel. The narrative is not particularly deeper than the thin sketch offered by Darkstalkers, but Night Warriors otherwise represents a refinement on the basic outline of its predecessor.

Darkstalkers 3: Vampire Savior (1997)

Darkstalkers 3 was released in Japanese and North American arcades in 1997. Character sprites remain unaltered, though backgrounds have undergone their first revision since the series’ debut. There was little need to iterate upon the beautiful designs that Capcom had produced in 1994, as little had changed in the broader 2D fighting game world during the mid-1990s. 

B.B. Hood may look friendly, but she’s vicious. Credit: WillowAlchemist

The character roster has undergone a fairly significant revision, however. Donovan, Huitzil, and Pyron are eliminated and replaced with four new fighters. These include inter-dimensional demon Jedah; succubus Lilith; bee/human hybrid Q-Bee; and gun-toting fairy tale protagonist B. B. Hood. All four serve roles in the narrative, which has finally been expanded from the anemic backstory present in the series’ first two titles. The plot highlights a newly resurrected Jedah’s attempt to recreate the world in a pocket dimension to which he summons Darkstalkers’ cast of characters.

Thank goodness it’s Hsien-Ko and not Nicholas Cage fighting Q-Bee. Credit: TheInnocentSinful

With regard to gameplay, little evolution has occurred between the series’ second and third entries. Characters now only compete with one another in a single round of combat using two life gauges rather than the standard two to three rounds of combat from earlier games. Dark Force Attacks allow the player to input button combinations for powerful special moves. The overall speed of the game is enhanced, giving contemporary players one of the most fast-paced fighting games on the market.

That bigfoot has a big punch. Credit: TheInnocentSinful

A faithful SEGA Saturn port would follow one year after Darkstalkers 3’s original 1997 release but would not be localized outside of Japan. North American and European players would only gain access to a home console version of the game once a PlayStation version was released later in 1998. The character roster on the PlayStation is expanded to include the fighters cut from Darkstalkers 3’s arcade edition, mitigating necessary compromises made to the game’s presentation. Though this third entry would represent the most refined presentation of Darkstalkers so far, no sequel would be produced.

Spinoffs

For a series that only existed for four years, Darkstalkers led to a surprisingly varied set of spinoffs. These include animation and print media, though the characters would go on to appear in numerous other Capcom titles in the two decades that followed Darkstalkers 3.

If you love off-model characters in animation like I do, the American Darkstalkers cartoon is a treat. Credit: The Nostalgic Gamer

The first spinoff was a cartoon produced for American audiences by Graz Entertainment in 1995. This preceded the PlayStation release of the first Darkstalkers game by months and was likely many American fans’ introduction to the series. It includes characters from the first and second arcade titles battling one another alongside a human boy named Harry and would run for a single thirteen-episode season. Little about the series, aside perhaps from its cast of classic Hollywood monsters, set it apart from an already-crowded mid-1990s children’s television show landscape.

The anime was more true to the characters, though it still had relatively little narrative to work with. Credit: The Nostalgic Gamer

The second adaptation of Darkstalkers to an alternate medium was an anime miniseries called Night Warriors: Darkstalkers Revenge (1997/1999). Its four-episode run was produced by Madhouse Studios, directed by Masashi Ikeda, and animated by Asami Endo and Yoshinori Kanada. It roughly recounts the events of the first video game entries and is of a much higher quality overall than the American television show. Viz Video released a well-received English translation in 1999.

UDON’s Darkstalkers comic, much like Demitri here, was popular among fans. Credit: Comixology

Finally UDON published a six-issue series of comics based on Darkstalkers from 2004 to 2005. These were followed up by a three-volume miniseries in 2010 and an eight-volume crossover comic event with Street Fighter in 2017 to 2018. All are beautifully illustrated and offer more characterization than any of the games or animated programs had provided.

Conclusion

Aside from these multimedia tie-ins and numerous character cameos in Capcom games throughout the 2000s and 2010s (including the Marvel vs. Capcom, Project X Zone, and Capcom vs. SNK franchises), Darkstalkers seems to be defunct. A 2010 interview with producer Yoshinori Ono suggested that a new Darkstalkers might be imminent, but the only series product released since then was a 2013 compilation of earlier games for HD consoles; this collection’s poor sales would put a halt to any ongoing series revival efforts. Barring a surprise revelation, the sun appears to have set on Capcom’s spookiest fighting franchise.


What do you think about Darkstalkers? Who’s your favorite character? How about your favorite cameo appearance of the characters outside of the main series? How do you think Darkstalkers could adapt to a modern fighting game environment and feel fresh again? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Please join us next week as we insult sword-fight our way through the Monkey Island franchise. The article goes live right here at 9:00 AM EST on January 25, 2019.