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What's The Deal With Darkstalkers?

by Todd Ciolek,

The big fighting games of the 1990s are still going strong. Capcom has Street Fighter 6 in the works. SNK released The King of Fighters XV earlier this year and brought back Samurai Shodown not so long ago. We've seen recent outings for Mortal Kombat, Guilty Gear, Soul Calibur, and Tekken. Even Sega's Virtua Fighter, stubbornly without an all-new game since 2006, saw a heavily-enhanced version of Virtua Fighter 5 last year. In fact, there's only one major fighting game series from the 1990s, the height of the genre's popularity, that's been missing for some twenty years: Darkstalkers.

Of course, Darkstalkers was never fully forgotten. Capcom regularly trots out its most popular characters for guest spots, bonus costumes, and merchandise, while the older games sometimes appear in compilations like this month's Capcom Fighting Collection. Yet there hasn't been an original game in the series since 1997's Darkstalkers 3, despite the noticeable fan base the games still command. But why does Darkstalkers have such a following in the first place?

Let's go back to 1994. The fighting game craze was in full bloom. Street Fighter II had started it in 1991, and it had only gotten bigger in the years since. Companies across the industry were attempting their own games in the genre, and Street Fighter had lost some ground. Mortal Kombat was dominating American arcades, and rivals like Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown were gaining traction. Worse yet, Street Fighter fans were complaining that the latest in the series, Super Street Fighter II, was just another upgrade of the original. Capcom needed to make something new, but for reasons they preferred not to discuss, it couldn't have been Street Fighter III.

Capcom sketched out a fighting game based on Universal's classic movie monsters: Dracula, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on. Universal never signed up for it, but Capcom was undeterred. Universal's monsters might have been copyrighted, but no one owned the actual legends of vampires, werewolves, zombies, mummies, and other creatures of the night. Capcom's animators and designers labored on their own versions of these monsters, and in the summer of 1994 arcades got a brand-new Capcom fighter with Darkstalkers.

It was a standout among the fighting games of the era. Instead of a conventional cast of martial artists with the occasional odd creature, Darkstalkers was a gallery of monsters: the vampire Demitri, the werewolf Jon Talbain (a likely reference to John Talbot from the 1941 movie The Wolf Man), the Frankenstein-inspired Victor, the fishman Rikuo, and the mummy king Anakaris all bore traces of their Universal origins. Less blatantly inspired were the ghostly samurai Bishamon, the ice-breathing yeti named Sasquatch, the zombie rocker Lord Raptor, the catwoman Felicia, the Mayan robot Huitzil, the demonic alien Pyron, and Morrigan, a succubus with enough batwing accessories (including Devilman headgear) that many players mistook her for another vampire.

And Darkstalkers looked like nothing else. It had the visual flair of anime and manga, but with exaggeration and a squash-and-stretch style almost closer to Looney Tunes shorts. Characters would twist, elongate, and break into odd or humorous poses just for conventional attacks: in one example, Rikuo, being a denizen of the deep, turned his arms and legs into crab-claws and seashells with just a press of the attack button. Backgrounds swarmed with activity, from the crackling ruins of Victor's laboratory to the cavorting bigfoot families of Sasquatch's village. It was a game almost as fun to watch as it was to play.

Not that Darkstalkers was above getting attention by more salacious means: Morrigan's revealing outfit was in the tradition of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark's wardrobe, while Felicia wore nothing but her own fur—and selectively placed fur, at that. This drew little objection from the same parental groups who'd railed against the gratuitous violence of Mortal Kombat or the alleged sexual violence of Night Trap, however.

Darkstalkers also played with many new ideas. The interface used the six-button layout from Street Fighter II and adopted similar joystick motions for special moves, but Darkstalkers introduced mid-air blocking and chain combos to the mix. The concept of a special meter, trotted out in the recent Super Street Fighter II Turbo, took on new dimensions in Darkstalkers, where a full gauge let characters use powered-up versions of their moves or all-new special attacks, such as Felicia summoning a flock of feline allies to mob her opponent.

Even the regular special moves added a lot. Anakaris could spew a curse at foes and transform them into helpless diminutive versions—with just one move, a werewolf would become a dachshund, or a fishman a harmless frog. Capcom's animators had gone all-out with Darkstalkers, and it was arguably the most visually impressive fighting game around. Some of its ideas would find their way into Street Fighter Alpha, Capcom's next big entry in the series, but their cartoonish excess was always at its peak in Darkstalkers games.

Oddly, Capcom had to share the copyright after all, at least in Japan. Darkstalkers was known there as Vampire: The Night Warriors, which ran up against Osamu Tezuka's manga series Vampire. So Tezuka Productions appeared in the copyright for the Japanese releases of many Darkstalkers products.

The original Darkstalkers did well – perhaps more in Japan than North America – and soon it earned an upgrade. In 1995, Capcom released Night Warriors (Vampire Hunter in Japan) to arcades. It fixed numerous balance issues from the first game, made bosses Huitzil and Pyron playable, and added two new characters—or four, depending on how you look at it. Half-human, half-vampire warrior Donovan toted a massive living sword and traveled with a taciturn little girl named Anita, while the Chinese jiangshi (or “hopping vampire”) Hsien-Ko wielded giant mechanical claws and scads of projectile weapons, all while her sister Mei-Ling took the shape of a talisman on her hat.

On that note, the Darkstalkers cast underwent more renaming than most fighters. Capcom had shuffled around character names in Street Fighter II to head off possible objections from Mike Tyson's lawyers, but in Darkstalkers they handed out new titles for less firm reasons. One can see why Capcom went with “Jon Talbain” instead of “Gallon” and found “Rikuo” a better fishman moniker than “Aulbath.” Perhaps “Lord Raptor” was also less awkward than “Zabel Zarock,” though that's up for debate. And it's hard to tell why Huitzil couldn't just be called “Phobos” and Hsien-Ko couldn't keep her Japanese name, Lei-Lei. Night Warriors saw rampant success in Japan but somewhat more muted reception in overseas arcades. Yet 1995 was the dawn of a new era of home consoles capable of recreating arcade games closer than ever before. Darkstalkers had been in the works for Sega's short-lived 32X system, but it vanished from release lists without showing so much as a screenshot. Instead, Capcom announced a Darkstalkers port for the Sony PlayStation and, not long after, Night Warriors for the Sega Saturn.

The PlayStation version of Darkstalkers had a strange journey. Shown off at the launch of the PlayStation, it looked to be a sharp and faithful port of the arcade game. Yet delays set in, and Darkstalkers wouldn't arrive on the system until 1996. Ported by the British developer Psygnosis, the PlayStation's Darkstalkers looks very close to the arcade game, with only some occasional slowdown marring the experience. The Japanese version also introduced a new intro: a crude video of game footage set to the song “The Trouble Man,” performed by Eikichi Yazawa and written by Andrew Gold. Capcom clearly wanted this to be the Darkstalkers theme.

So long was the delay to the PlayStation version of Darkstalkers that it actually arrived after the Sega Saturn received Night Warriors. The PlayStation would outmatch the Saturn in many areas of the market, but here the Saturn won: Night Warriors was a faithful and playable version of the arcade game, loaded with extra features. It was Capcom's best-selling Saturn game in Japan, and it would introduce many a Saturn owner to the best Darkstalkers home experience around.

If Darkstalkers wasn't as popular as Street Fighter worldwide, it was big enough for Capcom to trim with numerous merchandise, manga, animation, and guest spots. Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo put Morrigan, Felicia, Donovan, and Hsien-Ko right next to Street Fighter stars in a cult-favorite puzzle game. A Street Fighter Alpha 2 background had Felicia lounging in a pool while Morrigan partied with noticeably more human versions of Hsien-Ko, Mei-Ling, and Lord Raptor. Darkstalkers was now part of Capcom canon. Street Fighter had turned into two films: one live-action and one animated, plus an American cartoon series that aired on USA Network's Action Extreme Team. Capcom decided that Darkstalkers was ripe for the same treatment, and in 1995 a Darkstalkers cartoon aired in syndication.

Seizing on the less-than-serious tone of the games, it made noticeable concessions to younger audiences. Morrigan and Felicia's outfits (or lack thereof) were now less revealing, and in the midst of familiar characters the show introduced a new protagonist: a boy named Harry Grimoire. One can see the honest intent of the showrunners to make Darkstalkers a comedy, yet the cheap production values and standard cartoon plots resemble the video game very little (though “The Trouble Man” appears briefly over the closing credits). Detested in its day, The Darkstalkers cartoon is now celebrated ironically in the same manner as the Street Fighter cartoon. Granted, it has yet to inspire any internet meme as popular as M. Bison proclaiming “YES! YES!”

In Japan, Capcom sought out the inevitable result of a fighting game getting popular: an anime OVA series. Produced by Madhouse, the Darkstalkers anime stays far more faithful to the look of the games, though its story is a straightforward and barely humorous tale of a world overrun by creatures of the night. A little too dour to recreate the enjoyment of a Darkstalkers game, the anime nonetheless had some reasonably high production values on its side (plus the ubiquitous “Trouble Man” song). VIZ brought it to America in 1998, and Discotek recently put a remastered version on DVD and Blu-Ray.

In Japan, Darkstalkers and Night Warriors inspired numerous manga. Most of these were humorous comic compilations of 4-koma gag strips or slightly longer stories, but it was Run Ishida's brief and unmemorable Night Warriors series that came to America. Viz released six issues and a collected volume in 1998.

Such adaptations highlighted one truth of Darkstalkers: the games didn't have much of an overarching plot. They were essentially collections of character backstories and motivations, with largely comedic endings waiting for each fighter. This may have proved a challenge for the writers adapting it, but it also invited fans to fill in the blanks.

Amid these side projects, Capcom apparently got sick of jokes about its fighting game staff being allergic to the number three. In 1997, the company released both Street Fighter III and Darkstalkers 3 (aka Vampire Savior in Japan). Darkstalkers 3 was no mere upgrade of previous Darkstalkers titles. It was an all-new game, with fresh backgrounds, new animation touches for old characters, and four new faces: the insectile drone Q Bee, the ominous, well-dressed demon lord Jedah, the heavily-armed red riding hood B.B. Hood (Bulleta in Japan), and Morrigan's apparent little sister Lilith, though her ending reveals stranger origins.

The new stages were bizarre sights: one took place on the literal side of a building, with players gazing into the streets below, while the most garish level, dubbed “The Fetus of God,” was a pulsing hellscape of a womb with a giant slumbering devil-fetus that awoke after battle. Darkstalkers 3 lacked for nothing except the entire character roster: Donovan, Huitzil, and Pyron were no-shows.

Darkstalkers 3 also revised its approach to battles. While the fighting mechanics were much the same, with new moves for all the returning characters, matches proceeded differently. Instead of distinct rounds, characters would get up after their life meters depleted once and continue the fight with their second meter, while their opponent retained whatever life they had. Similar to Killer Instinct, it sped up battles and tilted them toward the better player (as opposed to resetting things with a second round). A somewhat daring choice for a Capcom fighter, it didn't keep Darkstalkers 3 from doing well in arcades and getting not one, but two upgrades shortly after its launch.

Vampire Hunter 2 and Vampire Savior 2 arrived in arcades rapidly, adjusting some of the gameplay and offering different lineups of characters. Vampire Hunter 2 is essentially Darkstalkers 3/Vampire Savior dressing on the Night Warriors cast, adding back Donovan, Pyron, and Huitzil at the expense of the third game's new characters. Vampire Savior 2 puts Jedah and company back and instead removes Jon Talbain, Rikuo, and, most cruelly of all, the adorable Sasquatch.

If that was confusing to arcade-goers, the home versions of Darkstalkers 3 played it safe. The Saturn treatment of the game, never released outside Japan, had all 15 characters in one roster, and the Saturn's 4MB RAM expansion cartridge made for an almost-perfect rendition of the arcade game's animation. The PlayStation version, while cutting down that animation a little, was a similarly convenient packaging of the arcades games' entire lineup, including hidden characters like Shadow (who possessed defeated opponents) and Marionette (who turned each fight into a “mirror match'). The PlayStation edition of Darkstalkers 3 also arrived in America.

More manga adaptations followed the release of Vampire Savior in 1997, and Mayumi Azuma (who'd later start up Elemental Gelade) created a five-volume series that followed Lilith and a human boy named John. While the practice of introducing human kids to Darkstalkers was perhaps inadvisable, Azuma's manga stayed faithful to the tone of the games. Even so, it wasn't translated for North America—coincidence, or a sign that the third Darkstalkers games wasn't as popular in the West? Another full Darkstalkers title might have been a natural choice after this, but instead there came more guest appearances. Pocket Fighter had big-headed versions of Morrigan, Felicia, and Hsien-Ko sparring comically with Street Fighter and Red Earth characters. Marvel vs. Capcom put Morrigan in its Capcom lineup, perhaps the first confirmation that she, not Demitri, was the main character of Darkstalkers. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 followed with more selections from the series, including the somewhat surprising inclusion of the less-popular Anakaris.

A true follow-up eluded Darkstalkers, however. In 2000 Capcom released Vampire Chronicle for Matching Service, a Dreamcast collection of Darkstalkers games with online play, though it was exclusive to Japan. Five years later, Capcom would release the Vampire: Darkstalkers Chronicle collection for the PlayStation 2 in Japan. It featured a bonus character named Dee, an incarnation of Donovan who had given in to his monstrous vampire heritage. The compilation wasn't allowed outside of Japan, but another Darkstalkers release went international in 2005. Owners of Sony's new PSP handheld in Japan, America, and Europe got Darkstalkers: The Chaos Tower, based on the Dreamcast collection, even if it was frustratingly hard to pull off complex fighting-game motions on the PSP's directional pad.

It would be more guest appearances and minor roles for the Darkstalkers crew going forward. Capcom put out three unique cell-phone games in Japan: Felicia's Magical Step, Lei-Lei's Magical Hammer (which was also released internationally), and Puzzle Anakaris: The Chaos Pyramid, once again suggesting that the mummy king was more popular than many fans suspected. The Idea Factory strategy RPG Cross Edge featured Felicia, Morrigan, Demitri, Lilith, and Jedah as supporting characters. And Capcom certainly hadn't forgotten Darkstalkers: characters showed up in crossovers like Namco X Capcom, the Project X Zone games, and Capcom's own Marvel vs. Capcom series.

So why is there no new Darkstalkers? It's best to look back at the state of Capcom fighting games circa 2000. Street Fighter III, despite two additional upgrades, was not the success that Street Fighter II had been nearly a decade prior—it couldn't have been, really—and fighting games as a whole were due for a downturn.

The genre was still around, but arcades themselves were fading as game consoles and affordable computers caught up to arcade hardware in technical terms. Mainstays like Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Soul Calibur, and Virtua Fighter endured, but once-successful names like Killer Instinct and Primal Rage vanished into the night. SNK stubbornly supported both new fighting games and their aging Neo Geo hardware, but Capcom, once their devoted rival, pulled away from the genre. Capcom vs SNK appeared (with Morrigan) in 2001, but after that the company's fighters were sparse. Capcom Fighting All-Stars (with Demitri) was canceled, and Capcom Fighting Evolution was a poorly received hodgepodge of Capcom characters, including a handful of Darkstalkers mainstays. And yes, Anakaris was one of them.

It wasn't until 2008 and Street Fighter IV that Capcom made a full-blown attempt at returning to fighting games, and it paid off. Two Street Fighter IV upgrades followed, and a new Marvel vs. Capcom wasn't so far behind. Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono openly proclaimed his desire to make another Darkstalkers, showing brief mockup footage of Lord Raptor and Demitri with a “Darkstalkers Are Not Dead” slogan at conventions. Udon Comics also published several Darkstalkers series alongside their Street Fighter line, occasionally crossing over. Yet there wouldn't be an actual fourth Darkstalkers game. The cartoonish and exaggerated look that drew so many eyes to Darkstalkers now possibly worked against it. Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 were outlandish in their characters' designs, attacks, and expressions, but doing Darkstalkers justice posed more of a challenge. Its odd creatures change their looks with the mere press of an attack button. Showing this with 2-D animation requires new drawings, but the 3-D graphics of modern fighters make it a little more laborious to change a character's entire look for a single frame of animation.

Capcom has returned once again to Darkstalkers this month with the Capcom Fighting Collection. It gathers up all of the arcade Darkstalkers titles along with other Capcom releases (including Red Earth, never before officially available at home). It's a generous selection, but producer Shuhei Matsumoto was realistic when asked about the potential for new games, stating “we do not think that this will necessarily increase the possibility of these series being revived.”

Such reissues are almost an argument against updating Darkstalkers for the modern era, due to how well the original games hold up. With most fighting games now built from 3-D graphics even when the gameplay remains 2-D, Darkstalkers exemplifies a rare art. The details and variety in the animation have few equals even today, and the games remain fast-paced and complex.

Yet within that style there's so much more that the series could do. With Darkstalkers 3 it had only begun to plumb the depths of ancient folklore and movie monsters, and it inevitably prompts conjecture about just what sort of creatures could join the series. And with that comes the disappointment of knowing that Capcom may never revisit it as they always revisit Street Fighter.

So Darkstalkers may well remain a series frozen in 1997, surviving through reissues, guest appearances, and the occasional expensive statue of Morrigan. Yet Darkstalkers will also retain a devoted fan base—and for good reason. Over twenty years later, there's still nothing that matches the games' mixture of familiar monsters and comic anime stylings. Much like the myths that the series draws upon, Darkstalkers never truly fades away.

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