I’ve provided this disclaimer on a few pieces I’ve written about fighting games: I’m not very good at them. I mean, I’m better at some than others, but at the end of the day, I’m a casual player who finds a lot to enjoy in my own uncoordinated way. That especially applies to the “Golden Age” of the genre in the 1990s, which was full of beautiful hand-drawn visuals, bizarro characters, and rich backgrounds, to say nothing of the gameplay systems at hand. Capcom’s contributions in this space were consistently great and their Darkstalkers series stands to this day as a relatively underplayed (although its profile has been greatly raised in recent years) yet wonderful run of games. In spite of anime adaptations and recent character appearances in other series, that core Darkstalkers run only spanned three games across the three years from 1994 to 1997. Now, there are quite a few other releases and distinctions to make in addition to that approximation (including ports and remasters like DARKSTALKERS RESURRECTION , a collection of the last two games), but to get at the heart of the series, I’m working from the three base games, in their original arcade forms and not the various home console ports.
All games developed by Capcom.
#3 — DARKSTALKERS: THE NIGHT WARRIORS (1994)
The first entry into the series, DARKSTALKERS: THE NIGHT WARRIORS based its gameplay in the systems devised for STREET FIGHTER II (1991). Therefore, a strong base was founded onto which the developers of DARKSTALKERS could bring in a new vibe, as it were. A few new features, like air blocking and (in my opinion) easier to pull off combos, distinguished the game from its forebear, but a big part of its appeal is the monstrous theme. Pulling together various “creatures of the night” from across folklores and popular culture and distilling them into appealing, vibrant character designs, DARKSTALKERS brought personality and spectacle right from the get-go. Whether playing on the Universal monster movie slate, pagan tradition, or Japanese mythology, the series’ debut has a distinct personality. When you’re talking about an era of fighting games rife with variations on the STREET FIGHTER paradigm, that’s no small feat. Of course, what the game offers beyond its sheen is solid 2D fighting game goodness. By comparison to the likability its premise affords, the gameplay feels less radical, but DARKSTALKERS iterated on a tried and true foundation with style.
#2 — NIGHT WARRIORS: DARKSTALKERS’ REVENGE (1995)
NIGHT WARRIORS: DARKSTALKERS’ REVENGE is the sequel to DARKSTALKERS: THE NIGHT WARRIORS (I know, similar titles), but it carries the same story. In both games, the evil alien Pyron appears on Earth to add it to his collection of devoured planets a la Marvel’s Galactus. But our “Night Warriors,” the monsters, face off against him and each other. In this NIGHT WARRIORS iteration, however, a few more characters are added into the mix, such as Hsien-Ko, based in Chinese mythology. This change makes even just one step away from the original Darkstalkers game feel enriched, as the series was building a larger pastiche of spooky and macabre figures and translating them into fluid fighting game character designs. But besides these changes, NIGHT WARRIORS looks largely the same as its predecessor; its chunky sprite work is still quite gorgeous to look at, from the characters to the backgrounds. As for its gameplay, NIGHT WARRIORS evolves the formula in slight yet significant ways. A setting allows for autoblocking, a welcome addition for this noob. The special attack system is also deepened with two kinds of “Super Moves,” one of which requires just a portion of a full special gauge and the other requiring the whole thing. This adds a new level of strategy to the proceedings while not overcomplicating the 2D fighting game purity.
#1 — DARKSTALKERS 3 (1997)
This ranking of the Darkstalkers series is pretty straightforward, as I thought each game better than the last. But this is where things get a little complicated: DARKSTALKERS 3 is the blanket term I’ll be using to describe a few different releases. Initially released as VAMPIRE SAVIOR: WORLD OF DARKNESS to arcades, the “third” Darkstalkers game also received upgrades entitled VAMPIRE HUNTER 2: DARKSTALKERS’ REVENGE and VAMPIRE SAVIOR 2: THE LORD OF VAMPIRE, all released in 1997. These follow ups featured minor tweaks to gameplay but more notably mixed up the playable character roster. Later, the PSP game DARKSTALKERS CHRONICLE: THE CHAOS TOWER (2004) brought the Japan-only Dreamcast game VAMPIRE CHRONICLE FOR MATCHING SERVICE (2000), an upgraded version of the original VAMPIRE SAVIOR with the entire roster of all the previous arcade Darkstalkers games, to the US. I make all these distinctions to indicate that saying the “last” Darkstalkers game coming out in 1997 is kind of misleading. But in spirit, it remains fundamentally the same, as what I’ll call “DARKSTALKERS 3” (as it was also released in the US for PlayStation) was the foundation for these various upgrades, a convoluted web of rotating rosters and minor system tweaks that represents the way many arcade fighting games were released at the time. I also provide this context to head off any concerns that I’m leaving off less played yet beloved iterations of what is essentially the same game. All this being said: in whatever permutation, DARKSTALKERS 3 was the apotheosis of the series. While it smoothed up its look to the point that I kind of missed the chunky sprites of its predecessors, DARKSTALKERS 3 is still visually fresh to this day and is a welcome antidote to the 3D fighting games with which it was competing at the time. The game also switches up the twice told story of the series’ origins in favor of a new villain, Jedah, who brings the fighters into a demon world. Joining series regular characters like Demitri, Felicia, and Morrigan (who have gone unmentioned to this point but are of course iconic in their own way) are a few newcomers like B.B. Hood, a great addition as a Red Riding Hood-type character with machine guns. These stylistic changes are on top of a gameplay flow that was also a more radical evolution than that made from the first to second Darkstalkers game. The very pace of battle is changed with, instead of round-based fights, a “Damage Gauge System” that brings to characters two life bars which can to certain extents be recovered in time. It may seem like a minor distinction, but it ends up making the fights of DARKSTALKERS 3 feel more suspenseful and tense. Further changes to things like special moves (called the “Dark Force System”) feel more like tweaks, but overall, the fluidity of the game is also improved from its predecessors. DARKSTALKERS 3, with all of these elements, builds a stronger “just one more match” feeling while retaining and elevating its appealing thematic and visual premise, making it the best game in the short-lived yet beloved series.