First, there was Street Fighter 2, and it was good. And then there were a bunch of imitators, and they were… middling. But, somewhere in there, while we were sorting through a solid fifty versions of Street Fighter 2 and trying to remember which fighting game had that weird dude with the clown mask (no, not that clown mask, the other one), there was Darkstalkers, the Capcom fighting game “alternative” to Street Fighter 2.
And why the heck wasn’t Darkstalkers accepted as the better game?
Right from the get go, Darkstalkers had every opportunity to be better. Street Fighter 2 was an amazing and revolutionary game that defined an entire genre… but the problem with starting a genre is that you’re still, ya know, figuring that genre out. Combos? A complete accident of programming. Balance? Important, but it’s pretty clear there’s a difference between Buzzcut, who can shut down everything, and the sumo dude that can’t waddle past a fireball. How about just plain design? You cannot tell me that OG Street Fighter 2 didn’t have a limited number of special moves for certain characters for any reason other than “this will actually let us say it’s done”. Sure, Blanka is complete with “that one move from E. Honda” and “is electric”, let’s move on to “guy that climbs background”. In short, Street Fighter 2 was amazing for its time, but it needed a pile of new versions to better refine the initial concept.
And one thing that never changed about Street Fighter 2 was its boring characters. Don’t get me wrong, Street Fighter 2 has an amazing, eclectic troupe that has proven over the years to be possibly the most versatile cast of characters in gaming (hey, you think Zelda is going to entice Jean Claude?), but, back during their introductory years, they were a little less interesting. Blanka was one of a kind (assuming you never played Pro Wrestling on the NES), but the rest may as well have been Karate Guy, Soldier, Girl, and (my favorite) Red Karate Guy. They all had unique moves, motivations, and blood types, but, at a glance, they were nary more than international stereotypes. Dhalsim, with his necklace of skulls and curry-based fire breath, is a typical Indian, right? Seems legit.
So by the time we were first introduced to “the new challengers”, nobody was all that surprised when we got Bruce Lee Clone #3,271 and Dee Jay the D.J. But over on the other side of the arcade, we had Darkstalkers. Now there was a cast you could take home to mother (assuming mother is some manner of murderous slime monster).
Darkstalkers has got your Ken and Ryu… but they’re vampires. Or, okay, one is a vampire and one is a succubus, but let’s not split hairs, they’re both throwing bats back and forth. Then there’s the heavy metal zombie (who once accidentally summoned demons during a concert), the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Frankenstein(‘s monster, nerds). And a yeti! Darkstalkers went the extra mile and actually found Big Foot! How can you not love such a game?
And while Darkstalkers 1 may have been little more than a reskinned Street Fighter 2, Darkstalkers 2 and Darkstalkers 3 really got their unique balls a-rollin’. When Street Fighter was still trying to work out the true meaning of the Super meter, Darkstalkers was tossing mega shadow moves all over the place. Like some fireball variety? Well, you’re not going to find beams over on those fighting streets. In fact, if you like the Versus series at all, give or take a game or two, you have Darkstalkers to thank much more than Street Fighter 2. Did you play Street Fighter 3? It introduced an electric Stretch Armstrong albino dude, and somehow still made the gameplay boring. That kind of thing is literally impossible when a murderous Red Riding Hood is spraying a giant bee with an uzi.
So this brings us back to the original question: If Darkstalkers was Street Fighter 2, but more refined and featuring more interesting characters, why has it always played second fiddle to its “ancestral” game? Everyone understood not seeing a new Darkstalkers during the dark ages when the best we could hope for was a fresh Guilty Gear, but we’re now living in a world with multiple Street Fighter 4s and 5s. And a couple of new Versus games. Get it together, Capcom!
In an attempt to find the answer, I played both Darkstalkers 3 and Street Fighter 2 (well, SSF2T Udon edition) back to back. And I think I found answer! It comes down to these dorks…
The cast of Street Fighter 2 is, compared to just one of the living sun monsters in Darkstalkers, boring. But take a look at 15 seconds of two fighters from that “boring” cast. Dhalsim versus Zangief may seem mundane to us nowadays, but try to imagine being a “newb”. Try to envision a world where you have never seen these two characters, and then try to imagine your impression after seeing that tiniest of clips. Taken on its own, you can immediately recognize the “styles” of both of these fighters. Dhalsim can launch fireballs and stretched fists… so he’s all about the range. Zangief, meanwhile, can barely reach Dhalsim before he’s dizzied, but his moves are powerful. Did you see how much health Dhalsim lost from one piledriver? That hairy guy is the real monster! Now imagine watching another match, maybe now with Ryu and Chun-Li. You can immediately see the difference in their styles. Same for Guile and E. Honda. By the time you get to Blanka, sure, you might be shocked by his high voltage prowess, but you’ve also got a full understanding of how his speed compares to that of the blonde in the red gi.
Street Fighter 2 might have a boring cast, but it’s a cast that immediately defines its own terms. It’s a cast that, in literally seconds, helps the player to understand the exact difference between fighters.
Darkstalkers? Not so much.
Sasquatch might be our prerequisite strongman, and I’m pretty sure Felicia slots into the “quick girl” trail that Chun-Li so effectively blazed, but, once you get to the rest of the cast, it gets tremendously more blurry. What’s the difference between Lord Raptor and Rikuo? Their moves look totally different, but what’s the practical application? Which is stronger? Faster? Bishamon looks like a slow and steady fighter, but so Anakaris. Are you supposed to be using that mummy floatiness? Or is that more the domain of one of the other flying fighters? And when you start adding the new fighters, it’s almost impossible to even discern their purposes. B.B. Hood is loaded with guns, but she isn’t really a ranged fighter? Are Jedah’s blood moves just for show? Is there even supposed to be a difference between Morrigan and Lilith?
Of course, if you’re a Darkstalkers fan, you know the answers to all of these questions. Or maybe you don’t! Maybe you just like using the funny werewolf man to hit people with nunchucks. That’s okay, too! But what’s important is that, fan or not, it’s not nearly as easy for someone to “pick up and understand” Darkstalkers like Street Fighter 2. Yes, Darkstalkers is more exhilarating and flashy, but that flashiness blurs the lines between the fighters, and, when everyone is exciting, no one is. Street Fighter looks like a fighting tournament, Darkstalkers looks like… crazy nonsense.
First impressions count. People like to know what’s happening, and, when they don’t, they get frustrated. Street Fighter has always worn its archetypes on its sleeve, while Darkstalkers kept things a little more complicated. And complicated doesn’t mean quarters.
I love you, Darkstalkers, but you’re too weird for your own good.
FGC #390 Darkstalkers 3
- System: Arcade, Playstation, and Sega Saturn. I also played Darkstalkers Resurrection on the PS3 for part of this review, as it’s about as close to OG DS3 Arcade as is available on the same system I’m playing a PSX game anyway.
- Number of players: Up to two vampires may battle at one time.
- Other Problems: A lot of people claim that the “real” reason we haven’t seen a modern Darkstalkers is that the constant “morphing” and general craziness of the franchise can’t translate properly from sprites to modern, 3D modeling. But this is complete nonsense, as, come on, you’ve seen that gif of Gohan’s arm, right? We can do this thing!
- Version Differences: The original arcade Darkstalkers 3 did not include the bosses of DS2, nor Donovan, the Night Warrior, for some reason. This effectively nuked every new character introduced in DS2, give or take a Chinese vampire lady. The home version, however, brought the whole gang back, and included an “edit colors” mode, making it the superior version. So of course future rereleases seem to be based on the arcade version…
- Favorite Character: In a game full of cartoony, but creepy, characters, I prefer Marionette, because everything about her is goddamn unnerving.
- Midnight Bliss: I am not going to talk about Dimitri’s Midnight Bliss again…
So let’s talk about Viktor’s amazing booty instead.
I like that. And I cannot lie.
- Did you know? Lilith was originally intended to be Morrigan’s angel half-sister. Somewhere along the line, however, she was demoted to merely being some errant chunk of Morrigan’s soul, and, thus, another succubus. The official word has always been that an angel wouldn’t “fit” in the Darkstalkers universe, but I’m pretty sure the real answer is that nobody wanted to animate a bunch of feathers all over the arena.
- Would I play again: Oh my yes. This is one of the few fighting games that I routinely replay… Mainly because it hasn’t seen a modern update in any way, shape, or form. Come on, Capcom, poop out a decent sequel. You owe me!
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Star Fox 64 3D for the 3DS! Come in, Corneria! We’re actually finally going to play a Star Fox game! Please look forward to it!