One of Capcom's most shortlived yet fondly remembered and beloved franchises — How Darkstalkers succeeded in spite of its commercial shortcomings

Despite the series only having three games released between 1994 and 1997, it's still fresh in any Capcom fan's mind more than 20 years later

Posted by Nicholas 'MajinTenshinhan' Taylor • November 10, 2019 at 7:07 p.m. PST

Another Halloween passed, another year without any news on the Darkstalkers front. This is hardly surprising, given we haven't seen anything new from the franchise itself since 1997... but that doesn't mean we haven't been constantly reminded of it at every turn possible from Capcom.

Even though Darkstalkers is far from an active series, and may not have seen notable success with its fighting game titles, the unique flavor of its characters left a strong impression in people's memories — which is something Capcom have used to their full advantage, making sure that the Darkstalkers cast of characters remain at the forefront of fans minds for over 20 years. So what exactly happened with the Darkstalkers franchise itself, and why are Capcom so intent on not letting us forget its characters? Let's take a look at the successes and missteps of the Darkstalkers games.

The Darkstalkers Series

The Darkstalkers franchise officially started when it first came out in arcades in the summer of 1994, with the first game in the series Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors (called Vampire: The Night Warrior in Japan), and was quite unique compared to most other fighting games you'd find at your local game place at the time.

While most fighting games like Street Fighter, Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting and all of their compatriots tended to be focused on martial arts (though often with supernatural elements to them) and pitting fighters of various disciplines against each other, Darkstalkers was something entirely different, with the entire aesthetic of the game being based in horror, with characters consisting of characters based on vampires, succubi, werewolves, Frankenstein's Monster and even the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

As such, it instantly marked itself as something quite different, and also enticed people with its highly detailed animations and fluid movements that put many other 2D fighting games at the time to shame. Of course, with the release of Virtua Fighter and Tekken, the industry had started to move towards the 3D craze, so while people were in awe at the animation of Darkstalkers when it came out, it wasn't enough for it to compete in an industry which had backed an entirely different horse.

Although it's difficult to gauge exactly how lucrative Darkstalkers managed to be for Capcom at the time given how little we know of arcade profits, and how incredibly mismanaged console ports often were at the time — for example, Darkstalker's sequel Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge was out on consoles before the initial game ever was, as bizarre as that may sound.

It was profitable enough, however, for Capcom to continue investing in the brand, making two sequels to the game which culminated in the third title, Darkstalkers 3 (known in Japan as Vampire Savior: The Lord of Vampires) which hit arcades in 1997 and tends to be the installment you'll see at tournaments today whenever Darkstalkers is being played.

This investment from Capcom came despite the climate being against it in several ways, with 2D being increasingly seen as outdated despite its fluidity compared to the at-the-time highly rigid 3D animations, arcades slowly declining since the early Street Fighter 2 heyday and console ports across the industry being wildly mismanaged by arcade-focused companies.

Because of all these faults, it's hard to tell exactly how well or poorly Darkstalkers ever did. What's clear is that the game never managed to gain a foothold in the home console market, which is no surprise given the mismanagement of its releases. Who ever heard of the second game coming out before the first one, right? It also didn't hurt that the best versions of Darkstalkers home console releases were on the Sega Saturn, a machine of questionable success, while the PlayStation ports were in general much worse quality.

Arcade gamers definitely loved Darkstalkers, but as the industry started focusing on 3D development that was still in a crude place at the time and home console development, it seemed difficult for Capcom to justify continuing the series at the time — especially with the fighting game boom coming to a definitive close. In fact, a few years later we saw Capcom largely move away from fighting game development for almost 10 years before the eventual release of Street Fighter 4.

And so, the Darkstalkers series came to a close after only being alive for three years. A brightly burning flame which went out all too fast, according to many, though it still seems abnormal to see Darkstalkers brought up as often as it is when it only lived between 1994 and 1997 across three titles. So what is it that makes Darkstalkers so special? Well, there's a very good reason why fans keep clamoring for a new title — and it's because of Capcom, whether they themselves realize it or not.

Capcom's Crossover Mania

Most franchises would become a footnote in gaming history after their untimely demise, at least until an eventual remake or reboot project started to be talked about, but Darkstalkers remained at the forefront of everyone's mind long after 1997 — and here's why.

Around the late 1990s, Capcom were seeing some of their biggest successes they ever had as a company. Although the fighting game bood had cooled off, Street Fighter was still a household name and appeared in pop culture everywhere, they had launched the Resident Evil series on 3D platforms to roaring success and they had all kinds of companies knocking at their door for them to develop licensed games for them, with many Capcom-developed Disney titles such as Duck Tales and Aladdin being hailed as top-level games.

This is where Capcom started realizing that they had some serious star power across their game library and to companies outside it was clear that Capcom's proven track record in collaborating on other companies' intellectual properties was solid. From this, the ultimate '90s pop culture fusion of Street Fighter vs. X-Men was born. This might be where you ask what any of this has to do with Darkstalkers, but don't worry, we're getting there.

The vs. series turned out to be a big success for Capcom, and it eventually led to an expansion of the brands into Marvel vs. Capcom and its later sequel, Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes. Because these were all 2D games with well-made sprites, this was a perfect opportunity for Capcom to asset flip the gorgeous game that was Darkstalkers, and although the art styles didn't always mesh too well together, Capcom wanted to make the utmost use out of the beautiful sprites they had made (Morrigan's original sprite lived on for almost 10 years, even).

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 had a healthy dose of Darkstalkers in it, with series mascot Morrigan joined by popular characters Felicia, B.B. Hood and Anakaris. This brought Darkstalkers characters to a much larger audience, and planted the seed for what was to come.

During the late 90s and early 2000's, we saw Capcom go into crossover overdrive — we saw games like Super Puzzle Fighter Fighter 2 Turbo, Capcom vs. SNK, Capcom Fighting Jam, Namco x Capcom, Project X Zone and much more. These weren't even all fighting games, but games of all kinds of genres that had a few things in common — one of them being that Darkstalkers characters would invariably appear in each and every one of them, even when much larger Capcom franchises such as Resident Evil or Devil May Cry didn't.

Further Legacy

This led to Darkstalkers being one of the pillars associated with Capcom, despite the franchise's history not supporting this level of importance at all. The level of prominence Morrigan has obtained as a Capcom icon is actually crazy if you think about it in relation to her franchise which only lived for three years in the '90s — it's to the point where if you look at the crossover games that aren't Street Fighter-specific where Chun-Li appears, you'll find that Morrigan is also present in each of them.

Later crossover games have held this tradition as well, with Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite and all of their various mobile game projects making sure that Darkstalkers is adequately represented in their rosters.

Even today, you don't need to look any further than Capcom's recently launched crossover game Teppen, which starts off with quite few characters to choose from as leaders, with Resident Evil, Monster Hunter, Street Fighter, Mega Man and Devil May Cry being paid their due respects as they are Capcom's top 5 best-selling franchises ... and then, of course, Morrigan from Darkstalkers as well to round out the pack, despite the franchise never reaching any metric of success even remotely close to the aforementioned ones.

The funny part about it is that nobody who is even remotely familiar with Capcom even thinks of it as strange. That's how ingrained Darkstalkers has become with the identity of Capcom. Whether this was deliberate strategy by Capcom all along or it just happened to end up that way because they wanted to asset flip and get more use out of the money they put in to the original development of the Darkstalkers games is really irrelevant.

The end result is that they've taken a franchise that would under normal circumstances be a forgotten relic of the past only to be brought up in nostalgia discussions and instead made it stand out in every Capcom fan's mind whenever the company is brought up. This, despite going over 20 years without a new game in the series.

In short, Darkstalkers has been a massive success for Capcom in a way that transcends the original game releases from back in the '90s, and through competent branding Darkstalkers have an eternal place in Capcom crossovers, merchandise and most importantly, the fandom.

Regardless of whether we'll actually get a new game in the series or not, looking over Capcom's treatment of the franchise it feels like we can say with confidence that for as long as Capcom continues to exist as an independent company it will remain true that Darkstalkers Are Not Dead.

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