Adapting the Darkstalkers games into an animated series is harder than it seems. True, the games are largely plot-free cavalcades of marvelously animated monsters sparring with each other, but therein lies the challenge. Should a Darkstalkers anime series be comedic, in keeping with the goofier characters and the exaggerated cartoon look, or should it be grim and brooding, since these are, after all, vampires and succubi and werewolves and such? And who out of the game’s large roster should emerge as the main characters? And should the character designs tone down the technically naked catgirl’s appearance or not?
The four-part Darkstalkers OVA series from 1997 makes up its mind quick, playing its tale of combative creatures of the night as straight-faced as possible. We find the world mired in darkness both literal and figurative, as monstrous beings roam the land while the sun itself is masked. Human civilization is reduced to a strange hybrid of medievalism and modern remnants, where peasants labor over decaying crops while zombies peel out in sports cars.
The beleaguered mortals attempt only meager resistance, as we see when the effervescent, revealingly fur-clad catgirl Felicia and soul-devouring undead rockstar Lord Raptor tear through a squad of would-be exterminators. Even so, these creatures of the night are often at each other’s throats. The vampire Demitri Maximoff revives and runs afoul of the vexing succubus noblewoman Morrigan Aensland, and they’re interrupted by a fleet of Huitzil robots. And then a vaguely demonic alien named Pyron arrives to make the planet his latest playground.
Much of the series focuses on the half-human Donovan Baine, however. Toting an enormous sword and commanding magical abilities, he morosely roams around until fate crosses his path with that of Anita, a small girl possessing ominous special powers. Before long they’re teamed up with Hsien-Ko and Mei-Ling, two ghostly sisters out to avenge their mother’s demise by taking down Pyron.
It should be impossible to make a completely boring anime series with a zombie rocker, a troublemaking succubus, two Chinese hopping vampire-zombies, and a wealth of other unique monsters. But the Darkstalkers OVA sure tries. The script is long on monologues and short on meaningful character interaction, with a lot of the central cast never even meeting. Donovan, Anita, Hsien-Ko, and Mei-Ling wander around, Demitri and Morrigan square off, and Felicia hangs out at a Lord Raptor concert and then befriends some humans and the gruff werewolf Jon Talbain, all without their stories adding up to anything.
In stark contrast to the colorful, fast-paced, and humorous tone of the Darkstalkers games, the OVA series makes everyone too stilted and distant. It spends a lot of time following Donovan and Anita around while they brood and stare and deliver grim pronouncements on the nature of humanity and the overwhelming darkness of the world. Characters frequently announce things that a more adept series would show us; when Morrigan announces that she’s strangely drawn to Demitri, we have to take her word for it simply because the two of them have no apparent chemistry. Supporting characters get very little closure, as every human ally from a despondent priest to a kindly doctor just disappears from the story to make room for the actual video-game characters.
In that department, though, the Darkstalkers OVA is at least nice to look at. CAPCOM and Madhouse clearly spent some money on the production, and director Masashi Ikeda (who also scripted the first half of the series) emphasizes the fight scenes with crisp, dynamic style and some sharp music from Kou Otani. Character designer and first-episode animation director Shukou Murase, whose style was inescapable if you watched mid-1990s anime, ably marries the original CAPCOM designs to the anime’s more realistic and shadowy tones (with the possible exception of Felicia, who often looks pointy enough to be a Masami Obari doodle). There’s no shortage of stylish battles, but it raises the question: if it’s nicely animated Darkstalkers fighting you want, why not just play the exceptionally well-aged fighting games?
The Darkstalkers games had a vaguely defined world and storyline, but the anime doesn’t quite flesh things out. We get only a murky idea of where these monsters actually came from or how the human world relates to the demon world that we see in glimpses of Morrigan’s courtly life. And yet the story insists on taking everything oppressively formal, as though it’s afraid to the let the cast cut loose and enjoy themselves. Only the scenery-shredding Lord Raptor seems to be having any fun, and he doesn’t show up after the first episode.
Yes, fans of the Darkstalkers games shouldn’t count on seeing every character in the spotlight. Movies and series based on fighting games usually struggle to include the games’ entire rosters, and most make the harsh decision to focus on a core set of characters. This reduces the rest to disposable, briefly-seen opponents who are just there to make the heavy hitters look good—in wrestling parlance, they’re jobbers or “enhancement talent.”
The Darkstalkers OVA initially tries to give every beastie his or her moment, but when the fourth episode arrives, we barely see the mummy king Anakaris, the curiously attractive fishman Rikuo, the Frankenstein’s monster Victor, or the adorable yeti Sasquatch before Pyron thrashes them. It suggests a rushed production, though the series still finds time for a weird last-episode appearance by a scientist who resembles Mega Man nemesis Dr. Wily and serves no apparent purpose other than to snipe at Donovan. And for a quick note, this OVA is based on the secondDarkstalkers game, so don’t look for any faces from Darkstalkers 3.
The Japanese voice acting is competent across the board, and the dub is a typical late 1990s effort from Ocean Studios: a little flat here and there, but with mostly good performances. The script tries for eloquent flourishes to compensate for the uptight tone, though you could make a potentially lethal drinking game out of how many times characters say “The Dark.” It’s a shame that Felicia gets only a single cat pun, but at least it’s a good one.
In fact, the most amusing part of the dub finds Scott McNeil voicing Raptor just as he did in the short-lived Darkstalkers: The Animated Series. The American cartoon may have been a disgrace, but at least it realized that perhaps you shouldn’t make a straight-laced animated adaptation from a video game where the typical fight has a ghost-girl dropping one-ton weights on a snow-spewing bigfoot or a mummy turning a werewolf into a little dachshund puppy.
Discotek’s new Blu-Ray version of the Darkstalkers OVA is the sharpest the series has ever looked, and it’s packed with extras for both the anime and the video games, plus extended treatments of the inexplicable but strangely catchy “Trouble Man,” which CAPCOM really tried hard to make into the Darkstalkers theme song. The voluminous art gallery has sketches for every major character and, as further evidence of the series being hurried, a few supporting cast members who never actually show up in the series.
The Darkstalkers OVA deserves some credit for sticking to its guns: it wanted to be a serious adaptation of a somewhat goofy fighting game, and that’s what it is. Yet it doesn’t really succeed on any point. It’s too grim to capture the same cartoonish appeal as the video games, yet it doesn’t dig deep or mix the characters together well enough to intrigue any casual viewers. It’s sometimes enjoyable to watch for Darkstalkers fans, but it’s also a reminder of how easy it is for an animated series to miss the point.