DARKSTALKERS / Capcom / Arcade
Darkstalkers is a visually beautiful fighting game from Capcom that uses a more polished version of the Street Fighter 2 engine. It actually makes a number of improvements on Street Fighter 2 - smoother and faster gameplay as well as Capcom's first combo counter system - and has some great character designs and even pretty good audio. And in spite of all that, it never even really attracted half the following that Street Fighter (or even Mortal Kombat) did.
A bit of an injustice perhaps, but after spending some time with the game, I have some theories as to why things worked out that way. But first, the particulars - this is another tournament-fighting game, only featuring monsters instead of martial artists (well, actually, they're monster martial artists). Vampires, succubi, ghouls, undead samurai, even the Sasquatch and a Fish Man will brawl it out for reasons beyond my understanding. As mentioned, it is most remembered for beautiful detailed background art and fluid character animations. But it also has silkier and faster gameplay than the rather stiff Street Fighter 2, and implements the first iteration of a combo system with a counter that would go on to be used in just about all of Capcom's future fighting games. Darkstalkers is more reserved than later titles would be however; no 100-Hit Super Tag Blaster combos here, just a fast and elegant system that upgrades SF2's primitive combos without going over the edge into ridiculous anime-inspired obnoxiousness.
And as to why the game never really caught on? I think post-SF2 burnout in the midst of waves and waves of imitators was partially responsible, but this is also not an easily accessible game. Aside from the two vampiric characters who play something like Ryu and Ken, most of the fighters have odd and offbeat attacks that employ unusual timing and angles. They are actually all quite balanced, and once mastered are incredibly effective, but it definitely takes more effort to become even basically competent with a character in this game than it does in the usual Shoto-clone fighter. Add to that a computer AI that is all over you from the bell and doesn't give you much opportunity to figure out the game's moves, and you have a recipe for newb frustration. Why sink quarter after quarter into this game in a futile attempt to beat Morrigan when you know one quarter will take you through at least six matches in Street Fighter? I think that's what most arcade gamers of the time were thinking.
It's certainly worth a look now that you can have it at home, with some leisure to learn the game's unique style - if anything check it out just for the beautiful art.
* Gameplay Video