The recent fighting game tournament Combo Breaker featured the obvious big games such as Street Fighter V and Injustice 2, but a less-heralded game had one of the event's best and most unconventional showings. Vampire Saviour, a 1997 fighting game featuring demons, zombies, and mummies, drew perhaps the greatest collection of North American competitors it's ever seen, setting the stage for an amazing grand finals match between characters thought to be two of the weakest on its roster.
As the event came to a close, Mario "MightyMar" Gomez and Jie "Diar" Moc had outlasted 89 other Vampire Saviour competitors. They represented the best of the North American community, forging a path to the grand finals on the backs of their respective low tier characters. MightyMar played immaculately as Anakaris, making the ancient mummy look unbeatable with his tricky movement and pinpoint accuracy, while Diar stuck with the diminutive demon Lilith, utilising her mobility and a potent grab game to hide her shortcomings.
The match was a product of the intense qualifiers that came before it. In prelim matches, MightyMar and Diar were confronted with the prospect of facing one of the undisputed strongest characters in the game, but were able to defeat Ari "Floe" Weintraub's jumpy Sasquatch to continue on in the bracket. When they finally met, MightyMar dissected the offensive stylings Diar had used to make it to the end of the tournament, handily defeating him by a score of 3-1.
The real hype came from the rarity of the character matchup. Vampire Saviour is as unforgiving as it is exciting, and despite the relative balance of its roster it can seem impossible to gain a foothold should you come up against a character that far outranks your own. To see MightyMar and Diar pair up in grand finals was a treat for longtime fans of the franchise, and it highlighted the time they put into learning their respective characters.
Since launching in 1994, the Vampire series (known as Darkstalkers outside Japan) has always been a little extra. Faster, flashier, and edgier than fellow Capcom property Street Fighter, the horror-themed fighting game quickly endeared itself to fans of the genre by introducing gameplay mechanics like air blocking and EX moves. It's a niche attraction these days, but much like the undead creatures that make up its playable roster, Vampire remains attached to the world of the living thanks to the dedication of its hardcore fanbase.
Vampire has seen a number of official releases and updates over the past 20 years, so in lieu of explaining some confusing localisation choices, we'll just stick with the most popular. The franchise's third instalment, Vampire Saviour (i.e. Darkstalkers 3) made the scene in 1997 with an eclectic cast of monstrosities, from the alluring succubus Morrigan to decaying rock-and-roll zombie Zabel. As with most fighting games, competitors eventually settled on strength rankings for the roster, separating them into tiers based on how well they could theoretically cope in high-level situations.
According to the detailed Shoryuken wiki, characters like Gallon the werewolf and Sasquatch rule the roost, Little Red Riding Hood homage Bulleta and handsome fishman Aulbath sit around the middle, and Victor brings up the rear as Vampire Saviour's resident hulking brute. While there really isn't such a thing as a perfect tier list, these rankings are generally accepted by a majority of players.
Vampire Saviour is a pretty balanced game, but that doesn't mean there aren't clear winners and losers when it comes to overall strength. The mummified Anakaris, for example, doesn't have a normal throw and can't pushblock (a key defensive mechanic that allows players to push the opponent away from them while blocking their attacks). Lilith, is a manifestation of Morrigan's overwhelming power that gained sentience. She lacks air mobility, which can make her rushdown offence a little one-dimensional. In the right hands, however, both characters can be dangerous, and this was made evident during the Combo Breaker grand finals.
Vampire Saviour's scene represents the best of the greater fighting game community. Through sheer perseverance, they have managed to carve out space even as real estate shrinks from the growing number of genre releases each year. Within that niche, MightyMar, Diar, and other players like them continue to buck conventional wisdom in favour of playing an unforgiving game the way they want. While it may not be possible in every fighting game, their dedication has granted them the ability to stand among the best Vampire Saviour players in the world. Where some would say this makes tier lists useless, the existence of those rankings only makes their hard work that much more impressive.
For more footage of the Vampire Saviour tournament at Combo Breaker, check out the official Twitch archive.
Ian Walker is a fighting game expert and freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.