Darkman was something of a screen test for Sam Raimi. Despite directing cult classics like Evil Dead and Crimewave, Darkman was Hollywood's test to see if Sam could transition into the mainstream. Apparently he passed, because he went on to direct three of the highest grossing films of all time (the Spider-Man trilogy). Darkman on the NES is also a transition or sorts. This infuriating action game made me want to transition my fist right through the television!
In Darkman you play Peyton Westlake, a mentally unstable scientist who gets permanently scarred. He wants revenge on the people that did this to him, but can't go out in public with his current disfigurement. His plan? Take pictures of people and create extremely realistic masks that allow him to slip out of the sewer and exact revenge. There's only one problem: The masks break down over time, forcing him to work quick.
The game does its best to abide by these rules, but it's far more interested in being the worst platformer imaginable. The idea is that you fight through a bunch of familiar locales (sewer, park, industrial complex, etc.) taking the identity of other people. This is a cool concept, as it allows players to take control of a bunch of different characters. Sadly, even with that going for it, Darkman fails at being a competent platformer.
The game is loaded with unfortunate platforming perils, demanding perfection to a fault. Some ledges are too far to simply jump to, so you'll need and run and jump. But wait, don't run too fast or you'll bounce off the wall for no reason. You can climb the walls, but even that is fraught with frustration gameplay mechanics. To make matters worse, you'll actually be punished for picking up items along the way. Jumping to collect a health power-up means you can't cling on to the wall, forcing you to watch Darkman fly through what should be a solid wall.
Things go from bad to worse when you start fighting off the game's many thugs. Darkman's punches and kicks don't look especially powerful and it's not always clear when they are working. You can't simply mash the buttons to win, but at the same time it's not clear when you're supposed to punch your attacker. The result usually involves embarrassing punching matches that end with one of us falling off a ledge.
The game is more than you jumping from ledge to ledge; you'll also go on picture taking missions. These mini-games play out like a light gun game, with gunmen in windows trying to shoot you. Your job is to take pictures of your target, who seems to be able to magically warp from one place to another. Unrealistic physics aside, this is a pointless mode that manages to be even less fun than the usual platforming hell.
There are some ideas here that could have made for a fun game. I like the idea of taking other people's identity, and it's good to see the game taking that into consideration. Yet it seems to make no difference, as the bad guys attack you no matter what you look like. Why bother going to the trouble of creating a mask if everybody is going to see through it?
Perhaps questions like that don't need to be answered. This is a punishingly difficult game, but only because the game cheats. Your jump button doesn't consistently work like it should and the character's actions are questionable. Even the game's tiny levels (some taking less than 10 seconds) aren't enough to make up for the unfair designs and obstacles. Darkman isn't a 2D side-scrolling action game, it's pure torture.