Genre: Horizontal Shooter
Also on: Saturn/PlayStation/Windows/PlayStation 2/Xbox
It can be hard to believe that at one point, arcades were dominated by “shooters”. Not first-person shooters such as Doom or Quake, but games where you had a small spaceship (or plane, as was the case with Capcom‘s 1942) and fired upon waves and waves of enemies, generally of the alien variety. In 1978, Taito more or less invented the genre, depending on your views of Spacewar!, and really pushed video games into public knowledge with Space Invaders. Space Invaders was one of those games which managed to become a household name and in Japan even managed to create a shortage of 100 yen coins. It was a fairly simple game. You had a spaceship, positioned at the bottom of the screen, and shot at blocky aliens who somewhat resembled sea critters. This last part leads us to 1986, where Toshio Kohno at Taito decided to make a game where you shot at giant mechanical fish, with the action taking place across three monitors to give it a huge widescreen look. Weirdness aside, the first couple of Darius games were very by-the-numbers shooters. They weren’t bad or unpopular, but nothing special. And then, in 1994, Darius Gaiden was released.
Darius Gaiden is fast, fluid, fun, bizarre, weird and creepy all at the same time. When the game starts, you find yourself flying a ship, the Silver Hawk, through a mostly ruined city. Robotic fish-like enemies start coming towards you and naturally, you pump them full of lasers and missiles. Some enemies are a different colour to the others the little groups they appear in. If you shoot down these coloured enemies, they’ll leave a power-up behind. The more of these power-ups you get, the stronger you become (obviously). There are a couple of categories – weapons, missiles and shields. Collecting a few shield icons will grant you an energy shield that can take as many hits as power-ups you’ve collected. Naturally you should put a priority on grabbing these. Missile power-ups increase the firepower and amount of missiles that you drop when firing, starting at one and ending up at four and weapons can either have their strength increased or changed to a different type, such as two fast firing, but thin laser beams.
Your arsenal also includes a “bomb”, which you can activate with a button press. Upon deploying the bomb, a black hole appears for a few moments, draws all enemies and projectiles that are on the screen into itself, then explodes with lightning, destroying normal enemies and dealing a fair bit of damage to bosses. You get three of these to start with and they are replenished if your ship gets shot down. You really need them, too – Darius Gaiden is unforgiving, which considering it was designed to sit in an arcade and eat your coins isn’t terribly unexpected. There are lots of enemies at once, all firing their weapons at you or just trying to collide with you, the stages hardly ever work in your favour and bosses take a long time to go down. The feeling of accomplishment when you finally clear a stage, however, makes it all worthwhile.
Once you’ve completed the first stage, a screen appears asking you which of two stages you want to tackle next, labelled Area B and Area C. This happens at the end of each level, for a grand total of twenty-eight levels. Of these, only two (Z and V) are repeated. Each play-through of the game has you visiting seven stages, with each final stage having its own ending. This will probably take you about twenty minutes, making it a short, but quite re-playable game.
An interesting thing happens about half-way through any given stage – a mini-boss appears. That in itself isn’t terribly novel, but each mini-boss has a small blue ball somewhere on their body. If you attack this ball prior to defeating the mini-boss, the ball can dislodge. If you then touch this floating ball, the mini-boss will stop fighting you and actually switch sides, giving you a helping hand either until it takes an amount of damage or you reach the boss of the stage.
As mentioned a couple of times, your enemies are mechanical sealife looking things. Fish, urchins, crabs.. the best examples of these are the bosses. Each one is quite large and takes up at least a quarter of the screen, the rest of which is probably filled with lasers and explosions at any given moment. Thankfully each boss has a number of areas on it where you can destroy various parts, such as cannons, shifting things in your favour a bit.
Bosses also have really bizarre names. Before the fight begins, a message appears on the screen. For example, WARNING, A HUGE BATTLESHIP CRUSTY HAMMER, IS APPROACHING FAST.
If I had to dock points in any one area, it’d be the sound effects. They tend to sound very low-quality and empty, especially the explosion noises for small enemies, which have some odd echo to them. The music is.. weird. That’s the only way it can be described. Generally quiet and somewhat melancholy, there’s an overarching set of lyrics, which tend to say “Close your eyes; close your head”. Considering the weird factor the game already has, though, it fits. Some interesting things are done with the music, too. For example, while most of the levels use different songs and then again for the bosses, sometimes the music will keep playing from one stage to another, giving them a very ‘connected’ feeling. One or two stages have no music for at least half of their length, too, providing a very isolated touch.
As with a lot of arcade games in its day, Darius Gaiden was ported to home consoles – the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. The PlayStation version was Japan-only, but Acclaim brought the Saturn version to American and European shores in 1996. Two years later, there was a PC port too, but these days it’s almost impossible to get working on Windows XP or later, so it’s not a great way to play it on even somewhat recent systems. In 2006 and 2007, Taito Legends 2 was released for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC. Taito Legends 2 is a large collection of classic Taito games, one of which happens to be Darius Gaiden (also included is Metal Black, a game that uses the same engine as Darius Gaiden). The PlayStation 2 version, as a bonus, includes another Darius game, G Darius. The PC version of Taito Legends 2 can generally be found in bargain bins for ten dollars or less and is definitely worth the asking price if you want a quick way to go fishing with a spaceship.