Darius Series (Taito)
Of all the shmups I mention this month, the toughest to actually play the way it is intended will be Darius (pronounced “dah-rai-us”). This title premiered in arcades in 1986 by developer Taito and featured a super wide 3-screen arcade cabinet. The first monitor would be centered like you’re used to, but the other two would be at slight angles on either side, using mirrors to create one straight wide view. As a result the way you play the game is completely different because there’s a lot more to see coming and going around you. Nowadays you could do a decent job emulating it on widescreen televisions, but no one has decided to do it yet. Because of this visual mode it doesn’t work all that great on MAME and I highly recommend trying one of the home ports or later arcade ports, which were designed around 4:3 televisions.
Darius isn’t only significant for having a super wide screen resolution, otherwise it would have died in obscurity as a one-off coin-op. It breaks the mold of the traditional shmup in many ways, including the fact that the player picks which level to play next. Much like Castlevania III it is impossible to see all 28 levels in one playthrough, in fact you will only see 7 in any one completion, but eventually you can piece together every level. Seafood haters out there will also note the interesting crustacean look to the enemies in the series. Your ship, the Silver Hawk, comes equipped with a cannon, bombs/missiles for ground attacks and a force field, all of which are upgraded by, you guessed it, power-up items dropped by destroyed enemies. Each level ends in a boss battle, although the size of the bosses isn’t quite the scale as I was used to with other shmups.
This title was ported to the Amiga, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum and of all systems, the Game Boy. I have honestly not played these versions so I cannot tell you if they remain faithful to the arcade or not. On Gameboy Advance a re-release of this title, Darius R, did come out and was a stripped down version of the arcade game, so I’m guessing the same can be said at least for the Gameboy port. The most significant port of this game has to be the PC-Engine ports (we didn’t get Turbografx-16 versions here in America) Darius Plus and Darius Alpha. Darius Plus is a port of the original that includes a few unique bosses, but is really just the original game. Darius Alpha is a boss rush mode version of the game, combining all 26 bosses back to back – this title had a very small print of around 800 copies and is thus rare and expensive in the wild. These two ports are also significant because they contain updated graphics and sound if used in the SuperGrafx upgraded console version of the PC-Engine. These two titles don’t see much improvement to me, but they do expand the SuperGrafx library from 5 to a whopping 7 games. The PC-Engine Super CD also saw another port, Super Darius, added unique bosses to the original and fuses a Boss Rush mode similar Darius Alpha into the main menu.
A simple 5 level/boss version of Darius, named Darius+, was released on US microcomputers, which may or may not be the ports of Darius listed above, I couldn’t find evidence. This is not really a port of Darius and is described as more of a simplified version of R-Type by players. It’s not considered part of the series or cannon.
Since Darius was limited, for the most part, to Japan it was actually given a different name when the sequel released to North America. The arcade version, released only in Japan as far as I know, retained the 3-screen format of the original. It basically kept the exact same formula from Darius save for two detriments by fans: your weapons would be completely lost upon death (like a traditional shmup) and bullets would not pass through destroyed enemies (in the original you could upgrade your bullets so that they pass through multiple enemies in one shot). Instead of power-ups being dropped by specific enemies, they were now found after defeating a cluster of 8, much like Gradius. Fortunately the branching level system remained intact and now sub-bosses were added to each level, which were the original bosses from the first game.
Japan didn’t see too many ports of Darius 2 other than a straight arcade port on the Saturn in 1996 that allowed you to switch to widescreen (although I don’t know if it’s optimized anamorphic for 16:9 televisions). The PC-Engine Super CD did see a Super Darius 2 port that, like the first Super Darius, included unique bosses. Sega produced versions for the Mega Drive/Genesis and in Europe and the US for the Master System that added a new boss, Nehonojia, in Stage X and removed two bosses, Steel Spine and Killer Hijia, in Venus stage. In Japan the title is known as Darius II but in Europe and the US it was renamed to Sagaia, which is how we know the series. Gameboy also released a game called Sagaia, which is a stripped hybrid of the first two games.
The Super Nintendo/Famicom received its own game in the series, Darius Twin, now completely optimized for full screen televisions. At this point the story and bosses are recycled from the series, mostly from Darius II, but the “plot” acknowledges this as the third game. Although there are branching paths, the final level will always be the same and each of the four endings simply depends on factors. Because it ditched the naming system we were familiar with in the US and was its own unique title, it fell to wayside as a SNES shmup. It is available on the Virtual Console if you want to check it out and works as a solid and inexpensive one-off of the series.
Darius Force later released on the Super Famicom, coming to America as Super Nova and yet again making for a naming system that completely removes it from an obvious Darius title. If you play the game, however, it is extremely clear that this is exactly what it is – this title even contains the Silver Hawk from the original and second Darius title as well as a new custom model. This game follows the power-up and battle system of Darius II and although it contains mild branching paths among 15 levels, each level leads to another so it’s more like 3 paths than branching levels. Each path, however, contains its own final boss and ending. Unlike its predecessor, it is not currently on the Virtual Console.
Return to Arcades
In 1994, the Darius series returned to arcades in Darius Gaiden (originally planned to be Darius III) and employed the graphical style of the early 90s with a bit of polygonal play common to early Playstation-era title. The power-up system received a facelift but is pretty much the same and it retains the branching level system. This time around it is possible to turn the sub-boss against your enemies by destroying a little ball on it instead of destroying the creature itself. You can also collect a black hole bomb that does massive damage to everything on-screen. Unlike its arcade predecessors, it goes back to a traditional full screen visual format, compacting the space much like a traditional shmup but very different for the classic Darius player. It was ported to the Saturn, PS1 and PC in Japan but only managed to make it on the Saturn over here.
In the fourth and final Japanese arcade installment, G-Darius, the series finally makes the full shift to 3D polygonal graphics in 1997. Ironically it released only on PS1 but did receive a North American port – so, technically you have to own a PS1 and a Saturn to enjoy both ports in America. That is, of course, unless you pick up the inexpensive Taito Legends 2 on PS2 in the US, which includes both Darius Gaiden and G-Darius on the same disc – the best way to enjoy the modern versions of the game. By the end of this entire series you will definitely be in the mood for sushi.
That about wraps up the Darius series, a relatively obscure but fun shmup that graces almost every console but stays loyal to none. For a lazy Sunday we have a great lazy Sunday shmup chock full of tons of explosions and cult infamy: M.U.S.H.A.