Thursday, April 23, 2009

AAA looks at: Darius Gaiden

Released in 1994 Darius Gaiden is the third game in Darius's 2D shooter arcade series. While the series has had multiple spinoffs and sequels on the consoles(like another Taito series, Bubble Bobble) the arcade entries are the most well-known.

Darius is essentially the basic tale of mankind fighting back against an alien menace, except this time the enemy is all manner of alien fish. While most of the regular foes are forgettable the bossfights are bizarre and quite impressive(and as a series tradition all of the bosses have wacky names and are introduced in text before you fight them). The stages you play through are organized in a setup similar to Sega's Outrun in that you have to pick your next stage after defeating each boss. Darius stages are organized in a semi-alphabetical order so your average playthrough will look something like: A B D G K P Z (this is also the easiest possible route in Darius Gaiden and outside of some exceptions the highest scoring one as well..which doesn't make any sense)

Darius Gaiden features fairly standard gameplay for a 2D shooter. You have the Silver Hawk which has three flavors of powerups:

The cannon always fires forward and over time develops lasers, huge waves of fire, and even two tiny ships that fire bullets that lock in on enemies. It takes three red powerups to gain a level for this weapon but only one death to lose a level. I should point out here that the default firing rate in Darius Gaiden is actually not considered the optimal one for playing. In fact most noted highscores use a much faster rate of fire, which makes the game far easier. Gamers interested in playing Darius Gaiden in this fashion will have to invest in either a turbo controller or the Saturn version of Darius Gaiden(as it has options for changing firing rate). Also of note is that the attract mode for Darius Gaiden shows the ship firing at a rate much higher than in the game.

The missiles are another essential aspect of the Silver Hawk. These fire downward at a curve and as they gain in strength(every three green powerups) they become more powerful and pretty soon you'll be able to fire above and behind you and eventually gain homing properties. Unlike the cannon the missiles will never level down no matter how many lives you lose.

Finally the shield. Shields are rare in 2D shooters, especially ones that are capable of taking up to 5 hits(though when you first get a shield it starts at 3 hits). However a hit can mean any number of things. A single tiny bullet counts as a hit but getting hit with a laser could count as multiple hits. Crashing into a wall may as well count for an infinite number of hits because you will die no matter what.

Also of note is the bomb. This bomb is a good last resort for getting out of bad situations(though your score will suffer as number of bombs are tallied by the end of the game along with remaining lives and number of captured enemies).

And before I go further I should mention that in most stages you can aim for a special orb located on particular creatures that when destroyed will allow you to use the creature to fight by your side for a little while. This isn't really much use but it becomes a huge factor in G. Darius, which I will look at another time.

With all of that out of the way lets look at Darius Gaiden itself. For those more familiar with the "Bullet Hell" or "Manic" sub-genre DG will seem oddly quaint by comparison as you'll rarely find yourself in situations where you have to dodge through immense waves of bullets. Actually in situations where you seem to be overwhelmed you're more likely better off seeking a safe spot(of which there are many but you'll never find them on your first playthrough). Also unlike most bullet hells all of the enemies and bosses tend to have unique patterns and abilities outside of filling the screen with bullets. Though I tend to prefer Manic-styled shooters I find a certain appreciation for the personality that the more intricate designs in DG bring.

The level designs for DG are for the most part very simplistic. Though you'll only see a portion of the game in every playthrough for the most part you'll hardly run into anything fresh or unique to each stage(in fact many of the stages share the same bosses). Sure there's one stage that has you face off with a giant battleship(a popular 2D shooter cliche) and another where you have to keep particular enemies alive so they'll drill holes in walls you can safely pass through but otherwise you'll be content with dealing with the waves of enemies instead of figuring out the "gimmick" of the stage(if you're craving a shooter filled with gimmicks I'd recommend Gradius V but that's for another time).

Unfortunately there's little else that differentiates Darius Gaiden from the rest of the genre, and there's nothing that would help it stand out as one of the best. Also unfortunate is that if you stick to the basic firing rate you'll discover that boss fights go on for simply far too long and even regular encounters become a major headache because enemy fire will flood the screen before you can get any kills in. Playing at the optimal rate however might just make the game too easy for some(Darius Gaiden with the optimal rate is the first arcade shooter I've ever 1-lifed). It's still a decent enough game otherwise and one of Taito's best(Next to Metal Black, Layer Section, and G. Darius) but without any sort of identity to the gameplay or some other unique aspect to its design all it has left to fall back on is wacky bosses and amazing music. Basically it falls somewhere inbetween "could be better" and "could be worse".

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