Darius 2, Darius 2, DARIUS 2!
This freakin' game really boils my potatoes. Just thinking about it makes me want to fill this blog-post with expletives. Taito always delivers whenever it comes to presentation. Their arcade games have great art, intriguing stories, and fantastic soundtracks. However, when it comes to game-design, there are some rare times where I have to question their decision-making. This is one of them.
If you've played Darius 2, then you're already aware of its biggest issue: all power-ups are lost upon death. When you play this game, you either have to clear it in one life, or walk away from the machine. What if a power-up flies off-screen? The result is the same. Unlike nearly every other shooter, there isn't a surplus of power-ups. There are also a couple 1ups that drop, but you can just pass them by, because they're useless.
In all fairness, if the Silver Hawk didn't lose all of its weapons after getting blown up, Darius 2 would probably be one of the easiest STGs ever. Nothing has a chance at getting close to a fully-powered ship, players can collect a fairly generous stack of lives, and each shield is worth three hits (they also stack). Rather than attempt to balance the difficulty to compensate, Taito went with the nuclear option. This makes for a very unforgiving game.
But that's not the only reason why I hate it. Darius 2 also employs baffling stage designs. Zone E has a horrendous orange background that does an impressive job of hiding enemy bullets. Zone L places laser cannons directly behind rock-outcroppings, which block your "travel across the ground" missiles. There are other locations specifically designed to screw you out of that all-important first life. In the average play-through, there are maybe three or four spots where the player's game can end. I'm not sure whether to call it unbalanced or unfair. Theoretically, the only time you're allowed to die is before the first power-up appears (fly into the lava less than 2 seconds into the game), or at one or two of the final bosses.
Another thing that bothers me about the 1-life system is that it takes away so much meaning from everything. Whenever I play Zone L, I tend to die before the boss, lost a few other lives due to the relentless and overwhelming regular enemies, but then kill the boss without dying in a very thrilling battle. If I managed to hold onto my power-ups, I wouldn't have had to work nearly as hard. Earlier, I worked out a strategy for dealing with Grand Octopus. Normally his mini-octopuses are too frequent and durable for a weak Silver Hawk to survive. However, by sitting just NW of Grand Octopus's and moving in a circle, I can safely lure away all those troublesome enemies. This is a strategy I probably wouldn't even need, if I hadn't lost my power-ups. I'm going to game-over anyway in the very next stage, because there's far too much for an under-powered ship to deal with.
Whenever I play Darius 2, I just can't seem to enjoy it. All I have to look forward to are the parts where the game screws me over, and then it laughs in my face. There's nothing I can do to make things more entertaining. I just shoot a few things while waiting, praying, and then cursing.
What it all comes down to is that Darius 2 doesn't allow mistakes, and I really don't think that's good game-design. Darius Gaiden got it right by making deaths not nearly as punishing, and also giving players a lot of bonus points for every life (and bomb) they hold onto. Deaths are as much a part of videogames as anything else. Giving players an opportunity to move past the mistakes they make is very important. I really enjoy those thrilling moments where I have to clutch out a close victory, simply because I don't have anymore resources.