Darius MD Review (MD, 2019)

Alongside Gradius and R-Type the Darius series makes up another of the three classic horizontal shmup pillars. As much as I'm a fan of R-Type and Gradius this franchise never seemed to catch my interest as much however and I only ended up playing this classic because a port of it came with the Mega Drive Mini emulation console. Had I not found out I had this available on my MD Mini I would have kept checking this franchise off even longer.

Coming right out of Gradius and Salamander Darius' music and visuals immediately stood out to me. Unlike earlier shmups Darius features diverse and detailed background visuals and various huge boss sprites. Its music is also more than just one step above of what Konami's games offered in the '80s, sometimes it almost had me wanting to dance to its tunes. However compared to even Gradius this game is very simple and staightforward in its mechanics. The Silverhawk comes equipped with bombs, or missiles, just as featured in previous games of the genre. Its main shot always goes straight ahead, no matter how much you power it up and change its type in the process. There are no pods or options and there is only a single speed setting for the ship. It almost doesn't get any more straight forward.

What sets Darius apart instead is its iconic route selection structure. Unlike other shmups Darius has you choose the next stage after every boss fight. Figuring out a route that works well for you is half the fun in this game. Unfortunately with a total of 26 stages Darius ends up favoring quantity over quality: the stages and enemy patterns are not as tightly designed as they could have been had the game featured less variety. Some stages more than others feel especially gimmicky and almost redundant.

Playing the Mega Drive port it was immediatly obvious to me that Darius was originally designed to play on a triple monitor setup

Darius Extra Version (Arcade) played on the Cozmic Collection

as the screen is almost always cluttered with enemies and bullets. Some enemies are so tough they hardly go down before reaching the player, others will leave little room to dodge when they make sudden turns. For my taste this ports appears to be a little too faithful to the arcade original. While the Silverhawk doesn't lose all of its weapon power when losing a life, power up items are liable to getting stuck in the stage structures or disappearing before you can get to them (if the enemy carrying it didn't move straight past you). At the end of the day losing too many intermediate upgrades still hurts a lot in the long run and the experience varies little from playing Gradius: get hit and it's time to hit the reset button. Darius leaves very little room for error and can be frustrating, especially since its first stage is way tougher than is reasonable. It's almost been a week for me since I started playing it and getting a good run that doesn't end on the introduction stage still takes me a few tries more often than not.

Fortunately picking the second player ship Tiat functions as an easy mode in this port. Tiat deals more damage to enemies and does not lose any of its weapon power on death, making this port much less frustrating to play. It's still not an easy game until your systems are all powered up to near max level however. Personally I wish there was a middle ground that was somewhere in between the difficulties that are provided by playing as Proco or Tiat. The original arcade game has the infamous flaw that bosses gain insane amounts of additional HP as the Silverhawk's main weapon is upgraded. I haven't played that version as much, but it seems to me that bosses behave similarly on the MD Mini's release. Not upgrading to the laser was my best strategy to deal with Little Stripes and Guard Savage. Fortunately the Mega Drive version also saw an Extra Version release that fixes many of the difficulties I encountered in the first MD port.

Darius MD Extra Version was released both on original Mega Drive and Genesis cartridges (as of writing this still in stock in the publisher's online store, don't fall for the scalpers on Ebay just yet! The official store is easily found with a web search) and as digital downloads for modern HD consoles in their respective japanese digital stores. It features the changes to enemy and power up spawns made to the original arcade release with its Extra Version update (when choosing the Extra Version mode), adds a faster autofire rate (that fixes the problem taking down tougher enemies quickly) and adjusts the hit points of various bosses. This seems to be the middle ground that the MD Mini release lacked between its normal and easy modes. Unfortunately it doesn't fix all of the problems I have with this one: power ups can still easily get stuck in some stages, in some places enemies still easily corner you if you don't know exactly how to move there and later bosses still have more HP than I'm comfortable with. The laser also still seems to be a suboptimal weapon against a bunch of bosses because of its lack of vertical range. As such Darius MD Extra Version still remains rather difficult. However its difficulty is of the kind that demands to be conquered. While not a great game by any means, Darius is still quite fun to play and try to beat and its most recent update makes it very approachable. Still, it's too bad that the MD Extra Version doesn't make the cut as its definitive release. Some parts still feel better when played in the arcade version, although others do so on the Mega Drive. But I suppose that's just the problem you end up with when you have to balance a whopping 26 stages.