Review by Overdrive
"A game for the marine biologist in all of us"
A lot of promising shooters that I've picked up have taken that promise, crumpled it up and discarded it callously. I thought Insector X for the Genesis would be fun and original it was a tedious game marred by you having to control an oversized ship while trying to dodge lightning-quick attacks. When playing Heavy Unit for the PC Engine, I initially saw a lot of promise in the first stage. Sadly, that promise faded as the game quickly devolved into a poorly-done generic piece of trash.
But every once in a while, I find a game that, while not remotely close to perfect, brings so much to the table that such concerns as cheap combat or occasionally repetitive gameplay can be tolerated and even overlooked. Such is Darius Plus, the PC Engine's SuperGrafx port of the original Darius arcade game. While the home version might not include the ever-so-cool W-I-D-E screen (as I recall, three times the width of the average arcade side-scroller) that the original possessed, there are easily enough awesome features left intact to give you one hell of a playing experience.
Darius Plus contains a whopping 28 levels (actually 26, with two late-game zones being repeated) but you'll only see seven of them during any trip through this game. You see, through the years, Darius games have been known for two things big, evil fish and branching paths. We'll delve into our aquatic adversaries a bit later, but it is the branching paths that give this game (and many others with the Darius name) unparalleled replay value in a genre where once a game is beaten, there usually is no reason to keep playing it other than personal desire.
After finishing off the first (A) zone and its boss, you'll immediately be confronted by a choice. A rock barrier will appear in front of you, forcing you to decide to go above or below it. Taking the high road will send you off to B Zone, while the alternate path takes you to C Zone. Identical choices will be posed to you after completing each of the first six levels you play through. To best put things into perspective, picture the world of this game as a pyramid with you starting at the top (A Zone). From there, you have two choices for your second level. Depending on the choices you then make, you'll have three possible third levels, four possible fourth levels and so on, until you reach the end of the game and the seven possible final levels. Well, technically, there are only five possible final levels, since the aforementioned V and Z zones both pop up twice in the final tier of stages due to the programmers running out of letters to label these strange lands but that's a minor detail.
If you play through every level over the span of a few days (like I did), Darius Plus will get pretty repetitive after a while. With only a few basic level designs, you'll see plenty of caves, bases, underwater regions, mountains and outer space levels throughout this game. Yep, that's right there are five basic level templates that are repeated over and over for the entire game. However, odds are that through any seven-level trek through the game, you'll see all five levels, which keeps the game somewhat fresh for at least your first trip through. Also, depending on which final zone you go to, there are a total of three different endings before the credits roll. None of them are particularly special, but it does give you a bit of incentive to keep the game in your system after initially beating it.
Each of these 26 separate levels is governed by a gigantic force of underwater life. A total of 16 different bosses try their hand at finishing you off if you're able to march through the hordes of subordinates guarding their abodes. You'll start out with the less-than-imposing King Fossil (large fish with multiple attacks) before moving on to foes with bizarre monikers like My Home Daddy (hermit crab) and Mystic Power (resembles a snail) and finally, brutally tough end-game foes such as Green Coronatus, a seahorse that is far more violent than one would be led to believe by watching the docile little critters in an aquarium.
How you fare against these boss fights will likely be determined by how well you've done in powering up your ship. Regular enemies fly at you in formation through the stages, with the final foe of many of those formations being either red, green or blue. Destroying that enemy leaves a power-up globe, which you can grab to slightly power-up your gun (red), missiles (green) or shield (blue). For every eight globes you collect, you'll move up to the next class for that weapon. Your gun will transform from a regular blaster to a laser to a wave beam that is infinitely superior to the other two weapons. Upgrading your missiles will allow you to shoot them in multiple directions and a fully-powered shield will take more damage before evaporating than a level one shield can.
After fiddling around with the game for a few minutes, you'll soon realize that the quicker you can build your main weapon up to wave capacity, the better. Unlike most games in this genre, Darius Plus has a boss timer of sorts. Spend too much time fighting a boss in this game and an unending series of enemies will besiege you until you've succeeded in your mission or expended all your lives trying. If you enter a boss battle underpowered or get too conservative in these fights, your chances to win will be dramatically reduced. A battle that will take no more than a minute with the wave may be nearly impossible to win with the laser before the time-limit baddies launch themselves at you.
Sadly, that brings us to the biggest flaw of Darius Plus. In a game where building up weapon strength is of the utmost importance, the programmers decided to make the loss of one life a potentially crippling moment. If you die (which will happen, as many levels tend to require great reflexes combined with a bit of memorization ability), your gun, missiles and shield will all revert to the initial state of whatever class they were in. You won't lose such enhancements like your laser or twin missile, but if you were close to moving up to the wave or multi missile, you'll lose a lot of progress in enhancing your ship. Since this game only has a limited amount of power-ups, dying with a high-powered laser probably will destroy any shot you had of getting that wave beam which means that it will take some sort of divine intervention to defeat the final bosses of the game (let's just say my adventures with Mr. Seahorse using a laser weren't too pleasant).
I've played the dramatically inferior Darius Twin on the SNES. When you die there, you don't lose your weapon upgrades (and it takes far fewer power-ups to build them up in that game). Being able to maintain power-ups after death in Darius Plus would result in it being one of the greatest shooters of all time as it is, this game is essentially a flawed gemstone. While it still is beautiful, you're left wondering how incredible it would be without that flaw.
And Darius Plus is a beautiful gem. While I don't consider myself overly superficial, I must admit that this game's aesthetic merits played a huge role in allowing me to overlook its problems. Early in the game, you'll have plenty of opportunity to gaze upon stunning backgrounds, which to my eyes are superior to nearly anything released on consoles in that general time period. From the gorgeous green and blue textures that compose the cavern background of A Zone (and several others) to the Van Gogh-ish background of the mountain regions, Darius Plus can be breathtakingly beautiful. Even some of the more plain levels have their own charm. Some underwater levels have what appears to be the remnants of an ancient Roman city strewn across the ground others are cluttered with a more futuristic civilization.
While the regular enemies tend to be small, generic or small and generic, the bosses are works of art. Gigantic fish, mollusks and other underwater denizens are drawn with painstaking detail, with most of them having multiple parts that can be destroyed. Sure, the actual stages may be breathtaking, but the meat and potatoes of this game are the boss fights. After fighting a seemingly unending horde of personality-free foes attacking in simple patterns, it is a very welcome sight to be confronted with a gigantic fish with three or four separate (and deadly) attacks.
The game is equally as successful musically as it is graphically. Each level tends to have two themes one for the actual level and a second one for the boss battle. Rich and atmospheric, the soundtrack to this game is a vivid example of how to put music together for a shooter. When you tie the graphics and sound together, you get a sense of being in a beautiful, yet mysterious world a land where anything can happen and nothing should be unexpected (including peaceful seahorses becoming cold-blooded killers).
Essentially, Darius Plus is a sterling example of a game where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. You could dismiss this game as a decent shooter hurt by an unfair combat system that demands fully powered-up weapons, but is all too eager to prevent you from actually powering them up but that would be shortsighted. I look at Darius Plus as a mesmerizing game that possesses the beauty and replay value to overshadow its flaws. It's not the best shooter out there it's not even the best PC Engine shooter but it's a fun game that gives you no shortage of levels and giant sea monsters to conquer. Just watch out for the seahorses.....they are the true kings of the ocean!
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/09/04
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