Darius Gaiden: Sega Saturn

Darius Gaiden: Sega Saturn
Darius Gaiden: Sega Saturn

Insert Disk collects Darius Gaiden for the Sega Saturn.

Today’s retro game review is Darius Gaiden for the Sega Saturn. This retro gaming classic by Taito is a must own shooter for any Sega Saturn owner. With fluid animations, soundtrack by Zuntata, excellent graphics and presentation Darius Gaiden manages to live up to its reputation as a classic shooter. The action is frantic and retains the magic of the original arcade release.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. It’s over to Japan today and there’s something fish going on. Join me today as we take a look back at some classic shoot ’em up action in Darius Gaiden for the Sega Saturn.

Now before I start the episode today I feel obliged to warn you that this episode will contain flashing images. If you have any condition such as photosensitive epilepsy it’s perhaps best to turn away now. Whilst Japanese games are fun they’re also a bit of a mind-bender at times. Here’s your 3 second warning.

Right, those of you that survived let’s get on with the show. Looking this one up online you may sometime hear it referred to in its native title Daraiasu Gaiden or even Darius 3. They are all one and the same game though. There are two prior games in the Darius series but I’ve chosen to look at Darius Gaiden here today though as it’s perhaps my favourite of what we can loosely call a trilogy of Darius games. So, just for clarity this is the Japanese Sega Saturn release of Darius Gaiden. The game had originally been released in the arcade back in 1994 but quickly ported the following year. As we’ve all come to expect from a Sega Saturn / Taito shoot ’em up, we received a very fine port indeed.

This was in fact the original aim of the Sega Saturn. It was originally conceived of as a 2D sprite gaming powerhouse rather than a polygon based system. The 3D processing hardware capabilities were added in to compete with the Saturn’s main 32-bit rival, the original Sony PlayStation. More on this another time but its safe to say that games such as Darius Gaiden are where the Sega Saturn shines brightest. And oh my, does this game shine bright.

As with all Japanese shooters there is a rather convoluted back story of a last man standing scenario taking on the might of an empire. In this case it’s the remaining refugees of the planet Darius, Proco and Tiat, in their silverhawks vs what I like to think of as the robo-fish army. It’s all really just an excuse for a good old fashioned fast paced space war, with extra fish.

On first glance its clear to anyone that this is a really bright and vibrant offering and right up there with some of the best shooters on the system in terms of presentation. The 2D sprites are drawn with skill and the frame rate per second really lets the action flow just as if you were in the arcade. As with most games of an arcade origin this game is tough, really tough and it’s going to take you some time to get to grips with the nuances of it. But it’s these nuances that set it apart from not only other games in the Darius series but other shooters of the era.

At its core there are simply two buttons. Button A will fire and button B will drop a black hole bomb if you have one. Like this. Gets me every time.
Since you have a limited amount of bombs you must use them tactically. It’s tempting to drop them all the time but you’ll find that you soon play yourself in to a corner when the action gets really hot around you. In terms of ship upgrades you’ll need to build these up as fast as possible to survive deep in to the game. Shooting either a red, green or blue enemy will drop a power-up. This will swirl around in a circle just to make it that bit harder to pick up. However, it’s essential that you do as certain weapon upgrades will make your quality of life much better in certain stages.

In terms of the stages themselves expect a wide variety. You’ll be flying through asteroid fields, under oceans, over forests and in mysterious new lands. The sheer variety in environments really helps take Darius Gaiden from a standard shooter in to a top division offering. Of course to see all those beautiful levels you’re going to not only master a linear game but select from branching paths. At the end of each level you’ll be presented with two choices, leading to an ultimate end game of V to Z. It’s not dissimilar from classic Outrun in that respect.

To see it all you’re going to have to sink in some serious practice to not only get through the stage but also take on what are perhaps the defining elements of the Darius series. The boss fights. Now all good Japanese shooters have to have a decent boss fight but Darius Gaiden really pushes this to the next level in terms of boss design and variation of attacks.
You’ll fight massive airships in the way of the Golden Ogre.
A creature of the deep in the way of King Fossil.
A deep space electro nightmare in the way of Folding Fan.
Electric Fan the weird and wonderful multi-armed monster.
A land beast in the way of Ancient Dozer
The environment shifting Neon Light Illusion
And the Prickly Angler who just won’t stay down.

These are just a handful of the stage bosses but there are dozens to defeat, each with their own special way of making you feel underpowered against them. And this is where the nuances of the Darius games really start to kick in and set them apart from the rest of the crowd. Remember those pick ups, depending on how far you progress in the upgrade chain this can dramatically affect your strategy in taking down enemies. Take the stage one boss for example, the Golden Ogre. In my first run I picked up very few power upgrades in favour of trying to play it safe and not over reach for the harder to kill enemies. As such when I came to fight the boss my weapon simply won’t penetrate the golden scales hurtling towards me. It’s a stale mate and a long drawn out battle.

However, on a second run I managed to upgrade my power ups much faster giving me the more powerful laser. Now I’m not only surviving but thriving against the barrage of scales. See as the boss himself takes damage in this segment of the gameplay as the lasers will now penetrate. It’s mechanics like this that give games like Darius Gaiden a hidden depth in their game play. You can just hop on to the game and start playing and get that hit of arcade fun. However, as you replay the game it slowly peels back its layers of complexity to reveal a rather deep and satisfying experience which isn’t necessarily obvious to the casual gamer.

So, we’ve got great level design, frantic action, a variety of boss fights, detailed game mechanics but how about the soundtrack? Well, with this being a Taito release we receive an outstanding score from Zuntata. Why is this important, it’s important because Zuntata happen to be my favoured in house game band of all time. You see they really do go the extra mile and even if you don’t know Zuntata by name you will most definitely know their music.
I’ve briefly covered their work before with their fantastic track Daddy Mulk for Ninja Warriors on the Sega CD. A driving synth pop beat that defined the game.

However, it’s perhaps this tune that really stirs that nostalgic feeling for the masses. That’s right, good old Bubble Bobble. If you’re in to the Japanese gaming music scene these are pretty much the overlords that other bands have tried to emulate over the years. These aren’t just a bunch of sit behind a console music makers either. These are a full blown band that have been known to perform live and thrill audiences with their authentic Japanese instruments.

As for the Darius Gaiden soundtrack it’s perhaps not my personal favourite but they have already set the bar very high for themselves. However, it will take you on a journey from emotional space opera, traditional electronica right through to more familiar synth pop. Over all there is a good blend here and fits the game play well.Of course you will get this soundtrack on the Sega Saturn game disc.

As you would expect from a Japanese Sega Saturn release the packaging is a nice sturdy jewel case featuring some very decent artwork. Inside you’ll find the all-important game manual and even if you’re not fluent Japanese reader there is something here for you. Expect to find visual explanations of the power up system, weapon and item guides, “The Average Boss”, which we will return to in a minute. Explanations of the zones as well as a guide to the bosses. Overall this is a rather comprehensive package to get you up and running. It is classic Taito after all. Ok, back to that section regarding “The Average Boss”. This is where Darius Gaiden gets its final level of detail and refined polishing of a tried and tested formula and a game play mechanic that perhaps not all gamers take advantage of (or even know about). You see on each level there is as the manual says, an average boss. These can be thought of as an opportunity to turn the tide against the enemy, if you have the skills. You’ll notice that these types of enemy have an orb attached to them. The aim here is to damage the enemy enough so that the orb becomes dislodged. It’s then your window of opportunity to claim the orb. Upon doing so the average boss will now fight for you. That’s right, this enemy is now fighting as my wing man and doing untold damage against its own army. It can be a difficult manoeuvre to make this happen but when you can pull it off it’s a very special moment and can really move the tide of war in your favour. So, just as you thought you’d seen it all in a Japanese shooter there’s always one more feature to discover in a Darius game.

But even with this feature this is still not the reason I hold Darius Gaiden in such high regard. It’s the gameplay and enemies that push this one to the next level. This game is just packed with superb aquatic enemy design and is clearly a studio at the top of their game. From the smallest to the largest enemies the design execution is just outstanding. There’s all type of mechanical fish life here from the slow moving, the powerful, the fast, those with awkward shot patterns and those that just look outstanding. I’m particularly fond of the star fish and larger sprites as they really can eat up a good portion of the screen. Just look at all this action going on here. No really, just look at the speed and the detail of this game. It’s an absolute delight. Throw in top shelf special effects such as the dithering and layered transparency transitions with minimal slowdown you realise that the Sega Saturn is an absolute gem of a console when it comes to 2D shooters. It’s a system that proved its arcade to console shooter credentials time and time again.

Of course being such as decent game this can come at a price. I paid just £18 here in the UK for my Japanese edition (that’s under $25) which is an absolute steal in my opinion for a game of this quality. The UK Saturn edition can run in to the hundreds of British pounds and expect the US edition to continue to push past the $100 on a consistent basis in the future. So, a Japanese edition really is the way to go in terms of price and let’s face it Japanese Sega Saturn items are just so cool to collect.

Darius Gaiden, it’s a shooter with depth, it’s bold, it’s beautiful, has a tonne of replay value, its arcade perfect and a must buy item for any gamer that appreciates the genre. Or those that just hate fish. Oh, and one more thing… bombs! Until next time, happy gaming.

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