“Darius Gaiden”

Even when video arcades were in decline in the United States in the 1990s, Japanese developers continued to innovate and produce excellent coin-operated games. By the mid-’90s, fighting games came into their own and began captivating hardcore gamers. Scrolling shooters (aka “shmups”) had already gone through a golden age with hits like “Gradius” and “R-Type,” and the genre still had life left in it. At the time, developers favored vertical-scrolling shmups with faster action and more projectiles on screen, leading to an arms race which would later come to a head with games like the manic “DoDonPachi.” Even so, in an age of vertical-scrolling dominance, the “Darius” series maintained a slower pace and stuck to the less popular horizontal-scrolling style.

The original “Darius” was like an overly eager younger brother to “Gradius,” with solid but unremarkable gameplay. It tried to set itself apart with its three-screen-wide display and enemies inspired by all manners of marine life. Unfortunately, both of these elements were nothing more than gimmicks. Eventually Taito, the development team, ditched the three-screen format and took the series more seriously. “Darius Gaiden” elevated the franchise from curiosity to classic with its unforgettable atmospheres and bosses.

As in any game where the player controls a space ship that bad things constantly try to destroy, the objective of “Darius Gaiden” is to not get constantly killed. Past the first level, non-expert players will be hard-pressed to not die over and over again. Not only do enemies come from all sides, but their unpredictable behavior and kamikaze tendencies ensure the player never gets too comfortable. The only way to deal with some foes is to use the ship’s diagonally firing missles, adding a unique wrinkle to the gameplay. And as with any shmup, players are granted a limited number of bombs that wipe out everything on screen. In this case, the bomb creates a black hole which sucks in all nearby enemies and projectiles.

If anything sticks after a run-through of “Darius Gaiden,” it’s the bizarre music. The soundtrack is hard to describe, drawing influence from electronica, new age, jazz and opera. Yes, opera. One of the game’s recurring themes is a female vocalist belting out incoherent stanzas in an operatic manner. The other vocal-driven song features more conventional singing, though sounding like Bjork isn’t exactly conventional either. Add delicate piano, buzzing synths, discord and heavy reverb into the mix, and the result is a soundtrack oozing with mystery.

Like the soundtrack, the visuals are quirky and demand the player’s attention. The game doesn’t shy away from using gaudy, clashing colors. The programmers of “Darius Gaiden” pulled out all the stops, using multiple background layers, sprite scaling and rotation for pseudo-3-D perspective tricks and even transparency effects. Much of the action takes place in outer space or underwater, but occasional acid-trip moments (especially during boss fights) break up any monotony in the scenery.

More remarkable, though, are the designs of the enemies themselves — those gleaming, multi-segmented, snaggle-toothed, death-dealing robotic fish. They look appropriately organic, yet sinister. Best of all are the game’s boss monsters, including the multi-screen-filling, transforming orange squid named “Titanic Lance,” or the pink and blue, cyclopean, tentacle-launching jellyfish dubbed “Curious Chandelier.” The sprites are lovingly detailed works of art in themselves.

It’s no small wonder that “Darius Gaiden” managed to stand out in an overcrowded, formulaic genre. Taito, in producing this classic, showed that even the most simple, action-driven games can benefit from clever aesthetic choices.

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