When Darius+ arrived on the ZX Spectrum in 1990, it didn’t have any great impact on me, and certainly no signficance! It was just another horizontal shooter with big sprites that were a bit too big for the cramped undersea environments, and until you got to one of the very impressive big robot fish bosses it was all a bit of a slog… Especially when you’d been playing R-Type on the system for a couple of years by now! To its credit though, apart from the colours there wasn’t a lot in it when you compared it with the Atari ST version, which unfortunately was also enough for me to never buy it when I moved over there!
The impact would eventually come though, and that was with the arrival of G-Darius for PlayStation towards the end of 1998, and I think from HMV in Milton Keynes if I remember right! I still didn’t know anything about its arcade lineage stretching back to 1987, or even that this was a conversion of the fourth entry in that series, but I did know that those huge 3D polygons it was chucking around were absolutely outstanding! Certainly wasn’t a slog anymore either, and being taken in and out of the water while waves of enemies came in and out of your 2D plane was simply exhilerating. And who can forget their first encounter with Eclipse Eye, the giant yellow mechanical broadmouth gibberfish stage one boss!
I think the significance of the series started to dawn on me when I picked up Taito Legends 2, very late in the life of the PlayStation 2, which included the arcade versions of Darius Gaiden and G-Darius. Even with my limited exposure to the arcade games up to then, by now the war between us humans and the sealife-inspired Belsar Empire that’s out to destroy us above and below the surface was becoming a familiar one! That I was aware of, we’d had the Spectrum and 16-bit computer games, then I’d looked longingly at various exotic PC-Engine ports like Super Darius; more accessible was Darius II on the Mega Drive, and Sagaia on the Game Boy, which was a take on Darius+ which I think I prefer over my old Spectrum favourite Nemesis on there. The SNES had its own takes on Darius too (which were mostly Darius II) with Darius Twin and Darius Force. Then there was more for PC Engine, Sega Saturn, PlayStation and that new Windows PC thing before we arrived at the G-Darius release we just looked at. My own final stop with Darius before we get to my PS2 compilation though was not being able to get my hands on Darius R on Game Boy Advance when it came out in 2002 because the stupid thing was Japan-only! Turned out to be a really cool remix of various games in the series when I did finally get there a couple of years ago though…
And now we’ve got a bigger gap that brings us all the way back to today and the end of July 2021, completely up to date with my time with Darius and ready for the release of the latest installment in the series, DariusBurst Another Chronicle EX+! Let’s start by saying catchy title, and as you can maybe tell from that catchy title, by now the history of Darius is way too complex for me to go any further into than we have already, which is exactly why we stuck to my own brief encounters with it so far! In short though, this is a new revision of DariusBurst Another Chronicle, a 2010 arcade game that in turn was a remix of DariusBurst, a PlayStation Portable game from just before then that I think was only released in Japan (and the crazy prices it’s going for on eBay seem to confirm that)! Anyway, we’re here with the new one on Switch, it’s also available on PS4, and for transparency I was kindly given a download code for the purposes of my ramblings here.
We’ll come back to story (such as it is) and game modes and user interfaces and all that stuff later because I want to get one thing out of the way from the offset… the new, ultra-broad aspect ratio panorama view, modelled on the dual display of the arcade version, with the ability to seamlessly switch to a closer-up view, is absolutely stunning! Now, obviously the first time I fired it up I paid absolutely no regard to anything I was being told on the screen – I just impatiently hammered the A (and X…) buttons until it put me in a game like every normal person does with something new! Then I wondered what the hell I was looking at, with the game spread across this massive narrow band across the screen while the score was popping out of the screen in big text at the top. Then I started pushing other buttons that weren’t immediately shooting lasers at stuff to see if I could change this weird default view setting, and eventually got to the back-left trigger, and suddenly we were transitioning to a much more in-your-face, full screen view, like one of those big round magnifying glasses built into the side of a seahorse tank at an aquarium. Literally! Another press, and we’re back in this over-stretched widescreen thing again, so back again – this time to notice the splendour and detail of the stuff I was shooting lasers at as it got up close and personal – and then back again. And now the realisation that these absolutely gorgeous 3D fish monsters were part of this huge, dynamic marine vista, and I was just blown away!
This is all happening on the big TV in my living room, so after I’d composed myself again, the next thing I wanted to check out was how this was going to translate to the Switch’s handheld mode. First, once we’re past admiring visual modes and actually playing the game, we’re going to be avoiding masses of shimmering plankton-like bullet hell (almost, at times). Second, while I was hammering away at the A (and X…) button to rush into my first game, I couldn’t help but notice loads of text all over the place, and at some point I’d probably have to read some of it to get the most out of things like the new Burst Beam weapon, not to mention work out what the different game modes on offer might be!
It turned out that the text was the main issue, and actually playing felt physically good in handheld mode. Except for the rumble, which was already starting to grate when I was just holding the joy-con dock, but with the added heft of the switch vibrating around, no thanks! Easy to switch off in the options menu though. The text is a different matter. Some of it – let’s say the medium sized body text that explains things like what Original Mode entails – is actually easier to read holding the device that straining to see it on the TV from an armchair a couple of metres away. It’s a couple of screens later, where you’re looking at the stage maps for each difficulty before you start a game, that the eye strain really starts in both modes, but then from the next screen onwards you’re going from about 50% of the text getting virtually impossible to read in handheld, to almost all of it on the next! Fortunately we’re only one screen from the game finally loading here, but all the same, you’re losing all of the ship select information and then all of the how to play and upcoming boss data, which is all essential when you’re starting out. Especially as this is about the only instruction a newcomer to the series is going to get anywhere!
Just to close on our first point on handheld, apart from that, we’re definitely missing the visual wow of seeing this on a big screen, and there’s also a a definite loss of clarity, which seems to affect the backgrounds – such as distant star-fields – in the panorama view, and in the closer view, character detail seems less distinct. The power-up icons aren’t easy to read either, but not a showstopper. I don’t really play my Switch handheld at the best of times, but while the feel is good and the gameplay is intact, I reckon the loss of fidelity and generally lower impact versus a big screen isn’t really a compromise I want to make for something as grandiose as this.
While we’re on the topic of text and stuff, I’ve got a few bones to pick with the user interface! When you first load up, once you’ve pressed A to bypass several company logos, you’ve got the game logo and a flashing “Press Start” message. I guess the + button on Switch isn’t technically a start button, but it’s the start button! Press that, though, and you bring up the options menu because if you look closely in the bottom left corner, it says “X:Start” which is even less “Press Start” than the unofficial start button! Okay, we’ve now pressed X to start (although my muscle / brain tissue memory is still making me press + before I realise it means X every time I load it up) and we’re onto the game mode select screen. Now in the bottom left, we’ve got some new instructions, with “A:Decide” rather than “X:Start” or even Start start! All now goes swimmingly until we get to the ship select screen – the one where you can’t read the ship’s description because it’s too small. Now, as well as “A:Decide” we also now have “X:Entry” and I have no idea what this means – it certainly doesn’t do anything. All I can think is that if additional players are playing then they need to press X wherever they are. Doesn’t say that anywhere though! On a related subject, when I was digging around in the options menu, I noticed there’s a load of different cabinets you can change to, but I never did work out what this means either as changing it didn’t seem to do anything at all.
Last little moan, which admittedly could be down to me missing something really obvious, but anyway, the words “FREE PLAY” are in the middle of the screen in tiny letters all the time, from that initial game logo screen when it first loads through to everything you see until you turn it off thereafter, including right across the play area! You get a lot of “X:Entry” at the bottom left of the screen while you’re playing too, which I guess is inviting other players in, but who knows when you’re flying solo like me and there’s no instructions whatsoever anyway! Actually, I do know that there’s 4-player local co-op, though I think online is limited to ghost-ships and leaderboards.
Right, I lied, one more moan then the good stuff! There’s no back button on the menu-type screens. Pressing B in any of these selection or preamble screens takes you right back to the title. But be thankful for small mercies here, because every single Game Over won’t take you back to the title screen, but to the parade of company logos before it that most games only throw at you when you’re loading up for the first time, so you have to click through these with the A button to actually get back to the title screen (where you then have to click X and not Start) every time!
I like my user interfaces simple, uncluttered and consistent, which might not be rocket science, but it’s amazing how often it doesn’t happen! And I know we’re here for the shooting, but this is Taito and this is a full price release, and honestly I expect a little more attention to detail.
As far as why you’re here for the shooting goes, it would be really easy to say that the Belsar Empire is back and up to no good again so you have to stop them, but why take easy when we can easily take the description on the Nintendo UK website wholesale! And I quote:
Take part in the galaxy’s most awesome adventure yet, with this brand new update to the arcade classic Dariusburst: Another Chronicle! CHAOS has devastated the universe as the biomechanical hordes take on humanity once again. Without the support of the human network, the Silver Hawks plunge into the depths of EVIL fitted with Burst technology and set out liberate Planet Darius!
In this brand-new edition of Dariusburst, enjoy the enhanced visuals and authentic arcade action like never before! Conquer the evil Belsar forces in the complete EVENT Mode with all new scenarios exclusive to EX+! And for the first time, take flight in the Silver-Hawk Murakumo in all modes!
Rush into Dariusburst: Another Chronicle EX+! Be on your guard!
Now that’s clear, let’s take a look at the four game modes. I’m taking a bit of a flyer on this because it doesn’t really spell things out – surprise – but we start with Original mode, which I reckon is the original arcade version, where you choose from one of three difficulties and work your way through twelve branching zones, so Zone A (Easy) will lead to a choice of Zones D and E when you’ve beaten it, Zone B (Normal) leads to E and F, Zone C (Hard)… You’ve got the idea! While there might not be much in the way of instruction, there is a nice accessibility option throughout for infininite lives, so everyone might get there eventually, but whatever score you get ain’t getting recorded. I like this in a shooter though, because as I’ve said many times before, there’s a reason why the most iconic boss usually appears at the end of level one!
Right, next mode. Original EX is taking what you’ve learnt in Original mode and ramping up the difficulty, with new letters representing those branching zones all the way up to Z to prove it! This is rough, but there’s real longevity to be had here too, and we’re starting to see some value in that full price asking price! Speaking of which, next up is Chronicle mode, and this is the big one. A vast number of missions and objectives where you’re presented with a load of star systems like one of those hologram maps the Jedi have in Star Wars, then you choose the planet you want to liberate. From there, you’ll be given a stack of missions to complete, each taking in a stack of different zones, and that all adds up to a stack of time needed to see your way through all of them!
Last up is Event mode, which is another 21 new (or at least remixed) named stages with definitely all-new music that either only ever appeared on the arcade machine for a limited time, or have been created exclusively for EX+. I mentioned them being named for a reason too – the names are great! “Fierce Battle of the Cosmic Fissure Belt” or “New Assault on the Cosmic Graveyard” are a couple of highlights, but what you’re getting here is a bunch of either score attack or time attack stages (that even invite you to press any button you like to progress towards a game at one point)! Again, another stack of content to get through here, and while I think some of the stages are more new or more remixed than others, you’ve now got way more DariusBurst than you could ever wish for! That said, keep in mind that from what I understand, Event mode is the only thing that hasn’t been available in various other console releases previously, and if you already own those it would be worth checking first.
And what about all that new music! Once it fled the aural wasteland of the ZX Spectrum, half the battle for the Darius series was already won by its epic, atmospheric soundtracks, and this one, by Taito’s in-house sound team, Zuntata, is just about the best of the lot! There’s a heady mix of surreal ambience and melancholic trance, Silent Hill-style industrial and dark techno that all seems to know exactly where its place is depending on your mission and environment. There’s disco beats and J-pop, massive space operatics, haunting choirs and ethereal individual vocal performances. There’s jazz. Yuck! There’s the audio drama of the sea itself backed by militaristic drums. It’s the soundtrack that keeps on giving, and it’s stunning throughout – even the jazzy bits!
The impact of the soundtrack on your gameplay experience cannot be overstated, which is why it’s such a shame that playing handheld – where headphones are an easy option – isn’t really an option, but Nintendo makes it so impractical to use headphones when playing on a TV screen that it isn’t there either. And that’s a compromise that shouldn’t be acceptable to the gameplay here, because the complete experience is a wonderful thing! Dancing your way around the myriad sub-aquatic settings, filled with sci-fi reimaginings of marine life as a deep-sea mechanical bullet-hell menace is exhilarating enough, but when that deep klaxon sounds its warning over the soundtrack that’s already driven your adrenaline to fever pitch, the appearance of one of the giant robot monster fish bosses is nothing short of mesmerising! And it’s such a voyage of discovery too, and you just wonder what massive marine insanity is coming next – I mean, you’ve beaten Lightning Claw, Brightly Stare, Mud Wheel and Hermit Red-Purple, so where do you possibly go from there? Well, why not try Great Thing, Thousand Bullets, Brute Gluttons and Massive Whip for size! And they’re all based on the worst of what’s really lurking in the real deep, from whiplash squid to hermit crabs to, er, piranhas. Sea piranhas! And they’re all massive and epic and beautifully designed, and there’s very few that aren’t just an absolute thrill ride once you’ve got a bit of a grip on their moves!
There’s help at hand with your new multifunctional Burst Beam cannon though, opening up all kinds of tactical combat and massive score multiplier possibilities once you’ve got your head around it. This thing’s giving you the capability to turn the tide of a boss battle in a couple of button taps, whether you decide to use it as an enormous screen-slicing laser blast that you can also detach from your ship then rotate to bring down some hell of your own, or whether you decide to angle it so you’re effectively giving yourself a burning shield to obliterate enemy fire (which will also recharge it) as you blast away from behind cover. It’s got a trick up its sleeve to parry massive enemy fire bursts too, which will net you up to 96x scores if you’ve got your counter-game on. There’s enormous depth to this thing, and I’m not sure I’ve totally seen the best of it yet, but at the very least it won’t be long at all before you’re getting up close to a boss that’s about to unleash a giant lightning strike or something at you, detatching, spinning and locking your Burst Beam in its face then letting that take the brunt of its mouth juice while you do your thing in complete safety. For a few seconds at least! Quick mention for the tap of the right shoulder button to send fire backwards rather than forwards too. Why don’t all shooters do that?
I reckon that this is a rare case of the visuals playing second fiddle to the soundtrack, and I’m struggling to think of many games where that happens… Bits of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine spring to mind, but not a lot else. Anyway, second fiddle or not, this is a feast for the eyes. And yes, I am still playing the Switch version and not PS4! Actually, I can imagine the loading times are a bit quicker on PS4, but to a frame-rate philistine like me I doubt there’s a lot more in it. Clearly, the boss fish are the high points; they remind me of seeing these exquisitely painted Warhammer or other nerd fantasy miniature figures being showcased in White Dwarf magazine or some unfathomable Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule book back when Darius was flounder(!)ing on the Spectrum! Anyway, that’s good! Every metallic scale or tentacle has an air of being hand-painted then expertly dry-brushed for extra shadow or highlight, or a kind of subtle vein effect or scarring. And there’s a real mix of geometries to create life from straight edges, not to mention the mix of colours and the sinister grimace they seem to have captured on every one. And there’s more than forty of them!
A similar design philosophy is applied to even the smallest enemy that makes up the biggest of swarms, and seeing these things come at you is such a joy. I didn’t think some of the larger, more traditional regular enemy ship designs were massively creative, and they did remind me of those modern graphical overhauls of the first two R-Type games, with slightly less attention to detail than their more fishy-looking friends. The same is true of some of the asteroids (that break up old-school when you shoot them!) and big rock formations you come across, but in the heat of battle, as the actions scrolls along at some serious pace, you’re not going to complain! There’s huge variety in those backgrounds going by too, ranging from states of smoky aurora to planet-fields to complex natural and mechanical structures, but you rarely get the chance to admire their individual movement and organic transitions! There’s just so much else to take in, with the screen usually a mass of swarming enemies, laser fire, bullets, missiles, explosions (which, honestly, are mostly a bit underwhelming) and just general chaos. I think I might have seen a little judder on occasion when things got really mental, but on the whole this thing is a credit to getting the best out of the Switch.
Burst Beams, giant fish robots shooting multicoloured lasers out of one end and some kind of electric hurricane out of the other, tooled-up rock-falls, glistening razor shoals and a screen full of bullets of and explosions of every kind – all at once – with some kind of industrial-jazz booming and pumping up your heartbeat to bursting while the sounds of dozens and dozens of things shooting, exploding and dying (not to mention those terrifying boss warnings!) and this thing is just the best sensory overload you can imagine! Just play it on the biggest screen you can lay your hands on, play it loud, don’t have a heart attack and don’t forget it’s X not Start to start!