G-Darius finds itself in an exclusive club, together with Silent Hill, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Destruction Derby 2 and In the Hunt, that still has me regularly firing up my original PlayStation. I’ve played so much of the horror and racing stuff that I’ve become alright by repetition, but for as much as I’ve loved a horizontal shooter since I first played Scramble or Skramble on Commodore VIC-20, I’m still useless at any of them! All the same, give me ten minutes with nothing better to do and I’ll be playing Thunder Force AC or P-47, Cotton or the aforementioned In the Hunt, or one or the other of the many Darius choices on whatever system is closest to hand! I went through my history with Darius fairly recently when I reviewed DariusBurst Another Chronicle EX+ on Nintendo Switch, but as we’re now taking about an early one before there was much history, let me quickly recap.

Apart from the giant boss sprites, I didn’t think much of the sluggish and overly cramped Spectrum version of Darius+ that I first came across in 1990, and the Atari ST version then just passed me by on my new machine. Eight years later, towards the end of 1998, and I reckon it was during one of my weekly after-work trips to check out the new music at HMV in Milton Keynes that I first came across G-Darius for PlayStation, and was instantly blown away by those huge 3D polygons in the midst of the under and over water chaos. And then, once I’d been sold by pretty pictures, the sheer exhilaration of getting to grips with the massed waves of enemies, and that unforgettable first encounter with Eclipse Eye, the iconic giant yellow mechanical broadmouth gibberfish stage one boss!

And at this point, I’m not sure I even linked it with that old slog on the Spectrum, let alone have any concept of its arcade origins or it predecessors. Japanese gamers had been similarly blown away though, over a decade earlier in 1987, when Taito’s Darius first hit the arcades there, with its enormous triple-screen set-up and “body-sonic” seats. It was more than big bells and whistles though, establishing the series’ branching path stages, bombastic soundtrack and mass of marine-life inspired enemies. Especially the giant robot fish!

G-Darius was the fourth game in the series, and that had some innovations up its own sleeve with those 3D polygons and refined enemy capture mechanics, though it should be noted that there were a few dissenting voices about this horizontal shooter stuff still being wheeled out into the arcades in 1997! The PlayStation port arrived the following year, just in time for my trip to Milton Keynes, and just to close my own history with it, I’d eventually become a fan of the arcade original too when it appeared on the rather wonderful Taito Legends 2 compilation for PlayStation 2 in 2007, together with its sequel, Darius Gaiden. And that brings us right up to date with the launch of G-Darius HD on PS4 and Nintendo Switch in Europe and North America on 28th September 2021, care of Taito and ININ Games, who were kind enough to provide me with a review copy on Switch. A boxed version is also available for preorder now, arriving on 29th October, with all versions priced at £24.99. No Switch tax is nice for a change too!

Darius lore isn’t the easiest to follow, but I think G-Darius is a kind of prequel, where you find yourself caught up in the ongoing conflict between the humanoid Amnelia Kingdom and the merciless cyborg bio-vessels of the Thiima Empire, which all took place before the battle between the people of Darius and Belsar from the other games. During this conflict, Amnelian scientists reverse engineered captured Thiima technology and combined it with their own A.N. (All-Nothing) weapon technology (that I think was the cause of this galactic scrap in the first place) to create your iconic Silver Hawk ship. Now we’re all set to fly that ship from left to right – and sometimes other ways – and shoot everything in sight, gradually powering up and creating your own strategies with the game’s unique capture ball system, which allows you to electro-reel in enemies then use them to your own violent advantage. Those enemies are the classic Darius ecosystem of marine-inspired bosses and robotic sea-life, and as usual you’ll also be fighting through branching stages and multiple paths within each stage.

Porting duty for G-Darius HD has fallen to the masters of the remaster, M2, and the main event here is their high definition version of this pioneering pseudo-3D side-scrolling shooter, but for the purist – or more likely just for comparison a couple of times – you’re also getting the authentic original arcade resolution version. For a modern Darius release it’s all refreshingly bare bones in its presentation too – press any button to start rather than X disguised as Start, for example, then choose one or the other version and play it; no switching to A instead of X instead of Start as you traverse half a dozen pre-game screens… Take note DariusBursts!

A tap of either shoulder button in either mode brings up a really comprehensive pause menu, with quick save and load, a ton of options for control, screen, gadgets and sound, online leaderboards and a really cool Capture Gallery, which documents both mini-bosses and common enemies that you’ve captured and gives you a bit of information on what they’re capable of that might help with future strategies. There’s also an achievements list, which is always a little superfluous on the Switch, and a full user manual. Again, for a Darius game the latter is refreshingly clear, and details the game screen, collectible items, the capture system, beam weapons and counterattacks, all in a very intuitive way. I’d have really appreciated this in the mass of bewildering mechanics you find in the recent DariusBurst Another Chronicle EX+.

Let’s take a quick look at some of those mechanics in action here… As you fight your way through waves of enemies, some of them are going to drop power ups. These range from boosts for your regular anti-air shots and bombs to barrier shields and additional capture balls, which you can stock up to six of. There’s also points drops and screen-clearing smart bombs, extra lives and a special triple unit, which appears during a continue to boost all of your stuff from the base level, because chances are that’s not going to get you much further once you’ve lost all of your lives. A press of the B button is going to unleash one of those capture balls, and after a bit of wearing down, you can capture pretty much anything except the giant robot fish bosses, and that will turn them into allies. If you manage to capture a mini-boss, they have a Mortal Kombat style special attack combo, like down, right, down, down, fire, which can also be simplified in that pause menu if you just want a single button for that. Holding down your shot button with a captured enemy in tow will charge up your Alpha Beam, and once you let go a bit of button mashing will prolong the massive laser blast! Similarly, when you’re fighting a boss and they fire a big boss beam blast at you, you can counterattack by bringing your Alpha Beam in contact with it then mashing the shot button for all you’re worth! And once you’re done with your captured enemy, you can press B again to activate the capture bomb, which detonates explosions over a large area.

All of this is important because you are going to need all the help you can get! Despite some of the selectable routes through its fifteen stages being easier than others, you’re only going to feel like a space-stud for as long as you’ve got your weapons powered up and you’ve got a mini-boss attached – die and you lose it all, and like many of the great shooters before it, you might at well give up at that point! You can always shove in an extra credit though, and at the very least this is a great way of scouting out the next area (in the slightly unwelcome absence of any practice mode); that said, you could always lower the difficulty in that option menu too, though that’s going to kill any presence on leaderboards as well as your self-esteem. Then there’s the bosses – always the high point of any Darius game! What you’ve got here is as bonkers as you could wish for, with not just screen filling insanity, but mecha-monstrosities that couldn’t be contained by about ten screens! They don’t just look the part either, and have been gifted with wave after wave of dastardly attack patterns for you to learn as they contort and spin and open up new orifices to rain new forms of aquatic hell down on you, as you gradually wear them down – and I mean gradually, because some of these things are epic and way outlast the stage they’re ending! I’ll always love the naming of these too, with the likes of Tripod Sardine offering a more traditional introduction to the firepower on offer with its mass of multi-angle gun turrets, whereas something further on like Heavy Arms Shell, the giant turtle robot, is just going to overwhelm you with insane firepower out of everywhere! Eight Feet Umbrella has lasers coming out of its octopus arms (or legs in this case, I guess), while Accordion Hazard goes all bullet hell and rainbow lasers, and there’s just loads of others, but that first one, Eclipse Eye, will always be my favourite, with its giant yellow hulk giving you a confidence-boosting workout from the offset.

The first stage is a great place to hang around and talk about the main draw here, the HD visuals. And even though, as I said at the start, I still play this regularly on PS1, this is a classic case of your brain filling in the gaps because when I first fired up the HD version, I thought hang on a minute, isn’t this what it looks like anyway? A quick look at the original version will confirm it’s anything but, although in reality what you’re getting is a massive amount of polish rather than something like the recent R-Type remasters, where you could switch between original and completely reinvented visuals on the fly. Instead, it’s an absolute homage to the original artistic vision, so when you first take control of your newly high-poly Silver Hawk, as you’re soaring past those grassy cliffs towering over lush river plains and down into the industrial abyss, or travel a bit further when you’re sweeping through futuristic weapon-scapes, everything is familiar, but just buffed to oblivion! The same is true of all those dynamic cinematics going on everywhere you look as you fight your way through wave after wave of 3D-looking but 2D-acting saltwater-infused enemies, with ominous hints of future combat appearing then disappearing in the distance, or just those wonderful passive set pieces like collapsing bridges or enormous mother ships being taken down by someone else’s artillery as you emerge over the brow of some giant munitions factory. There’s just stuff going on everywhere, and it all looks better than ever!

I’m not sure if I was imagining it, but I reckon the only slowdown I experienced with all of this stuff going on everywhere was authentic slowdown present in the original version! Knowing M2, that’s the kind of respect they’d be paying here, so lovingly handled is this remaster. Speaking of slowdown though, what about Switch in handheld mode? Well, from what I’ve played, nothing to look at here! In fact, it’s surprisingly well-suited to the smaller screen, because unlike later entries in the series that go for a more bullet-hell feel in places, what’s going on here is a bit more substantial, so you’re not going to be worrying about tiny enemy fire that you can’t quite see coming. This was also a good chance to plug in some decent headphones (but did remind me that I really should go through the faff of setting up some bluetooth ones now that Nintendo finally supports that, of a fashion)! Darius soundtracks are always another reason to visit the franchise, and while it might not be its pinnacle, the G-Darius soundtrack by Taito’s ever-reliably unconventional in-house musicians, Zuntata, was always a stunner. You’re led from dark ambience to adrenaline-fuelled industrial rave, experimental jazz-like electronica to pumping nineties techno, but you’re never quite sure what or where or when it’s coming, and it’s all just beautiful and terrifying all at once! True to series form, that’s very much the case for the sound effects too, an ever-present but often surprising cacophony of ominous alarms, disembodied animal cries and crunching machinery finding tiny sonic gaps between the almost non-stop gunfire and explosions.

I’m pretty sure that exclusive original PlayStation club we began with here might be losing a member pretty soon. There’s absolutely no reason to play any other version of this now we’ve got this stunning HD remaster of what remains an absolutely stunning shoot ‘em up. As I said earlier, I’m not the best at these, but I’ve been playing them for a long time, and I’d rank it in my top three, maybe after Thunder Force AC and P-47, and before Cotton and Super Fantasy Zone for a top five. It’s thrilling, challenging and sometimes overwhelming, but there’s always a way, and even if it might take a while to find it, your senses are going to have a blast getting there! It’s been one of the best for the best part of 25 years at this point, but the arrival of G-Darius HD has made it even better and I can’t recommend it enough!