DEVELOPER: Data East (port by Sega)
RELEASE DATE: 04/07/90 – (JP)
Darwin might be dust in the ground, but his theory of evolution is alive and morphing in the Xevious-style shoot-em-up, Darwin 4081. Originally called Super Real Darwin in the arcade, this Japanese Mega Drive exclusive has you collecting Evol bubbles to “Evolve” your ship into unique, more powerful forms. This system might sound forward-thinking, but in practice, it’s only a slightly different take on the traditional power-up format. If you played the game without reading the manual, you wouldn’t know the difference.
There are two types of Evol bubbles, both of which are collected by shooting enemies. Standard Evol will transform your ship into a different form with a stronger weapon. The bubbles appear in clusters, and it’s wise to collect as many as you can since your ship can undergo upwards of fifteen evolutions. Any evolutions you undergo beyond your original form will amass in your ship’s DNA, though they are time-sensitive. After a certain amount of time has passed, your ship will revert back to its previous evolutionary state and become slightly less powerful.
B-evol bubbles are rarer than Evol and transform your ship into beast forms, like a dragon or a spider. The term “rare” often means “better” in videogames, but not this time. Not only are the beast forms not very powerful, but they’ll reduce your ship back to its original weak form once time wears off. B-evol bubbles are difficult to distinguish from standard Evol, so ignore them as best you can.
If your ship has tentacle-like protrusions coming from its behind, and you’re firing enormous laser blue rings, congratulations: you’ve survived to become The Fittest of the New Darwin Kingdom. Be careful, though. Even in the outer reaches of godless space, pride still goes before a fall, and your Fittest status can be removed as quickly as it came. If you get hit once, your ship reverts back to its pathetic primordial state. One more hit and you’ll explode.
But all is not lost, even after you’re dead. If you collect enough DNA samples from creatures lurking on the ground (seen as bubbles with the letters “DNA” in the middle), after you die, you will return from the boneyard as a slightly stronger vessel. As with the Evol bubble, these creatures – which usually resemble lizards and bugs – must be bombed off the planet before their DNA can be collected.
Many shoot-em-ups circa late ’80s suffer from unappealing art design, and Darwin 4081 is no different. Some of these screenshots notwithstanding, the levels are dull and lifeless, while the constantly morphing ship and robotic creature designs are void of any personality or style. Not every shoot-em-up can have Easter Island heads for enemies or coat a stage in decaying alien remains, but there’s no reason Data East couldn’t have ventured further into Darwinian lore (a stage built atop a mecha-Galapagos turtle?) to create a more vibrant shoot-em-up.
The evolution gimmick is all that distinguishes Darwin 4081 from the overcrowded shoot-em-up genre, so it’s a shame Data East didn’t expand upon the idea. What features could they have added while staying within the confines of the traditional shoot-em-up? Besides more unique creature designs and some background elements, it’s hard to say. Perhaps bolstering the evolutionary system – each creature, depending on their biology, could affect your ship in different ways should you get hit by them – would have slowed the game down and alienated die-hard shoot-em-up fans. As it stands, Darwin 4081‘s conservative approach means it plays less like a genre game-changer and more like an overly aggressive take on Xevious. If you’re a fan of the genre, Darwin 4081 is fun enough, but those desiring a revolution should look elsewhere.