Darius II: You Sunk My Deathship!
…let’s just pretend that says Darius II.
RELEASE DATE: 12/20/90 – (JP)
04/91 – (EU)
Darius II, or Sagaia as it’s known in the West for some reason, is yet another horizontal shoot-em-up that takes place in space – as if the Genesis needs more of this genre in its life. I remain in awe at how many shoot-em-ups Sega’s 16-bit console received, particularly in its early years. Good news, though. Darius II stands out from the exhausting deluge with solid mechanics and never-before-seen replay value.
Visiting some ancient ruins before the war begins.
In the original Darius, main characters Proco and Tiat (“Taito Corp” spelled backwards) escaped from their home planet Darius before it was destroyed by the Belsar empire. In Darius II, their descendants – Proco Jr. and Tiat Young, now living on the planet Orga – receive a mysterious distress signal from Darius. They travel through the Milky Way, battling the Belsar empire as they attempt to save the remaining Darians from imminent destruction.
Proco Jr. and Tiat regret their inheritance.
Your ship, the Silver Hawk, starts off in the ‘A’ Zone, a sun with a lava floor and solar flares that careen around you. You’re equipped with a single laser and bombs that drop by two underneath your ship. Enemies are almost always grouped together, and you’re given a point bonus if you can destroy the entire group. Little metallic UFO groups bestow different items, like laser upgrades, stronger bombs, a shield that allows you to be hit three additional times, and green lasers that spew vertically from your ship. Two large crustaceans appear at the end and engage you in a boss battle. Defeat them, and you’re whisked away to the screen below.
Just look at that image, friends. Twenty-eight stages! Multiple pathways! Seven different endings! Sure, the original Darius had this branching path feature too – even more astounding, given its 1986 release date – but this is the first we’ve seen of it on a Sega console. You might think that this would give Taito an excuse to slack off and make the stages shorter, but this isn’t the case. You could play through Darius II a variety of ways and it will feel like a complete game each time.
Of course, Zone C would be a cave. Of course.
The power of choice is all well and good, but how does she play? Like a dream, for the most part. The Silver Hawk is a quick, easy-to-maneuver ship, and if you hold down ‘A’ and ‘B,’ your weapon and bombs stream out automatically. You’re never overpowered, though, even with several weapon upgrades on your person. Even the smaller enemies can take a couple hits to kill, to say nothing of the occasional large fishes or octopi that function as minibosses.
Just a humble space squid looking for a sloppy space kiss.
Like most shoot-em-ups, Darius II will make your cheeks clench. The garden variety enemies are strong and bosses grow increasingly tougher with each stage (screw you, brain helmet that took ten minutes to kill). The Silver Hawk is fast, but she’s also large. Avoiding enemy fire is a real concern, particularly when groups of enemies bum rush the screen, spray a mist of projectiles at you, then fly away. Because of your size, at times it feels impossible to avoid the onslaughts, which lends the game a slight unfairness. You’re given shields fairly often, which eliminates some of the pressure to avoid every stray projectile, but you shouldn’t have to rely on a shield to constantly succeed.
Bury me at zone M with Pinhead’s brain.
I blame the porting process. The arcade version was presented in two-screen and three-screen versions, which gave not only a wider field of view, but also more space for the Silver Hawk to move around. When the game was ported to the Genesis (and the Master System), the action had to be condensed into one screen – understandable, as few would have been willing to rubberband two TVs together for that authentic look. The Silver Hawk’s sprite wasn’t shrunk enough to account for the change, making it difficult to avoid everything the game throws at you.
Two shrimp cocktails for the price of die
Concessions aside, the Genesis port looks and plays fantastic, given the circumstances. The soundtrack is phenomenal and alternates between rock jams and moody atmosphere. The gunplay can be cheap at times, but it’s rewarding and addicting enough that you’ll want to power through it to see the end (or ends). Likewise, the lack of a two-player mode is disappointing, but if you enjoy the game, there’s plenty of it to keep you occupied. Darius II doesn’t break the space shoot-em-up mold, but its consistently higher quality elevates it above the more common, mediocre Genesis shmups. Your move, Technosoft.
James Cameron’s Sagaia
PUBLISHER/DEVELOPER: Taito (port by Natsume)
RELEASE DATE: 06/92 – (EU)
There are many misguided ports on the Master System, but Darius II isn’t one of them. It looks and sounds great, and plays more aggressively. From the first stage on, enemies bombard you with fire. In the options menu, the default difficulty is Easy, and you should stick with that. I chose Normal and got my cheeks handed to me.
At least they’re set for blood transfusions.
Of course, Natsume had to rearrange some features to make sure the game could function. The Silver Hawk now fires vertically without the need for upgrades. There are twelve stages instead of twenty-eight, due to space limitations. Boss fights are also fought on a black screen, separated from the level itself.
Sagaia: Private Reserve
You should absolutely not choose this port over the Genesis version (or the Saturn version, probably), but the quality of Darius II on the retirement-age Master System can not be denied. A bronze medal for Natsume.
Underwater skirmishes just aren’t my bag, man
Oh, glub it all.
PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
PUBLISHER/DEVELOPER: Taito (port by I.T.L.)
RELEASE DATE: 06/07/96 – (JP)
1996 – (EU)
Full, steamy disclosure: my Saturn rig isn’t ready, which means I’m not properly prepared to review Darius II on Saturn. Shame on me! I’ll come back to this and give it a proper go when the Saturn can handle it.
In the meantime, here are some “Darius II on the Sega Saturn” fun facts. While the two-screen experience just can’t be replicated on a single television, you start the game in widescreen mode and are given the ability to zoom in and out on the action with the shoulder buttons. Zooming in gives a slight wobble effect, so probably not wise to utilize the feature while you’re in the throes of war. Still, pretty neat!
The Saturn port reintroduces the goofy narration from the arcade.*
Pristine visuals and zero slowdown are what you’d expect from a Saturn port of an old arcade game. The red book audio soundtrack, however, is incredibly disappointing. All the tracks have a muffled, compressed quality that don’t even compare to the 8 or 16-bit versions. I’m sure it was easier for I.T.L. to just slip the soundtrack on a disc instead of utilizing the Saturn’s sound processor, but it lessens the arcade-perfect feel that this late port of the game should have.
“Listen here, ya filthy crab!”*
Judging solely by what I’ve read about the game, Darius II has an “almost got it” feel. Shame, as the Saturn should have been able to handle every aspect of this game. Final score and further review forthcoming.
*screenshots from segasaturn.co.uk