Past meets present: G-Darius HD

A classic shoot-em-up got the hi-def and quality of life treatment in 2021, making it even more playable than it already was.

This column is “Past meets present,” the aim of which is to look back at game franchises and games that are in the news and topical again thanks to a sequel, a remaster, a re-release, and so on. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.

Taito’s Darius, as a franchise, has existed for nearly 35 years now. While there is nothing horribly wrong with the first few games in the series, they are considered classics more because of their age than because of how enjoyable they were or are. There is a reason the franchise kept going beyond those early years, however, as Taito certainly found their rhythm with these games. Darius Gaiden, released in 1994 for the Sega Saturn, is for me when the series really starts to pick up and do something more fascinating than looking different than other horizonal shoot-em-ups out there. And then there is its Playstation successor, G-Darius, which represents both the franchise’s jump to polygons and three dimensions, as well as being the jewel of a recent Darius collection, Darius Cozmic Revelation — that 2021 HD remastering came by way of the masters of that particular art form, M2.

G-Darius was fun (albeit extremely difficult) even when I was playing it wrong. Once I figured out how you’re actually supposed to play, it became an edge-of-your-seat shmup experience for entirely different, and far more enjoyable, reasons. You see, by this point in the franchise’s history, Darius had figured out its gimmicks, and they make the game a joy to play to this day, nearly 25 years later. Darius, aesthetically, has a real aquatic vibe going on, with your ship, the Silver Hawk, sometimes diving deep underwater, and fighting against enemy ships that have taken more than a little inspiration from the creatures found there. It’s not often you get into a boss fight with a spaceship that doesn’t just resemble a turtle in its shape but actually has all the facial features of one, too, but that’s something you can do in G-Darius.

There is far more to G-Darius than just its enemy inspirations and environments, though. It has a capture mechanic, wherein you fire off a capture ball at enemy ships in order to bring them to your side and have them help you fight off the horde. You can capture the most basic enemies with just the ball itself, but tougher enemies might need you to do some damage to them first: you can even capture the stage’s mid-boss ships if you put enough of a hurting on them first. You can sit there flying around with your new partner, satisfied with the upgrade, or you can detonate the captured ship with a blast that will damage any enemies within range, and then capture a new ship. It’s a mechanic that adds all kinds of strategy and chaos, too, to the proceedings of Darius, especially since, as you get deeper into the game, the screen is going to be full of tons of enemies that you’ll need a hand mowing down.

G-Darius isn’t huge on sending loads of bullets your way — a bullet hell shooter this is not, though, certain bosses aren’t shy about filling up the parts of the screen that their bulk isn’t already covering up with bullets and lasers — but you can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of foes the further you get into the game, and crashing into them isn’t any good for you, either. So, the capture mechanic becomes necessary in that regard, since, depending on the ship you capture, you will get a few more cannons on your side, or a shield to protect you from incoming shots and ships, or, if nothing else, you can keep capturing ships and detonating them whenever any other ships start to approach you faster than you can shoot them out of the sky.

There is another function to the capture mechanic, though, and this is where the game truly shines. You can absorb the captured ship by holding down the fire button that you normally would have to press every time you want to shoot — G-Darius features that kind of standard fire, as well as a rapid-fire button that you can just hold down. Once the ship is absorbed, if you press the standard fire button again, an enormous energy beam erupts from your ship, and it will absolutely clear the screen, or get pretty close to it, by the time it runs out of juice. You can do this as many times as you like, so long as you keep feeding the Silver Hawk captured ships to power the beam. There is a more significant use of it than just taking out little baddies, however, and that’s how you deploy this Alpha Beam in boss fights.

Each boss will have a brief period in its cycle of attacks where it sends out capture-able foes, and you will want to capture one and absorb it when the time is right. That’s because the boss has their own mega beam, called a Beta Beam, and you will die if you’re caught in it. Since it takes up a significant portion of the screen, and bosses can also be firing other shots at you while the beam is going, dodging it is easier said than done, especially later. However, if you have an Alpha Beam at the ready, the Silver Hawk can absorb the Beta Beam… and fire it back at the boss.

Remember when I said I was playing G-Darius wrong at first? That’s because I wasn’t aware of this beam mechanic until after I completed the game and received no bonuses whatsoever for my use of the beam. Let this serve as a reminder to check out the manual for games from 1997 when the manual is available to read, as it is in the modern re-release of G-Darius — that’s on me for playing G-Darius like it was any other horizontal shmup. The bosses in G-Darius can be defeated without these beam duels, sure, but it’s going to take far more time and effort to do so, as these are massive foes that take up half of the screen’s real estate, and have multiple parts that need to be blown off before you can damage them enough to destroy them. Boss fights last longer than the stage itself, and then some, if you can’t manage to win a beam duel or simply use the Alpha Beam without the dueling aspect to melt the boss’ health at some point.

Once I knew the Alpha Beam even existed, though, and that it could be used to duel the beams of bosses? Literal game changer. You fire your Alpha Beam into their Beta Beam, and either hold down the rapid fire button or repeatedly press the standard fire button to win this power struggle. Some bosses will use multiple Beta Beams, but if you adjust your ship while firing the Alpha, you can absorb those, too. There are bosses with three and even four Beta Beams that need to be absorbed, and your Alpha Beam, after sucking those up and firing them back from whence they came, will basically take up the entire screen. As you can imagine, the bosses go down just a little quicker when you are sending the power of five screen-clearing beams back into them at once.

It’s not as simple as just using the beams, though. Again, you need to capture an enemy ship in the brief window they are sent out by the boss, and you then need to survive with that captured ship in tow long enough to then absorb it and deploy the beam at the appropriate time. You will certainly have moments where you capture a ship, only to then be cut down by a different offensive measure, and then you will be defenseless against the boss’ Beta Beam and just have to wait until your next chance to capture in order to counter that.

G-Darius has even more mechanics that make it fun and infinitely replayable. It has co-op, for one, and there are certainly enough enemies on screen for two Silver Hawks to blast. Not only do you get to pick your path after each stage — you begin in the same first stage each time, but can branch out in different directions to play five of the 15 total stages on each playthrough — but there are choices about where to go within each of the stages themselves. Tilt the arcade/analog stick up or down when the choice presents itself, and the Silver Hawk will either descend into a lower area of the stage, or ascend to a higher one. In the first stage, you either go higher up in the sky or descend underwater, and the boss and their attack patterns are a little different depending on which route you take, too. It’s very Star Fox 64, in terms of multiple pathways both within and outside of the level, except you don’t need to uncover secrets to make those choices.

The weapon systems are also deep, and more powerful for you the more successful you are, as well. That’s because G-Darius uses an upgrade system for the ship’s armaments and defenses: red orbs increase your firepower level, green orbs increase your armor, and purple orbs increase the number of capture balls you have left to use. Each red orb moves your cannon up a sublevel, with seven red orbs upgrading you to an entirely new kind of weapon: from standard missile cannon to laser beam to wave cannon. When you lose a life — and you likely will — you will stay at whatever weapon type you managed to reach, but you will lose all of the sublevels for it. You don’t want to be just throwing yourself at the enemy, basically, even if you are not actually playing in an arcade and can continue to pump credits into the game forever. To get the highest scores, you’ll need to continue to build up your arsenal, and hang on to it.

And you’ll need to master capturing enemies and the use of the Alpha Beam outside of boss fights, too. There are multipliers received for wiping out entire waves of enemies with the Alpha Beam, and these will significantly increase your score. Given that the G-Darius HD release by M2, which is available on the Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4, has online leaderboards, you’re going to want to figure out how to properly manage all of that in order to ever appear on them.

I am… not quite there yet. As I said before, this game becomes pretty difficult even when you’re playing correctly, with larger and larger waves of foes all but requiring that you are capturing ships to help you fend them off, and deploying the Alpha Beam and capture detonations whenever necessary, too. I’m going to keep trying, though, well beyond this publication date, because G-Darius rules. The Darius Cozmic Revelation physical edition only received a limited run on the Playstation 4 and Switch — and in Europe, not North America — but you can still download G-Darius HD for $30 off of those consoles’ digital storefronts. It might seem pricey for a nearly 25-year-old game released that early in the lifespan of polygonal shmups, but it’s truly fantastic, and a better use of your funds than either of the collections with more Darius games to choose from on those shops. The design aesthetics are excellent, the mechanics and gimmicks are top-notch, and it’s the best of both worlds as a shmup with a short, but infinitely replayable, run time.

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