Friday, November 19, 2021

G Darius (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
5 stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by THQ in 1998

Three years after Darius Gaiden, the famous shmup series where you blast fish and sea monsters in outer space returned to the spotlight with G Darius (or G-Darius, as some prefer). A huge change in style and one of the biggest shmup efforts from Taito before the company slowed down its activities, G Darius is the fourth installment in the arcade series but also the sixth completely new entry in the franchise if you consider console outputs Darius Twin and Darius Force Super Nova. The first port came out for the Playstation one year after the arcade release, with the new 3D polygon-based graphic design as the main selling point of the game.

Apart from the remarkable shift towards 3D, something that was expected during that time especially after Taito delivered Raystorm, G Darius keeps the trademark gameplay that combines enemy waves and environmental hazards with gigantic bosses preceded by the famous WARNING message. However, this time around the splitting path mechanic adopts letters from the Greek alphabet to determine the stages, with a total of only five stages instead of the customary seven. Each level has two sections though, with the second one being selected by standing above or below a green centerline that appears halfway the level. The designation for each played area comprises both the Greek letter and the corresponding Roman character of the splitting path, such as αA or αB, δG or δH, etc.

The game harks back to the roots of the series in its upgrade system based on colored orbs, with red for main shot, green for bombs and blue for shield. When the specific gauge for each ability is filled a major upgrade is granted, and every time you die the ship is respawned with this basic upgraded level instead of going back to its default state. There are also purple orbs which add to the stock of capture balls, expanding on an idea previously seen in Darius Gaiden to provide the foundation of the game's intricate scoring system. Finally, hitting certain fixed spots in the terrain uncovers extra yellow orbs (wipe out the screen), silver orbs (random point bonuses) or a single extra life in the 4th stage. 

Cruising through the Giant Plant area of the β zone

As soon as you start playing it you'll notice that the initial atmosphere of G Darius is quite different from the previous games in the series. The α stage takes place in open space against a greeny landscape with a futuristic city and harmless structures that collapse every now and then, ending in a fight against new boss Eclipse Eye. It sets the tone perfectly for what's to come but I must admit I didn't like the pacing or the new style up front, most probably because it took me some time to adapt to the 3D textures and also the fact that the game seems to run slower than usual due to the natural slowdown of this particular port. There are tons of variety and the action can get quite intense though, yet sometimes the color contrast just makes it a little tough to distinguish bullets from flying debris or even backgrounds.

Playing the game requires three inputs: shot (○ or R2), rapid fire (□) and capture ball (×). As usual, destroying full enemy waves and all boss parts is still the basic source of points in G Darius. However, what gives the game its special flair and helps determine its staying power is the mechanic around capture balls. With the obvious exception of stage bosses, the main rule is that any flying enemy can be captured by hitting them with a capture ball (don't worry if you miss, lost balls aren't deducted from the stock). Each enemy captured flies beside you and adds to your firepower in a specific way, a feature that gives the game a very strategic feel not only for survival but also for scoring. It goes without saying that experimentation is key to finding out the best enemies to capture in any given level.

Besides their default attacks, captured enemies can also be used in two different ways. The first one is by exploding them: just tap the capture ball button to trigger a powerful localized blast that also protects you from incoming bullets. The second one is firing an alpha beam: hold the shot button to absorb the captured enemy and charge, then release it for an ultra powerful blue laser that lasts 5 seconds. While lasering can be used at any time, it's often good to save a few balls and deploy the attack to counter beams fired by bosses. Then just keep the rapid fire button pressed to win the laser battle. These can turn in a real spectable if you're able to counter more than a single enemy beam, either two at a time or one after the other, with your own beam increasing in size for every counterattack achieved (the 5 second duration resets whenever two enemy lasers meet).

Everything you do with a captured enemy gives you more points in the form of multipliers, which is the bread and butter to score higher in G Darius. Multipliers vary in a wide range, from the basic act of destroying the last enemy in a wave with the attack of a captured enemy (×2) to the glorious dispatching of a boss with a quadruple counter beam (×12). Finding the best ways to inflict damage during the several boss patterns is essential in the long run, as well as figuring out where a beam might be useful for both survival and some more points during the levels themselves. Just remember not to use beams against enemies or obstacles covered with "solidnite", a golden substance that also deflects capture balls and emits a metallic sound when hit. You must always destroy solidnite shields before trying to capture a mid-boss, for example.

Besides using captured enemies to achieve score multiplers, getting to the end of the game can still provide a huge chunk of your final score. Each remaining life is worth one million points, with captured mid-bosses  (a.k.a. captains) and boss kills with counter beams giving you meaty bonuses as well (a quadruple counter boss kill is also worth one million points). A treat regarding captured captains is that they can also fire special attacks, which are triggered with combinations of directionals + shot as if you were in a fighting game. Try performing a hadouken with the first captain, for example.

One of the animated intros of G Darius on the Playstation
(courtesy of YouTube user RetroGameTV)

The way I see it, G Darius only achieves its full glory as a shmup once you've got acquainted with the enemy capturing aspect of the gameplay. It provides an extremely layered and deep scoring system that's great fun and is always making players come back for more, even though the game isn't visually on par with other polygon-based PS1 shmups like R-Type Delta and Einhänder. My biggest personal complaint as a fan is the tiny sprites of the Silver Hawk and the shield, an aspect that always struck me as one of the coolest in the franchise. Still G Darius has its share of special moments, such as the neat animations during boss transitions, which give a great cinematic feel but can still be skipped if you so wish (just press START). Special transitions might also appear during the levels themselves, sometimes making you briefly fly in diagonal directions.

The US Playstation release is really nice since one of the fully animated low-res intros serves to detail the story behind the game, actually a prequel that tells the origin of the Silver Hawk saga. Unlike the arcade original, the port separates both modes (Arcade and Beginner) right at the start screen while adding an extra Boss Rush mode. Configurable controls and a save feature complete the package, but I advise all players who like to enjoy a nice sound balance to reduce the volume of the sound effects in the options. Then you can properly listen to the sometimes weird, sometimes awesome soundtrack by Taito's in-house composers Zuntata.
I tested a handful of routes in Arcade mode to find a nice survival path with a little scoring potential on the side, settling with αA-γE-εI-θO-νY. At least for me the idea that the upper route is the easiest one isn't true at all, Fire Fossil is absolutely no joke at the end of zone η. I beat the game in the abovementioned route on Normal difficulty with the final score below and was ranked Gold Condor, a special classification based on several aspects of your performance during the run. I didn't try any credit in co-op, but I doubt it would thrill anyone given the potential slowdown that could be experienced.

Note: G Darius would later come out for the Playstation 2; it also got a recent HD makeover as G Darius HD for the Nintendo Switch and the Playstation 4.

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