Saturday, May 28, 2022

Dariusburst (PSP)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pyramid
Published by Taito in 2009

With the Darius series on a hiatus since G Darius (1997), in 2009 Taito tried to bring it back to the shmup spotlight with Dariusburst for the PSP. I believe longtime fans were caught by surprise not only by the release itself, but also by the new direction the company applied to the gameplay. Developer-for-hire Pyramid introduced fresh ideas that certainly proved successful, as hinted by the several revisions/sequels that came out on the trail of the PSP game. Dariusburst also plays a particularly important role for me since it was the reason why I finally purchased a PSP, the first ever handheld system in my personal collection.

Storywise the events of Dariusburst take place after Darius II, with the ongoing war of planet Darius against the Belser army prompting the Silver Hawk engineers to devise a powerful weapon deployed with the so-called "burst system". This new element is the game's defining gimmick and sort of replaces the capturing mechanic last seen in G Darius, squeezing the most out of the spectacle provided by contemporary pseudo 3D backgrounds. Granted, lasers and laser battles aren't as huge anymore but now they can be used in a more flexible way, adding new layers of strategy both for survival and for scoring.

When first starting up the game you'll only have Arcade mode to tackle (all other modes are unlocked first by beating it and by fulfilling a few other requirements). Perhaps due to the limitations of the PSP hardware this main game mode has only 5 stages, with the first couple of them fixed. Only after you've completed area B the famous branching system will kick in, allowing players to choose from areas C or D and so on and so forth. Each stage has the same boss regardless of the selected branch except for the final level, in which you might fight four different end bosses. These final formidable creatures are definitely easier in the upper route, getting harder the lower you go in your chosen path.

Release trailer for Dariusburst on the PSP
(courtesy of YouTube user ndsfans2009)

Only one ship is available upon start in Arcade mode, the Silver Hawk Legend. Once you've beaten the game once (continues allowed) you'll unlock the Silver Hawk Next. Beat Arcade mode once more in a different path and you'll unlock Mission mode, and a third time with another different path to unlock Burst mode. Finally, by clearing Burst mode you unlock the Silver Hawk Original, the official ship from the first Darius. This series of unlocks is obviously aimed at providing replayability and more value for money, but it's at least arranged in a way that makes sense challengewise.

All three ships share the same classic routine for upgrades. Destroying colored enemies releases colored orbs that upgrade three distinct aspects of the ship's firepower: main shot / missiles (red orbs), bombs (green orbs) and shield (blue orbs). The evolution of each element goes through missile → laser → wave, bomb → twin → multi and arm (green shield) → super (silver shield) → hyper (golden shield). Secret icons can also be found by shooting the terrain: grays orbs grant random bonus points, golden orbs act as screen-clearing smart bombs and the small ship gives you an extra life. There are differences between ships: Legend and Origin have the same arsenal except for the burst system, which is absent for the Silver Hawk Origin. On the other hand the burst system is also present on the Silver Hawk Next, which is clearly more powerful than the other ships and even comes with homing bombs. The good news for all ships is that this time around there's no need to worry about powering down upon death, as was the case with all previous games in the series.

In addition to the input for shot, in Dariusburst players have at their disposal another input for the burst attack. The burst gauge fills up automatically as you destroy enemies and gets empty whenever you're using the laser, which can be deployed in two different ways: by holding the button the laser is unleashed with the ship, by double tapping it the laser is dropped in place while you're free to move around. A detached laser behaves differently, consuming the burst gauge more slowly and allowing itself to be rotated up or down. Basically it works like this: if you stop shooting the laser will move towards the ship (Next) or away from the ship (Legend). Since shooting plays a pivotal role in dealing with the burst laser, learning how to properly use this special weapon certainly takes at least a little practice.

The advantages of of using the burst laser isn't of course relegated to sheer firepower increase. It ties in with the brand new scoring system that applies multipliers of up to ×16 as you keep on destroying enemies without getting hit (each hit takes away one multipier point). The catch with the burst laser is that the multiplier increases faster when you use it to annihilate the incoming waves. In the first level, for instance, there's no way to reach a ×16 multiplier just by regular shooting. The use of the burst laser, however, will certainly make it possible. It's interesting to note that even though you still get additional bonuses for extra lives when completing the game, the scoring you're able to achieve with the multiplier mechanic far outweighs these final rewards.

These Gluttons are hungry, very hungry

Two additional details on the use of burst laser are important. There are times when the amount of enemies and bullets is so high that the laser can sustain itself indefinitely (several sections full of asteroids and the whole fight against Hungry Gluttons are prime examples). The second detail is a much more intricate resource and is, quite frankly, the only dwindling aspect of the gameplay. As expected, bosses are also capable of firing their own powerful lasers several times throughout the fight. If you manage to deploy the burst laser just a split-second after you get hit by the laser from the boss, the burst attack will acquire a golden hue and become even more powerful, on top of granting the player with an extra multiplier boost over whatever is destroyed. Unfortunately this golden counterlaser is quite difficult to pull off, and if your timing isn't right you'll lose precious multiplier points by getting hit (the shield protects you but the hits are still registered). 

Everything mentioned above applies to all game modes. Arcade mode is of course the one you should play first. Full of throwbacks to previous chapters in the series, it offers a steady difficulty slope that culminates in epic boss battles by the time you reach the 5th stage. Burst mode is a special campaign locked in the Hard difficulty with different enemy patterns and only one life/ship that's already maxed out in power (orbs will all be of the gray type). On the other hand the burst laser takes longer to deplete and you get new input buttons that let you switch the main shot type (missile, laser and wave). Mission mode is a collection of short sections where you must fulfill simple tasks such as beating a level, a boss or a combination of both (with more bosses on occasion). The music will sometimes switch to the classic tunes from previous chapters, which adds a touch of nostalgia to this particular game mode. As for the main game modes, you can expect another great soundtrack full of engaging and operatic moments alike.

My guess is that completing the challenges in Mission mode will unlock the remaining material included in View mode. Normally you can see your high scores in there, as well as watch the replays you've saved (they can be saved whenever you finish a game without continuing), but you'll also have access to event animations, character close-ups and design illustrations. I did complete all missions in levels 1 and 2 (out of 8), and it was enough to at least have access to all branches of the main menu. Speaking of which, even though the game was only released in Japan the interface is completely in English, with Japanese text reserved for general descriptions that do not affect navigation at all.

On top of being one of the best shmups released for the PSP, in terms of graphic design and gameplay Dariusburst definitely represents a soft reboot of the franchise. Later on it was revised and retouched perhaps beyond what some people would consider acceptable, but there's no denying that Taito and Pyramid were successful in leading the series into new territory. The evolution after Dariusburst is rather complicated, but I'll probably tackle Dariusburst Another Chronicle EX+ next.

All the highest scores for each ship in the photo below for Arcade mode are 1CCs obtained in the Normal difficulty (a 1LC in the case of the Silver Hawk Next in spot #1 through toute ABCEH). Since it's a lot harder than the regular game, I only really tried to 1CC/complete Burst mode with the Silver Hawk Next, succeeding in route ABCEI.

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