Untold Tales of The Arcade: The Creation of a New Style, Giant Fish and The Fight for Survival

By Francesco-Alessio Ursini / March 21, 2008

"Our mythological past, or: Bacterians and Bydos are but one side of the story"

Darius is about the fight for life. Before human beings were the dominant life form in the Galaxy, the Great Old Ones ruled the universe (maybe the Taito guys were inspired by Cthulhu and company). The Great Old Ones decided to create life and toy with it. The giant mechanical fish they created were not robots; they were life forms called Chimerae. They could be considered hybrids, as their creators tried to implant into their bodies brains from other creatures. Unfortunately, this plan did not work out and the Chimerae, creatures of wonder, could only survive for a few hours, doomed to replicate and die shortly afterwards. The creators would then place them in hibernation, allowing them to rise again only in cases of great danger, when the entire universe is threatened by a supreme menace.

This menace is called humankind, hence the fight between the ancient creatures and the Silver Hawk warriors. But this is something I would discover later on when I went hunting for the Darius original soundtrack.

Darius is a series of horizontal shooting games based on speed. The original team of designers were extremely motivated to create a new series and a unique ship design -- so motivated that they produced and released model kits of the hero's ship and the bosses. The main theme of Darius is the fight for survival, resisting the tide of evolution and building yourself a future. As in a Matsumoto anime, you are not fighting against nameless baddies, but against other life forms. What's more menacing than a new species that can potentially dominate the galaxy? Species that have this funny idea of dominating territory tend to clash, and what's funniest is that the guardians will die after the fight, even if they win it. The irony of this fight is that they're doomed. You're doomed as well, or one day will be. You may get far enough to see Proco the fourth and Tiat the Grand -- granddaughter of Tiat -- but they will still all die in a few hours.

"Close your eyes"

It has been almost twenty years since the first chapter. I don't want to write the same old rubbish about nonexistent golden ages of gaming or go on any rants that focus on personal senility. I would like, if this is not too audacious a goal, to write a serious and committed article on the Darius Saga.

However, and this will surely raise a few eyebrows, I'm going to omit the two Super Famicom titles, and (more eyebrows will rise at this point), I would like to add Border Down as the illegitimate (or maybe just unofficial) latest chapter of the saga.

Twenty years ago (almost), I was eight years old. My uncle runs (for the time being, retirement issues) an arcade. Thanks to this twist, I have been able to play some excellent, funny, obscure arcade titles. Darius, however, is surely not obscure, and in Japan at least stands as one of the most beloved series of shooters. I often wonder why Westerners for the most part seem obsessed with two other series -- R-Type and Gradius. Because of this it is difficult to find people that are familiar with the series. Why is this so?

Darius is an arcade series at its core, and most so-called gamers today spend their time enjoying what big companies like Nintendo and Sony tell them to in the dark corners of their rooms. Arcade gaming, on the other hand, is a social pastime; it's all about building hierarchies based on scores and skills. If you want to prove your manhood, young man, you have to be first on the score table.

Back in the '80s, top scorers were kings. Being the king meant that you had something to prove to others; it wasn't a question of crowns and legacies, but of scoring systems. The fight for alpha male status was fierce. It was all about scenery. Give those frustrated kids something to blow up, add scenery to collide against, rinse and repeat. Oh yeah, also, epic fights against aliens which are, of course, all evil and ugly (and maybe communist too?) Thanks, Konami. Thanks, Irem. I really enjoyed your games as a kid, but now their enjoyment has gone the way of the dinosaur. In the meantime, other companies were willing to try something different. One was Capcom, but they're not the focus of this article. The other was Taito. We're almost on topic. Stay tuned!

Taito is an arcade-driven company. They still own a few arcades around Japan, and in their heyday directed most of their titles to an arcade audience. This means that when we are discussing Taito games we're talking about issues of status and competition -- we're dealing with games that are, and have always been, score-driven. Back in the day, shooters were largely stuff for children and people with a destructive attitude... but some were different.

On the surface, Darius is the same old soup. However, it is 1986, I'm a young enthusiastic kid in my uncle's arcade, and I suddenly see a cabinet with three screens and six amplifiers, the latter of which pump out three-dimensional sound at a default volume that would easily shatter steel.

I insert a coin and start shooting. I get to the first boss, King Fossil, for the first time. I beat him and I am faced with the dilemma of which way to go. After a few more plays, a revelation hits me. If I take down all enemies of a formation, I receive a bonus! I then realize that this is much harder than it looks.

I have to be fast if I want to get all the enemies. I can only shoot again once my bullets have gone out of the screen or my bombs have hit something in the background. The bosses' various parts can be destroyed and are worth a lot of points! Scoring systems are only for people who play for score, and at this time in my life I think this type of gaming is only suited for older people. I just want to blow things up! Then again, someone has given you a way to blow things up in style, and this requires some careful thought and planning. I, of course, want to be the first on the score table -- that's a given. I'm eight years old and, being the local alpha male, at least Darius-wise, sounds like one hell of an idea.

Months pass in search of the best score. Sure, my competitors are older and stronger, so I can deal with them being the alpha males. However, I know that something has changed. If I actually think about what I'm doing, I can now do it with style.

Fast forward to 1989. I am now eleven years old and wondering if my favorite arcade company will do another Darius. They do. I play it a bit and notice that it's even faster, with lots of bullets and aggressive enemies. The weapons work in a different way, especially the power-up system, but that's not too much of an issue. And then I get to the second stage. I can only fall in love, because I am listening for the first time to "Muse Valley", one of Hisayoshi Ogura's (OGR) masterpieces. Then, exactly as in the first Darius, I begin figuring out which route is the best, which is the hardest, the best way to kill enemies and bosses, and so on.

It's 1991: the previous year, Taito had created a bizarre shooter called Gun Frontier. It was about planes that look like giant guns, a planet called Gloria, and the Wild West. Or maybe it was just an undeclared homage to Leiji Matsumoto, the genius behind Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999, an anime I was very fond of as a kid. What I really care about right now, however, is Metal Black, a new horizontal shooter from Taito. It starts by presenting a story about a dark, hopeless future for Earth and humankind. Everything gets destroyed when aliens invade Earth immediately after a shower of meteorites. Something appears called the "Newalone". It is the main source behind the aliens' power and their invisible beams. The Earth is doomed, and you fly one last, desperate mission: you will discover, once you've cleared the game, that there's hope after all.

However, the original plan was that you had to fight for the future of Darius, not Earth. Metal Black was originally planned to be the third arcade Darius. Think of the various fish-like enemies in the game, and then think of the other types, basically, pseudo-insects. Your ship is called Black Fly (or Beelzebub, for those versed in mythology). The last boss is a giant dolphin, still a creature of the sea despite being a mammal.

Given the extremely dark setting, Taito decided to make Metal Black a stand-alone project. Despite this, something about Matsumoto's work lingers in the game (the same team as Gun Frontier's worked on it), especially when the dried up ocean is viewed as a symbol of life fading away from Earth. Life, and the pursuit of fish blasting, is one of the key themes of Darius, isn't it? Hence, a game where the Darius planet gets devastated is not a good idea. Yeah, the mighty boss battles and the giant lasers are great, and we'll see them again in the future, but, well, as good as the game is, I can't avoid noticing its sterile mechanics and absolutely linear scoring system. The soundtrack though, still leaves me speechless after fourteen years. Maybe that's the only reason I played the game back in 1991.

Years pass, and I'm still wondering where the hell Darius III is. Well, Taito has done other incredible stuff in the meantime, and, frankly, I'm still a bit busy playing Rayforce. Finally, the wait is over. Fast forward again to Darius Gaiden. The game is a side-story, set between the first and the second Darius. Again, it is about fighting for life, Darius against Belser. This time, however, things work in a slightly different way -- well, a bit like the first Darius with power-ups. Taking bosses' sections down is pretty difficult; I've never seen so many bullets on screen at once. There's also an auto-fire button, but button-mashing at lightning speed is better. Finally, mid-bosses, or "Captains", can be captured, as a homage to Galaga.

Darius Gaiden was about the same time as my first love -- and its melancholic and bizarre atmosphere acted as a soundtrack to my teenage romance. Darius Gaiden is a psychedelic game. Most of the bosses change shape when you damage them, often morphing into more colorful and dangerous forms. Most of the landscapes are incredibly detailed and promise worlds of wonder, hinting at something much more radical than a fight between flying vehicles. Survival of the fittest?

I played G Darius for the first time in Rome. It was a dark period for me. It was 1999 and I was trying to recover from a very poor choice in my life. I made another bad choice after that one, and I'm in the wrong city, engaged to a woman that will start acting as a hindrance, at some point, to the progress of my own life. I've stopped playing games altogether, and, frankly, it couldn't have been otherwise, since I simply hadn't had an opportunity during the previous two years. At some point, I'd just give up and go around looking for arcades when I was supposed to be doing something else, like studying. However, there's always a chance to find diamonds in the rubbish. Despite the many idiotic things I'm doing in this period, I find an arcade that has one game worthy of my time and money.

"You will see the creation of new lives"

Well, it must be said that I'm old-fashioned. I see a few polygons and think, Hell, Taito, Raystorm was okay, but I'm afraid of another thing in 3D, you know? Though this is not the point, I dismissed the game as simply "Darius in 3D". Big mistake: the worst since I graduated from high school and threw away two years pursuing stupid forms of idealism. So I split with my destructive love and realize that the chaotic city of Rome is not a good choice for me, finally moving on. Something got lost on the way, right? But it was just a 3D Darius, so who cares.

Time passes and I discover MAME in 2000. I discover MAME and start being a player again. I know what being a player is about: learning the rules, discovering the right route, and solving the problem in the best way. And thus I decide that maybe it's time to get a Dreamcast. Then a PlayStation. And then, a copy of that 3D Darius.

On the surface, G Darius is the same old game. However, there are a few innovations. This time, just about every enemy in the game can be captured and made your ally. Now this is a nice recycling of an old Galaga idea, but there's more. If the last member of a squadron is destroyed with a particular ally, twice the bonus is awarded. Not only that, I also found that I can make it detonate and get triple the points for any enemy destroyed with the detonation. Finally, I can do something that's taken straight out of Metal Black -- wipe out everything in sight with a big laser. And, as in Metal Black, the bosses also have a giant laser.

What I started doing again is dismissing the game. And I know why. In my evolution as a gamer, I've taken a step back. I've started playing games again just to complete them and brag. G Darius fades away quickly: the PSX version has some annoying slowdown which makes the game easy and my patience short. Sure, I bother to clear all routes, but I skip the most important part: namely, the hunt for the best score.

But I get a chance to redeem myself because my uncle gets a G Darius cabinet for his arcade. I've taken advantage of the internet and downloaded videos of Japanese superplays. I discover things that I was too lazy to find out by myself. I learn a few tricks and play the Omega route for points, but not too many, as I still lack the edge I had back in the early '90s. Yet still, I fail to play G Darius for what it's worth. I won't get as good as I could have been in the '90s, because in that period I could compete even against the best Japanese players on some titles.

Darius ended with a whimper and not with a bang. Some of the G Darius programmers founded their own company. It's 2002 and I'm playing Ikaruga. I'm not too crazy about it. I can't avoid noticing that a lot of elements seem to be taken from Taito games. It's something about the design, and the overall look, and once you see the credits, you see a name, Hideyoshi Katoh, and you know that you've seen it somewhere else. Besides, you see a few programmers that are actually from G.rev. Months pass, and G.rev produces a new game called Border Down. A Dreamcast port is rumored. Porting to an officially discontinued console sounds reckless. I see a few videos of the game and read about G.rev and I decide that I'm going to find the way back to the best experience ever -- playing for the high score.

Certainly, I won't really be able to compete with the best players, since they have a few months' advantage, but I won't give up without trying. Then a year's journey begins.

I start playing G Darius again the old way, no save states, no videos. I start understanding the marvelous charm of subtle mechanics, the intricacies of using the laser. I start feeling the epic soundtrack, realizing the true genius behind the design of the giant and incredibly well-animated bosses, the epic feeling of the life forms and their quest for survival.

"We're in the age that the universe is no longer just a promised land"

I decide to hunt down a Dreamcast to play shooters the way I did when I was a kid, but at this point it's 2003. The Dreamcast is officially discontinued. I don't care. Border Down keeps me going. It's spring and a lovely sun is shining upon me as I write. I still feel the sweet call of my childhood summers and the Zuntata songs and Taito games, and playing "Upon the raid" in this lazy afternoon fills me with the past.

Border Down is, in my mind, a sequel to G Darius. However, it features a very innovative approach to the concept of life: every time you die you start playing a different section of a stage (except for bosses). Since the game features a ranking system, every time you "border down", as it is called, the rank lowers, so you will face a different enemy sequence in a different stage. Two weapons are at your disposal: the homing lasers and the normal frontal lasers. There is also a "break laser" you can use that will cancel all bullets on screen and damage enemies. While using the laser you lose energy. Refill it by destroying enemies and picking up power-ups so that you can cancel bullets and get a multiplier when you destroy them (i.e. canceling ten bullets scores ten times the number of points when destroying an enemy).

It is with Border Down that I rediscovered the immense and unbounded joy of a flawless play, of executing a very difficult passage in the best possible way, and all this with the ease and gracefulness of perfection.

Border Down is about short but extremely intense moments. In a few seconds, you can get 20% of your total score by executing a difficult technique. It is hard and frustrating to learn these techniques, but once you learn to do them, nothing can stop the sheer joy, the untamed pleasure of discharging accumulated tension. Videogames, like the rest of life, are about meeting conditions and being able to obtain critical results at the crucial moment.

Regardless of the semi-serious considerations of the Universe, what still remains is one uncompleted task: G Darius. Considering my past relationship with Darius games, I feel the need to play it for score. But this time, thanks to Border Down, its unofficial offspring, I know the right approach.

Time passes. Again I move; away from my home, my love, my friends. My choice is, again, not the best one, but maybe I can start a different route for my life. Maybe I will get something better, maybe not. But at least I have Taito. They have just published a new Giga Wing title, and another Raiden will come. They have also repressed the entire Darius soundtrack collection, and the dedicated site comes with a promise:

"Darius -- the rebirth"

Maybe they noticed the success of R-Type Final and Gradius V, and maybe Taito knows that there's always a chance for a rebirth. Maybe it's just a reprint of items that are still successful on the Japanese auctions. But maybe, just maybe, I'll have again the privilege to witness the creation of a new life.