Friday, July 15, 2011

Of Import: Super Darius

This week, we're looking at one of several PC Engine games based on Taito's coin-op Darius series -- it's Super Darius, published in 1990 for the PC Engine CD-ROM (System Card 1.0) platform.  This scrolling shoot-'em-up series was very popular on the PC Engine, with Darius Twin, Darius Alpha (a boss rush version of Darius Twin) and Super Darius II also appearing on the machine.  The game was ported to the PC Engine by NEC Avenue under license from Taito, and is one of the rare PCE games to feature licensed Dolby Surround audio technology, creating an additional rear surround channel from a phased stereo signal.  The game's compact disc label is even printed in full-color.

The Darius games are beautiful to look at and convert well to the PC Engine, thanks to the console's bright color palette and efficient sprite handling.  But this one in particular is nails-hard, because there's almost no way the player can take on the later bosses without being highly powered-up, and any serious hit knocks the player's ship out of commission and back to square one.  The later bosses are tough, and if the battle goes on too long, swarms of spinning boxes arrive to harass and destroy the player; with my middling arcade skills, there's no way to fight them off without taking hits.

So, in the interest of documenting the game, I came up with a cheat code, using the Magic Engine emulator's handy code search function -- if you use this emulator, assign a frozen value of 3 to address F82BC8.  This will give you infinite lives, which is the only way someone like me has a chance of fighting through the whole game.

The original arcade game supports two players, but only one, the male pilot Proco, is actually available in this conversion.  The attract mode still gives us a look at his erstwhile partner, Tiat, also known as Ms. Not-Appearing-in-This-Game.

The action is brisk, but it does become repetitive, making the unforgiving difficulty curve a little easier to swallow if we have to give up the fight somewhere along the way.  Each level challenges the player to navigate the scrolling landscape, shooting and bombing flying enemies and gun emplacements while dodging a hail of bullets.  The PC Engine lacks true parallax scrolling hardware -- that is, it can't really handle multiple background layers -- but Super Darius does a fine job of simulating the effect using sprites in the foreground, and the game looks great in motion, smooth and fast-paced.

The background music sounds terrific too, but I couldn't put my finger on its unique quality at first.  It initially sounds like really sophisticated use of the PC Engine's sound chip, but then the audio gets more complex.  And it keeps playing when we pause the game, so we can conclude that it's probably not actually coming from the humble PCE's audio hardware.  But it's not an orchestral remix of the sort heard on other PC Engine CD-ROM conversions -- it's actually a recording of the original arcade game's music.  So what we're hearing is a CD quality recording of chip music, but very sophisticated chip music, and in well-separated stereo and Dolby Surround to boot.  It sounds great and motivates continued play, even when the difficulty curve becomes a slog.

After navigating the routine onslaught of enemies in each level, we face a giant robotic boss creature armed for battle -- each resembles some form of sea life, with a name based around its looks or attack style:

These bosses are not easy to take down if the player's ship isn't powered up -- even with the infinite lives code and the consequent devil-may-care attitude about taking damage, I spent several minutes battling each of these enemies, as swarming boxes and flying bullets destroyed my ship literally every few seconds.  I managed to beat the first boss without cheating, but after that point, I was completely lost, as the spinning boxes made short work of my remaining lives while I tried in vain to battle the big fish with minimal weaponry:

Super Darius' replay value, beyond its sheer difficulty, stems from its branching structure -- a full game consists of seven levels, but after each battle the player can opt to take an upper or lower path to a different, lettered Zone, encountering different enemies and bosses along each branch.

There are actually 26 different levels, Zone A through Zone Z, though to make the branching work out, Zones Z and V appear along two different paths in order to fill the tree's 28 slots.  In theory, one could play the game many different ways to see all the levels -- but because graphics, music and bosses get reused, the gameplay never really changes, and some of these elements appear in other PC Engine Darius titles, that's not quite as interesting as it sounds.

At least there's some variety in the backgrounds, all of which look very nice:

My own journey came to its conclusion in Zone X, where I fought this giant cephalopod -- and without cheating, if I could even have gotten here, I would surely have crashed and burned in frustration.  See the creatures rightmost lower tentacle?  It cannot be targeted with missiles from above, and it's really hard to maneuver below the octopus' main body to shoot it while dodging the creature and all of the other shrapnel flying around the screen.  I ended up just flying into it kamikaze-style, blowing up, and repeating, losing literally dozens of ships in my effort to destroy the tentacled beast.

And then, with the last boss defeated, the player's ship gets beamed aboard its mothership and the credits roll, with a technically geeky nod of thanks to Borland Software's EXCELENT [sic] TURBO C COMPILER:

Super Darius is beautiful to look at and listen to.  But it's repetitive.  And tough -- and I mean tough -- beyond the point where it's going to be fun for the average (or aging) gamer.  But if you're looking for a challenge, or an arcade conversion that makes impressive use of the PC Engine's hardware, Super Darius might be your game.

This one is pretty readily available, but as a classic shmup it tends to hold some collectible value pricing-wise -- you might be able to buy a copy here.

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