Space Oddity

HIGH Excellent emulation quality. Some great console rarities included.

LOW No supplemental material, no sound test mode.

WTF A Darius collection without Zuntata’s music front and center?!?


Describing Darius as a series of side-scrolling arcade shooters is like describing the Door to Hell in Turkmenistan as a big hole with some fire in it.

Thematically, Taito’s venerable franchise feels like the byproduct of a psychotropic haze — a surreal space odyssey that reframes the weightlessness of space as an ominous sea where enemy spaceships flutter among the stars like schools of jellyfish or giant cybernetic death-trout. Any semblance of coherent narrative is merely a suggestion in service of a more dream-like tone.

Since every element of the Darius games, from their bizarre visuals to the surreal synth-pop soundtracks, leaves a legacy as an alien experience in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, this means that the recent Cozmic Collection has a tall order ahead of it. Can this two-part anthology of arcade and console releases bring new players close enough to these classics to see the subtleties after twenty years of history has passed them by?

When it comes to gameplay, M2 does a remarkable job of showing how the franchise’s engineering pushed design boundaries in the arcade, with multiple arcade titles recreated with their complete multi-screen displays.

The original 1986 arcade version of Darius was released as a three-screen display and M2 ensures all three are here in loving detail, including the option to nudge the monitors slightly out of alignment as though the Switch was a well-worn arcade display. The extra real estate on the screen draws out the importance of managing distance to stay alive — since there are no screen-clearing bombs as a safety net and the player’s ship can only have so many bullets in play at a given time, their offensive capability relies on getting as close as possible to incoming enemies and drilling those cyborg jellyfish with rapid-fire assaults at point-blank range.

These design conceits would be carried forward and refined as Darius II in 1989, which was released as Sagaia in the West as the series’ first hit outside of Japan. There are more versions of Darius II in this collection than any other title, including a sprite-melting Sega Master System port that feels like it could have incinerated the original console hardware with extended play.

M2 preserves all the imperfections of these ports in loving detail, but their hard work only goes so far in telling the story. Sagaia is a fine entry, but a couple of blurbs of text on the game select screen fail to convey why its release warranted so many different revisions — and more importantly, why those revisions are worth playing now.

For players who aren’t as curious about multi-screen arcade cabinet design, 1996’s Darius Gaiden will stand out as the most exciting and accessible entry. Gaiden incorporates all the unique flavors of the series and focuses them into a conventional single-screen design, albeit one that’s rendered with the dazzling audiovisual reverie of Taito’s famous F3 System hardware. With G-Darius held back for a future collection, Gaiden is the best of this anthology, even though it’s presented as one more random game in a list.

This brings me back to one of the critical weaknesses of this package — other than reissuing these games, the Darius Cozmic Collection has virtually nothing else to offer. There are no museum-style supplemental materials that dive into how all this strange imagery and weird cabinet design came to fruition. No concept art or interviews.

The console ‘half’ of the collection suffers the most from this lack of context, with over half its entries being ports of arcade games found with greater fidelity in the arcade collection. The two console-exclusives – the SNES releases of Darius Twin and Super Nova – are hardly standouts for the franchise, leaving the rest of the console collection looking like ragtag b-sides.

Also, unbelievably, there’s virtually no mention anywhere of Zuntata, the famous Taito house band whose reputation arguably outstrips the Darius series that it called home for so many years. M2 smartly brings up a quick chyron with a song title whenever new music plays in the background of the arcade titles, but this music is good enough and weird enough to warrant its own special attention. The lack of a sound test or jukebox mode is a stunning miss.

While M2’s emulation work is spectacular as always, the Darius Cozmic Collection suffers from a failure of imagination. It envisions the history of this eclectic, evocative franchise as a commodity to be fastidiously repackaged and sold as’ content’ rather than taking the opportunity to explore and appreciate one of the strangest sagas in gaming. It’s a frustratingly narrow view that leaves the Darius story untold, and Taito has ensured that these collections will blend in with countless others on a shelf, struggling to be found in the crowded marketplace.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Arcade Collection)

*

Rating: 4.5 out of 10 (Console Collection)

Disclosures: This game is developed by M2 and published by Taito. It is currently available on Switch and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on Switch. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to various single-player modes across all games in both collections, and one single-player session was completed (credit-fed clear for Darius Gaiden). No significant time was spent in multiplayer beyond confirming that all multiplayer modes are available as they were the original releases.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E due to Mild Fantasy Violence. This is collection of arcade-style games featuring spaceships shooting robotic fish. No official description was available for this collection, but the ESRB has rated various Darius titles in the past, here is an example: This is a side-scrolling shooter in which players guide a small spaceship through futuristic environments. Players shoot laser beams, missiles, and oversized bombs at waves of enemy ships and aquatic-themed bosses (e.g., walrus-, shark-, and squid-shaped robots). Enemies generally emit puffs of smoke and disappear in brief explosions when defeated.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay and all voiced text is accompanied by subtitles. There are no options to recolor text.

Remappable Controls: Control buttons are remappable from the options screen for each game in both collections.

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sleeve
sleeve
1 month ago

Nice review!

Some day I would love to see a behind the scenes documentary focusing on boom-economy 1980s Japan and the arcade game industry and crazy excess in the style of 24 Hour Party People that covers Zuntata, Taito, Sega, Konami, Hudson, the yakuza, and PC gaming culture in general.