Saturday, February 13, 2010

Super Darius II

Taito / NEC Avenue
Super CD-ROM

My first experience with Darius' second chapter was provided by the Genesis title Sagaia. It wasn't a game that I believed to be exceptional, but I appreciated its sweet music and smooth gameplay and ended up playing through it lots and lots of times. So I was quite excited when I first obtained Super Darius II, as it appeared to boast visuals far superior to those sported by endearing little Sagaia. The graphics lived up to expectations, but I noticed a bit of a problem with SD2's gameplay right off the bat. The relatively slow speed that the screen moves along at and the relatively large sprites that the game employs make SD2 reminiscent of R-Type and Sinistron in pace and appearance, while the intense bullet-dodging action screams Thunder Force. This merging of conflicting styles was the result of NEC Avenue's desire to stay faithful to the three-screen-wide arcade original visually, but it leads to some awkward moments, even after one eventually becomes accustomed to it.

But SD2 actually ends up excelling despite its gameplay issues. Its success has a lot to do with its bosses and mini-bosses, ferocious behemoths who are special not only because of their size but also because of the clever tactics they employ. A gargantuan swordfish utilizes its razor-sharp beak not to slice you apart but to slash up the ceiling in hopes of crushing you with falling debris. And then there's Revenge Shark, an absolutely unforgettable two-screen-long battleship. It swamps the playfield with bullets as fighter jets take off from its backbone, squid-like soldiers emerge from its underside, and gun-bearing warriors and laser-spewing cruisers attack from its flanks (as if the big metal beast needs any help).

You'll battle your mighty aquatic enemies across a total of twenty-eight stages. Actually, the trip from the sun to Jupiter, including a stop at our planet’s moon, constitutes a seven-level affair, but SD2 offers up multiple paths for you to follow, with various goofy endings standing as your reward for returning to the game and taking different courses through the adventure.

Accompanying the action is a quality soundtrack; T's Music gave this episode's solid tunes the PCE CD’s trademark rock-and-roll treatment. Some of the most charming tracks didn’t make the transition particularly well, as overly indulgent guitar solos annihilated their simplistic appeal. But for the more subtle numbers, the tracks that concentrate on establishing atmosphere and are essential to the success of later levels, the power chords and snare drums do their work admirably.

As alluded to earlier, SD2's visuals are nothing short of outstanding, with the excellent artwork not limited to the various sea monsters described above. The backdrops are gorgeous, particularly the first level's wall of undulating flame.

The scenery is so attention grabbing, in fact, that it actually leads one to discover another of SD2‘s shortcomings. Soaring over a serene rocky landscape leading to gorgeous blue caverns can be plenty of fun, but imagine the shock of an aspiring Johnny Turbo upon making a startling realization:

“Hey... wait a minute. This is the same serene rocky landscape leading to gorgeous blue caverns that I soared over THREE PLANETS AGO!”

Such is life with a Darius game. Yes, backgrounds do pop up more than once throughout the twenty-eight stages. Actually, so do certain bosses and musical tracks. But hey, something has to be working well for one to be willing to replay the game enough times to discover the repetition, right? Indeed, with fantastic visuals, bullet-packed playfields, atmospheric music, and amazing boss creatures, Super Darius II has plenty of things working in its favor. And we shouldn't forget about the endings themselves--what a matter they are!

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