I wish I’d been as into shmups in 1997 as I am today, because playing G-Darius when it was brand new must have been absolutely mind-blowing. Even as I play it for the first time in 2021, in the form of a fairly rudimentary HD remaster on a little handheld machine, it’s one of the most inventive, creative shmups I’ve played; to have seen that when it was cutting edge, in all the loud glory of an arcade, must have been something else entirely. But for me and everyone else who missed those days (or is too young to have even been around for them…), G-Darius HD is the next-best thing.
As the first 3D game in the Darius series, G-Darius was an opportunity to explore some new ideas, and Taito clearly jumped at that opportunity. It still plays in the same 2D, side-scrolling fashion as its predecessors, but with a “track” that weaves in and out of the background and loops around environmental details. Instead of simply appearing at the edges of the screen, enemies frequently drop into play from the foreground and background. There are moments where the scrolling angle changes—nothing dramatic, just a shift from flying towards the side of the screen to the corner, but enough to make the game feel very different for a few moments.
Fast-forward to today, and plenty of other shmups (and other games besides) have pushed this “2.5D” space further—Astebreed comes to mind, in particular. But even in the face of those developments, even playing it for the first time now, there’s something fundamentally exciting about the scrappy nature of G-Darius‘ three-dimensional experiments. When you think about how unexplored this area was in ’97, witnessing it back then must have been something else entirely.
But where G-Darius gets most inventive is in its “capture” system: in short, a mechanic that lets you capture enemy ships and have them fight alongside you, Pokemon style (complete with a “capture ball” as the tool for the job). Captures fill the role that bits and options do in other games, flying alongside your ship to provide extra firepower or a shield. The specifics depend on the captured ship in question, and with that comes a unique layer of strategy around how you use your limited supply of capture balls. You can’t just pick a favourite option formation and run with that; instead, the support available depends on the zone you’re playing and the enemies within it, and with that comes impressive scope for experimentation and creative routing. And yes, mini-bosses can be captured, too…
Captures also act as G-Darius‘ equivalent of a mega bomb, with any captured foe able to be detonated to create a big, bullet-clearing explosion. And just in case double duty wasn’t enough, captures are also the source of power your powerful Alpha Beam attack, which is handy in general but particularly crucial in boss fights, where its the most reliable counter to their “Beta Beam” attacks and a source of big damage against bosses that pack a ton of health.
The catch is that both those uses, bomb and Alpha Beam, come at the expense of your captured enemy. That creates a fascinating dynamic where captured foes are both vital for survival and necessarily disposable, and figuring out the most efficient use of a finite number of capture balls becomes a cornerstone of G-Darius‘ bigger picture.
It backs this up with sharp level design and some of the most memorable boss encounters I’ve seen. The way G-Darius uses the screen space to create unique, creative boss fights is second to none, with those iconic fish-shaped battleships circling the screen, flipping sides, jailing you between appendages, and generally just making avoiding the boss itself as much a part of the fight as avoiding its bullets. Throw a few waves of zako into the mix—and the capture, bomb, Alpha Beam possibilities that come with them—and you have the pieces of some truly intense, exciting encounters.
A word of caution for newcomers, though: G-Darius can be tough, even by shooting game standards. Part of this is due to the complexity and depth of its systems, and levels that are designed with satisfying challenge in mind. But part of it also comes down to some more archaic aspects of its design that haven’t aged well, like how stingy the game is about losing power-ups when you die—in the latter part of the game, that loss of power can be detrimental, and a single mistake can ruin a whole run.
G-Darius isn’t exactly a bullet hell game, but it has a tendency to get similarly chaotic—only without the tiny hitboxes, precise movement, and focus on clarity (despite the chaos) that modern bullet hells rely on. It’s not unusual to take a hit in G-Darius that feels like it should have just narrowly grazed past, and the bullets themselves don’t always stand out from the surrounding visual assault. It’s not so frequent as to ruin the game, but it’s always a bit annoying to get hit by a shot that gets lost among the reeds.
G-Darius HD, to its credit, doesn’t try to fix those things. Uneven though it can be, G-Darius is plenty playable, and there’s excitement to be found in those rough edges, too. Instead, the remaster simply settles from rendering the original game in higher resolution, keeping everything else exactly as it was. It’s a flawless emulation of the arcade original, right down to the (very helpful) slowdown when the screen gets busy—but with the arcade port masters at M2 behind it, you’d expect nothing less.
Without adjusting the game itself, G-Darius HD does have some helpful extra tools: chiefly, quick-save and quick-load functions, and additional UI gadgets that sit around the border to convey information more clearly than the game interface itself does. There’s also a capture gallery to keep track of which enemies you’ve captured previously and let you check their effects. Sadly, there’s no practice mode of any sort—and between the trademark Darius branching level structure and the possibilities that come with the capture mechanic, that’s something that would have been an extremely useful addition.
For the purists and historians, the original, non-HD version of G-Darius is also included. That’s always a nice touch, and an important precedent to uphold, though it feels a little inconsequential in this case—given how light-touch the remaster is, it essentially comes down to a choice of high- and low-res versions of otherwise identical games. And on the topic of historical posterity, the lack of any sort of art gallery or museum mode is disappointing.
But G-Darius HD does an impressive job of what matters the most: keeping a classic arcade game alive and readily available for old hats to revisit and new generations to discover. And for something as groundbreaking as G-Darius—something that can still make an impression today, almost 25 years since it first hit arcades—that history is an important thing to hold on to.
Developer: Taito, M2
Publisher: ININ Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Release date: 28 September 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.