Taito's shoot 'em up series Darius forever changed the arcade landscape when it released the first game in early 1987 (although the copyright in the game is noted as 1986). Darius, with its intense bullet-hell-like gameplay and innovative three-screen monitor cabinet, captivated audiences. I've already reviewed the console collection that was released on PlayStation 4 at the same time, and while most of the ports were more than adequate, the original games played better in the arcades. Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade features seven different versions of four titles, the first three Darius games, and the localized version whose name was changed to SAGAIA.
If you have not checked out the review for the console collection, I highly recommend it, but I will also cover the Darius series's basics here. As a side-scrolling shoot 'em up, you'll pilot a Silver Hawk, the only ship capable of fighting back against the vile Belsar invasion. The invading forces are highly sentient robotic ships designed after marine biology; fish, crustaceans, sea horses, octopuses, etc. The recurring boss (and fan favorite), King Fossil, is designed after a coelacanth. The home console ports feel different from the arcade games, mainly due to them having been altered to fit a single-screen display, not to mention consoles had weaker hardware than arcades. The first game in the series wasn't even directly ported to the more popular platforms at the time. The PC Engine received Super Darius, which featured additional content that was initially cut; however, it wasn't made available in the console collection. Darius Plus is a lighter version of Super Darius, being produced on a HuCard instead of CD-ROM.
The original Darius is a classic; however, the gameplay improvements and advancements in the sequel laid the groundwork for future titles. In Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade, there are three versions of Darius; original (or old), new, and extra. The old version would be the first release from the arcades if you were lucky enough to play the fantastic cabinet. The on-screen play area takes place only across a small slice of the screen (mimicking the three-screen setup), even if you have a large screen television. Playing on a 4K 55" inch display, I couldn't imagine attempting to play through the game with anything smaller. As you successfully navigate through zones and defeat the boss, you are presented with a choice of two new zones, in a fan-shape map. This means that you'll only play seven zones in any given run out of the possible 28. Unlike the sequels, once your ship is destroyed, you don't instantly respawn; instead, the game fades to black, respawning you at a checkpoint and restarting you without any of your upgraded weapons or armor. Shooting specially marked enemies produces power-ups in the form of floating orbs. Red orbs improve your forward-facing missiles, green for your bombs, and blue for your armor. Armor is the only thing that can protect you from being destroyed after taking a single hit. If you collect enough of any one category, you'll advance to a new tier. Even upon death, you'll spawn at this new tier instead of at the weakest level.
The new version of Darius, rebalances the gameplay, making boss encounters easier if you have advanced your primary weapon's tier. In the original, reaching a new tier means bosses received additional health, to stop players from melting them down too fast. The new version lets you feel like an unstoppable machine if you are lucky enough to collect that many power-ups. Darius: Extra Version released only in Japan in a limited capacity, adding extra enemies and altering their formations. It is also the first version that lets players insert additional money when they lose all their lives to continue playing. It was also disabled once you reached the final zone, which I'm sure caused many kids at the time to curse loudly.
Two years after the release of Darius, Taito bought Darius II to arcades. The game was designed for multiple screens, allowing it to be played in the original Darius cabinet; however, it was more widely available in a dual-screen cabinet. Significant improvements occurred during boss encounters, as the player's ship could change orientation depending upon where they were in relation to the boss. Not only that, but the Silver Hawk received new weaponry, such as upwards and downwards firing lasers. The weapon tier system has been removed, resulting in the loss of all power-ups upon death. The game also added more robust engagements during every stage, serving as a mid-boss battle. When the game was localized overseas, it was released as SAGAIA, using the dual-screen cabinet. It was believed that the western audience wouldn't enjoy the (longer) length of the stages, and therefore they were shortened. The difficulty was raised to balance the newer, faster zones. Based on the Collection, there are two different versions of the game that exist; however, no information could be found about version 2, which may not have been released.
The final game, Darius Gaiden, is, without a doubt, my favorite game in the Collection, and even after playing all of the console ports, it is probably my favorite game in the franchise. Released in 1994, it was designed for single-screen cabinets, a series first in the arcades. Using a standardized cabinet meant the game could be released to a wider variety of locations, especially those that didn't have the space for the massive dual or triple-screen cabinets. As the third entry into the series and fifth game overall, Darius Gaiden got ported to many different platforms, such as Sega Saturn, PlayStation, Windows, PlayStation 2, and even Xbox. It stunned the audience with parallax scrolling and visual effects, creating an almost 3D appearance to the environments. A new feature introduced in Darius Gaiden is the ability to capture the mid-bosses that were added in Darius II. Capturing the mid-bosses was quite simple; however, you had to be highly accurate only to dislodge a small circular ball attached to their body without destroying them. If it breaks free and you collect it, the miniboss will temporarily follow you around. The black hole bomb was added to your arsenal, sucking up both enemy projectiles and enemy ships for a short period. It's a great equalizer if you find yourself heavily outnumbered and overwhelmed.
Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade may have fewer titles than the console collection; however, the original arcade games are such a pleasure to play. It is a bit odd that G-Darius was omitted, as it is the only arcade game that was not included in either release. Darius II and Darius Gaiden still hold up today, and Gaiden feels like a natural progression from its predecessor. I'm not sure that we needed three versions of Darius, and two of SAGAIA, especially considering I can't find any information about what was different in version two.Note: Darius Cozmic Collection Arcade was reviewed on PlayStation 4. A digital copy of the game provided by the publisher.