In for a Rocky Ride
For as much as the shoot-‘em-up genre remains stubbornly old-school to the casual observer, they’ve changed a lot since its ’80s and ’90s zenith. Where once we had a diverse array of side scrollers, vertical scrollers, precise methodical games, or crazy bullet-fests, now it’s largely settled on varying circles of “bullet hell” with clouds of pink and blue bullets and tiny ships. Dariusburst: Second Prologue proves to be a refreshing throwback to the classic side-scrollers that ruled the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, games like Lightening Force, Gradius, and of course the Darius games, with slow-scrolling levels, fast bullets, and epic boss battles.
Dariusburst is itself a port of a PSP release from 2009, and as such, it’s already pretty dated to look at. It follows the series lone previous 3D (or 2.5D) outing, G-Darius, and only looks a little bit better than that 32-bit classic. Chunky polygons and blurry textures are the order of the day, but the designs are still classic Darius, with its signature space invaders modeled on schools of aquatic life. Mechanical seahorses, whales, and mollusks swarm the screen in a warm wave of shooter nostalgia. The eerie and unmistakable brand of synthesizer pop underscores the whole thing, although it never quite reaches the heights of Zuntata’s classic soundtracks.
Like most games in the series, it features a branching path system that offers two choices at the end of each level, not unlike the level branching in Outrun. This gives the game a good deal more to explore than the linear shooters out there, and it manages to do so without seriously unbalancing the game. There’s even a whole alternate arrangement, Second Chronicle, should you finally get bored, although obviously serious score attackers are going to want to settle on a path/course to practice and perfect.
It’s the huge boss battles that steal the show, though. It’s hard not to get giddy at the classic Darius “WARNING” screen, and Burst’s bosses are some of the best yet in the series. Later bosses even eclipse the levels they guard, filling multiple screens, and taking many stages to defeat. Dariusburst introduces a new beam mechanic, lifted from Darius’ close cousins Metal Black or Border Down, that yields particularly satisfying clashes when countering boss attacks.
Alas, that wonderful warning siren has come to signal another threat besides a giant fish-bot: massive performance issues. We tested Dariusburst on a Nexus 6, which should be more than capable considering the game’s simple visuals, but framerates were anything but stable. During the stages this is mostly tolerable, but the bosses cause the game to take a massive nose-dive. The framerate problems are bad enough that it can be tough to track faster or more crowded bullet patterns and essentially get lost in the action. It’s a devastating problem for an otherwise solid release. Perhaps on more recent superphones like the Droid Turbo 2 or the Nexus 6P could fare better, but it’s obvious that this port needs some serious optimization, especially considering these problems are largely absent from the iOS and PSP versions of the game.
For those hungry for that special brand of side-scrolling shooter, there really isn’t much competition. Darisusburst offers, at worst, a credible imitation of the earlier games in its series, and while it doesn’t take Darius to new heights, it doesn’t tarnish its legacy either. It’s a great package, with loads of content, unlockables, and achievements, and it controls beautifully – at least when it’s running well. Alas, Android gets shafted with a poorly optimized port that seems beyond the reach of current Android phones. Perhaps someday, phones capable of running Dariusburst well may exist, but until then, it’s a serious flawed release.
Neither the best nor worst game in its series, it’s a nostalgic romp against familiar fishy foes, but major framerate problems prove to be the real enemy.