Asked by a friend, that’s exactly how I described Darius for one huge reason:
The boss battles.
You may be sarcastically thinking, “wow, boss battles, it’s like you’ve never encountered them before,” and that’s okay. But for those of you who haven’t touched the series, even with a ten-foot-long pole, please tell me what’s not weird about this:
…I suppose the only correct answer is “it’s not Parodius,” but still! I just had a showdown against a GIANT MECHANICAL FISH.
Today, I still find “weird” to be the word that best describes Darius, a series of horizontal shoot-’em-ups from Taito that have been mainly developed for the arcade, with various console ports and spin-offs. Darius is well-known for having various, mechanized forms of marine life appearing as the main enemies, its often frustrating difficulty level, and its eccentric music compositions.
The footage I shot of Darius Gaiden (released in 1994) above is from the last portion of the first stage. Early as it is in the game, it’s a great example of what one can expect from the series as a whole. But past the new 3D models for bosses like Golden Ogre and the shiny new background environments and various other eye-candy quality special effects, Gaiden (meaning “side story”) is the series’ turning point in terms of music.
On the surface, Gaiden used much more advanced instrumentation as far as synthesizers go, which isn’t really surprising as Gaiden ran on more powerful hardware than the by then six-year-old Darius II. It’s thanks to this newer hardware that a richer sound quality poured out of the arcade cabinet speakers from Gaiden‘s introduction and first stage, giving gamers a hint of things to come later on.
But a deeper look into Gaiden‘s sound reveals that a lot had changed in the ideas that composer Hisayoshi Ogura had for the series. Whereas the music for both Darius and Darius II had more melodic lines, rigid compositional structures/forms, and an overall light, happy mood, Gaiden was disjointed, sparse, and prompted an introspective look into one’s self past “I always wanted a thing called ‘tuna sashimi!'”
Light percussion and faint whispers introduce “VISIONNERZ” as a moment of silence and calm while accompanying the first few waves of enemies on the screen and as the player gains control of the Silver Hawk fighter, signifying the beginning of a lengthy battle. No more than ten seconds in, the bass line and piano make their appearance, helping to build momentum in the piece until a sudden drop before the song’s iconic, often repeated, call-and-response lines of “close your eyes” and “close your head” imprint themselves in the player’s sub-conscious. The vocals are eerie, but soft and comforting amidst the chaos happening both on the screen and in the music. There is a short, ominous bridge that was perhaps intended to have been timed with the appearance of the first boss in the game, before bursting into an amazing synthesizer feature, a feature I still have trouble trying to play back on my piano.
This piece alone encompasses the first two stages of the game (Zone A being the first stage, branching out into either Zone B or C as the second stage), all while the player fights their way out of the recently-occupied base on the planet Vadis by the antagonists, the Belser Army. From that point on, the music that plays is dependent on the stage and/or boss fight; for the first time in the arcade releases, most of the game’s background music is used for both stage and boss music, with the exception of “VISIONNERZ,” its “Refrain,” and final stage music “SELF,” which are all heard in fixed locations.
Pieces like “FAKE,” “E·E·G,” and its variant “AXON” stand out among the rest of the soundtrack for making you want to tap your foot in time to the beat, thanks in part to their continuously supporting rhythm sections that help give some semblance of definition and shape to the pieces. Apart from those pieces, Gaiden‘s soundtrack has Ogura capturing ideas of how the human mind works and molding those abstract ideas into the form of music.
The end result are compositions that reflect various moods, including panic and fear (“Burst Out”), serenity (“Tranquilizers” and “Singing in the BRAIN”), and anxiety (“投影,” romanized as “touei,” or “Reflection”), which altogether give support to the idea that the pieces are connected by what they each represented as a whole – things that are otherwise disjointed when looking at them one at a time. The sci-fi backdrop of fictional planets and outer space also helps to keep the compositions from feeling out-of-place, even in the midst of difficult boss battles. “Refrain” is used to great effect as a way to remind the player that they’re close to the end as they watch the Silver Hawk fighter enter the atmosphere into the planet Darius proper, removing the bass line and both the snare and bass drums only briefly before reappearing to kick off the rest of “VISIONNERZ” for the remainder of the stage. The final stage theme, titled “SELF,” opens with a half time shuffle drum pattern before beginning a slow, somber melody, continually rising and falling before swelling into a single chord climax as the final boss fight begins. Appropriately titled, “SELF” is a representation of that last hurrah of the player, turning the thoughts and emotions of that struggle into a unique musical experience as the player makes the push towards the death throes of the final boss. One couldn’t ask for a better way to end the game.
The game’s original soundtrack features all the music from the game, including the high score name entry screen (which is another variation on “VISIONNERZ”) and both the end credits sequence (a variation on “SELF”) and the final game over screen after the credits, which is taken from “INDUCTION,” the zone select screen. In addition, the first track on the disc is an exclusive arrangement of “VISIONNERZ” done by Nobuhito Tanahashi. The track listing reflects more or less what the player typically hears from start to finish, with the exception of “Refrain” being after “SELF” when it should be the other way around.
Gaiden and the series as a whole is the kind of weird that grows on you and pulls you in through your curiosity. The avant-garde musical style presented in Gaiden is a change that was welcomed by many fans of Ogura’s work throughout his time with Taito. Gaiden‘s music is the kind of weird that helped to make the game into one of the most famous entries in the Darius series, and that momentum continued with the release of the next arcade entry, G-Darius.