Playing console shmups in the PAL region can be hit or miss - even if we do get some releases that the US doesn't, we still miss out on a lot of Japanese releases. Nowadays PAL ports aren't an issue, and the 360 is proving to be an excellent home for modern day titles, but during the 32bit era, which was a bright spot in the history of shmups, PAL releases were thin on the ground.
Darius Gaiden is one of the only 4 admittedly excellent 2D shooter titles that are available in PAL format for the Sega Saturn - being accompanied by Galactic Attack (aka, Layer Section), Darius 2 and the Parodius Deluxe pack. The PAL region got a small but quality set of releases albeit with the usual PAL port issues.
The Darius series of games are horizontal 2D shooters with a couple of distinctive features: Firstly there is the aquatic theme - the bosses of these games take the form of different aquatic mechanised creatures. Secondly there is the level branching structure - the levels in Darius are laid out in a pyramid shape; the player starting at the apex of it and then selecting one of two available levels after completing each level to progress to one of many different endings (just like level progression in the classic driving game Outrun) In total there are 28 levels but a run through a game will consist of completing seven - so this title has lots of replay value with lots of different paths for high score chasers to experiment with.
Playing Darius in the arcade was an experience I'm glad to say I was lucky enough to have. Darius cabinets are three screens wide - some even have an integrated bench to sit on. The Saturn port of Darius 2 lets you zoom in and out as you play thus at least providing the option to try and recreate that experience at home.
Darius Gaiden is one of the best in the series and thankfully was designed with a single screen in mind. It has all of the usual shooting game features. Certain enemies leave powerups behind that when picked up increase the firepower of your ship which fires horizontal lazers and also drops bombs; the colour of the powerup dictating which element of your firepower gets intensified. Some powerups give your ship a shield while others award the player with a smart bomb, extra life or just a large point bonus.
The graphics are excellent - the smart bomb (called a black hole bomb) being a particular highlight. When it is activated it creates a vortex into which everything is drawn (except for bosses), including any bullets - it then evaporates with a flurry of damage dealing streaks of lightning. Each level has plenty of enemies and bullets flying around with no discernable slowdown and while it isn't a "bullet hell" shooter, it certainly isn't that far from it - your shield and black hole bombs are usually required at some point if you want to get through a later level without losing a life. Having said that I can remember seeing videos of hotshots completing this game without using the bombs - a challenge for the hardcore only though. Control is slick and there are no cheap deaths in this game though some of the bosses throw surprises at you that can probably only be dealt with the benefit of a prior encounter.
The soundtrack also deserves special mention. It is so overpowering that there is little room left in the sonic spectrum for spot effects which can sound a bit tinny. It has a real epic feel and some of the tracks even feature bizarre opera singing. The tracks are reused in later levels but given the large number of levels this is forgivable.
Darius Gaiden introduces a novel idea that I haven't seen in any other shooter. Each level has a mini-boss that you encounter about half way through. This can be defeated in the normal way but each mini-boss has a control sphere which if shot often enough will become detached. If you pick this up then the mini-boss becomes a turncoat and starts fighting on your side. You don't really have any control over the mini-boss, and unfortunately it disintegrates before the main boss battle, but it’s an interesting idea that would be nice to see developed further.
So it’s a great shooter. It's got great visuals, sounds, plenty of levels and some novel ideas - what's the downside? Well for the high score chaser (which means almost all 2D shooter fans) there is a rather big downer with this game. It doesn't save your high scores. There really is no excuse for this - its lazy - and it hurts the game as it reduces the desire to revisit it after a break from playing it. Some may say its a minor issue but for anyone who is into 1 credit completions and high scores it is a big deal. The high score screen is there , and it even records your path through the levels, but what is the point if it isn't saved? A great pity.
I'm guessing that high scores are a big deal to many middle aged gamers. I remember the thrill of seeing my initials on a high score board in the arcade and at one point sought out games to master that saved high scores even after power off. Defender was an early example of a game that kept today's best and all time best scores.
High scores provide me with a sense of permanent achievement which modern games seem to have dispensed with. A high score is a record of achievement that is there for as long as the hardware lasts and if the game is designed properly is a measure of your skill. One thing I hate to see is a game that doesn't reset to zero when the player continues - what is the point of that? Rewarding rich players or unskilled determined players with a high score is ludicrous. Capcom had adopted the practice of adding 1 point onto the score with each continue which at least indicates the number of continues but why do that if these scores will still rank above legitimate high scores? Maybe I'm just out of touch.
Modern games now have achievements - many of which are meaningless because you can't avoid getting them. Some do issue special challenges which extend a game's life but I get the feeling that some games give an achievement for opening the box. The high score remains the one true measure of achievement in a game and designing a delicately balanced scoring system seems to be too much effort for some dev houses.
I have both the PAL and Japanese versions of this and they seem to be the same (apart from the usual borders issue though the speed issue isn't really noticeable). If you can get over the high score point, this is a great shooter that has that intangible Japanese feel to it. This game is available in the Taito Legends 2 collection for PS2 and while that version does save scores, for some reason the Saturn port looks, feels and plays better.
I also played Daruis gaidan (II?) on the 3 monitor setup. I can remeber putting in alot of money and it was a machine that didnt allow contuines (as you mentioned). I dont rember it quite as fondly as you.. while very impressive ( the LOOONNNGGG screen) the ships where a bit to small for my liking which makes me wonder how it looks on the TV. I did always love the graphics of that series and it was a true challange. I wonder, that and Ninja Warriors, where there others to use the 3 screen setup?
Darius 1 and 2 were 3 screen games - Gaiden is a one screen game with graphics designed for that so everything is sized correctly.