Close your eyes. Now think about “classic shmups.” What titles immediately spring to mind? Gradius? R-Type? Thunder Force? Ikaruga, perhaps? More than likely, when you start going through this checklist, the shmup franchise you forgot is Taito’s Darius series. It’s hard to say why this is – perhaps an aversion to fish – but the Darius family does not seem to hold the same weight as its fellow '80s brethren. Massive, in both a literal and figurative sense, as well as eccentric and strange, the Darius games are among our favourite classic shmup releases here at Nintendo Life – though it’s difficult to exactly articulate why.
To begin with, let’s start with first impressions. Picture yourself walking into an arcade. It’s the early 1990s, and you just bought Nirvana's Nevermind because you heard Smells Like Teen Spirit on the radio. Your friend tells you that the arcade has recently added a bunch of new games, but when you walk over to check them out, you realize your friend is a fool. Because what you see is not three separate new games, but one new shmup with three huge monitors linked together. The title reads "Darius", and after you feed the cabinet a credit, you embark on a surreal journey of branching paths and hundreds of murdered fish along the way. You’d feel guilty, but then you remember they don’t have any feelings.
Since it’s 1987 debut, the Darius games have morphed and evolved just like their non-linear level progression. Between all the different ports, game revisions, and ambiguous naming conventions, keeping track of all these games and how they relate to each other is no small task. It's all pretty confusing, frankly, leading to questions like "is Darius Twin a port of Darius 2? What is Sagaia?! What’s the difference between 'Old Version' and 'New Version?' What’s so 'gaiden' about Darius Gaiden?" And so on. The good news is that thanks to the thorough work of the M2 team on the Darius Cozmic Collection, the history of this series becomes more clear — at least to a degree.
Before analyzing each game on offer in this collection individually, let’s begin by evaluating the entire collection as a whole. The first thing to keep in mind is that, even though this is an M2 release, this collection is not from the shmup-focused ShotTriggers team behind the utterly sublime ESP Ra.De. Psi, which means its interface and features are not as robust as they are in that release, or Battle Garegga Rev. 2016. On top of this, there are no additional soundtracks or arrange modes. That being said, when compared to the arcade ports of their peers on the Nintendo Switch – like the Arcade Archives series – the Darius Cozmic Collection is still ahead of the curve.
Performance-wise, all the games run extremely smoothly. Unlike a port like Gradius III on the Super Nintendo, all of the Darius arcade releases and home-ports stay faithful to that all-important 60 FPS performance. Additionally, when it comes to input lag and the responsiveness of the gameplay, the port equals many of its peers on the Switch like Ikaruga, Devil Engine, and Danmaku Unlimited 3 at four frames of input lag. Not ideal, but it is the average and better than the Arcade Archives releases, which respond in five frames (for more information, feel free to check out the Shmup Input Lag Index).
In regards to the user interface, the collection does have many of the essential features we have come to expect from M2, like adjustable control mapping and save-states. However, one odd oversight that does hurt the versatility of the control mapping is the strange decision to turn the LZ and RZ buttons into pause functions, so they cannot be mapped as bomb or fire buttons – which is especially frustrating when playing in handheld mode; an uncharacteristic oversight from M2.
Another oversight that seems strange is that each Darius game only has six save-state slots, in comparison to the thirty on offer in the ShotTrigger ports like ESP Ra.De. Psi. To be fair, the total of six functioning save-state slots is still far superior to the obnoxious 'resume' function seen in the Arcade Archives ports, where the player needs to completely exit the game to use the only available save-state slot. However, when we consider the nature of the Darius level progression and the abundance of branching paths, then the limitation of six slots starts to sting. In a completely linear game like Gradius, the six slots on offer could function well enough. In Darius – which has branching paths upon branching paths – six save-state slots are simply not enough to reduce having to replay levels unnecessarily to progress to a specific stage combination or route. Again, the existence of the save-state system is a net positive, but this limitation is annoying, especially as it doesn't exist in M2's ShotTriggers outings.
On the bright side though, this game does have an excellent replay system that we consider a must-have feature. The reason why replay systems are particularly important on the Switch is that they're the only effective way to capture video of runs completed while in handheld mode. We recognize that, for some players, the Switch has set up camp exclusively in the dock, but for others, the Switch is effectively a handheld, so it is important that the shmups on the system take this demographic of players into account.
As for the games themselves, this is where this release gets complicated. Taking a page out of the Square Enix playbook, M2 has decided to release multiple versions of the Darius Cozmic Collection at a variety of prices. On this wiki page, you can see a graph of all the different releases and what they include. As you'll notice, the difference between these versions is that the more expensive editions feature extra ports or additional variations of the games.
Cutting directly to the point, we are reviewing the “Special Edition” of the Cozmic collection, which includes the additions of a variety of console ports of the arcade games, but at extra cost. To be frank, both the Standard Edition and the other editions are extravagantly priced to some degree. The Standard Edition is slightly overpriced, despite having a strong core selection of games. But the additional versions of the release, such as the Special Edition, are simply too expensive for what they have to offer, which are mostly lacklustre console ports of the same games (though props go to the surprisingly good Darius II Mega Drive port). Had M2 decided to not release a Special Edition and simply combined all the content as a single game, then we feel the Standard Edition pricing would be fully justified.
With that being said, looking at what is offered in the cheaper bundle, even without the console ports, we feel the Cozmic Collection delivers what it needs to – for the most part. There are the multiple revisions of Darius I (Old Version, New Version, Extra Version), all with subtle changes in how the gameplay and difficulty systems works – Extra Version, by the way, is the final revision and considered by many players to be the most balanced and engaging.
Then there is Darius II, Dual Screen Version. And while some may lament the loss of the third screen in this version, we feel that the three-screen setup in Darius I, while spectacular, is mostly just dead space that hinders gameplay more than anything else. Plus, in handheld mode, the ultra-landscape aspect ratio shrinks the bullets down to pinpricks, so the reduction down to two screens is welcome for improved playability. Also, for those who are confused, Sagaia is just the international release of Darius II. We are sure there are some slight balance changes between Sagaia and Darius II (at least one would hope so), but nothing drastic enough to be considered a separate game.
The heavy hitter of this lineup, of course, and the primary reason to purchase this release, is Darius Gaiden. In the world of shmups, Darius Gaiden is without a doubt a hidden gem (or hidden boss, as we prefer to say). Originally planned as Darius III, Darius Gaiden updates the classic formula of the series in many welcome ways. It adds screen-clearing bombs (like Cave games), refines the power-up system, and throws the old checkpoint system of Darius I in the garbage where it belongs. Darius Gaiden is the game to play and very likely the reason this collection can attempt to justify its relatively steep price. With its eccentric presentation (and we mean that in the best way possible) and superb soundtrack combined with its refined and balanced gameplay, Darius Gaiden is among this reviewer’s favourite classic shmups, and actually the favourite shmup of ZUN, the creator of Touhou (a wee fun fact for you there).
There's a lot to take in when reviewing a package like Darius Cozmic Collection and we wish that it had been released in a single version which includes all of the bonus games, but it is safe to say that this release floats somewhere between the barebone lack-of-care ports like the Psikyo ZeroDiv releases and the passionate ocean of love that are M2's ShotTrigger ports. Darius Cozmic Collection, with its save-states (though limited), replay function, controller configuration (again limited), and selection of games is ahead of the competition, although M2 has since proven it can do much better with the excellent ESP Ra.De Psi. In comparison to the robust accessibility features, extra modes, soundtracks, and overall polish seen in that game, this release does fall short to the gold standard set by its ShotTriggers brethren – but if you're a fan of shmups or have even the slightest degree of affection for Darius, this remains a recommended purchase.