Super Nova (SNES) review
"Darius has always been about some evil force known as ''Belser'' that threatens life as we know it and so they’ve got hell to pay, and your role is to ensure proper remittance. Shamefully, Super Nova recycles this old shooter story cliché in the most cliché way possible; they give us a short history of some nondescript previous battle in the Darius annals, and then they tell us in all their wisdom of history’s tendency to repeat itself. DON'T YOU SEE?! IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN. "
Don’t let the name fool you. I know that the SNES had a habit of releasing follow ups to old NES games, tacking on the brilliant prefix ''Super''--even when the newer game was inferior. But that’s not the case here! Super Nova is actually a Darius game--yes, that’s the horizontal shooter series involving fish and other, well, fish-things--not the sequel to any NES game by the name of “Nova”. Super Nova is also known by the moniker Darius Force, but Taito decided that it should travel incognito to North American SNES units. Now I know why: it's weak in areas, and weird in others.
Darius has always been about some evil force known as ''Belser'' that threatens life as we know it and so they’ve got hell to pay, and your role is to ensure proper remittance. Shamefully, Super Nova recycles this old shooter story cliché in the most cliché way possible; they give us a short history of some nondescript previous battle in the Darius annals, and then they tell us in all their wisdom of history’s tendency to repeat itself. DON'T YOU SEE?! IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN.
I would have liked it if the basic ingredients of Darius Twin (the previous SNES Darius shooter) followed suit with the story, and repeated themselves to arrive at Super Nova, but that’s not the case. Despite Super Nova being the newer game, the presentation is not close to being as good. Many levels are completely flat and insipid, from the emptiness of space to the bits that have you above the ocean, with a bland earthly background dying of boredom in the distance. There are limited bright spots, but nothing on the level of the resplendent mountain range scene from Twin: the beige outpost levels feature some cool rotation effects (effects that actually ADD TO THE GAMEPLAY!), but that's about all that comes to mind.
Similarly, the tunes are mostly forgettable; they’re not as beautiful as the ones we enjoyed in Raystorm, nor even as esoteric--if occasionally off-putting--as Twin’s wonderfully strange score. For the most part, the tracks in Super Nova are only quaint and perfunctory. Once again, there is an exception or two. Driving level D is an undeniably compelling bass line telling of the critical nature of your mission, carrying on its back a sweetly sad brass solo, mayhaps singing a song for lost lives.
Five lives and three continues are expected to be sufficient to complete your mission. You’ll appreciate the prospect of picking the stages you play on--a Darius staple. A rectangular jumble of letters presents itself after the ship select screen (more on that later), and you begin at area ''A'' and work your way from left to right in the rectangular planner map, often having the option of following the branching paths this way or that. This gives the game some variety, and a massive dose of replay value.
The various paths mean that there are various endings--three to be exact: one arrived at by taking the long route, conquering seven stages; another, by fighting through six; and another, via just five. Admittedly, in terms of cosmetics, many of the stages repeat themselves, but no two stages play the same. Even the repeated bosses have slightly differing attacks each time you meet them, and if you meet ICTHYION, for example, on your chosen path, you won’t bump into him again unless you reset the game and take a different path on your next play.
Inexplicably absent is the scrumptious two-player simultaneous mode that made Twin so appealing despite various other shortcomings. The ‘restart-right-where-you-died’ feature has also been removed, in favour of the ‘checkpoint system’. This means that when you crash your ship, things fade to black and you’re displaced to a checkpoint earlier in the level. Most levels have only one checkpoint, at about halfway through, though a few of the longer, more difficult stages have an extra junction nearer to the boss.
In the face of all these fundamental ‘removings’, Taito aimed to please by including a few new twists to compensate. You’ve got three ships to choose from now, each with a different set of onboard weaponry. The auxiliary bombs or diagonal lasers (toggled with the ''R'' shoulder button), and the famous teardrop-shaped Darius shields are consistent regardless of your ship choice. The primary guns vary quite a bit however; ship one powers up to fire a wave weapon, ship two ultimately fires heavy-hitting spherical projectiles, and ship three looses crisscrossing beams at 30 degree angles (I didn’t check this out with a protractor up against my T.V. screen, forgive me).
These primary guns are powered up by collecting red orbs—the power levels of the auxiliary bombs and lasers are packaged right in. Shields are intensified by collecting blue orbs. In both cases, there are eight levels of strengthening to be done. The shield won’t appear to be improving until you move its resistance through a few levels; with time it will turn from green to silver, and then from silver to gold when it is at its most resilient.
As is customary in the genre, to obtain these power ups, you've got to murder the right foes. In some levels, little spherical cannons encapsulate the orbs, but in most cases the items must be earned through annihilating an entire wave of spider-like enemies. Missing one spider in a formation means no orb for you. Occasionally, firing on a particular enemy or breaking apart a particular asteroid will reveal a priceless green orb: sometimes it’s worth points, more often it’s worth an extra ship.
Other than the spider enemies, you’ll rarely be enthused meeting members of Super Nova's metal menagerie. There are slow moving craft that just seem to get in the way, there are darting spherical craft that leave bullets in their wake, and there are skull-faced and manta ray-ish mini-bosses—all of incredibly white bread aspect. Continuing in the trend of the disinteresting, the enemies to give you the most trouble will indubitably be the moving red incendiary mines, spitting white mines, lancing rockets, and spread-firing wall guns--more hazards than true 'enemies'. Ho-hum indeed. Fortunately, the fancy formation flying of many of the spacecraft, paired with the inordinate bullet count effected by the mines and wall guns, make things so difficult that you’ll likely overlook how boring your adversaries look in short order.
Super Nova manages to step things up when stages conclude, screaming siren and massive words of warning onscreen serving as landmarks to the new quality. Earnest, cryptic messages will flash, telling of the arrival of ZANDICK II (I never met his father), MUDY CRYSTAL (yes, Mudy), or THUNDERBOLT FANS. I’ve long enjoyed this decidedly kitsch factor that every Darius game offers so thoughtfully. Surely you too can appreciate the supreme enjoyment of facing off with a big fish whose name is not just ‘big fish’, but rather: PEACE DESTROYER. I tell you no lies! And while the bosses cannot hope to live up to their hyperbole-soaked namesakes, they are very enjoyable to face off with, offering interesting patterns, impressive offense, and gargantuan mass. Plus, they’re big fish that shoot at you! That alone has got to earn any Darius game some points off the top.
The upside on how Super Nova’s plays, then is fairly clear: sure, the enemies are boring, but they bring some intense moments to bear upon you, and they serve as adequate welcoming mats for a cast of ideal shooter bosses boasting bad boy names, and big time bodies. Plus, there's a code that allows you to play against only the bosses! And if you really enjoy Super Nova once or twice through as I did, you'll love the draw of the multiple endings, as lame as they may be. But the chance exists that you won't enjoy Super Nova as I did. And why not? you ask, your mind grinding in puzzlement.
Because Super Nova plays slow. As in, R-Type slow. Your ship moves sluggishly, and never has an opportunity to get any faster, a failing that could easily have been avoided. Worsening the languorous pace, is the checkpoint system. As in R-Type II, the checkpoints are often too far apart. This is good for those shooter masochists who enjoy trying difficult sequences over and over to perfect them, but the repetition will likely be too excessive and frustrating for some, making your progress as slow as your ship’s.
This is surprising because I’ve played a good deal of Darius games, and this is the first I’ve played that employed the checkpoint system. That being said, I’m a fan of the R-Type games, and I quite enjoyed the singular stylings of this Darius bastard child. If you came expecting purist Darius action however, you’ll be shaken by the way Super Nova hampers your movement, kills you, and punishes you for it. And the punishment becomes only more sour as you realize that, unlike previous incarnations, dying won’t knock your gun and shield levels down a peg; rather, your demise will have your ship resurrecting with your shield at the same level it was at when you died (which is good), and your guns BACK TO LEVEL ONE (which is most certainly NOT good).
All I can say is WHY? WHY TAITO? (I curse but continue to play! What is this hold on me?) Each stage offers only about two chances to power up your guns, so if you’re three stages into your mission and die almost fully powered… suffice to say that you won’t be pleased at the prospect of level-building again from scratch.
And so I’m left scratching my head at the unreasonable, forced difficulty that follows. This, as well as the slowness of it all will probably turn off casual gamers, and shockingly, to some degree, even the twitchier of the Darius enthusiasts. But the ‘thinking shooter’ fan (read: R-Type fan, e.g.: ME), will enjoy the stiff, unforgiving challenges and unapologetic punishments that Super Nova meters out, much like the sadomasochistic yuppie enjoys his member in a cheese grater. So. Which group do you belong to? As the score indicates: I'm with the grater.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 13, 2004)
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