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Super Nova (SNES) artwork

Super Nova (SNES) review

"WARNING: An uncountable amount of player deaths is approaching fast."

Through the years, I've had a bit of a fascination with the Darius series. Sure, in some ways, their games could be considered typical shooters of average quality, but the ways in which they're different from the average genre offering are pretty noteworthy.

Most shooters take you from one stage to the next. Each time you play, you'll go through the same however-many levels in the same order. Not so in Darius, as those games tend to feature branching paths, allowing you to select different levels from one playthrough to the next, so that you have to get through them more than once to see everything offered. Also, bosses get a truly epic intro. You'll be flying through a cave, a base, whatever and the screen will fade to black, as though reality faded into a Lovecraftian nothingness. Suddenly, the word WARNING emerges on the screen in quite the large font. Below it, you are informed that a dangerous being named "Peace Destroyer" or "Thunderbolt Fans" or "Great Force" is about to wreck your world just before a mechanical monstrosity often bearing a strong resemblance to some sort of aquatic life bursts onto the scene to teach you an emphatic lesson in pain.

Super Nova, released in 1993, is no different, even if the name was inexplicably changed from Darius Force so that SNES owners would have no clue as to what they were actually purchasing. Its 15 levels are arranged along three tiers with you starting on the lower-left corner. If you remain along that bottom line, your game will last a mere five levels. However, after getting through stage "A", you also can take a branching path upward. Do that once and you'll have a six-level game. Do it twice and it'll be seven, featuring the game's true final boss. Adding to the "customize your experience" vibe, you can make your move off a lower tier at any point other than after its final stage. The only limitation is that once you've moved to a higher tier, you can't go back down.

Obviously, this gives Super Nova a fair amount of replay value even if stage designs and even some bosses are recycled from one tier to the next. If you play through this game three times and see all its stages, you'll become very familiar with its assorted bases and caves, and even with bosses such as "Mudy Crystal" and "Stealther".

Not that this familiarity will be likely to save you, as this is one of the most brutally difficult shooters I've played in some time. To start with, let's look at your ship…er, I mean ships, as you can choose from one of three when you start the game. You're not overly quick and while you have power-ups to improve your chosen vessel's weaponry and to give you a temporary (and quite necessary) shield, you'll not find anything to improve your mobility. Collect enough weapon power-ups and you'll be able to issue quite the impressive array of firepower -- with whichever of those ships that I chose, I had large energy bursts coming out my front end and the option to either emit missiles to eradicate stuff above and below me or, with the press of a button, switch to a multi-directional laser. The stronger your ship gets, though, the more tense the game becomes because all it will take is one little slip-up and you'll be reduced to the pitiful "can't punch through a wet paper towel" attacks you possess upon beginning the game.

Sure, that just makes Super Nova like many shooters. How many of these games have I reviewed and how many of those have had me comment upon how one death is often a session-ruining experience, sending you into a downward spiral near-impossible to escape? More times than I'd care to count, I'd say! But this game takes pride in its ability to destroy you regardless of how much power you possess. While your ship might not be super-nimble, a lot of foes are able to zip across the screen at a high rate of speed. And they'll come at you from all angles. Even with those lasers, the ship I picked was far more proficient at hitting stuff in front of me, which made the large number of enemies barreling at me from behind frustrating to control-throwing levels.

The stages themselves just add to the agony. You'll often find yourself in claustrophobic areas, forcing you to watch out for lethal walls and other obstacles, as well as enemies that regularly are placed just out of reach of your weaponry unless those guns have been powered up a good bit. You won't always be traveling from left to right, as some stages have you descending into underwater caverns and one particular design will change what direction you're going with regularity, forcing you to navigate maze-like terrain with the knowledge that everything might start scrolling in a new direction at any time. At times the ceiling will fall or the floor will rise, creating obstacles where none were previously found. Gates open and close, causing you to slowly and cautiously advance past them while nervously casting glances at those foes poised ready to attack as soon as you emerge into their chamber. And if you're lucky enough to be in a wide-open level, you can count on a never-ending deluge of asteroids plummeting onto the screen at high rates of speed because this game hates you and wants you dead, regardless of what it has to do to make that happen.

And don't even think you'll get to relax against bosses! There's a reason you have that lengthy WARNING screen: To give you a chance to catch your breath before the hellish bombardment you're about to face. Each of these fish, cephalopods, dinosaurs and what-the-hells tend to have multiple attacks and many gain new ones after you've blasted off a few parts of their body. Hell, one of them, the aforementioned "Peace Destroyer" serves as an R-Type-inspired battleship stage in its own right, as you blast its face to get inside of it, and then need to traverse an extremely narrow corridor loaded with little areas where if you're not in a specific place at a specific time, you will die. Man, at times, you will truly feel you've reached the Ninth Circle of Hell trying to overcome some of these challenges!

None of this is to say that Super Nova is a bad game -- it's more the sort that could be described as an acquired taste or one that you'll have to be in the right kind of mood to play. Like, I loved Dark Souls, but there were days when I couldn't play it because I was feeling a bit frazzled and just wasn't in the mood to get killed with regularity while hoping I could close the day saying I at least accomplished something. This game is a pure arcade-action version of that. If you're not in the mood to die over and over and over again in the hopes that you'll eventually figure out a way to survive a particular challenge and then repeat that process indefinitely, you'll going to have a pretty miserable time.

Super Nova is a brutally difficult game that goes out of its way to be inaccessible to all but the most diehard challenge seekers and, as a result, can be extraordinarily frustrating; but if you're sufficiently skilled and go into this one with the right mindset, playing it can be a rewarding experience. It's always a cool concept to be able to choose what levels you want to go through and while reaching some of those boss fights might take years off your life, many of them are quite fun and inventive battles. This isn't the sort of game that can be recommended to just anyone, but if you're a shooter fan who likes the challenge turned up to 11, you can easily do a lot worse than this one.

overdrive's avatar
Featured community review by overdrive (August 02, 2019)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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honestgamer posted August 02, 2019:

This is a great review! I bought this game a few years back, after finding out it was a Darius game I had missed. I really liked Darius Twin and even count it among the few horizontal shooters I've completed, so I figured I was in for more of about the same. But the difficulty you mention really kicks in a person's teeth. You didn't exaggerate it in the slightest. I didn't get to the game's good parts. I didn't get much of anywhere. Thanks for giving me a better idea what I've missed!
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overdrive posted August 03, 2019:

Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, this game is a bear. The good parts tend the be the boss fights, as the levels are more excruciating than actually fun, but the bosses seem to have more effort put into them than most shooters have into theirs. You know, no "repeat the Gredius core boss 18 times with slight variations" stuff going on. The weird thing about the difficulty is that the final boss of each path is probably one of the easiest you'll face. I mean, the true final boss is a two-part fight and the toughest aspect of it is the high-speed escape sequence between those two parts, as if you don't have the route memorized, you WILL slam into a wall because it slants upward and downward abruptly and your ship is, like I said, not all that quick.
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honestgamer posted August 03, 2019:

I can't imagine someone playing through the complete game in 2019 without using an emulator and save states... which isn't the experience the developers intended. Like I said, I bought it and have the cartridge, but who has time now to get good enough at the game to see more than the first level or so when it's that ridiculous? There are other shooters to play these days that no longer have to use mandatory difficulty as a crutch.
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overdrive posted August 03, 2019:

"I can't imagine someone playing through the complete game in 2019 without using an emulator and save states"

Yeah, neither can I...

*shifts eyes back and forth; backs out door quickly*

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