The Making of Darius
originally featured in the 4/87 edition of BEEP! magazine
The Hardware Background
Recently, there has been an increasing trend in the arcade game industry towards the development of powerful specialized harware and “taikan games”—big cabinets that you experience physically with your whole body. Sega lit the fire with Hang-on, and Konami has carried the torch, while Namco has pursued an entirely different direction. Then there is Taito, who have thrown their hat into the ring with Darius.
Today, we’re going to introduce Darius and take a more detailed look at its development. Last issue we looked at the video game itself, but today we’re going to examine it from a different angle—the hardware, and the people who designed it. This will give us a great opportunity to consider the question that’s on the minds of all developers today: where do games go from here?
First, let’s begin with an explanation of how the Darius hardware works. The biggest draw of Darius is, of course, the three-monitor sized display. But they aren’t merely three monitors lined up next to each other; in fact, there have been multiple games in the past that simply lined up monitors: Super Dead Heat and GP World come to mind. What makes Darius unique is its seamless display which appears as one single monitor.
Let’s compare Super Dead Heat and Darius, for example: in Super Dead Heat, even though the monitors are lined up next to each other, there’s still a good deal of distance between them because of the anti-magnetic shielding of the steel frames (CRTs can’t be directly next to each other due to magnetic interference that causes color distortion). Darius, in contrast, does not stack the three monitors side-by-side; instead, it places one monitor each to the left and right, underneath the playfield (see illustration for details). Then half-mirrors are used to reflect the image in place. Thanks to this setup, the bulky monitors can easily be placed in the cabinet, and the screen appears seamless!
Darius built on Taito’s earlier experiments with mirrors in electro-mechanicals like Sky Fighters. Some Space Invaders cabs also used mirrors for background effects, and 1985’s shmup Wyvern F-0 actually used a mirror to combine the image from two monitors.
That “seamlessness” has a big impact on gameplay. Without it, whenever your ship moves between monitors, it seems like a momentary teleportation occurs, and it’s very unnatural. One workaround is to put some kind of game object, like a tunnel, between the monitors… but if the player misses that tunnel and collides into the wall and dies, it’ll no doubt feel cheap as hell! Ultimately, then, if the monitor setup isn’t seamless, it forces the game developers to create around that limitation in one way or another, and somewhat limits the creative possibilities—and shooting games are difficult enough to design as it is!
However, with a seamless display, you naturally don’t have these restrictions, and can develop your game just like any other—actually, with all that space, you really have more freedom. Darius is just such a game, which has only been made possible thanks to the 3-screen technology.
In fact, besides its display, Darius is actually packed with other innovations—especially in sound. The cabinet, for example, comes standard equipped with headphone jacks. As we pointed out in our Sound Club feature in the September edition of BEEP, the world of game music has recently seen a big boost in sound quality, yet all the hardware to play it back remains relatively poor and decidedly “last-gen”! The game developers no doubt are aware of this sad state of affairs, but as things currently stand, most of their effort is spent on selling pcbs, so it seems unlikely we’ll see any improvements to the standard cabs anytime soon.
This means that if a game developer wants to utilize new hardware for sound, they have to make (and sell) their own machines equipped for the job. In Darius, Taito has pulled off this very feat (they even added separate volume controls for the left and right channels!).
We also have to mention the special speakers installed and embedded beneath the player bench, a system Taito fittingly calls “body sonic”.
It’s hard to imagine now, but the headphone jack was a huge boon for arcade vgm fans back then.
The music, of course, was written to take advantage of the power of these speakers, and they reverberate with booming bass during special scenes—in particular, when the bosses show up. That warning sound begins, and at the same time, your legs feel the rumbling vibration of the bosses approach… but words can only go so far to explain how cool it is—it’s definitely something you have to experience for yourself! No doubt Taito will receive much deserved praise for their dedication to advancing video game sound.
Talking with the Staff
Now, let’s hear some words from the people who made Darius: their concept for the game, and any interesting behind-the-scenes stories they might have to share.
“Darius first began as a hardware idea.” As we all know, Taito has made a number of multiple-monitor games in the past—and a veteran engineer described it as “a passion for big screens”! I suppose Darius can be called the distillation of that fascination, artfully combined with Taito’s previous expertise in half-mirror technology.
“Once we got the 3 monitors working seamlessly, there was a lot of debate around what kind of game we should make.” The engineer tells me there was even an idea to make all three monitors vertical! But such a cabinet would have had too many safety issues, so the idea was dropped, and the current 3-screen “cinemascope” style orientation was decided on. For the game, Taito went for a scrolling STG which would show off the powers of the cabinet, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other impressive taikan games out today.
I asked if they had ever considered a different kind of game for the cab—like, say, a 2-player soccer game or something like that. “We did, actually.” Wow! From that remark, we can probably expect another game from Taito soon, featuring the same 3-screen hardware.
But the Darius development team had yet more interesting things to share with me. “In total, we had about 40 people working on Darius.” This makes sense, with such a large game, there’s bound to be a higher volume of sprites to draw. On top of that, the programming for a game like this must be very difficult. I asked about that point. “It was a difficult balancing act: if you put too much time into the software side, the manhours and labor costs start to add up, but if you go the other direction and overdo the hardware development, the production costs can quickly skyrocket. If we can’t keep costs down, no game center will buy our game, and no one will ever play it!”
It appears that making a good game that will be affordable enough to reach the masses requires more ingenuity than I thought! If it’s too expensive, the only fan mail Taito will receive will be angry screeds: “Why I can’t I find a Darius cab in my area?!?!”
“Thankfully,” he replied, “IC chips have recently fallen a lot in price, so we’re now able to make much higher spec’d games far more cheaply than ever before.” He then told me that Darius uses two 68000 CPU chips for its processor, and that, consequently, the programmers didn’t have too much difficulty in that regard. Thank goodness!
I also asked about the addition of the headphone port on the Darius cabinet. “The thinking there was, if we’re making something this extravagant, you know, then let’s include as many of our big ideas as we can. We first thought of that headphone port about 4 years ago. Same for the body sonic system.”
That reminds me: if both players are wearing headphones, won’t it be hard for them to communicate during the game? Taito replied with an intriguing promise: “That’s something for us to think about in the next game, yeah.” We’re looking forward to it!
By the way, as a little aside, when I went to take a photo of the staff for this article, one of the developers said to me, “Well, shall we put our Darius uniforms on then?” I nodded enthusiastically. “Just kidding!” Too bad—and I felt like I was missing out on some inside joke (but I figured this little anecdote would add some nice color to the article).
As video game hardware gets better and better, our expectations keep going up: we want top-class graphics, sound, cabinets that shake and move. In order to distinguish themselves from computer games and consoles like the Famicom, developers have to keep making new hardware, and each iteration expands the possibilities of gaming. But there’s one thing we must not forget: whether those experiments succeed or fail depends, ultimately, on the quality of the underlying game design itself. As a former editor at BEEP once said, “It’s not about relying on superior hardware: it’s about superior ideas that the hardware allows us to realize.”
There will no doubt be more amazing hardware developments to come, but my ardent hope is that the software designers will keep pace with the exciting possibilities of this hardware. And Taito, we can’t wait for your next 3-monitor game!
Darius – 1987 Composer Interview
with Hisayoshi “OGR” Ogura
—Earlier this year in BEEP magazine, you mentioned that the song “CAPTAIN NEO” from Darius was completed only 3 months after you had joined Taito…
OGR: That’s right. However, that song had originally been written 3 years ago, and was intended for a different game. In order to get Darius ready in time for the AM Expo, I hurriedly converted that song to FM for use in Darius. I thought it might feel too old-fashioned now, but when we debuted it at the show it got a surprisingly good response. So we ended up keeping it as the official track. My initial plan, though, had been to write all the songs in the same mood of “MAIN THEME ~ CHAOS“—that is, something that feels like half sound-effect, half-music. But CAPTAIN NEO ended up charming its way into our hearts, I guess!
Hisayoshi “OGR” Ogura in 1987
—How long did it take you to write the music for Darius?
OGR: I was scheduled to have about 3 months to work on it, but in reality I spent 3 weeks on the composition, and 2 weeks making adjustments, for a total of just over a month. I didn’t use a sequencer when I wrote these songs—that way took too much time. Instead I “sequenced” everything in my head, and composed it all at my keyboard.
—That sounds really difficult. When you’re writing, did you look at actual screenshots or gameplay footage from Darius?
OGR: No, for Darius at least, I wasn’t able to see any of it until it was very nearly complete. When I did finally see the finished game, I was honestly very surprised!
—The music for the bosses at the end of each zone, in particular, is really powerful. I especially love that part in Electric Fan’s BGM, where the music changes…
OGR: Oh yeah? My image for that one was the songs played by cannibal tribes in Africa…! For some reason, it’s always ethnic music that I turn to when I try to write boss music…
—The music of Darius is made of a combination of FM synthesis and sampling… were there any interesting samples you used this time?
OGR: I had wanted to sample the sound of an industrial piston in a factory, but was unable to get it, so instead I just sampled it off a YMO song. (laughs) That happened numerous times, actually.
I also sampled a real orchestra. One of our staff members knows someone who plays in the Yokosuka Symphony, so through him we were able to get a good recording of them… “ok everybody, all at once now…!!!”
—Ah, that explains the power behind those trumpet fanfares. By the way, you’ve recently started performing live versions of these songs under the name “Zuntata”…
OGR: We honestly tried to come up with a better name, but… (laughs) We all tend towards the “analogue” side of music, though, so we went with the name Zuntata. 1
But yeah, playing live is really nerve-wracking. The live recording for the Darius cd took a very long time too. I’m glad we did it though. Normally you’d use sequenced, electronic drums for music like this, but we were insistent about doing them live. Actually, Yumiya-san from corporate (who is sitting here beside me)—her husband Kenji did the drums.
—Oh, really? Yumiya, could we get a word from you about Darius?
Yumiya: The Darius CD was something we were able to accomplish thanks to the vocal support of all the fans out there. If there’s other things you’d like to see us do at Taito, please don’t be shy about writing to us with your suggestions and wishes.
Also, this is a small request from all of us at Taito, but there have been some reports of players monopolizing the Darius cabinet in order to make recordings from the headphone ports. Please remember to be considerate of others.