A non-sense fantasy

The back of Parodius Da!‘s box promises 1991’s idea of gaming perfection – the arcade experience at home. This was always an eye-catching boast thirty years ago (if not necessarily as accurate as the excitable text implied), but it was even more so here as this particular release appeared on computer shop selves only about a year after the game’s arcade debut. You sure as heck paid for the privilege – the X68000 has never been a cheap machine to own – but in return you got the finest port of the generation, neither lacking the stages cut from the PC Engine port nor slightly deviating away from its coin-operated roots the way the SNES version did, both of which released after this. The only home ports able to claim they’re closer are the the Saturn, PlayStation, and PSP collections – all of which came years later.

That doesn’t mean it’s arcade perfect though, and when you start closely comparing the two some graphical differences do start popping up. Having said that these minor deficiencies are only obvious to most of us when comparing screenshots of this and its arcade counterpart side-by-side rather than blindingly obvious from the outset – a change of shading here, a minor alteration there. It’s trivia that makes you go “Ahhh” when you spot something, not a favourite feature axed.

The configuration menu contains a fairly standard set of options, allowing you to change the difficulty between one of four settings, alter the number of lives given per credit, and the points threshold you earn extra ones at. There’s also the option to swap the X68000’s internal sound for MIDI renditions of the audio, assuming you had the hardware to do so. The latter adds a definite richness to the music that’s absent from the default soundtrack, although whatever you end up choosing the vast quantity of voice samples used to mark anything from ship upgrades to boss taunts are always present and crystal clear.

One thing that is missing is the ability to set the number of credits available per run, and that’s because Parodius Da! automatically gives you an infinite supply and sees no reason why it should offer anything less. The game is even gracious enough to still start you off back at the most recent checkpoint when you use a continue (although it does wipe your score), so whether you want to push through and learn the ropes, simply want to blast away for a bit purely for the fun of it, or you’re terribly rusty and just want to take some good screenshots of as many stages as possible for an article you’re writing you can do so.

This kindness goes some way to softening the “-ius” series’ most divisive feature – you always lose every power up when you die. Honestly, I like it. I felt it made me a better player, even if it never stopped feeling painful. My many, many, deaths helped me appreciate the individual utility of the power ups I got more than I would have if the game had been more gentle with me, and eventually I understood that to a large extent (I won’t pretend that first speed up isn’t vital), success in Parodius really is more about how well I play than how many Options I’ve got.

But perhaps what matters most of all is that this X68000 is exactly as relentlessly, joyously, wilfully, daft as ever. The first boss is a flying pirate cat ship, for goodness’ sake. Later on Parodius Da! makes you fight a sumo wrestler who covers his bits with a golden modesty sign whenever he flicks his mawashi at you, and in amongst all the usual screen-clearing bombs is the megaphone, an item whose text-shouted phrases damage any enemies that come into contact with them, making the famous Fist of the North Star line “You are already dead” a more powerful attack than the much shorter “E=mc²”. It’s features like these that make the game something you play just to see what it’s going to do next, because whatever you can imagine will never be quite as wild as Konami’s reality.

Parodius’ comical angle shows confidence in its fundamental design, a game that knows it can still be taken seriously by fans of the genre even if it’s not being serious itself. It shows confidence in its creativity too, a game that could’ve gone with the typical selection of sleek metal and bright lasers (or the other popular sci-fi shmup style of the era, organic shapes with wires sticking out of them) because we’ve all been taught since forever that consistency is the sensible and professional thing to do, but instead Parodius Da! chooses to reinvent the wheel every stage, with no idea too silly, illogical, or impractical to bring to life. The use of remixed classical music only enhances the chaotic atmosphere, as though a full orchestra wandered into the wrong recording studio and everyone decided to roll with it anyway.

The method in this madness is always clear, even when you’re dodging angry clowns or shooting at aggressive eagles. You can see it in something as simple as the power up icons (unique for each character), in the umbrella that sits over your chosen ship (or octopus, or…) for one part of one stage only to protect them from the rain, in the use of Gradius‘ unwritten rules to ensure any shmup made with them feels familiar and fair. Thanks to them no matter what happens – even what that “what” involves swarms of chickens, angry eggplant-spewing volcanos, a penguin running along the ceiling from behind, or a giant woman who wiggles her hips after crab-walking from one end of the screen to the other – the action is always understandable and organised, something you can read and react to the first time you see it.

Parodius Da! feels like happiness spread across two floppy discs – I appreciate that’s an odd thing to say about a Konami game these days – a great shmup brought to oddball life apparently just because it seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. The game’s Gradius-based foundations are impeccable and the wilful weirdness of the designs is bound to raise a few chuckles along the way, even when death comes quickly and again because you dared to lightly scrape a wall or got caught out by a vicious orange pellet. The sequels may have ramped up the absurdity to dizzying new heights but I don’t feel this, the first arcade game in the series (everyone, including me, tends to forget about the original MSX game), is a lesser experience. This is sharp and focused and full, a shmup that’s sure to satisfy however you wish to find joy in it.

Just watch out for the giant puffer fish, and the woman who blows out cherubs, and the walking trees, and the… just be careful when you play, OK?

[Ko-fi supporters read everything a week before anyone else! Come on over!]

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