If Only You Knew the Power of the DarXide
By Kevin Armstrong
In 1995, a United Kingdom gaming company named Frontier Developments released a gorgeous shooter for the Sega 32X called DarXide (pronounced Dark Side). Alas, for North American Sega fans, this game was never released outside of Europe.
community to seek out this title if you can.Recently, DarXide found its way into North American hands but alas, it was a temporary situation. This writer managed to score a reproduction cartridge from a now-defunct source and decided that a review was necessary to alert the gaming collector
A little DarXide history: Frontier Developments was a company formed by David John Braben, one of the two creators of the amazing science fiction adventure title called Elite. This space trading and combat game had a giant fan base in the UK in the 1980’s and unfortunately as the title soared in popularity, its two creators had a falling out and decided never to work with each other again.
David Braben applied his skills at creating great PC space games by launching his own company, Frontier Developments, and programmed a new title called Frontier: First Encounters, published in April 1995 by GameTek. Regrettably, due to pressure from GameTek, Frontier: First Encounter was rushed to computer store shelves and contained a number of bugs. Considering this was before the time of hotfixes or patching via the Internet, having a launch title riddled with errors did not serve the brand new gaming company well. There was a patch released later to quell complaints by critics and fortunately for Frontier Developments the game did sell but perhaps the negative experience surrounding their first game led the company to consider moving to consoles next.
Their second game was designed for the new 32X expansion port released the previous year for the Sega Genesis (or Megadrive as it was called in the UK). Frontier Developments did an amazing job in harnessing the 3d graphical processor inside the 32X to deliver a simply gorgeous game. Considering the time when DarXide was released and knowing the limitations of console hardware of that era, what they achieved on this lone game cartridge is spectacular.
The easiest way to describe DarXide is to call it a third person game of Asteroids, although there are deeper elements in DarXide. The game begins with a cinematic of your spaceship launching from its base and to anyone accustomed to 32X graphics, this opening animation is jaw-dropping in its beauty. The framerate does suffer slightly, the game is not without its flaws, but the first time the player experiences the launch of the spaceship it will impress any but the 32X’s staunchest critics.
And then you find yourself floating in space. You are presented with your ship in the center of the screen and a ring of instrumentation circling the edges of the picture frame. Frontier Developments made an interesting choice in the layout by having what can only be described as a fish-eye-lens design. The gameplay does not warp like traditional fish-eye-lens photography tends to do with objects however the player’s mind is tricked into assuming there is a slightly wider range of view and movement than the actual game provides. This is helpful because moving the d-pad and using thrust causes your spaceship to bank out of the center of the screen and had it not been for the lens motif, this may have felt claustrophobic for gamers. In addition to the rounded display port, there are also indicators onscreen for practically every element of gameplay from fuel, shields, thrust, score, all the way to how many more asteroids you need to destroy. There is even a mini-map at the top contained in an interesting little lens circle. Frontier Developments held tight to the rounded art design they gave your spaceship interface and it really gives the game a glossy appeal.
Then from out of the darkness of space, giant asteroids will loom toward you and here is where traditional gamers will feel right at home. Firing your lasers at the enormous rocks causes them to splinter and you are then required to destroy each smaller boulder until the screen is clear. There will be more asteroids in the vicinity and eventually enemy spaceships. The primary goal is to destroy a certain number of asteroids within a time limit, the end of which is denoted by an announcement that a moon is approaching. As the first wave plays through, enemy spaceships resembling colorful circus tents appear and they will fire upon you and dart through the darkness of space in an attempt to evade your attacks. Destroyed asteroids will sometimes reveal powerups which you must fly through in order to add them to your spacecraft; red powerups fill your energy meter, white powerups recharge your shields.
If you have successfully destroyed all the asteroids before the moon approaches, you are automatically docked back in your hanger and a message pops up indicating success or failure in the mission. The second mission will then commence detailing that not only must you destroy the asteroids in the next wave but you must also defeat a number of enemy spacecraft and rescue stranded astronaut miners. On this wave, when you destroy an asteroid, a green indicator may appear which represents an astronaut drifting through space. He can be heard calling out for your help upon approach and as you close in toward him you can see him spinning head over heels through space. Much like picking up an energy powerup, you must fly into an astronaut to rescue him.
Alas, DarXide was made in somewhat limited release in Europe only, no doubt based strictly on the high regard the Elite games held with gamers over there, and the eventual poor sales performance of the 32X meant that this beautiful shooter would never see a wider release to other territories.
To any collector of the Sega 32X, DarXide is considered something of a holy grail, a fantastic looking game despite its frame rate issues, which remains too costly in online auctions to be attainable. Luckily, the ROM exists online and certain flashcarts like the Everdrive have the capability of playing PAL-region titles on NTSC Sega 32X’s. However, gamers without a flashcart or Everdrive owners who cannot get the region unlock code to work well with the DarXide ROM (which is a known issue) have very few alternatives available to them. Even if your 32X can play a genuine PAL-region cart, an original copy of DarXide lists for hundreds or even thousands of dollars on eBay.
About a year ago, some hobbyists created reproduction Genesis cartridges and this author immediately contacted one such group begging them to make DarXide work on an NTSC cart. What arrived in the mail was a very professional looking cartridge and case that looks exactly like a Sega cart from back in the nineties. The cart itself must have been cannibalized from some lesser title (one can only hope it was Barbie Super Model) as it has all the trim and edging that a real Genesis cart would have. The DarXide label is nicely printed and applied professionally; you could easily trick yourself into thinking it was a genuine label on a genuine cart with the exception that the title of a game on a real 32X cart did not appear along the top lip and this label does have the title printed there.
Unfortunately there was no instruction manual provided which is a shame, the game is a little difficult to understand without knowing the underlying story. Fortunately, there are good online reviews that detail precisely what goals you are meant to achieve. This omission of the manual is forgivable though, as even owners of the rare original cartridges who paid hundreds of dollars for their purchase have often posted requests for a scan of the instruction manual as well so it is truly something of a rarity.
Alas, the source for the cartridge shown in this article has closed shop. It almost seems unfair to dangle such a great title in front of the reader’s eyes only to whisk it away and declare “you can’t have it” but where one hobby group once existed to reproduce cartridges no doubt others might be ascertainable. If you own a 32X, it is worth your time investigating this game and either buying an Everdrive flashcart or delving deep into the homebrew scene to see if anyone else will make reproductions again in the future.
Kevin Armstrong was one of the Special Contributors of The Video Game Years Indiegogo campaign and we thank him for that and his article on DarXide!