Ah, darts. Miniature archery. Perhaps the most democratic game in all of British sport, dartboards can be found in pretty much every pub in the British Isles. Darts can be played by anyone regardless of age or athletic ability, and can even be played while simultaneously drinking or smoking. In fact, professional darts is dominated by a man who looks like your father’s alcoholic brother who’s permanently waiting for his plumbing business to pick back up. That being said, you would think there’s no reason to bother playing a darts video game, seeing as a real dartboard is cheap and pretty easy to set up, but today’s game, Simple 1500 Series Volume 55: The Darts (!) is out to prove that such assumptions are foolish.
For those of you inevitably wondering about the prosaic title, this game was part of the Simple 1500 Series of budget titles released for PlayStation. A lot of those games covered a single sport like golf or bowling, and were only released in Japan. This is also one of those Japanese games where there’s enough English text present to get a rough idea of how to find what you’re looking for, but not nearly enough to figure out exactly what the hell’s going on, which will become important a bit later. It also means that I may have left some features out because I don’t speak Japanese, so bear with me.
The Darts (as I’ll refer to this game as for obvious reasons) features a pretty solid lineup of darts variants. There’s 301, 501, Gallon, Round-the-Clock, Cricket, Chase, and Score-Up. When you get down to business, there’s a dartboard on a black screen, with a score overlay on the right side. That’s pretty much it, but that’s all you really need. What will stick out at you is the aiming system, which was certainly unique to me and definitely made the seemingly simple task of aiming a dart a bit more of a strategic challenge.
Y’see, you begin by pointing your dart in the general area of what you’re aiming at and pressing Circle. Pressing Circle makes a ring appear that shrinks and grows quickly around the point you’re aiming at. Pressing and holding Circle at that point locks the ring in place and makes a dart appear that rotates around the edge of the ring, and not just at a steady pace and direction, but frantically speeding up, slowing down, and changing direction, with an option to give a time limit for how long you’re allowed to wait before you’re forced to throw. Finally releasing Circle lets your dart fly at whatever point along the ring you let go at.
Now, this is the important bit: you can only throw the dart along the ring, not inside or outside of it, so if you manage to stop the ring at it’s smallest point, you’re going to hit exactly what you originally aimed at, regardless of when you let go. If you stop the ring while it’s larger, you’re going to hit somewhere around your original target. The downside is that the game is a bit prickly about the wires separating each space on the board, so you’ll have a few situations where you think you made a good shot and it bounces off the board entirely.
Confused yet? Well, how do you think I felt having to trial-and-error this shit? At least you get the benefit of me giving you an explanation in English, as incoherent as it may be. To be fair, it’s not nearly as impossible to decipher as it sounds. If you’re like me, you’ll probably learn not to try to stop the ring on a dime, but instead, you’ll learn to subtly compensate by aiming a little bit off and trying to stop the ring when part of it covers what you’re actually aiming for. It actually works pretty well, and leads to some interesting tactical decisions. For example, the biggest scoring field on the board is the Treble 20, but consistently hitting Treble 20 straight on requires more skill and timing than I possess. So, do you aim a bit to the side, and try to get a shot at Treble 20 and/or Treble 18, or aim high and try to get a shot at Treble 20 and/or Double 20? I do have to tip my hat to the designers here for finding a way to make throwing virtual darts a bit more of an interactive experience.
Now, I feel I have to discuss what sets this game apart from any other darts game I’ve seen, and probably every other darts game in existence, and that is Story Mode. Yes, there’s a story mode here, and I know what you’re thinking, “it’s probably some cliched dreck about playing as some hot young darts hustler trying to earn respect and make it to the big leagues, yada-yada-yada”. Well, you’re wrong…at least, I think you’re wrong, again, I can’t read Japanese, so you might be right, but if you are right, this has to be the strangest goddamned way to tell that story in the history of fiction.
Anywho, Story Mode begins with the protagonist (we’ll call him Tom) coming to visit some lady, maybe his wife, maybe his girlfriend, who knows. Tom’s visit is interrupted by some big, bad, black clad guy shows up, roughs Tom up, and abducts Tom’s ladyfriend. Tom then returns home and decides to avenge this brutal attack…through the power of darts!
After this um…odd…bit of exposition, you can take Tom to the local pub and challenge the locals in different games for a set amount of money, which you can later spend at places like the nearby flower shop or fruit stand, for some reason. You can give these items to some lady that works at the hospital. Let’s just run with that. After you’ve done something, either earned enough money or cleared the first pub of potential opponents or whatever triggers it, the big bad appears looking to take you down in a win-or-game-over round of Score-Up. But that’s not all, because before this epic showdown, Tom turns into a superhero and the bad guy into a supervillain. If you vanquish the mugger, he will spontaneously combust and you’ll be able to move on to the next pub and I assume continue unraveling who was really behind such a heinous deed.
I swear I did not make up that last bit. My body would not be able to consume the amount of drugs or withstand the fever it would take to hallucinate a darts game between a superhero and villain that ended with one of them catching fire. You don’t believe me, go find this friggin’ game for yourself and play it and tell me what happens. Aside from that, and because I don’t want to give too much of the plot away (like I could anyway), it’s not bad for mostly following the formula of gambling against others, winning money, and buying stuff. Your apartment allows you to save your progress, read the manual (good luck), or play a practice round of any of the game’s variants, which is pretty simple fun unto itself.
As you would expect from a late-era PSX game, the graphics are quite good, and the character models are excellent. Tom himself looks like the kind of guy you’d find waiting to make money off of unsuspecting schlubs in a bar, although, he looks more like a pool shark than a darts player. The villains look like they were pulled straight from a late-’90s anime, and the in-game graphics are solid, though less spectacular. Sound serves its purpose, what few effects there are, but the music, while good, is a bit off for what should be a relaxing activity.
I didn’t expect to be able to glean quite this much material from a darts game, I have to say. I had actually planned to cover a different game, Magic Darts for NES, and was worried how to stretch “hey, it’s darts with wacky characters” across 1000 words, until some internet research led me to this game, and I’m really glad it did. The game engine does a rather fine job of adding some challenge and thought into quite possibly the simplest task imaginable (throw pointy thing at board), and the story mode is such a surreal concept that it’s worth a look even given the language barrier. Sadly, there’s not a lot of information floating around the internet on it, and as far as I can tell, this might be the only English review/FAQ of it out there. I have to recommend The Darts, partly for the quality gameplay, and party for the sheer novelty factor of it. Also, if anyone reading this does have or has played this game and can read Japanese, I would really like to know what the story’s actually about…and what the manual says…and what the options are. Merci.
Unique engine, completely bonkers Story Mode, and a pretty good package for a budget title.
The Berlin Wall-sized language barrier, and at the end of the day, it’s still just darts.