Released in 1995, Darkside Story is one of many beat-em-ups that tried to ride on the popularity of genre ignited by its success at arcades. Created by fledgling developer from South Korea, it’s also a representative product of mid-1990s in Korea, when the industry saw a birth of countless video game developers who would go on to bring a colorful collection to the computer market in the next several years. Their first steps were usually tracing the titles by big names they’re familiar with – be it role-playing games from Squaresoft, RTSes from Western companies, or in this case, the coin-op sidescrolling brawlers. Influnced by public interest toward its kind, Sonnori’s Darkside Story was marketed to anwser Korean gamers’ demand for games from their own country as well as a faithful experience of smashing fun on PC.
The game’s about a young schoolgirl Suhee, peacefully living with her parents in unlocated Korean suburb. One day, she finds out her father left his dental clinic and never came back, with the nurse anxiously imagining his abduction before she collapsed to the floor. Confounded by his sudden disappearance, she decides to personally investigate his whereabout, starting to hunt down local baddies in question.
Darkside Story is a fairly traditional brawler, as you run around and punch bad guys. Its fighting mechanic directly takes over from Capcom’s two-button system, with certain combination of keys leading to different moves. Suhee is the only character you take control over, so you’re stuck with no choice to select between different styles, but the game compensates this with an expansive movelist. She’s capable of fancy combat skills like flash kicks or uppercuts, desperation moves that wipe out nearby foes costing small chunk of health, and downward attacks that deal extra damage to knocked down enemies. With some practices, it’s possible to combine these moves to pull off a chain of combo, adding a layer of versatility. Some of the more powerful moves, however, are available when you’re grapping the enemies. She’s no piledrive performer, but since it’s the safest way of damaging without risk of counterattack, you may want to grab them as many as possible.
Its attempt to shake the formula is two additional gauges on the interface called “Hungry Point” (HP) and “Feeling Point” (FP). Hungry point is essentially the one seen in RPGs, as it slowly drains the health unless you replenish it by eating foods on the ground. Feeling point is a flexible meter that depends on Suhee’s performance, related to how successfully she lands her attacks on the enemies. If these two gauges meet certain conditions, they changes Suhee’s stance signified by her face – “angry” if both below 1/3 or “happy” if both above 2/3 – and unlock extra moves that cause insane damage. It’s a nice bonus you’ll count on, although it’s not common to come across given its strict requirement.
Outside the action, Darkside Story presents a hub between the levels, channelling the openworld Kunio-kungames (specifically River City Ransom, which shares its urban setting). You can look around Suhee’s neighborhood and chat with people, and if you’re lucky, you may end up at the secret hall, where you inherit hidden skills from the martial artists who suspiciously resemble iconic characters from Virtua Fighter and Fatal Fury. There’s no place like shops to interact, however (screenshots in advertisement showed item slots which may have been intended for this, but it isn’t in the final). This hub also provides the context of stages Suhee enters, followed by the cutscenes that explain how she wound up punching these people.
While it’s arguably the least thing to care when it’s come to beat-em-up, the story told in Darkside Story is the one that stands out the most among all. Developers went on to expand Suhee’s journey with ridiculous incidents that barely have to do with her quest, as if they’re poking fun at the genre. They established a running gag, for one, that her struggle to search her father turns out to be misleading for various reasons. At one point, she invades mafia’s hideout and pummels their boss who’s rumored to despise her father for money matters… only to learn the “debt” is merely a couple bucks, and it was spent when her father emptied the bowels. Later, she’s somehow engaged in foiling the plan of evil mastermind who slaves people and sewer mutants with his foul breath.
Occasionally, you’ll be joined by deformed alien figures on your side, called P-mans. They opt to assist you in the fight, but often end up doing goofy things like raiding dishes on the ground (which you have to stop by hitting them) or showing off push-ups. There’s also a robust punk named Calchi, who’ll lend Suhee a hand if you pass his challenge to win the fight against himself. He chickens out after beating a level, however, excusing he shouldn’t steal the spotlight as Suhee is the main protagonist of the game, then asks her a task to keep all the player’s dreams alive by conquering the game for herself. He’s kind enough to give you health upgrade for that, at least. All the strange moments like these merge together to form an oddly charming atmosphere, something quite rare to be seen in other beat-em-ups at the time.
Fighting can gradually become a slog halfway through, though. One thing Darkside Story likes to do is to hang up the screen and pour out enemies on the screen at once, tricking the player mercilessly stomped by a horde. As it advances, the game grows to abuse it a lot just to keep the player busy; so much that it ruins its pace, despite that the game is technically short, consisting of four major levels in total. The third level is particularly aggravating in this regard, because it has you go through a long, long hallway to the factory filled with a dozen waves of street gangs, meaning the game really wants to waste your health on your way to the boss. As for the bosses, they tend to put up some serious fights, each one more brutal than the former. By the end of the game, you have to face the ones who take little effort to wipe out a bar of health in a second.
Another potential deal breaker is its complete absence of lives, continues, checkpoints or whatsoever. Once you’re down, the game simply sends you back to the beginning. Granted, you can try prevent this by stocking health upgrades via optional events, but coupled with aforementioned difficulty issues, it’s just frustrating the game doesn’t bother to allow a single chance.
Graphically, Darkside Story looks good, depicting suburban alleys with details, although some places like sewer look a bit too plain. Characters are drawn in jagged style with own funny quirks, like waster pickers launching trashes from their back, or hippies doing arse-kicking hip hop. Musics are decent as well, although sound driver renders them with grating noise that does little favor to the ears.
On the whole, it’s a fine game that would likely find its audience, but Darkside Story feels lacking in general given its release date in the genre. Back then, there’re already a handful of brawlers that offered more and better than it, even within home-release titles, like Streets of Rage. Some issues around its difficulty are possible ragequit factors, too. Nonetheless, it’s a neat addition to DOS library where good beat-em-ups are few and far between, and it’s not hard to be amused by its goofy charm and absurd plot (though some of its context is lost to non-Korean speaker, apparently). To this day, Darkside Story is remembered as an intriguing tidbit of ’90s Korean retro gaming, and something of cult classic.
Darkside Story was to have a sequel featuring transition to 3D environment, but the project was silently canned for unknown reasons, and the game sank to obscurity since then. That was hardly Suhee’s last appearance, however. In 2005, to celebrate their 10th anniversary of foundation, Sonnori released a complication Romance of Package that contains every title they created since debut, including Darkside Story as natural. It’s a straight port without any enhancements and added questionable oddities, like the interior walking speed being atrociously slow. On the bright side, all the musics have been replaced with nice redbook audio, completed with vocal song at the ending. It would’ve been better if they added save features, however.
At the same year with Windows version, Sonnori brought the game to mobile under the name Darkside Story R. It was one of the launch titles for short-lived cellphone service GPANG, a mobile gaming platform specialized for the games that utilizes resources beyond normal cellphones (think Nokia’s N-Gage). Judging from what’s available, it appears to be straight port from the original no other than authentic changes. Darkside Story R itself was actually announced back in 2002, but as an exclusive release for then-new Korean handheld GP32. They eventually launched the other title, Astonishia Story R, but this one never saw the light, probably because of the system’s doomed fate. Interestingly, the artworks used for this specific version were provided by Junghoon Park a.k.a. SeeD, best known for his contribution to casual golf simulation Pangya series until he passed away in 2009.
Another mobile version was released in 2007, now dubbed Darkside Story M. The resolution was scaled down to fit the small standard cellphone but, unlike GPANG version, this port was entirely built from the scratch. All graphic assets were redrawn to fit its cripser style and extra effect was added on Suhee’s skill. Much wanted save features were presented here, and status bars were changed to have numeral display on it. The game was also extended with additional cutscenes and brand-new sidequests.
Suhee made a couple of cameo appearances in other Sonnori’s titles, too. She appears as one of the secret recruitable characters in Forgotten Saga, a loose spin-off to the company’s first work Astonishia Story. She’s also presented as player model in multiplayer FPS Oh! Jaemi.