Game Description: Ikaruga is a 2D scrolling space shooter (with options for either a vertical or horizontal display) set against a 3D backdrop with a combination of rich Japanese storytelling and high-powered fighter-pilot heroics. Players take the role of hero Shinra, the lone survivor of a freedom federation that was massacred by the evil, power-hungry conqueror Tenro Horai. Now Shinra, in his newly-built ship, the Ikaruga, must fight for aging, exiled people who are depending upon him for their survival. Join the sole warrior as he battles the evil Horai in the hopes of restoring peace.
"Hi, my name is Mike, and I'm a shmup fan."
Acknowledging that you're a fan of the shoot-'em-up (or shmup, as they're lovingly referred to by the hardcore crowd) in this day and age of 3D graphics and epic games is sort of like admitting you're an alcoholic at the local AA meeting. You're bound to find a few folks who share and understand your affliction, but most of the time your proclamation will be met with blank stares or worse, looks of pity. The majority of today's gamers are simply incapable of fathoming how someone could actually enjoy playing games with 2D graphics and gameplay mechanics that essentially involve shooting everything on the screen.
Ah, but forgive them Father, for they know not what they do. The inherent beauty of the shmup is that while it appears to be a relatively simple affair at first glance (involving shooting hordes of enemies and dodging insane amounts of return fire), that couldn't be further from the truth. To become a true shmup master, one must enter a Zen-like state wherein the gamer becomes one with the controller and his onscreen avatar. Shmups, sort of like the old arcade fighters, are gaming in its purest form—contests where victory depends on practice, skill, and reflexes.
Unfortunately, the shmup (which once dominated the videogame market both on consoles and in the arcades) has become a niche genre. Longtime fans of these games still play them (as witnessed by the active shmup community online), but the casual gamer generally has little interest in playing titles that seem so archaic—or don't generate the requisite amount of hype.
Ikargua is legendary developer Treasure's (who also gave us the brilliant Radiant Silvergun for the Sega Saturn) latest attempt to breathe new life into this once proud category of games. The good news for shmup fans is that it's a complete success.
Striving for innovation in the shmup genre is almost counterproductive since part of what makes these games so intriguing (and so much fun) is their accessibility. Every shmup out there is essentially a 'pick up and play' experience, meaning that anyone can give it a shot with minimal training. Mastering the games, though, is a different matter entirely.
Ikargua is at least somewhat different in this regard. It features all the shmup staples: hordes of enemies, insane amounts of bullets to dodge, larger than life bosses, and so on. Its one innovation comes in the form of a color system that Treasure seems to have borrowed from their earlier release, Silhouette Mirage.
The color system works like this: your ship and enemy ships are either black or white. Black ships shoot black bullets and can be absorbed if your ship is also black (which powers up your special attack meter). Black bullets from your gun do double damage to white ships. The opposite of all this is true for white. So, rather than just fly through the game blasting everything in sight, one must constantly adjust the color of their ship in order to navigate the insane amounts of enemy fire and to do maximum damage when possible.
Making things even more interesting is a color-based combo system. In order to rack up legendary scores on the game, one must shoot enemies in a specific order to build up chains. For example, hit three white ships in a row, and it's a chain—hit three more (or three black ships) and the multiplier increases again. Each stage is laid out in a way where the player can achieve huge chains with a little self-restraint (those who shoot first and look later will be doomed to low scores throughout) and a touch of skill. Pretty much anyone can complete Ikaruga's five stages—few people will actually master them.
What makes Ikaruga so intriguing from a game development standpoint is that while the title is a straight up shooter at first glance, it's only after one plays for a period that they come to realize just how much the game has in common with titles in the puzzle genre. Ikaruga's patterns of alternating colors and the constant flipping of the ship are not unlike Tetris at its most complex levels (at least in terms of being forced to concentrate fully, react as quickly as possible with complete precision, and plan a few moves ahead). This really brings an extra dimension to the game in terms of mechanics as the title asks gamers to not only shoot and dodge, but also focus on finding the best path through each stage.
Visually, the game is stunning. I've long been a fan of 2D games, and Ikaruga is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. While it's not quite as colorful as a lot of the other shmups on the market, it more than compensates with the overall cohesiveness of its aesthetic design. The game strives for a sort of cyberpunk appearance throughout, and the browns, grays, and other muted colors only add to the feel of the title.
One of the main complaints leveled against shmups is that they're short, and Ikaruga is no exception. In this era of 40-hour games, a game with a mere five areas to conquer doesn't seem to offer much bang for the buck, and if players simply continue over and over the experience will indeed be a short one. However, one doesn't play a game like Ikaruga to simply reach the end—one plays it to master it. In this regard, Ikaruga offers up tons of gameplay through multiple modes, different difficulty settings, and the challenges of getting a high score (which the player can then post on the game's official ranking board). Those who strive to get good at the game will be spending a lot of time with this title.
Ultimately, this review only scratches the surface of the Ikaruga experience—and the game is indeed an experience, something better played than read about. No review will ever accurately convey the tension in navigating through a sea of multiple colored bullets that fill every inch of the screen or the joy in finally nailing a 100+ chain combo because Ikaruga, like all good shmups, is visceral. In an age where it seems like gamers spend more time reading about games than actually playing them, Ikaruga is almost an anachronism—a title that begs be experienced in person.
Ikaruga is like no other shooter I've played. Despite my enjoyment of other excellent games like it, Ikaruga comes out on top. It's unfortunate that to describe why is so impressively difficult.
The challenge of the game and its convention-stretching inventive play combine to create an experience that is tricky to convey outside of its own genre, yet there are many things to say about Ikaruga. One can describe gameplay and give an assessment as Mike did, but I am to explain the game through the mental processes that take place while learning to play because it stimulates in such an interesting way.
At first I just wanted to watch what is the most visually appealing shooter I've seen. This proved lethal. Every time I advanced to a new stage, I quickly went through several lives as I focused on what Mike properly describes as its "[cyberpunk] aesthetic." The art and modeling is tight and focused, with nothing particularly overwrought. While at some points a bit mentally disturbing to consider in the heat of play, the graphics were never distracting. It was easy to concentrate on the game itself without getting overwhelmed by the incidental art once I set myself to the task.
The more insidious change from prior shooters, however, is the color polarity system. Mike's mention of predecessor Silhouette Mirage suggests this is not as original as it seems, but it was new to me. While the concept is quite readily understood, I found that the personal paradigmatic gameplay shift essential for doing well at Ikaruga was not immediately forthcoming. All my instincts and training from previous shooters led to an incessant assault on my conscious thought: AVOID ALL SHOTS! I had moderate success with that tactic until the first boss repeatedly tore me apart. The key, it seems, is to learn when to skirt and when to absorb enemy shots—a drastic retraining of reflexes honed by years of other shooters. Yes, it is in the player's best interest to fly right into enemy bullets!
Ikaruga throws new challenges at the player at every turn. Just as I became accustomed to the constant barrage of multi-colored shots, I was hit with solid walls of alternating color followed immediately by ever-expanding concentric circles, then twisting, zig-zagging streams, and no rest in sight! Being put in the middle of a swirling, rotating maelstrom of colors, interfering interwoven spirals hypnotic in their crossing and reversing mandalic floral patterns nearly drove me mad from disbelief: "How am I supposed to manage this?"
There is most definitely a "zone" that game players, whether video or athletic, can reach. It's a state of unthinking comprehension, action and simultaneous reaction—an almost tantric understanding of the surroundings or task at hand. Reaching this zone is probably the most helpful thing one can do while playing Ikaruga. Those whose problems achieving this state mirror mine will find that the more complex patterns will require a fair amount of practice. As Mike assesses, it is also the need to get into this zone that makes playing Ikaruga feel so much like playing a puzzle game.
Most puzzlers emphasize quick cognitive recognition skills. As new pieces appear on the field, the player must rapidly identify the unique attributes of the new piece as well as how it best fits into the existing layout. The appearance of enemy ships in Ikaruga may never be randomized (as in puzzle games), but unless the player already has an entrenched routine for each level, the same skills are stressed. The flood of black and white shots cause a constant switching between ship colors to stay alive, yet one must still consider how to unctuously dispose of all enemies. Constant action throughout the screen means a holistic view of the field is better than focusing on a single area. This perceptiveness and the corresponding demanding reactions to find the "best fit," are best achieved while in Mike's Zen-like zone, just as in puzzle games.
Despite my attempted eloquence, I feel that I have not managed to do Ikaruga justice. It is a wonderful, unique game with a stronger unified aesthetic than most and will require the hapless player to achieve a nigh-ascetic level of devotion to fully master. A superb work.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Violence
Parents have nothing to fear with this title. Ikaruga is a throwback to the days of old when games were certainly about blowing things up, but rarely about killing people. The destruction in this title is of various well-armed spacecraft, with nary a person or alien in sight.
Shmup fans will want to grab this game immediately—it's a fantastically visceral experience that brings back memories of the days when shoot-'em-ups ruled the arcades. This game is a masterpiece, and belongs in every GameCube owner's library.
Casual gamers should also experience Ikaruga. While the gameplay may look relatively simple in comparison to this generation's titles, it's much more complex and involved than it appears at first glance. Simply put, Ikaruga will satisfy your retro gaming needs, or allow you to see what games were like in years past if you were too young to actually remember the good old days.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers should have no concerns. Ikargua is a shooter with very little in the way of voices. In fact, the only real voice is a robotic counter that keeps track of your combos, and even gamers who can hear have an incredibly difficult time making out what he's saying.