Ikaruga Reader Review
The 2D shooter is the other last bastion of the old school videogamer, the other being the 2D fighter. I am bitter that the processing power of today hasn't been used to create more stunning shooters. Of course, the microprocessors of today enable me to play old coin-ops (remember those? There used to be whole arcades full of them) on MAME, but there is a thirst for more modern takes on the old formula. The Playstation 2 does have some gems, but other platforms have been neglected. We kept playing ever cooler shoot 'em ups through the 8- and 16-bit generations, but the CD age seemed to kill interest in the genre. Thus the gamer of today is raised on cheap and easy thrills and is an unsuitable audience for a raw shmup experience.
Luckily Atari decided to publish Treasure's Ikaruga in the Europe, too. I had kept tabs on the game since its original arcade incarnation and the later Dreamcast port, and was eager to get it. Unfortunately, it was never manufactured in large quantities and by the time I got a Gamecube, the game was nowhere to be found. I finally landed a used copy in an Internet auction for an agreeable 30€.
Needless to say, my expectations were pretty high after several years of anticipation.
Round 1... Fight!
The experience in its core doesn't change: it is split into five levels, the enemies always follow the same patterns, there are no powerups and indeed no choices to be made. I've always liked the powerup-less shooter, because that means your game isn't spoiled by dying once in the later levels, thus losing your powerups. Regardless, there isn't a lot of game here: when you're good enough, you'll see everything the game has to offer in around 20-30 minutes (approximately, I haven't timed it).
But that's just the thing: you're not good enough. I've been honing my shooter skills over the years, although I was never a particularly good player - I couldn't complete anything on one credit. Acknowledging Ikaruga's hardcore reputation, I chose the "easy" difficulty level, maxed out ships and credits and hit start. I couldn't get past level two in the first sitting. (With most coin-ops, I can complete level two in one credit.) With a couple of hours of practice, I could get to level four, just barely.
Bliss. A challenge. Now I'm determined to clear the first two levels without using continues. Once I can complete the game on one credit, I'll ramp up the difficulty to normal. (I tried "normal" once. No way I could complete level two.)
So I can see myself hacking away at Ikaruga for months to come, if I think I can ever tackle the game on "hard". However, why would I keep repeating the same patterns for hundreds of times? Beyond mere difficulty, Ikaruga is a thinking man's shooter.
The game is based on polarities: black and white. Your craft can switch color at the press of a button. The catch is that you're immune to fire of the same color, and indeed absorbing enemy fire powers up your homing lasers. But if you take on enemies of the opposite color, you inflict double damage... and a single hit will kill you. So you're constantly thinking if you should deal more damage or be able to absorb the incoming walls of fire - there are plenty of undodgeable volleys of enemy fire in the game. Naturally the screen tends to be filled with fire of both colors.
Then there's the scoring mechanic, which raises the game above pure survival. When you destroy three enemies of the same polarity in a row, you get a "chain". Every chain doubles the bonus score awarded for it. Shooting one wrong enemy out of the order resets the chain count. Of course, the levels are designed to support chaining all through them, but it's very difficult indeed. Included are videos of experts playing Ikaruga, which demonstrate advanced techniques to conquering the game.
The Next Day
Beyond the original arcade mode, Ikaruga sports other playmodes: the afore-mentioned three difficulty levels, a practice mode, an Internet scoring mode and the option to play the game in slow motion for figuring out those particularly difficult spots. It also allows you to select whether to display the game in the original, horizontal configuration (with a TV set on its side) or an adapted for home TVs vertical configuration. The graphics can be a tad small in the vertical mode, with wide black edges, luckily you can choose the level of zoom, sacrificing a few centimeters from the top and bottom of the screen for some extra width. I was happy playing with the 80% zoomed vertical mode.
Ikaruga has aged pretty well. It could make better use of the Gamecube hardware, but it's perfectly serviceable and in my opinion, visually very nice. The colors seem a little washed out, though. I like the (artificial) slowdown effect of boss explosions a lot, they really bring the arcade feel to the home couch.
The Gamecube controller is well suited to the game. The D-pad controls the craft perfectly, while A button switches color and B shoots (hold down for rapid fire). Homing lasers default to the R trigger, which is functional. The controls are customizable.
Ikaruga is an arcade game in your living room. Not a lot more, nothing less. Don't expect to play it in long bouts and be aware of the challenge involved, and you'll get plenty for your time and monetary investment. I'd liken it to the Xbox's OutRun 2, which also happens to be an arcade port: it only does one thing, but supremely entertainingly.
The score is for a normal person. You've got to be a fan of the genre to really appreciate this, but I'd urge anyone to check it out. The difficulty will be too much for most, though. It's just that if you've never played a shooter, you should, and Ikaruga is a fine place to start.
8 / 10