Ikaruga

Hands-On - the finest 2D shooter of all time?

Ah, the Dreamcast; a console that we have loved and lost, but it was certainly better than not to have loved at all. Remember Soul Calibur, Shenmue, Grandia II, Skies of Arcadia, Metropolis Street Racer, Virtua Tennis and Phantasy Star Online? Remember laughing at everyone who spent 300 on a PS2 at launch and then sat staring glumly at it for six months while you romped through a crop of the best games ever to grace a home console?

Blast from the Past

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No caterpillars were harmed in the making of that large metallic object in the background

Of course you do. Sega may have done some wonderful things as a third-party developer and publisher, but it'd take a lot of super monkeys in balls to make us forget about the Indian summer of Sega hardware, where the last rays of sunshine were all the brighter and warmer for the knowledge that winter was coming soon.

Ok, yes, a little over-dramatic and over-emotional, I confess. But all the same, there was a certain thrill to dusting off my trusty Dreamcast and popping in a brand new game for the first time in months, a definite sense of comfortable recognition in the liquid tones of the boot logo, and almost a touch of recrimination in the screen which popped up demanding that I set the date correctly - as if to say, "oi, how long without playing any games on me do you call this then!"

I'm sure my Dreamcast will forgive me though, because the slice of digital delight I fed into it was the latest masterpiece from a little Japanese developer called Treasure; and even if it's the last new game my Dreamcast ever sees, this certainly counts as going out with a bang. Treasure, for those of you who don't recognise the company, are the crowd behind some of the most fantastic shoot'em'up games of all time, ranging from the utterly wacky (previous Dreamcast outing Bangai-o) to the near-perfection - Saturn-era jaw-dropper Radiant Silvergun [and the team currently working on Wario World for Nintendo -Ed].

A near-miss

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Attack of the killer robot squid?

Ikaruga almost never appeared for the Dreamcast; finished long after the machine was officially buried by Sega, Treasure seemed prepared to dump the DC version entirely and move on to making the forthcoming GameCube port. Appeals from distributors and importers promised a certain level of sales, however, so Treasure ran off a limited run of several thousand copies of the game on the Dreamcast, many of which ended up with US-based import companies and hence into the hands of rabid Treasure fans everywhere. It's just as well that they did, too, because Ikaruga may be late to the Dreamcast party, but it's still one of the best reasons yet to have a Dreamcast as part of your console collection.

At heart, this is a vertically scrolling shoot'em'up, in which you play a single ship pitted against hordes of enemies who fill the screen with bullets, beams and explosions. The unique twist on the formula is the introduction of two opposed elements - white and black - which you can switch your ship between at a touch of a button. While you are white, you absorb all white bullets and do double damage to black enemies, and vice versa. Absorbing bullets boosts your special attack bar, and shooting enemies of your own colour causes them to explode in a shower of bullets of the same colour, which you can collect to build up special attack power more quickly.

Sorry Michael, it does matter if you're black or white

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The dance of the walnuts

This is a very simple game mechanic which is exploited to the fullest by Treasure's level designers. Combining streams of black and white enemies and bullets onscreen forces you to dart around the play area like an angry wasp, switching colours frantically to nip through sprays of bullets unharmed. Several segments take on a puzzle-like quality, as destroying everything on screen can actually make life more difficult for yourself in certain situations. Of course, in true Treasure style, there's also a chaining system - destroying three enemies in a row of a specific colour earns you a chain, and building up your chain requires you to destroy enemies only in groups of three. Initially, you'll battle to stay alive and ignore the chaining system, but it adds an extra layer of complexity to the game as your skill increases.

Two-player Ikaruga is also a stunning piece of work, with the colours system making life much more interesting in the multiplayer game. At the most basic level, players have to be careful not to destroy wrongly-coloured enemies near their partner, since the resulting shower of bullets will probably kill them (and forcibly thrown Dreamcast controllers can be very difficult to dislodge from human skulls), but as you advance in ability combined tactics such as using one player to sweep up bullets and the other to shoot boss enemies become possible.

Looking Radiant

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A steering lock advert [note to self: fire caption writer -Ed]

Graphically, Ikaruga is stunningly beautiful - each level is amazingly detailed and expansive, enemies are imaginatively designed and the occasional use of dramatic camera swoops and rolls is excellent. The game doesn't have as much impact on the Dreamcast as, for example, Radiant Silvergun had on the Saturn, simply because we already know that the Dreamcast is capable of graphical wizardry that can often still eclipse the PS2 and its ilk, but this doesn't detract from the wonderful presentation and superb artistry on offer here. For the best experience possible, the ability to use a monitor that can be turned on its side to see the entire play area as the designers intended is a welcome addition. As ever with a Treasure title, the music is also excellent, with a fantastic classical score which complements the action perfectly.

The game is inevitably compared to Treasure's previous masterpiece, Radiant Silvergun, but the comparisons are unfair. Ikaruga is a much smaller game in scope, with a single cunning gameplay mechanic used to provide hours and hours of enjoyment; Radiant Silvergun, on the other hand, was the be-all and end-all of vertical shoot 'em ups, with a complex system for levelling up, tons of different weapons and an emphasis on pure action and adrenaline. Each game is equally enjoyable, when taken on its own merits, and rather than making comparisons between Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun, we're just happy to see yet another magnificent Treasure title on a home console.

Ikaruga Cubed

Of course, Ikaruga won't have any mainstream appeal while it remains on a dead (for all intents and purposes, sniff) console as an expensive import-only title. The release of the Infogrames-published GameCube version is imminent, however, and we can only hope that someone decides to distribute it in Europe. If you don't own a Dreamcast (shame on you) or aren't keen on paying a small fortune to import Ikaruga from the USA, consider this entire article a preview of the GameCube version; and if your Dreamcast is hidden away in the attic at the moment gathering dust, now would be a perfect time for an emotional reunion with it.

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