Ikaruga Reader Review
Masochistic, frustrating, relentless, brutal, repetitive. A cocktail of adjectives which do not suggest having a good time, unless you have a very warped view of how to have fun. And yet these words describe the essence of Ikaruga, one of the finest, most challenging and hardcore shoot-em-ups ever made. Released in 2001 in Japanese arcades by Treasure, and later ported to the Dreamcast and Gamecube, Ikaruga developed a reputation among gamers for its vicious difficulty and innovative gameplay mechanics in the sadly fading shoot-em-up genre. Now it has landed on Xbox Live Arcade, and stands shoulder to shoulder with Rez HD and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as the absolute best the service has to offer.
Ikaruga puts a unique twist on shoot-em-up games by introducing the concept of polarity. In this vertical shooter, enemies have either black or white polarity and shoot bullets of the corresponding colour. Your ship can also transform between these polarities with the press of a button. If the polarity of your ship is the same as the bullets, all incoming fire will be absorbed and used to charge an energy meter which can be used to unleash a devastating screen-clearing attack. Conversely, if your ship is hit by a single bullet of opposite polarity, it will be destroyed. However, if you shoot enemies of opposite polarity you will inflict twice as much damage. These elements combine to make an extremely tactical and innovative shoot-em-up, in which you are required to think on your feet as your screen is bombarded with a hail of bullets which constantly change their patterns and polarity requiring you to react quickly to deal with the onslaught. For example, you may decide the safest tactic is to be the same polarity as the incoming fire at all times, which is tough enough as it is because things keep changing, but in many instances it may be better to adopt the more perilous approach of being the opposite polarity in order to take out enemies faster with your increased firepower before things get too hectic and you are overwhelmed. Each strategy has its own risks and rewards and you will have to alternate your playing style frequently if you want to stay alive for more than ten seconds.
Undoubtedly, death is very frequent in Ikaruga, and you will have to replay sections many times and memorise enemy patterns before you get your head around how best to survive. The game simply moves at too fast a pace and is too unforgiving to get things completely right the first time around. But it is this aspect of repetition and honing your craft which not only makes Ikaruga tremendously addictive, but also mitigates the rather short length of the five levels of which the game consists. With every new attempt at a particular level you will notice progress in your competence at the game, however small, and this can be extremely satisfying. But on the same basis, Ikaruga is certainly not for everyone and many people's patience will be tested to the breaking point before they turn the game off in disgust.
If you can handle it however, Xbox Live brings the superb benefit of being able to compare how bad you are to the rest of the world with online leaderboards and the ability to download replays. This brings us to Ikaruga's scoring system, which awards high scores for successfully 'chaining' your attacks. You can build up a chain by shooting three enemies of the same polarity. Like everything else in Ikaruga, this is far more difficult than it sounds because shifting enemy patterns make it very tricky to build up consecutive chains and you will often have your chains inadvertently broken. It's just another layer of depth to Ikaruga's already multifaceted gameplay system except this time it's optional and meant for the best players who enjoy being pushed to the absolute limits. For most people I would imagine simply surviving each stage is more than enough challenge. However, watching replays of the top players pulling off ridiculously high scores can be an awe-inspiring experience. Xbox Live also offers an online co-op functionality, although the two ships clutter an already frantic screen making gameplay less enjoyable, but your mileage may vary.
Ikaruga has rightfully earned its place in gaming history as one of the greatest shoot-em-up games ever conceived. With its brilliant gameplay, sharp graphics, terrific soundtrack and masterful design this game deserves a place in any self-respecting hardcore gamer's collection. At only 800 points, there's absolutely no excuse for it not to be in yours.
9 / 10