Version tested: Xbox 360
Let's suppose you know nothing about Ikaruga. Let's assume that developer Treasure, forbear Radiant Silvergun, director Hiroshi Iuchi and No Refuge are all names and phrases that carry no weight or significance to you. This is a good place to start because, as with the re-release of any classic game, it's easy to get caught up in the context, the history and the memories and lose sight of the fact that all videogames live or die in the now.
And if you do get the references; if you can one-credit the game blindfolded using only your sphincter; if the mere mention of its name fills your heart with Dreamcast swirls and warm nostalgia; or if you're approaching this review not as a prospective purchaser but as an inspector, clipboard and beady eyes checking every consonant for the shadow of an error the way only a snooty Japanese shmup aficionado can... Well, try to imagine you know nothing about Ikaruga and discard the context, the history and the memories: that way you might get to fall in love all over again.
Ikaruga, like all the very best arcade endeavours, is easy to grasp and near-impossible to master. The simplicity derives from the fact that its mechanics are quite literally black and white. Everything in this slick, confident shoot-'em-up - the enemies, the bullets and the paintwork on your ship - is one of two colours. One button-press switches your ship between them: black, white, black, white.
While black you fire black bullets that tear white enemies to shreds but only gently damage opponents that share your shade. Flick to white and the reverse is true. Additionally, rather than taking damage from enemy bullets of the same colour as yourself, you store them up. Collect enough and you can deploy the tracer tendrils of a smart bomb. In this way you have direct control over what is and isn't a threat on the screen at any one time. Flip the switch and it all changes, friends become enemies, enemies become friends. In the relentlessly prescribed field of videogame design, this is rare freedom indeed.
It's a good idea (one Treasure had already explored a little in the SEGA Saturn's Silhouette Mirage) and, it transforms what would otherwise be a short, sharp, orthodox vertical shooter into an elaborate twitch puzzle. Herein lies the game's clever: every encounter with a group of enemy ships forces a critical decision to either take the long easy route (by matching their colour) or the short difficult one (by opposing it). There is only one combo mechanic to master and it's straightforward and elegant. Shoot any three of a kind followed by any three of a kind: black, black, black, white, white, white.
But for all the system's fresh inventiveness, it is also an idea that overwhelms the experience, stifling many of the other elements that define shoot-'em-ups. While you fire a solid stream of bullets, dodge enemy fire and target weak points, your constant attention is drawn and held by the core conceit. Where are the best places to switch up to maximise the combo meter? Are my reflexes good enough to dodge this stream of black bullets as a white ship or should I take the slower, safer route for fewer points and lesser glory? These questions complicate and crowd your mind as you play, drawing the game away from a pure shoot-'em-up experience into something altogether different and inscrutable.
While broadening the definition of the genre, Treasure has also then, in a sense, narrowed it. This is a game of relentless, near-clinical precision, built for repeat-repeat-repeat-till you-get-it play that it will stifle players who don't fully commit to developing and perfecting a strategy. Seasoned shmup players are often lukewarm towards the game because you can't simply fall back on sharp reflexes and instinct alone. Success takes planning and practice. Whereas in Radiant Silvergun the colour-matching mechanics were totally optional, allowing the game to be played as a straight shoot-'em-up, here understanding and mastering the core idea is the key to success, a decision that splits the audience neatly in two: black, white, black, white.
So a shoot-'em-up with a good idea. What's the big deal? Well, while the game's mechanics are notable, in a sense it's the chassis and circumstance that have made it important. The utilitarian elegance that marks the game's core idea extends to its visuals in a remarkable fashion. Sunsets invade battleship blue skies, a cacophony of visual wonder built from a narrow colour palette of understated apricot hues mixed with cool iceberg blues. Patchwork quilt fields scroll miles below while exquisite ship, particle and lighting designs unfurl above. It's a game of such assured style to make most other games seem clumsy, juvenile and ridiculous by comparison.
The game found fame on the Dreamcast, arriving late into the beloved but ill-fated console's lifespan, but it was in the arcade that it debuted, the home console version but a twinkle in NAOMI's eye. A limited, Japanese-only production run made the game a desirable and expensive eBay item. This interest resulted in its acquisition by Atari for a GameCube release, where it subsequently found an evangelical fanbase. And now, finally, Ikaruga arrives on XBLA for the masses, complete with all of the leaderboard support it deserves at an irresistible price point.
The conversion is, to our hands, flawless. The screen (bordered at either side as the game was made for vertically-aligned arcade cabinets) can be stretched and moved to better fill modern widescreens and the resolution is higher than it has ever been. Likewise, whereas once dedicated players would need to import Japanese DVDs of the top players' score runs for tips and techniques, now you simply select their name on the scoreboard and sit back to watch their replay, awestruck. The option to save and upload all replays, combined with co-op play over Xbox Live, makes the definitive version of the game.
That said, there are scant few extras here, as if the four-man development team knew that the extraordinary challenge of making it through the game's five stages in a single credit while also vying for a high score would be content enough. There is no dead weight to the game, either in terms of presentation, design or content. You either fall for this Spartan approach or find its undiluted focus too much to bear. In Ikaruga there is no refuge, and there's honesty to this black and white approach that demands respect. But will that respect will turn to adoration? Well, that very much depends on how hard you'll work to make your own memories herein.
8 / 10