In Depth Review: Ikaruga [GCN]
If you are, however, like me and can accept the fact that you really, really suck at many games for the first 12 hours, stay. In fact, if you are one of those I just branded (the "it ain't fer you" folk), but are willing to give this game a shot to see if it will open up new horizons for your gaming thumbs, then I encourage you to stay as well. Because once I got acclimated to the game and it's intricate beauties, I realized that the much maligned (and deservedly so) Atari had done me an incredible favor in bringing Ikaruga stateside.
Ikaruga is a vertically scrolling shooter with several gameplay elements that sound simple in words, but are astronomically difficult to master in practice. Everything in the game is based on light and dark "polarities". As far as your ship goes, it can switch almost instantaneously between light and dark with a press of the A button. Your weapon switches along with this. When you are light, it will fire white shots. When you are dark, it will fire black shots. As far as your enemies go, they only come in either white or black - as do their projectiles.
This duality provides for the following quirks as your ship interacts with the enemy:
Sounds simple enough, and even may sound silly to some. But this allowed Treasure to throw in two important things to get keep our attention and makes us devise strategies for: amassing points, and simply surviving seemingly impossible scenarios.
1-Up after 293,874,293,846,986,000 Points!
No one keeps much score today, but back in the day of Space Invaders points were bragging rights. In Pac-Man's case, points also netted you extra lives. In Ikaruga, where it's so easy to be blasted out of the water, amassing points both gives you extra lives AND lets you brag to you friends that you've faced lots of danger and lived to see tomorrow. Let's forget about the fact that, already, losing all your lives sets your point total down to zero, essentially forcing you to complete the whole game on one credit to ensure a high score. The focus here is on chains, bullet-eating, and speed.
Somewhere in each wave of enemy ships is a pattern that you can pick out. It's not obvious, but believe me, there is some way to time your fire such that you can pick off three like-colored enemies at a time. It comes through memorization of the stages. Chaining your way through half of the first stage alone is a 1,000,000 point difference from just haphazardly killing enemies. Because I suck a this game, every point closer to an extra life is a point closer to security. The hunt for and observation of chaining pattern is just one of the things that keeps me glued to the set.
Coincidentally, points are also gained by absorbing shots, a practice known as bullet-eating. Remember how killing a like-colored enemy results in a shower of suicide bullets? Well, what if you went through as much of the game as you could, destroying like-colored enemies, and gobbling up the suicide bullets before they spread out too thin to collect them all? What if you went through trying to gobble anything of the same color? Not only would you be flying and shooting, but you'd be trying to follow every single thing on the screen, switching polarities when necessary, absorbing all the way... charging your meter AND bringing you higher scores. The idea of such a challenge makes me giddy - and watching really hardcore players do it by downloading AVI's of them strutting their stuff has confirmed to me that it is indeed very possible (along with completing stages on one life). The hazard, of course, is switching polarities too quickly when trying to dismantle enemies of the opposite color, and meanwhile the shower of suicide bullets is still heading for you. You just killed three light enemies, but three dark enemies quickly scroll onto the screen. In a fit to reach them before they fly off, you switch to black and... run into the light shots. Oops.
Then there's the speed, which only really comes into play during boss battles. A timer starts for each boss battle. Beat the thing before the timer hits 0, you get bonus points per second of time. Don't, and the boss... well... becomes a pu$$y and runs away. Of course you can, using polarity switching, find ways to decrease the amount of time it takes to kill 'em dead. It requires little fear of dying and fast thumbs to fill your meter up by grabbing bullets or absorbing laser shots, so you can release those homing lasers right in the boss' grill. I appreciated the fact that the boss runs away - when you suck as much as I do, knowing that simply outlasting the boss will allow you to live lets you see more of the game. And believe me - there are some DIFFICULT bosses.
This Entire Game Defines "Difficult"
All the excitement and thrills from bullet-eating enemies right in their faces is exponentially increased when you factor in how hard this game really is. I think some of the bullet formations that come after you are quite beautiful to look at; they're so intricate, they're like works of art on their own. Yes, this is how complicated staying alive gets. You're forced to weave and switch your way through mazes of bullets and lasers coming at your head. There are areas of the game which are absolutely impossible to pass through without employing a quick switch of polarities. White and black lasers intersect to form nets that you can't escape, or arcing bullets fly at you in one color while huge laser blasts shoot directly down in another color. Were it not for your ability to switch, these very same projectile patterns would have a 100% chance of killing you in other games not named Mars Matrix or Giga Wing. There are times in Ikaruga where I have simply just set the controller down and gaped as my ship exploded repeatedly. "I give up," I'd mutter, only to reset the console and go at it again.
You know how frothingly mad I get at games. But the deal here is that there is always a pattern or strategy for getting out alive. Sometimes you get lucky in games, but in Ikaruga, once you spot it you just need to practice it over... and over... and over again until your thumbs adjust to the shower of bullets coming for you. There is *always* a way, and once you find it, you will go into a Zen-like state where nothing can disturb you. It's these moments that make Ikaruga worth all the effort spent memorizing and practicing. You can look up and say yeah, I passed that trial. I did that and I spent no lives. To complete the game on one credit - nay, one life - as some folks do, is truly an act of incredible proportions and gives such a sense of accomplishment. Hell, I feel that sense when I merely watch a video of said activity happening. I don't ever think I will reach that plateau myself, but the fun is in the journey.
Eventually you will unlock Free Play, as the game awards you one continue for every hour you spend with it. You start off with 2, and as soon as you reach 10 it becomes free play. I figure Treasure realized saps like me would try and complete the game, while lacking the requisite skills to do such a thing. But I actually don't like this - I wanted the pressure of having limited continues in order to heighten my skills. As it is though, I do appreciate that I got to see the game in its entirety quickly. The game is still as hard as ever regardless, and even if you have infinite continues it really doesn't feel right watching your ship explode continuously. No serious gamer would ever stand for that.
Hopefully by now you have an idea of how frantic and insane the meat of the gameplay is, and thusly an idea of why I love this game so. But being able to enjoy something so seemingly frustrating wouldn't have been possible without Treasure's ability to craft such elegant play control. It also didn't hurt that, around the core gameplay, Treasure left its trademark on the aesthetic areas of this game. That, of course, is just icing on an already delicious cake that was baked all for me. (Don't you touch it. It's MY cake. Ahem.)
There really isn't an extreme amount to say about the play control in this game because it's quite simply almost perfect. There is no lagging in the controls, no slowdown during intense gameplay (although some would fairly argue that slowdown during intense explosions in the Dreamcast version made the game more dramatic), and the control setup is so simple that you aren't really concerned with a lot of buttons or special commands. In Radiant Silvergun, my only niggling complaint is that the ship moved a wee bit too slow for some sections. In Ikaruga, your ship moves at a brisker clip, yet not so fast such that you go flying 300 virtual feet instead of the intended 10. Switching polarities is almost instantaneous, such that while you can't switch "through" a stream of bullets, you can still wait until almost the last second and make a well-timed switch without having to worry about a delay. Also pleasing is the vulcan fire. Your rate of fire is incredibly fast, creating an almost continuous blast rather than separate "bullets". But before you mark it an unfair advantage for the gamer, remember the insane difficulty I just got through explaining. Treasure has crafted a game where you didn't have to concern yourself with control or abilities so that you could concentrate more on how to deal with the situations in gameplay on a functional level rather than a technical level. It's just got that smooth, spot-on "feel" that the best fighting, action and platform games have.
Many gamers will think it's fine and dandy that the play control is tight, but really want to know if the graphics are T3H R0X0Rs. (On second thought, the gamers that'll understand why this game is so hot won't care about superficial crap like graphics, but I digress... *grumble*) I won't tell you that Ikaruga beats out a beast like Splinter Cell or Resident Evil, but Ikaruga looks very, very good. As mentioned before, performance never slows down, no matter how many things are on screen at once. The only time I've ever seen slowdown is during a boss enemy's death explosion, in 2-player mode, and then again the boss explosions *always* slow down, possibly for dramatic effect. Color-wise the game isn't very varied as far as the ships are concerned. After all, they're all black and white. But they're still designed very artistically to look damned cool. Check out the boss of Chapter 2 for a small example. The patterns of bullets coming at you are also simply very pretty to look at, as I stated above. With all that's going on with the ships and projectiles though, you're still flying over a very fast- and smooth-scrolling land- or city-scape far below with a fair amount of detail. Not absurdly groundbreaking, but it doesn't need to be.
The music has also grown on me immensely. The producer of the game, Hiroshi Iuchi, decided to compose all of it himself, and similar to Hitoshi Sakimoto's work on Radiant Silvergun, almost every track save for two has some variation of the main theme heard in Chapter 1. Yet each track stands on its own, adapting to a different mood while managing to still fit the environment of an heroic pilot going up against a horde of enemies who show no remorse. While at some points I wish the game didn't repeat the main theme so much, the music is still very powerful, unique and memorable.
Creating a Buddhist Shootemup: The B'Mup
The elegance of Ikaruga's design extends into the game's "backstory" - which is unexpected for a shooter. They went all out for Radiant silvergun's story, exposing it to the player before, during and after gameplay with a bevy of FMVs and in-stage voice acting. It's much less obvious in Ikaruga, and for those who own the Gamecube version only or don't read any Japanese there is practically no storyline to follow except that which is found in the instruction manual. It sounds rather simple, and here is the Cliff Notes version. Scratch that -- the Chupon Notes version. Leader of country finds mysterious stone. Stone grants leader powers. Leader becomes power-hungry and leads his country to conquer other countries. Resistance fighters retaliate to no avail and are eradicated save for one pilot: Shinra. Shinra is mad. Shinra goes back. Shinra gets shot down, but not before knocking out a would-be assassin named Kagari. They both end up in the town of Ikaruga, where they are nursed back to health. Kagari realizes the error of her ways and decides to help Shinra. Shinra is given the reins to the Ikaruga fighter jet, and the town engineer modifies Kagari's ship (the Ginkei) to have the same polarity abilities as the Ikaruga. Shinra and Kagari go out to whup some a$$.
There's a bit more behind it though, and none of it is really apparent. The Dreamcast version has a few lines of text at the outset of every chapter, none of which I can understand but they are said to give some insight in regards to the trials that Shinra faces. (There are several sites that can explain these things.) And a lot of the black-and-white imagery is -- no, it's not race or an ode to TV in the 1930's. It's more about yin-yang and Buddhism. If you look carefully there's a bunch of Sanskrit almost everywhere in the game, in fact even in the opening scene preceding Chapter 1 has flags with a Sanskrit symbol on each one. That scene takes place as the Ikaruga ship is exiting a facility known as the "Sword of Acala", another Buddhist reference. The word Ikaruga itself represents the name of a real town in which it is said Buddhism was introduced into Japan. (It's also the Japanese word for a certain kind of bird.) Please correct me if I'm wrong... I don't feel like doing more research right now -_-... Finally, the ending of the game is directly related to the name of the last chapter. Look it up, then watch the ending.
With any and all knowledge from this uber-scarce backstory in the back of your mind, it makes the defeat of the last boss -- and the resulting "ending" -- more rewarding and a bit more deep. It's really something to admire, that all these pieces of this game -- even the almost non-existent "story" -- fit together so well to form such a well crafted product. Even though I'm against praising a game simply for its story, I can't deny that Ikaruga was even more of a pleasure to experience with this knowledge in tow.
I Nitpick Because I Have To...
And yet not all is perfect with Ikaruga. Almost all, but not all. Really this is just being snotty in the whole scheme of things, but I'm sure some of you people will flame me with, "But T3H IKAr00GA is TEH SUX0RS! How can U Recomend this carppy game!" So here goes. Ikaruga is incredibly short. It's five chapters long, and as an auto-scrolling game, should take no longer than half an hour to complete even if you let the timer run out on every single boss encounter. It's also, as I've stressed unrelentingly before, VERY VERY hard. Rewind to the top of my review. This game might just simply NOT be for you. You'll get mad at the bullets. You'll get mad at the bosses. You'll get mad at messing up chains. You'll get mad at the seemingly unfair situations they put you in, the "Why!!!" situations as AnTiPoDe likes to call 'em.
But even with these so-called "flaws" I'm not going to let them go down without a fight. They may feel like flaws, but in my opinion I don't really give a flying f*ck that the game is 5 stages. The second "flaw" is perhaps the very reason why the first "flaw" is employed. If it's so damned hard, shouldn't you be glad that the game is over in half an hour? And if the game is too short for you, then why are you complaining about its high challenge? Would you be able to memorize and play through ten more chapters of that?
The whole idea is that Ikaruga is originally an arcade game, thus it is meant to be played and appreciated as such. It is very, very dense and intense. It will take you half an hour of virtual time from Chapter One to the end, but in REAL time, it'll probably take you ten to twelve hours if you're a so-so gamer to ever see the very last boss fight. It takes hours and hours of learning, skill and patience. Unless you're one of the gods over at Ikaruga.co.uk, your brain and thumbs would NOT stand more than five chapters of this blissful punishment. (And no I'm not implying that only a masochist would like this game... but it helps to be one ^_^)
Furthermore, the draw of many shmups -- arcade games -- is that it requires your persistent effort. Thus, more often than not I would consider fair but punishing difficulty a huge plus for a shmup. That's what they're there for. TO TEST YOUR SKILL. The days when videogames relied on real skills and action will end when 2D ends, and I believe 2D will end when no one plays anymore shmups or fighting games (in 2D). So appreciate it while it's here: Ikaruga is sent from Treasure to make you a better, more aware, more dextrous videogame player. And have fun while doing it too. That, my finely feathered friends, is why Ikaruga is so hard yet so great.
Obviously take this as you will. Perhaps you're already put off from Ikaruga because it's too simple, old school, hard, or any combination of the three. But I urge you, as a gamer, to give it a fair shake. Sit down with it for an hour, even if you're not a shooter fan. If it doesn't grow on you, then it's just not for you and that's perfectly fine. But Ikaruga certainly deserves every gamer's chance, just like its prequel deserved such attention that it never got (since it was never released here and all... I wonder if that has anything to do with it :P). I tell you, it's so addictive that I had to retire it to my shelf after reaching the 13 hour mark. It made me go to sleep too late every night and had me ignoring every other game I've been wanting to review for the site. But don't let that scare you. And as a last incentive, it may go the way of the dodo very soon, seeing as it's such a niche product -- so get your copy right now before it does. Because in the rare event that you really don't like this game, eBay is just a click away. Out of respect for this truly excellent title, I'll buy another copy from you.