Reviewed: April 28, 2008
Released: April 9, 2008
Ikaruga is the latest scrolling shooter arcade game to make its way to the Xbox Live Arcade. Originally created by Japanese developer, Treasure, for the Dreamcast, Atari brought the game to the U.S. in 2003 on the GameCube and now we get a pristine remastered version for the Xbox 360 with some sweet graphics and updated multiplayer.
Scrolling shooters were born in the arcades back in the 80’s where they thrived for nearly a decade. The blazing action, sequential level design, and addictive gameplay was guaranteed to empty your pockets of tokens before you knew what happened. As arcades started to drop off the map and home video game consoles started showing up shooters naturally made the move to the living room, but by the 21st century the genre is now all but extinct.
Over the past few years only a few scrolling shooters have attempted to breathe new life back into the genre. In the early days of the original PS1 Sony released a game called Philosoma, a clever shooter that blended horizontal, vertical, and 3D shooting combat. To this day, it is one of my favorite PS1 titles and I still play it. Back in 2001 Working Designs released an updated version of Silpheed: Lost Planet; another amazing shooter that had originally been released by Sierra as a PC shooter then updated for 3D in the mid-90’s when the SEGA-CD launched. And I would be remiss if I failed to mention Squaresoft’s Einhander, for the PSX, perhaps the hardest shooter ever released, at least until Ikaruga came onto the scene.
I have to admit I was more than a bit surprised when I heard this game was coming to the XBLA. For awhile now it seemed the Arcade was doomed to be the home to 80's coin-op remakes, but now it looks like it will also become the home to last-gen remakes from past consoles. I'm not complaining mind you. Ikaruga is a fantastic shooter and perhaps the most challenging game you will ever play on XBLA - yes, it's harder than Omega Five.
There are several things you expect when going into a scrolling shooter game and Ikaruga abandons most of these preconceptions at the Start screen. Players no longer have to worry about a large variety of weapons or power-ups. One ship, two weapons, and an itchy trigger finger are all you need to blast your way through this game.
As simple and stripped down as Ikaruga’s gameplay is, there is a surprising amount of strategy involved in playing this game. The core concept is that every enemy is either black or white. You also have the ability to change the “polarity” of your ship to match or oppose an enemy, thus creating a world of strategic possibilities.
The game features a non-interactive tutorial that explains the fundamentals. The basic premise is a set of rules that will dictate the way you approach and play Ikaruga. When your fighter matches the polarity of the enemy you will absorb their incoming fire and store it for an energy burst that releases homing missiles 10x more powerful than your primary weapon. When you attack a ship of opposite color your weapon does double damage, but any incoming fire from that enemy will instantly vaporize you.
As you can see, the strategic possibilities are staggering and the designers have used this “binary” gameplay model to create some truly challenging encounters. The way the enemies stream onto the screen and their various firing and blast patterns are all based on this two-color model, which means that given enough time and patience you can eventually learn when and where to change polarity to absorb fire and when to switch to increase your firepower.
Things get even more complicated when the designers add further “rules” to the game. If you shoot a ship of the same color it will explode with a burst of energy that can be absorbed if your ship matches the color of the projectiles. So your strategy might be something like black vs. white for double damage then when the ship explodes you quickly switch to white to absorb the energy.
This might all sound easy but rest assured that every encounter in this game features a complex mix of ships and fire patterns of both colors. You will quickly find that you leave the primary fire button mashed down and start using the polarity switch button for more effective gameplay. As you weave through enemy fire and circle the mid-level and end-level bosses you will need to constantly toggle your ship color to match huge showers of black and white fire, but you also need to be aware of the enemies and the damage you inflict on them. It’s a brilliant mix of offensive and defensive strategy that you simply don’t expect in a simple shooter.
As previously mentioned, you can store up energy by absorbing incoming fire of matching polarity. This energy is stored in a meter on the side of the screen and can be unleashed in the form of homing missiles that are quite effective on bosses or if you just need to pave your way through a congested area.
Enemy ships aren’t the only things you need to worry about in Ikaruga. Those twisted level designers have created some environments that are as deadly as they are challenging. You will find yourself navigating narrow corridors with moving blocks just waiting to crush your ship. In keeping with the tradition of black and white gameplay these blocks are also “polarized” so you can switch to the opposite color and destroy these blocks more quickly, but you can also count on turrets near these moving blocks that are firing "bullets" of the opposite color.
There is a constant level of urgency in Ikaruga, mainly because the game is always in motion. You are constantly moving forward at a brisk pace and enemies are constantly swarming onto the screen filling it with multi-colored fire. You are rarely given a chance to breathe unless you pause the game.
Those of you who have played previous shooters will all know about the traditional boss battles that accompany the end of each level or chapter. Ikaruga puts a clever spin on this by making good use of the binary color system. Only selective parts of each of the massive bosses are vulnerable to attack and these are either light or dark. They will also be firing at you in either black or white, so you have to balance the amount of damage you want to inflict with the risk of getting hit by an opposing weapon color.
In the end, Ikaruga’s core gameplay is still a shooter and while your obvious objective is to complete the 5 stages, your underlying goal is to get a “high score”. There are several tricks you can use to increase your score and most of these rely on equal parts of skill, strategy, and luck. There are three ways to score in Ikaruga and they can be enhanced by creative polarity shifting. You earn 100 points for every bullet you absorb and you earn twice the points for destroying ships of the opposite color.
There is also a Chain Bonus awarded for destroying a series of like colored ships. You earn 100 points for your first “chain” (three ships) and that doubles all the way up to 25,600 points provided you don’t break the chain by destroying a ship of opposite color within any given chain. A voice will keep you apprised of how many chains you have going.
Ikaruga features a cooperative two-player mode that allows you to play with a friend either locally or over Xbox Live. Your first thought might be that having two ships of opposite color could lay waste to these levels, but you would be wrong. It is actually much more difficult and deadly when there are two of you blasting the enemies. While there are a few occasions where you can use opposing colors to your advantage, for the most part it is best to work as a team of like colors and concentrate on the same enemies to defeat them just that much faster.
The game doesn’t change the number or aggressiveness of the enemy depending on whether one or two people are playing, which just goes to show how balanced the gameplay is. Both players share from a common pool of “continues”, so if your partner really sucks at this game you may find all the “continues” have been used up when you finally need to use one. The number of "continues" and the number of "lives" for each player can be changed in the options.
One thing I did appreciate was the level of customization in Ikaruga. You are free to remap all the control buttons to your liking and you can even rearrange the HUD to your liking. If you don't like all that wasted space on either side of the game screen and you have a TV that can swivel, you can rotate the gameplay screen (and your TV) 90-degrees so the game matches the aspect ratio of the screen. The instructions do warn about flipping your TV on its side and using unsupported video modes that might cause permanent damage so be careful.
Ikaruga has a look all its own. Given the nature of the gameplay there is a monochromatic feel to the game, but the artists are able to use subtle, yet definitive dark and light shades of various primary colors to keep things fresh.
The backgrounds are gorgeous whether you are flying through wispy clouds or into the interior of some giant factory full of moving parts and deadly turrets. Again, the colors are subdued and everything has a distinct industrial feel to it.
Ship models are all unique and quite pleasing, even for a jaded shooter veteran such as myself. Enemy craft comes in all shapes and sizes. Smaller ships will spiral in from the borders of the screen unleashing their unique patterns of fire while the larger ships will take up slower more threatening movement patterns that challenge your skills in avoidance more than attack.
The action in Ikaruga is generally represented in a traditional 2D view but the game does blend in some 3D (non-playable) camera sweeps and pans to give you the illusion of a multi-dimensional universe. The perspective and parallax scrolling of the backgrounds also enhanced the visual experience giving the game some extra depth. The sheer amount of ships, missiles, bullets, and scrolling background scenery will dazzle you.
Framerate is flawless for single player and local multiplayer and the 360 is well up to the task of displaying those giant explosions that mark the demise of the end-level bosses. I've heard to people complain about the framerate dropping in multiplayer games. Personally, I haven't experienced this (yet), so I'm guessing its more of a connection quality issue than a game issue.
The music in Ikaruga is stereotypical to both the game’s genre and its Japanese origins. It’s an energy mix of intense rock and industrial techno that fits the theme and pacing of the game perfectly.
The sound effects are standard shooter stuff. Weapons all make appropriate sounds that surprisingly manage not to get annoying even when you have your finger mashed on the fire button for extended periods of time. Explosions are scaled to fit the visuals so a small ship goes “boom” and the big bosses go “KABOOM”.
There are 5 stages, which might not sound like a lot (especially when the GameCube had 18 stages) but keep in mind the level of difficulty; even on the easier skill levels it is staggering. You can tackle the game as a whole or play any previously completed levels in order to perfect your strategies. If you want to compete with the rest of the world there are Leaderboards that rank all the players who play using fixed rules, and you can even download replays of other peoples' performances and learn their tricks from getting through some of the more evil parts of this game.
Of course, the true life of any arcade game is simply the desire to beat your own personal best score and Ikaruga maintains a list of high scores that will taunt you for years to come. There are also 12 Achievements to go after that range from simply completing each stage to completing a stage without using a "continue" or even worse, completing a stage without firing a single shot. Your performance is also graded for each chapter so earning "A" grades will also boost your Gamerscore.
The staggering difficulty and blazing visuals may overwhelm the casual gamer - it took me two days to get to the second boss, but anyone who takes the time to master the binary gameplay model will find a deep strategic shooter. Ikaruga is certainly a welcome addition to the scrolling shooter genre and Xbox Live Arcade and will give arcade gamers and shooter fans a challenge like no other.