Reviewed: May 12, 2003
Released: April 16, 2003
Ikaruga is the latest scrolling shooter arcade game to make its way to next-gen systems. Originally created by Japanese developer, Treasure, for the Dreamcast, Atari now brings this intense shooter to domestic shores and this time it appears to be a GameCube exclusive, at least for now.
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 PSX 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 PSX 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, until now…
Ikaruga arrives just at the right time and on just the right system. The GameCube is already in the middle of a release slump and the lack of original (or exclusive) titles is even more disturbing. There is nothing about Ikaruga that keeps it from running on the Xbox or PS2, but Atari is likely to enjoy greater success with this niche title on Nintendo’s system.
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 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 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 18 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. 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.
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.
Framerate is flawless with the exception of the giant explosions that mark the demise of the end-level bosses. These fiery blasts will bring the game to a screeching halt where you can literally count the frames, but since you are not playing the game during these displays it doesn’t affect the gameplay. Other than this single “quirk” the sheer amount of ships, missiles, bullets, and scrolling background scenery will dazzle you.
Ikaruga is a vertical shooter, which means the game is formatted just the opposite of how your TV display works. Depending on the size of your TV you might be inclined to flip your set on end and the game certainly supports this mode. This will offer the most “arcade-like” experience, but chances are most of you are not willing to go to the trouble. The manual also highly discourages flipping your TV on its side.
You can play the game in various “zoom” levels that will affect the size of the black bars on each side of the game display. The closer the zoom the larger the image, but you will also sacrifice the top and bottom of the game screen. I found that flipping the game screen and not the TV offered the best game experience. Essentially, you are now playing a side scrolling shooter, and aside from having to tilt your head to read the score the game is just as playable and you can now enjoy the larger screen size with no cropping of the gameplay area. Navigating the menus can get a bit confusing in this mode.
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 bosses go “KABOOM”.
There are 18 stages and the level of difficulty, even on the easier skill levels, is staggering. You can tackle the game as a whole or play any previously completed levels in order to perfect your strategies. There is a half-speed Slow mode that slows down the action allowing you to experiment with various tactics before trying them in the Normal mode.
If you want to compete with the rest of the world there is a Challenge mode that allows you to play with a strict set of options. When your game is over you will be given a code that you can enter at http://www.ikaruga-atari.net and see how you stack up with the competition. 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.
The staggering difficulty and blazing visuals may overwhelm the casual gamer, 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 will give GameCube owners a valid reason to taunt their Cube-less friends for a long time to come.