Approaching Ikaruga, or as it’s more widely known in pro gaming circles, “The IK” for the first time is like approaching a wounded Tiger with a cattle prod. Ikaruga is unapologetically tough, uncompromising and has a difficulty curve like the north face of the Eiger, steep and unforgiving. Treasure (developers of Ikaruga as well as several other suitably hardcore shoot ‘em ups hopefully also set to be released on XBLA soon) know their craft and this is the finest example of what they do best.
Setting up to review “The IK” after several years of honing my skills on both the Dreamcast and Gamecube versions previously, ceremonies had to be observed correctly. Out from the junk cupboard at Maybe Towers came the Hori Arcade Stick, the only proper way to play the game on the 360 (mainly because the 360′s cross pad is so hideously rubbish but at least using the left analogue stick is better than nothing).
Out too came my VGA lead so I could play the game on my neat swivel VGA monitor in portrait mode (please do not attempt to tip your huge expensive plasma television on its side to get the most from Ikaruga though you may be tempted to).
Then I settled down with the game itself and tried to get the old magic back.
Ikaruga, you see, is a bit of an old-school classic. It made its first appearance in arcades in Japan 8 years ago. Its unique bipolar gameplay mechanic instantly turned heads as well as its stunning 2D / 3D visuals.
Eventually the game was released on the Sega Dreamcast, and later on the Nintendo Gamecube. Now it’s come to XBLA and the first time you start blasting away at the waves of enemy ships you realise just how far ahead of its time it was for a mere shooter, and how it’s easily become the benchmark for all other games of this ilk.
For those of you who’ve never encountered the game before, Ikaruga is a vertically scrolling 2D / 3D shoot ‘em up with a rather unique gameplay mechanic that sets it apart from most other shooters in the same vein. As the last best hope for earth’s defence, you are a lone fighter taking control of an ancient tribe’s masterpiece, a fighter ship known as Ikaruga. The ship has the ability to change state from light to dark, and this is where the main gameplay twist occurs.
As enemy ships swarm in, exquisitely picked out in pseudo-3D detail and smoothly manoeuvring with all the grace of a Russian Ballet troupe, you will notice that they are either white or black. Your ship can match their phased state so if you are the same colour as an enemy ship, you can soak up their bullets and laser fire, charging up your superweapon – which can be unleashed to devastating effect. Get hit by a ship of the opposite polarity however, and you’ll be destroyed. Do that three times and it’s game over.
You need to think fast, and react even faster because the other key to success with “The IK” is chaining.
Shooting through each attacking wave of enemy ships and destroying them all will add a count to your chain total. Racking up multiple chains is the secret to higher scores (and of course those all important achievements and online leaderboard bragging rights) so Ikaruga morphs from a relatively simple blaster to something almost akin to a puzzle game.
Learn those enemy patterns, learn the appropriate times to shift state from light to dark (and vice versa) and you’ll be on the path to glory.
Ikaruga on XBLA is a smooth, fantastic looking version of the game. There are various setup options to allow you to change the orientation of the screen (as I detailed at the start of the review), to change your control methods and to affect various other in-game settings.
Some gamers might not like the slightly “squashed” experience of trying to play Ikaruga on a large widescreen TV in landscape mode, with the requisite borders squeezing the game into a narrow vertical channel but this definitely does not affect your enjoyment, and doesn’t really detract from how superb a version of the game this is.
On the easiest level, Ikaruga is still tough enough to make you wince with frustration as yet another end-of-level boss baddie toasts your ship and rubs out all your lives.
On the hardest of hardcore levels, Ikaruga demands that you have the reaction skills of a cheetah, coupled with the thumbs of an 8 year old twitch-game addict, the ocular accuracy of a barcode scanner and the synapses of an android. If you think you’ve got what it takes, beating Ikaruga’s 5 levels of toughness will definitely give you something to shout about on your gamer CV, allowing you to sneer at lesser mortals who can’t even beat the first boss. There are even achievements for making it through a level without firing a single shot though quite how you’re going to manage that is beyond me.
“The IK” is increasingly becoming a bit of a collector’s item with the Dreamcast version still fetching ridiculous prices second-hand, and even the Gamecube version still retailing at a relatively high price. So having the chance to purchase this for 800 points on the Xbox Live Marketplace is a bargain you definitely shouldn’t pass up.
The recommendation comes with a stark warning though, Ikaruga is a serious game, the highest benchmark by which all other arcade shooters are inevitably measured. It requires some serious skill so not everyone will be able to measure up and some players will swiftly become frustrated and annoyed. Perseverance does reap rewards and there’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing your world rankings creep up into quadruple figures (if you get your ranking higher than that, I don’t wanna know OK?)
Fancy your chances then? You know what to do…Embrace “The IK”.