With about a month to go before Ikaruga’s North American debut, see what you should expect from this old-school 2D shooter, and whether you should go ahead and import.
Ikaruga is the kind of game that interests me, that I can respect, but that I will never love. Playing the game feels more like a military training exercise for my reflexes than anything else. The game is brutally, unrelentlessly difficult, and it very much expects you to play through the same levels and same situations over and over again until you get it right.
If this sounds like your cup of tea, you shouldn’t hesitate to import Ikaruga or pick it up when it comes out in your neck of the woods. This game is intended for a very narrow, niche audience that will absolutely love it. Others may find it enjoyable to watch or play occasionally, but probably not enough to warrant the full price tag. In other words, if you’re not already a huge, extremely hardcore 2D shooter fan, don’t expect Ikaruga to turn you into one. But if you can beat Super R-Type III without continuing…well, you’ve probably already imported Ikaruga on either Dreamcast or GameCube. For everyone in-between, perhaps more information would be useful.
Ikaruga is a top-down, vertically scrolling 2D shooter. In many ways, it sticks very firmly to the genre’s foundations: excessive difficulty, swarms of enemies and projectiles, gigantic bosses, lots of patterns to memorize. After a while, you’ll start to gauge your progress through the game by how many continues you spend to kill a certain mini-boss.
The game’s uniqueness lies in its innovative light/dark system. I’ll spare you the long explanation, but here are the basics: your ship can absorb bullets of the same color, your shots do double damage to enemies of the opposite color, and you can change colors at any time. Most of Ikaruga’s gameplay involves navigating through intricate fields of bullets and switching back and forth from light to dark to survive. When you’ve absorbed enough same-colored shots, you can use a special homing laser attack. There’s also a simple but wonderfully implemented combo system that really motivates you to learn the enemy patterns and pay attention to where you’re shooting.
As you have probably heard, these patterns of energy shots and the non-interactive backgrounds make Ikaruga a very beautiful game. Every graphical element has a sharp, clean look to it, and the framerate is high and consistent. Neither your ship nor the enemies are blessed with very animated models, but the action is so frantic that a lot of animation would probably be distracting. Ikaruga doesn’t really look like anything more than a handsome Dreamcast title, even in its GameCube incarnation, but it still looks very good compared to other games currently available. If nothing else, the visuals are quite hypnotic and will likely attract the attention of your friends and family.
Ikaruga is very much an arcade game at heart; it has only five levels and a handful of extra modes that amount to slight variations on the normal game. That’s not to say that you’ll beat it in a few days though… not unless you’ve already honed your reflexes to superhuman levels with other old-school shooters. More likely, you’ll play for a few hours or even days before beating the first couple of levels. As the difficulty ramps up ever more steeply, your progress will slow even further. Mastering Ikaruga will require you to play through the levels over and over again, literally memorizing enemy and bullet patterns so you can die fewer times and have a better chance of passing whatever point is giving you the most trouble.
The game does include one excellent tool to help you improve your skills: a slow-motion computer demo. It’s a chance to see a true master (probably one of the testers at Treasure) plow through these levels in slow motion. Watching this person dart in and out of enemy squadrons and selectively pick off targets to achieve insane point totals can be just as entertaining as actually playing the game. And, of course, it can show you some great strategies and methods to use yourself.
Playing Ikaruga can be an exercise in both awe and frustration. Often you’ll “get in the zone" and safely steer through an absurdly complex wave of bullets, only to snap out of it afterwards and be utterly amazed at what you just accomplished in the game. A second later, a tiny stray bullet will come out of nowhere and blow you to smithereens. Your ship is extremely fragile, so a big part of the gameplay is pure survival. Many times you’ll feel so overwhelmed that you’ll forget to keep shooting and just seek cover from the onslaught.
The unusual two-player mode has to be mentioned. It’s not exactly unique in concept; instead of one ship flying around shooting enemies, you have two. What makes Ikaruga’s two-player mode so special is that it can actually make the game harder, or at least more complex. Twice the shots on screen means twice the confusion, and things get even hairier if you try tag-teaming the Hard mode, where defeated enemies shower energy debris onto the screen.
Just to reiterate: Ikaruga is not for everyone. If you think it sounds cool but aren’t sure you’ve got the chops, your best bet is to give the game a rent when it is released locally. If you consider yourself to be a true hardcore gamer and love a good challenge, Ikaruga makes a great import. Pretty much every word in the game is presented in English, and the game itself is easily one of the best titles of its kind. However, Ikaruga definitely does not transcend its genre; it’s not at all accessible to people who aren’t familiar with 2D shooters or with old-school, arcade-style games.