The shoot 'em up genre may not grab everyone's attention, but it still manages to see some stellar-looking video game releases that put up quite the challenge for newcomers and veterans alike. The latest in the long list of entries on this 1001 list is Ikaruga, a multiplatform offering whose name I'm sure I know but whose content I certainly don't. Apart from ships and bullets, I suppose.
I'm not too hot on shmups, so let's see how far my credits will take me.
I'm emulating the Dreamcast release of Ikaruga, and despite the Japanese heavy menus, I love the presentation of this game so far. There's something about the colours and the stylised text - when it appears - that I really enjoy. It looks a bit drab, sure, but these stills do it no justice, and there's nothing for me to shoot yet.
The core gameplay of Ikaruga revolves around you switching between two different colour forms, black and white, in a polarity system. When you're ship is white, it'll absorb incoming attacks from white opponents, and charge up a fancy attack for use at a later point. Your attacks will also deal double damage to black ships, but they'll hit you much harder in return. Juggle up your polarity to defend and attack against whatever colour ships are in view, and that's Ikaruga.
Like many shooters before it, Ikaruga has you looking at everything but the thing you're trying to shoot at because there are often that many things to worry about at any one moment. You'll be switching polarity all over the place, with enemies effectively forcing you into one colour as they fill the screen with oncoming attacks, to the point where the chance to dodge them has long gone.
It results in a game that is as much a shooter as it is a puzzle. What is the best way to navigate through this section? Do I dodge and weave my ship between all these shots, or do I sit and soak up some damage before the window to attack reveals itself?
I'm not terribly sure what mode I was playing, but I was going through on Easy and had already hit a few Continue screens. I came up against some boxes here, though, and my brain just stopped. Out of nowhere, my grasp of the polarity system was lost, and I reverted to a shoot 'em up idiot, crashing into things and blowing up because of my own failures.
It wasn't long before I hit a Game Over screen - about five minutes after I started the game. Seven minutes at a push. Not bad for a first attempt? Uhh... on the Easy difficulty?
I don't know what the plot of Ikaruga is, or if it matters, but the presentation has won me over as something I want to see more of. There is, however, absolutely no chance of me being able to cope with the polarity thing unless I've got infinite continues, or just watch someone play it instead.
On paper, it makes sense. With practice, it makes sense. Without practice, well, by the time I knew what colour I should be in to deal double damage and made the switch, my opponent had flown offscreen and been replaced by one of the other colour, and by the time I twigged and switched again, he too had left.
Ikaruga may be a little annoying, but despite my complete failure to navigate boxes, I had made it through to the second chapter of a bullet hell shooter, and it looked so good along the way. You're not shown a whole lot, what with black bars covering half of the screen, but what's inside that HUD is wonderfully stylised and full of colour and detail.
It's just that you won't see much of that in the middle of the game, concentrated as you are on only a small number of pixels at a time. It's definitely a game to enjoy watching, at some point, then enjoy trying to get through at another. Trying to do both at the same time will just eat through your credits.
Still, I wouldn't say no to another go. Is it short? Yes. It is challenging? Oh yes. Is it recommended even for those who don't like these kinds of games? Definitely - it'll only take five minutes to know one way or another if it's worth playing again. Modern games take that long to load these days...
Ikaruga began with a home-made prototype made during the development of Sin & Punishment and was finished with fewer than ten developers ever working on it.
Ikaruga, developed by Treasure, first released in 2001.
Version played: Sega Dreamcast, 2002, via emulation.