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• Ikaruga

developed by Treasure/published by Atari/2003.04.15
1-2 Players (27 blocks)/1 GD-Rom/Dreamcast, Gamecube, XBLA

Treasure’s Ikaruga, the follow-up to their legendary vertical shooter Radiant Silvergun, is a stunning example of the genre achieving a perfect balance between game design and design aesthetic.  Ikaruga isn’t just another shooter – it’s a work of art; the result of years of experience creating excellent games in the genre by a small handful of talented individuals (amazingly, the developer credits list only 4 people).

Gameplay

Basically, all the enemies in the game are broken down into two colors: black and white.  Black enemies shoot black bullets and white enemies shoot white bullets.  The player’s ship, the Ikaruga (named after a Japanese gull with black and white feathers) can switch polarity between the two at any time.  Players can dispatch enemies of the opposite color more quickly or absorb an enemy’s bullets by using the same shield color.

Turning the shmup mantra of dodging bullets on its ear, the player’s smartbomb attack charges up by absorbing enemy bullets of like color.  And like all Treasure games, this one celebrates skill and finesse.  At its core, the scoring system sounds simple: destroy enemies of the same color in groups of three, chaining ever-growing combos resulting in a higher score.  But the actual execution of this combo-chain requires expert enemy pattern memorization and piloting skills.

As can be expected each level ends with an incredible boss encounter.  Each one features hidden weakpoints which must be attacked with the correct bullet type.  Ranging from a screen-filling mechanized knight (complete with shield), a rotating wheel of death, to the final diamond-shaped doomsday device, these are amongst the most beautiful and deadly bosses you’ll face in any game.  And no matter how many times they are fought, there is always a sense of satisfaction for destroying them (further enhanced by the screen-filling explosions resulting in some seriously oldschool slowdown!).

Presentation

Originally an arcade game running on Dreamcast hardware, Ikaruga is one of the finest looking games in the genre.  Beautifully detailed 3D backgrounds and dozens of enemy ships, along with hundreds of bullets fill the screen in a hypnotic dance of destruction that leaves zero room to maneuver.  Some levels contain patterns of enemy fire which resemble optical puzzles; the key being intense concentration and lightning-fast reflexes.  Anyone who classifies this sort of game as a “mindless shooter” will watch in baffled disbelief at the layers of complexity in this one.  The only way to survive is by absorbing enemy fire by switching to the matching shield type, similar to the ying-yang element seen in Silhouette Mirage.

Challenge & Length

Featuring 5 intense levels, Ikaruga can be beaten in less than 45 minutes, but actually mastering the game, even in its simplest form, will take weeks of practice.  With Ikaruga, like all of its predecessors, there is no shame in defeat.  Players must begin the road to success knowing that they will be defeated, and defeated many more times before reaching the end of that road. The game balances the extreme difficulty by rewarding the player with one extra continue for every hour of play.  While the game is difficult, it’s never for artificial reasons.  There are no cheap deaths in this game; your ship has a very small collision box meaning that when you die, it’s not because a bullet merely grazed the tip of your wing.  Having reached the end, satisfaction comes not from a grand ending, but from the personal gratification for having finished the game.

Conclusion

For those who have beaten the game, returning to it is a joy and the challenge quickly becomes: how far can I get without losing a single ship, and how many combos can I pull off?  With its intense challenge, diehard shooter fans looking for a quick fix will return to this one time and time again.  Extras such as an in-depth tutorial mode, and a stylish art gallery are mere icing on the cake.  For such a small team to make such an outstanding game is an achievement that ought to be recognized by every self-respecting gamer out there.

Quick Run Down

PROs:

  • Unique bullet-absorption game play
  • Intricate level design
  • Gob-smacking boss design
  • Supports TATE mode

CONs:

  • May test some gamers’ patience

One Sentence Review: Arguably the finest example of its genre, Ikaruga is a well-recognized masterpiece.
One Word Review: Zen.

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  • http://robertlbryant.com Rob

    Man, now that I read this review, I feel like breaking the Dreamcast back out and having a go at it!