Ikaruga Review

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Publisher: Treasure
Developer: Treasure

Platforms: Xbox 360, GameCube and Dreamcast
Reviewed on Xbox 360

Tenro Horai is conquering all the nations on the globe, one by one, steamrolling over them using the Power of the Gods that he unearthed. Some freedom-loving folks still resist his onslaught as members of a freedom federation called Tenkaku. The population of a remote village called Ikaruga has built a fighter that, in the right hands, may be able to stop Tenro Horai.

Kyle Ackerman

The typical two-dimensional scrolling shooter is an exercise in situational awareness. The typical player frantically dodges around each level until they learn which objects are hazardous. At that point, the game becomes a delicate dance as the gamer slides about the screen, avoiding enemy shots, grabbing the occasional power-up, and carefully learning and exploiting the patterns of end-level bosses. Near the pinnacle of the scrolling shooter genre is Ikaruga, a game that turns the whole formula on its ear with the simple concept of "polarity."

Everything in the game is black or white. So is your fighter. (I suppose there are some objects that are neither black nor white, such as indestructible obstacles.). Collision with other ships is always hazardous no matter their color, but your fighter absorbs bullets and other attacks of the same color, and is destroyed by projectiles the opposite color of your hull. To make things more interesting, you can switch your fighter's polarity instantly and as often as you want, rapidly flipping from black to white and back again.

In an ordinary scrolling shooter, you would maneuver into the open spaces between enemy shots, while firing back at every opportunity. In Ikaruga, the screen is always full of danger – depending on your polarity. The screen is full of bullets and other ships, so to find a gap you have to be looking for spaces occupied only by shots of your color. This means that you, as pilot, have to constantly change your perception of danger.

It gets more interesting – your fighter can power up a special attack that launches multiple, powerful homing projectiles by absorbing bullets that are the same color as your ship. On normal difficulty, destroying enemy ships of the same color creates a cloud of pellets the same color as that ship. Positioning yourself in the middle of those fields can quickly feed your ship, unless you need to change colors, in which case your doom is sealed. This whole concept of polarity adds a dimension of complexity to a tried and true formula.

Many of us are content to survive and play for as long as possible, but Ikaruga is descended from a coin-op arcade game (that was also released on the Dreamcast and GameCube), and the game is designed to challenge folks who prefer to perfect the play of a single game, competing for the top rank on a high-score list. In its entirety, Ikaruga has five levels, each of which (if you are very skillful) could be completed in a few minutes. Gamers who are not experienced in the ways of scrolling shooters may find it very difficult to complete more than a single chapter or two.

For fans of the genre, plenty of extras make scoring far more complex than mere survival. Huge bonus scores are available for players that can "chain" kills. Chains occur when consecutive kills are enemies of the same color. Killing an enemy of the opposite color resets the chain bonus. For an even greater challenge, players can pursue the ultimate goal of becoming a "bullet eater" – to do so, you need to play the game without killing anything. You just change polarities as appropriate to eat as many bullets as possible. With the Xbox Live Arcade version, this is immortalized as an achievement that is extremely difficult to manage.

Because Ikaruga is just so darn hard, the Xbox 360 version allows players to record runs in the game to study and improve their performance. This nudges at the main flaw of Ikaruga – it's a game for hardcore players who want to play a short, difficult game repeatedly, trying for higher scores. Casual players may find the game repetitive and excessively difficult.

Visually, Ikaruga is stunning. It is awkward that the game is intended for a coin-op arcade monitor taller than it is wide. The Xbox Live Arcade version is the crispest version released for home consoles, but much of the HD play field is just empty space, framing the vertical strip in the center of the screen. In fact, some of the text ends up quite small and difficult to read in HD. Even so, the backgrounds are detailed and spectacular. The player fighters are impressive, and as much care went into designing enemies and end-level bosses. The whole game is a visual feat, albeit one that can only be truly admired while someone else is playing.

The Xbox 360 version is the smoothest version released yet, and is smoother and more responsive than past versions. Given the staggering difficulty of Ikaruga, that's a blessing. At the same time, given how few lines of text there are in this game (we're mostly talking about instructions and menus), how could Treasure have allowed so many grievous errors and less-than-comprehensible save instructions creep in? Surely it's not too much to ask to give an editor a quick pass at the text? Certainly, that wasn't a problem with past versions.

Ikaruga is such a refinement of the scrolling shooter that everyone with access to Xbox Live Arcade should try the demo to see how the concept of polarity transforms the battlefield. But this game is not for the old and infirm. It's still really, really hard. You know, I think I left out a "really." It's hard, and isn't a good outlet for a casual gamer. On the other hand, anyone who loved strolling into the arcade with a fistful of quarters to ensure their initials stayed atop the all-time high-score list will find this game a must-own, complete with Xbox Live Arcade leaderboards.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 9, 2008 11:02 PM.

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