I remember being a small child and my dear old papa showing me Ikaruga for the first time. It was on the Dreamcast, it looked stunning to my teeny-tiny child eyes, and I was blown away by the music. I don’t think I managed to get through the first stage, but Ikaruga stuck with me for well over a decade – maybe two. Reviewing any game steeped in nostalgia is always difficult, but it’s time to remove those rose-tinted glasses and take a hard look at Ikaruga as an adult.
I don’t like Ikaruga, and I especially don’t like the Switch port, for reasons I will get into soon. For those not in the know, Ikaruga is a legendary vertical shoot-em-up by the equally legendary studio, Treasure, who made legendary games such as the legendary Gunstar Heroes and Radiant Silvergun – to name a mythical few. Few, if any, shoot-em-ups have been released on so many platforms and received so much critical praise. It has become farcical when it comes to reading these reviews as it becomes clearer and clearer after each generational port that the reviewer must love Ikaruga. Ikaruga cannot be denied.
Anyone who has truly played Ikaruga can tell when a review has been phoned in and is just going off the homogeneous Ikaruga hivemind. It’s obvious because they love the game without understanding, well, any of it. Let’s start simple though. In Ikaruga, you have two forms of attack – a standard pew-pew laser with a decent spread and variable damage, as well as the equally variable homing laser. Your standard shot deals with most enemies quickly whilst the homing laser is the closest thing to a panic button Ikargua has. That’s because Ikaruga has no bomb – a genre staple.
Your homing laser takes time to charge, although that charge has very little to do with the linear progression of time. Instead, Ikaruga requires you to engage in its most stand-out mechanic – polarity shifting. Everything in Ikaruga abides by this system. Enemies are black or white, their bullets follow suit, and your weapons and defences are intrinsically linked to it. If you are black-shifted, then black bullets are harmless and instead charge the aforementioned homing laser gauge. Touch a white bullet, however, and you go boom.
Swapping polarity is no harder than pressing a single button, and the transition is quick – but not instant. There is a brief moment where you have no defences at all, so if you shift at the wrong time you will meet a swift demise. This system makes Ikargua’s bullet hell a tad more manageable as only half of the bullets on screen at any given time are a threat. The downside to always playing it safe, however, is that your damage tanks when you are firing against an enemy who shares your polarity – heck, they even fire suicide shots at you. As far as punishments go, flooding the screen with extra bullets and keeping enemies alive longer tends to take the cake.
Technically your damage doesn’t change when you hit a matching polarity foe. Instead, your damage doubles when you collide a white bullet with a black enemy, and vice-versa. As is the case with practically all bullet hells, killing enemies quickly is the name of the game, so hiding behind your shield is not always the best course of action. As far as systems go, the polarity system is truly excellent. It encourages you to engage in the system in its entirety and moulds the core Ikaruga experience quite nicely.
Unfortunately, I am not quite so enamoured with any of the game’s other mechanics or design decisions. Despite the potential safety of the polarity system, Ikaruga is bone-crushingly difficult. I like challenging games, but Ikaruga is quite literally next level. Once you hit Stage 3 you will be subject to a hefty spike that will impale most players to the nearest wall. Intricate bullet mazes, stage hazards, mind-bending bosses – Ikaruga has it all. It got to the point where my brain could barely process the chaos on screen. Ikaruga felt fair at first, but as the stages coast on by more and more unavoidable deaths are thrown your way and trial and error sinks in something rotten.
Not Just Difficult
As off-putting as that may be, the worst offender here is the lack of clarity. Bullets are clear, enemies are distinct, but obstacles are less so. I often found myself colliding with elements of the environment that didn’t stand out, at least to me, as something I should be avoiding. Near-background elements killing me out of nowhere felt naff, and whilst I learned what to avoid with time, the process wasn’t a smooth one.
Thankfully anyone can get through Ikargua if they are willing to swallow their pride. You can turn on infinite continues and just play till you win. For tens of hours, it isn’t about getting that 1CC, it’s about clearing the game with less than 20 continues and then slowly chipping away until mastery is achieved. It’s a gruelling process, and even with Easy Mode enabled, Ikaruga has some of the sharpest teeth in the industry.
This genre isn’t just built of skilled dodging, rapid-firing gatling lasers and fancy explosions. Scoring is a huge part of any shoot-em-up and Ikaruga is no different. Ikaruga has one of the most divisive scoring systems ever devised. Chaining is the act of killing 3 enemies of the same colour in a row. That’s it. That’s the scoring system. You kill three white guys, you get a pat on the back and your score multiplier increases. Providing you continue to kill enemies in coloured groups of three, this multiplier will continue to increase. Higher the chain, the higher your score.
More Puzzle Than Shmup?
It’s incredibly simple in theory, but in practice, this turns Ikaruga into an intricate labyrinth of bullets, enemies, lasers and puzzles. Once you understand the chain mechanic you begin to see patterns. Enemies enter the screen in a specific way – in a way that is designed to make you kill them in a certain order, at a certain time, to feed into your chain. Routing has always been a key factor in shoot-em-ups but Ikaruga takes this concept to the extreme. Ikaruga is less about the addictive endorphin rush of killing mooks, and more about a surprisingly complex, multiple-minute long series of mathematical puzzles.
If you don’t like this puzzle-esque scoring system, then Ikaruga simply won’t have any legs. The game is 20-minutes long, and if you have no score-based incentive to continue playing because chaining isn’t your cup of tea, like me, then the games lustre will fade. Sure you could go for the true clear, the 1CC, but without that pivotal scoring mechanic driving you beyond, Ikaruga feels surprisingly hollow.
Not everything is doom and gloom of course. Ikaruga does have some aces up its sleeve – namely its graphics and sound design. Ikaruga is an old game, but you can barely tell. The art style and graphical fidelity hold up remarkably with gorgeous environments, enemy designs and the ever-striking polarity effects. The game runs fine on the Switch, although I did notice a little bit of input delay which made an already hard game feel noticeably more difficult. Ikaruga’s soundtrack is one of the best the genre has ever seen, which grand epics exploding through your speakers. Or at least, it should be. Again, the Switch port drops the ball a bit by dialling back the music, making it difficult to hear at times. Which is a travesty.
I gave my opinion of Ikaruga at the start of this review, so, unsurprisingly, I conclude similarly. I simply didn’t find it enjoyable to grind through, the scoring system was not up my alley, and the Switch port falls a little bit short. All of that being said, I can recognise that Ikaruga is a good game, despite my dislike. The game does what it wants to do exceptionally well, I just didn’t vibe with it.
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