Back before the term "shooter" was used to refer to games like Doom, Medal of Honor, and Halo, it referred to games like Xevious, Life Force, and Raiden. This genre of gaming was a large part of what made video arcades so popular in the '80s and into the '90s, and for a while, the shooter epitomized gaming in general. After all, these games were all about testing your skills and reflexes and making you feel pretty special about yourself by casting you as humanity's last, best hope against huge alien fleets. Invariably, arcade shooters were designed to suck up your hard-earned quarters as well as to let you have some fun taking on evil aliens. The genre seems long dead now, though, since the intuitive dodge-and-shoot mechanics of classic space shooters seem overly simplistic compared with the mechanics of the complex 3D games of today. Shooters also tended to be very short, even by yesteryear's standards. But along comes Ikaruga, a traditional space shooter with an innovative twist and some undeniably stylish production values, to single-handedly prove that games like this are still as enjoyable as ever.
Before it hit the GameCube, Ikaruga was the last great game for the Dreamcast.
Like many space shooters, Ikaruga was first released in arcades, though it never saw the light of day on this continent. After the surprising success of last year's Dreamcast port, a GameCube version was announced, but only for Japan. Months later, publisher Infogrames confirmed that Ikaruga for the GameCube would be released in North America and Europe as well, as an arcade-perfect translation with a couple of new gameplay options not found on the Dreamcast. This is a game with an established cult following and one that just as easily might not have made it to these shores. It's almost as if Treasure, Ikaruga's distinguished developer, deliberately tried to limit its audience to a core group of enthusiasts. That's perhaps not as absurd an idea as it might seem, since Ikaruga is truly a shooter fan's shooter. It follows many of the genre's 20-year-old conventions, and you'll find it very challenging even if you've been playing games of this sort all your life. If you have, then the game's classical design and its high level of difficulty will also happen to be two of the things you'll like best about it. Yet even those who aren't particular fans of space shooters would undoubtedly appreciate a lot of what Ikaruga has to offer.
The plot of Ikaruga is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the plot of every other space shooter ever made. Basically, it's the future and you're civilization's last hope. You have a high-powered spacecraft with unlimited ammo, but your enemies have entire armadas of killing machines, and you're their only target. Ikaruga actually has an optional simultaneous two-player mode, so it doesn't have to be just you against the world, but still--you get the idea. The game consists of only five vertically scrolling stages, but it offers three distinctly different difficulty settings and a decent number of unlockable extra features. Considering how short the game apparently is, you'll find that Ikaruga actually has a surprising amount of depth and lasting value. Like with many great games, this depth isn't readily apparent at first, due to the game's seeming simplicity, but spend some time with Ikaruga and you'll find in it an action game that actually forces you to constantly think on your feet.
It's also one of the best space shooters in many years.
The gameplay has a few twists, but one of them, a concept first introduced in Treasure's Sega Saturn side scroller, Silhouette Mirage, is especially noteworthy: Every enemy in the game is either light- or dark-colored, and your little spaceship has both a light form and a dark form, and you can change polarity at any time. These two forms are identical, except for the color of your ship and its energy blasts. The thing is, you can absorb same-colored energy, and only enemy fire of the opposite color can ever hurt you. For more than 20 years, the object of every space shooter has been to avoid absolutely everything on the screen, except maybe the occasional power-up, while returning fire. Ikaruga effectively disposes of this time-honored tradition by forcing you to train yourself to avoid only one type of enemy firepower at a time.
It's not as straightforward as it sounds, though. You'll gradually realize three things: One, that absorbing same-colored energy is actually a good thing, because you can stock up that energy to unleash a devastating homing laser attack--your only alternative to your basic rapid-fire energy shots. Two, that there are no power-ups in Ikaruga. Get used to the basic capabilities of your ship, because the game was fundamentally designed to push them to their limits. It seems disappointing at first that there are no superpowered weapons or defenses to be picked up, but you'll see that this was only to ensure that Ikaruga remains a skill-based game every second of the way. And three, that shooting an enemy with the opposite-colored energy inflicts twice as much damage. Obviously, though, the disadvantage of doing this is that you yourself will be vulnerable to the enemy's opposite-colored firepower, and in Ikaruga, when you take a hit, you die. So matching your enemies' color is the way to play it safe, while changing to the opposite color is the riskier, faster way to take out the opposition. In reality, you'll be switching colors often, and in the later stages of the game, almost constantly. The screen often fills with a withering hail of enemy fire, and only by quickly and precisely switching between light and dark will you survive.
You'll need to consider a few other factors. Crashing into anything has lethal results, regardless of your ship's color. And, at the default difficulty setting, destroying a same-colored enemy causes that enemy to send a burst of same-colored energy hurtling toward you from out of the explosion. Again, usually that's a good thing, as it helps you charge your homing lasers. Though the idea of inflicting double damage using the opposite color may sound nice, the prospect of keeping those homing lasers constantly ready for action is a viable alternative. But it's not that simple: Since you'll have to change colors frequently, you'll need to be very careful about what you're shooting at as you're switching colors. It's very easy to die in Ikaruga by switching colors and getting hit by an energy bolt when you would have absorbed it a split-second earlier.