Many Japanese gamers remember Ikaruga as one of the last titles to be released for Sega's short-lived Dreamcast console, and unless you imported the game or visited any arcades in Japan lately, chances are you've never played it. Luckily, publisher Atari Interactive has taken the initiative and localized the game for an American audience, and now GameCube owners nationwide can finally see what they've been missing. Ikaruga is an old-school isometric shooter that hearkens back to the 8-bit, 16-bit, and 24-bit (NeoGeo) days, but with an interesting twist that'll make you keep coming back for more despite its intense level of difficulty and relatively straightforward nature. This game is strictly for the precision-tuned hand-eye coordination crowd, no others need apply. Even experienced gamers will get their asses handed to them on a fairly consistent basis at first.
That "twist" on the traditional shooter genre that I mentioned comes in the form of the game's focus on the elemental properties of black and white. Every enemy is colored either black or white and every bullet or energy blast that they fire at you are of their respective colors. By hitting the A button your ship will transform between black and white and if you come in contact with a bullet of the same color you'll absorb it and fill your "energy release power gauge", which allows you to fire powerful strands of homing lasers to quickly destroy powerful enemies or take out a swarm of smaller enemies quickly. But if you come in contact with a bullet that is of opposite color of your ship you'll explode. Pretty simple, right? It gets better. When you shoot an enemy of opposite color you'll inflict twice as much damage. This simple gameplay element adds a huge amount of strategy to how you play the game since you'll have to constantly change the color of your ship between black and white to survive the huge barrage of enemy fire that often fills the entirety of the screen.
One would assume that Ikaruga doesn't offer much lasting appeal considering the fact that it is made up of only five unique levels, and if not for the fact that it takes dozens of hours to become proficient enough to beat, it would be an accurate assumption. The game is laid out in such a manner as to promote repeated play. There is usually a single best way to deal with any given obstacle in the game, but it is only after countless deaths that the ideal method of approach becomes clear. But even without the trial-and-error style of progression you'll still sacrifice many lives to perfecting the ability to dodge oppositely colored enemy fire. While this may seem a little on the unforgiving side — well, it is. But Ikaruga is not without rewards, the satisfaction you derive from mastering the myriad nuances of a particular level makes it all worth it.
On the other hand, if you're not the type of gamer who enjoys replaying the same level of a game numerous times before progressing, then Ikaruga may not be your cup of joe. But even despite all that, it's hard not to appreciate the fact that there are no weapon pick-ups, power-ups of any sort, or free lives to be found — instead your level of success revolves around a single fire button, homing lasers that can be powered up via absorbing enemy fire, and the B button which transforms your ship's color. When you die, you'll know exactly what caused it and more often than not you'll know exactly what you need to do to prevent it from happening again. The enemy fire patterns are rarely ever random, instead strategically guided in a manner that requires you to constantly stay on your toes as you navigate through maelstroms of bullets while paying mind to your ship's current color.
Aside from playing for the love of the game, developer Treasure included a few extra incentives that weren't present in the previous Dreamcast version like image galleries, a sound test, and a prototype game mode. Another mode of play allows you to test your skills against that of the rest of the world via a worldwide net ranking system. And while these additions basically serve the purpose of giving you reason to stick around for a few extra hours, there is one other extra that is actually very useful and entertaining; Conquest mode. Here you'll be able to watch a demo of a god-like player busting ass through the game in the most efficient and impressive manner humanly possible. Also in Conquest mode, you can play through the stages in the game in slow motion to better understand the innumerable dynamics that go into any given portion of the game.
Ikaruga also includes a two-player simultaneous mode of play, which is exactly the same as the main mode aside from the fact that two players are constantly vying for a safe position while steering clear of the other player who can easily knock you aside into oncoming fodder. It's nice that Treasure included multiplayer support, but the fact that each player is capable of screwing the other up by bumping them, instead of using the traditional transparent method, makes this mode seem a little pointless.
Ikaruga looks great, which is incredibly surprising considering that it was originally developed for play on the technically limited Dreamcast, and even more surprising since Ikaruga didn't benefit from high-budget production values or an army of programmers. In fact, only three programmers are responsible for the game's excellent game play and stunning visuals, an unprecedented achievement in this day and age of "Hollywood" style productions. The backgrounds are made up of jaw-dropping details and mechanical creations that make you feel as if you are guiding your ship through a Borg vessel at one moment and trashing hordes of enemies in a futuristic alien city the next. Since the game is so dependant on the colors black and white, it is quite a feat that the backgrounds don't get in the way of the screen-filling enemies and swells of enemy bullets.
Some of the most impressive visuals in Ikaruga come in the form of the bosses that appear at the end of every stage. These things often take several distinct forms during the course of the fight and animate flawlessly as they transition between offensive attacks. Also, if you're so inclined, Treasure included an option for vertical display that allows you to play the game the way it was meant to be played, though I wouldn't recommend turning your TV on its side if it's a tube-based model as it will most likely defuse the set's intended color scheme until you put it back to its original position. The sound in Ikaruga fits the spirit of the game nicely, though it does little to impress. The music is your standard old-school shooter fare, and the sound effects of explosions, laser emissions, and ship destructions all mesh nicely with the on-screen action.
Overall, Ikaruga is not only one of the best traditional shooters ever made, but also the only one that GameCube owners have the option to play. Atari Interactive did a great service to American gamers by localizing this gem and hopefully we'll see even more excellent games that were presumed to be Japanese-only making it stateside. Shooter fan or no, if you own a GameCube you owe it to yourself to check out Ikaruga.
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