"Shmup" is a popular shortened term for shoot-'em-up, and the word carries many connotations among gamers. Many venerable classics exist in this genre, from as early as Space Invaders to the 1942 and Raiden series, right up to possibly the most hardcore, high-difficulty subgenre of modern video games. The Japanese word for this subgenre is danmaku, which translates into English as "bullet hell," "bullet wall," or "How the Hell am I Supposed to Dodge This When the Shots are Denser than my Character?" The only rules consistent to danmaku are an emphasis on massive numbers of on-screen objects to evade, with players having a tiny "hitbox" (area on the character sprite or model that actually counts for collisions) to aid evasion. Many, many experiments and creations exist in this genre (one of the most popular among doujin and small independent creators), and 2001's Ikaruga is among the best within it — for very, very good reason.
There was a fair amount of excitement to be had when Ikaruga, which regularly nets over $100 when sold on eBay, was announced for the Xbox Live Arcade, with full high-definition upgrades, achievements, and most interestingly, Xbox Live two-player co-op. Microsoft scored a coup with this game's release, and Treasure spent the time to make it good. The end result is a title that is worth your points for an exceptional experience; Ikaruga has been developed to quality levels that are shared by very few games, downloadable or otherwise, in the entire gaming industry.
The basic premise of Ikaruga is fairly simplistic: You have a ship on the screen that shoots down other ships. Every so often, you get a boss ship, which has to be shot down multiple times through distinct "formations," but the complexities start to increase very quickly. As mentioned above, your hitbox is much, much smaller than the graphic of your ship. This is the only way that it remains possible to evade your way through the entire game, for enemy formations start at difficult and soon escalate to downright insane.
Fortunately, you have two "secret" weapons that make things much easier. Your ship comes in two colors (sort of), and a button switches you between a white-blue color scheme and a black-red color scheme. The most significant part of this is that you get a shield matched to your current color, which will absorb all bullets of that color. Naturally, barrages of bullets usually involve both colors, but determining which color you don't have to worry about evading is very useful indeed, even if you can (theoretically) evade your way through everything. On top of that, absorbed bullets add up to a "charge" gauge, which can be fired off at any time as high-power homing lasers. Furthermore, your bullets will deal double damage to enemies of the opposite color as you, thus encouraging you to take the rather immense risk of being the opposite color to rapidly bust through barrages.
With your arsenal presented, the real issue is Ikaruga's difficulty level, which is pretty ludicrous. Very rare indeed is a game where even a skilled player will be hard-pressed to complete the first level. (No, you don't get the mercy of a tutorial.) And this, by the way, is from the standpoint of a fan of the genre. Even with practice, it is very unlikely that you will be able to complete this game, even on the easiest combination of settings possible (Easy mode, five lives, one more life every two million points, and continues allowed).
Now comes the scary part: Ikaruga maintains worldwide leaderboards. To qualify to even post your score on the leaderboards, you must play with three lives, a less forgiving system for earning extra lives, and no continues allowed. There are players who regularly beat this game on these settings, and compete for scores. Forget Counter-Strike; games like this are where the most elite of players truly reside, for very good reason.
You're also rewarded richly just for progressing. The game's achievements are all standard fare (i.e., beat this boss), with two very challenging exceptions. Dot Eater requires you to complete a level without firing even one shot, while Unstoppable requires you complete the game without using a continue.
On top of this is a simple, but very difficult, scoring system centered on "chains." A "chain" requires you take out three enemies of the same color in a row, but with the formations in the game, this is cosmically more difficult than it sounds, meaning that simply surviving will not yield a very good high score. (Dot Eater gives you more points on top, encouraging even more pondering over the scoring system.) Put these together, and then go take a gander at the online replays. Oh, did I forget to mention that? If you don't allow yourself to continue, you can save replays and even share them online. Top players' replays tend to be a sight to behold.
And just in the unlikely case that five stages, by themselves, is not enough for you, then it is time for the multiplayer. Two people can play either by system link, Xbox Live, or on one TV. All three pit you against the same five stages as the standard mode, but having both players' ships on one screen makes the game more manic, as the immense array of strategic options requires a level of cooperation — or hand-eye coordination — that few other games can claim to offer. The unfortunate issue is that Xbox Live play tends to be rather laggy, and unless you're playing against people who don't live very far away from you, different hiccups are the norm.
Ikaruga will not be the type of game where you care about the graphics while you're playing. Shmups tend to be in the realm of simplistic graphics, where the real beauty comes from the patterns you're evading and how you evade them. Fortunately, Treasure decided to buck the trend many, many times over. The arcade original (and Dreamcast and GameCube ports) of Ikaruga are beautiful, with exceptionally well-made graphics, wonderfully evocative and punchy sound effects, and a simply incredible orchestral-and-synth soundtrack. Then, to top themselves, Treasure upgraded the graphics to look just as beautiful, if not better, in full high-definition. And on top of that, they upgraded it further in the form of TATE mode, where, if you have a high-definition screen that can rotate sideways, the game can be rotated, replacing the long black boxes on either side with an entire 720p screen that's filled with the most gorgeous graphics ever seen on Xbox Live, period. If you get to watch someone play, you will be in awe. If you are the one playing, you won't even notice. This game is that insane.
If you're not sold on Ikaruga, then you probably aren't hardcore enough for it. Even if you are hardcore enough for it, you'll be chewed up, spit out, and left out to dry. Players who can beat this game are a very persistent, exceptionally skilled few, and those who have high scores and proper replays posted for it are even fewer. If you are ready for a game that you will play again and again, getting a teensy bit further each time and loving it more with each piece of perfection you land, then Ikaruga will be the best $10 you've spent on gaming in a long time. When a game's only weakness is its online multiplayer, and the game was essentially made to be two people next to each other anyway, you know that you did it right. Treasure certainly did, and then they outdid themselves again in porting it to the Xbox 360.
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