With the respected silver (early-to-mid 1980s) and golden (early-to-mid 1990s) ages of shoot-em-up’s long gone at the turn of the 21st century, it seemed that the genre that had spawned the likes of Gradius, Space Harrier, Raiden, Contra, Commando, R-Type and the eclectic Star Soldier series on the Turbo-Grafx (PC-Engine), was fated to remain shackled to mere 90s nostalgia. A genre that, despite some impressive implementation of 2.5D/pseudo-3D graphics, just couldn’t find the means to break into the truly commercial arena or even the era of 32-bit, true 3D gaming.
The shoot-em-up has remained relatively niche despite some early-21st century releases like Panzer Dragoon and Rez not to mention some surprise revivals here and inspired independent titles there, proving above all else that the beloved shm’up still had a trick or two left up its sleeve. Another one of these such maestros was Ikaruga, the 2001 (or 2002 for its proper console debut) vertical [by default] scroller developed by Treasure — the same studio who had debuted in the same genre, albeit focusing on the genre’s more run-and-gun delivery, with Gunstar Heroes.
Seventeen years later, and if you’re discounting its modest PC port in 2014, skipping a generation — for what might have been the possibility of soaking in a few more rays in what is now a more opportune forum for developers great and small — Ikaruga finds its way onto the Nintendo Switch. While this latest porting of arguably one of Treasure’s most-discussed and thus highly-lauded releases, isn’t necessarily pushing the boat out on incentives, it takes nothing away from how, all these very many years later, Ikaruga remains one of the genre’s most complete and wholesome releases to play and replay time and time again. A game that, short it may be in its five chapters, more than makes up for in how cleverly-choreographed its levels are and how immediately addictive its replay value can be, regardless of one’s high-score touting addiction.
If you’re still drawing a blank on what Ikaruga is, its primary gimmick and gameplay mechanic is in your ship’s ability to shift between polarities: white-blue and black-red. Similarly, all foes in the game — from the insignificant specks to the grand bosses at each stage’s climax — are designated one of these two polarities, both visually as well as offensively. The trick though is that unlike a lot of shoot-em-up’s, your ship, when cued with the right polarity, can absorb enemy fire. The second trick is that lining up an opposing polarity inflicts greater damage. And for a third trick — beyond this mechanic acting as both a defensive and offensive tool — its accompanying counter-offensive element via accumulating energy allows you to fire it back in missile barrages.
From its mere mechanics alone, Ikaruga already — long before it gets into the chaotic and perilous maneuvering between one potential death and the next — provides significant depth and variety to consider and while it never teaches or otherwise instructs its players on how these mechanics truly function in-game, it doesn’t need to. These inclusions are only added to in latter difficulty modes as Normal mode causes destroyed enemy ships to spurt out additional energy when aligned with the right polarity and Hard mode ejects it regardless of your alignment. In an age where NG+ and added difficulty only ever boils down to increased damage output, Ikaruga nails the idea of added contest without merely resorting to cheap modifications.
Beyond that, the game follows most of the genre’s rule-book in its execution: memorize enemy patterns, subsequently rack up chains that add to your score and above all else, survive. While Ikaruga doesn’t focus its efforts as much on remembering key screen spaces or perilous obstructions like R-Type does, that’s not to say its difficulty is any lesser. Ikaruga is undeniably formidable in its onslaught of bullet-hell-styled waves and gracious attack patterns one has to weave in and out of just to survive. Indeed, one of the few gripes (which isn’t all that detrimental but an obvious presence nonetheless) is how this difficulty — and the means to which the game executes it, whether it be a slow transition through the environment or one of its more “scripted” jettisons onward — can flip-flop without necessarily feeling like a natural step-up or ascent on the figurative curve so to speak.
Even so, one of the unique things about Ikaruga and one that still shines through to this day is in Treasure’s intelligently-arranged enemy formations and occasional traps to avoid, even when unaware it’s a trap to begin with. The early parts of Chapter 3 are a text-book example on disguising a hindrance as help. Keeping in mind that this is a shm’up in all the regular senses, Ikaruga is one of the few games in its genre to underscore the importance of strategy and knowing when and when not to make a move. The visuals may seem dizzying and potentially cursory given how little free space at times is provided, but part of the joy in Ikaruga is in finding a route through the madness and getting that next sound tactic correct.
What’s more, finding the confidence to eventually rack up another “MAX CHAIN” in the process and let the resulting score multiplier fly ever higher. It’s something that has lasted over the years and it’s this almost elegant and rhythmic-like delivery of enemy waves and targets to take out that gives Ikaruga a more entrancing presentation than other legacy shooters. Where an established series like Gradius or (again) R-Type is more strict in its enemy placement — requiring you to memorize the exact spot with which all threats are likely to avoid — Ikaruga offers the invitation of attempting a high score while at the same time providing enough for the player to trip up on or to even loosen one’s eye off if you’re not careful.
While some Star Soldier entrants were engaging in their visuals, the spectacle that is the game’s 3D environment rendering — and the ways your ship soars and sails through the world despite still being an on-rails affair — gives the thematic side of proceedings much more resonance despite the vague reference of “story” being but a fleeting spectre of a presence. But with a punchy but dramatic soundtrack to accompany, Ikaruga — like Rez alongside — is an entrant that succeeds just as well on its forefront aesthetic and delivery, just as it accomplishes its main goal on delivering deeply-embedded mechanics without it ever feeling overblown.
So what of the Switch version? Well, for one, though not entirely exclusive to the system, the ability to alter lives/continues, the ample number of screen options and UI layout alterations, though sounds insignificant, is a nice accompaniment for those more compulsive on a tailored experience. But perhaps the most notable inclusion is the return of the ability to completely flip the game on its side. Allowing you to orientate the game as a horizontal shooter rather than a vertical one — thus standing the Switch console on its side to play the game without the overly-dominating side visuals taking up too much screen space. And while it may be a sharper, cleaner port of a near two decade old release, Ikaruga does a terrific job at hiding its age when viewed through the console’s Portable Mode.
After so many subsequent ports and re-releases, little love is lost in a game whose age only elevates its timelessness and whose gracious-but-clever philosophy on enemy engagement makes it a thoroughly unique affair in general. One that dabbles in strategy and puzzle-solving at points, all the while keeping a firm hold on its passionately shoot-em-up roots. Even its objectively short run-time and momentarily unforeseen spikes in difficulty can’t dent just how astonishing Ikaruga is. And with the Switch’s portability and novel orientation of perspective, Treasure’s beloved entrant is sure to find an even greater number of admirers. One of the genre’s most accomplished works so far as gameplay mechanics, soundtrack and overall presentation goes — one that easily rivals the likes of R-Type III, Soldier Blade, Space Harrier and even Rez to name a few — Ikaruga remains, seventeen years on, a truly inventive shoot-em-up and addictive experience to master wholesale. Not just a cult-classic, but a classic full-stop.