It's raining bullets, hallelujah!
Shoot-em-ups (or shmups, if you’d prefer) are a dime a dozen in the world of gaming, especially in Japan where the genre is respected as one of the most popular around. Classics like Gradius, Life Force, 1942, Darius, Xevious and Raiden helped cement the shmup as as a mainstay in the industry; and while they’re not as numerous or popular as in their arcade heyday, developers the world over still keep finding ways to reinvigorate the genre.
Recent examples of this include Retro/Grade, Sine Mora, and the Touhou danmaku series, as well as frequent quality offerings from Cave including Deathsmiles and Dodonpachi Resurrection. Back in 2002, though, Treasure came along with a shmup that redefined what could be done within the confines of the genre. Expanding on the groundwork laid in their own Radiant Silvergun, that game was Ikaruga, which originally released in Japan on the Dreamcast, but was ported to the GameCube worldwide in 2003.
Ikaruga is a bullet hell shmup, meaning there’s rarely a moment when the screen isn’t completely filled with bullets. Games in the bullet hell (or danmaku) sub-genre are normally sadistically difficult, making most titles within it rather niche. Ikaruga was more or less in the same boat when it was released, but it has maintained a cult following in the years since its release, and is fondly remembered for its unique mechanics.
In Ikaruga, you play as either Shinra or Kagari, two pilots rebelling against The Divine Ones, a massive army seeking conquest through their discovery of Ubusunagami Okinokai, or “The Power of the Gods,” which has granted them unimaginable amounts of power. The structure seems to be your typical one versus a thousand shmup setup, but Ikaruga houses a ton of lore based around the game’s locations, factions, and origins of the player characters and their ships, as well as for the bosses. It’s a thoroughly interesting universe, and easily has one of the most fleshed out settings ever seen in a shoot-em-up. Much like Dark Souls, all this lore is not immediately apparent, opting for a show-don’t-tell approach to its placement in the game. It’s also worth mentioning that Ikaruga also has a strangely touching ending, another rarity within the genre.
Taking a single bullet from the opposite polarity will cause you to explode and lose a life. As such, and as difficult as this game is, you most likely won’t go ten seconds without switching polarity.
Ikaruga features no weapon power-ups or ship upgrades. In true bullet hell fashion, it’s just you and a motherload of enemy ships. To help you out, however, is the mechanic the game is so fondly remembered for. At any time, you are able to switch your ship’s polarity between light and dark, and this is where Ikaruga’s sheer depth lies. While light, you can absorb any light bullets fired by the enemy, and deal extra damage to dark ships. The same applies to the dark polarity, except the other way around: you can absorb dark bullets, and deal extra damage to light ships. Taking a single bullet from the opposite polarity will cause you to explode and lose a life. As such, and as difficult as this game is, you most likely won’t go ten seconds without switching polarity. This is particularly true for the game’s final boss, which has you switching on a half-second basis.
You won’t just be switching polarities to avoid dying, though. The system is also directly tied to the game’s score mechanics. Shooting down three ships of the same colour in a row will award you with a multiplier. Continually killing enemies in threes will allow your score to skyrocket, contributing to a higher grade at the end of each stage. Absorbing projectiles also builds your energy gauge, which can be spent to unleash a screen-clearing beam attack. Doing so may compromise your score combo, so it’s a crutch with a drawback, essentially. Though it does look pretty damn cool.
Speaking of cool, Ikaruga is the very definition in its presentation. Despite being eleven years old, Ikaruga has aged remarkably well. The light and dark polarity goes beyond being a mechanic and extends to the game’s buildings, environments and ship designs. The environments themselves are an interesting blend of nature and industry; an example being a network of high-powered lasers wreaking havoc in the middle of a canyon, or a vast army of ships reigning hellfire on an unassuming town below. While the game is short at just five stages, Ikaruga features a whirlwind tour of locations, ranging from the depths of a cavern, all the way up to the clouds above, and back again. Also, when you defeat a boss, you’re treated to the single greatest explosion in all of gaming. So awesome is this explosion that it gutpunches the game’s immaculate 60 frames-per-second.
Re-releases of the game also introduced customisable elements to the game’s HUD, such as the placement of score and energy gauge indicators, and the ability to remove the borders on widescreen TVs. One option to flip the game’s perspective horizontally comes with the baffling warning that doing so might make your TV burst into flames if it can’t support that option. It was probably a load of crap, but I was always too scared to try!
One option to flip the game’s perspective horizontally comes with the baffling warning that doing so might make your TV burst into flames if it can’t support that option.
Ikaruga’s sound design is breathtaking, the music always seeming to kick in when the action really heats up, and successfully purveys a sense of melancholic tension during the boss fights. One thing I will always remember about the game is your ship’s robotic navigator, which shouts “Energy Max!” each time your energy gauge fills up. It also goes apeshit whenever a boss shows up, accompanied by a blaring Warning! siren and screen pop-up.
All in all, Ikaruga just oozes “cool” from every one of its pores. It’s tough, but its approach to bullet pattern design actively stimulates your brainpower and spacial awareness, helping you become a better gamer overall. In fact, if you want to become generally better at games, playing stuff like Ikaruga is the way to go, as it improves such things, as well as reaction times and reflexes. Ikaruga is also available on XBLA and has recently been Greenlit on Steam, so the game may soon find a new audience among PC gamers. While it’s not for the faint of heart, Ikaruga certainly is one of the best shoot-em-ups ever made, and should not be missed by anyone with even a passing interest in hardcore gaming.