Ikaruga Review: No Refuge For Wimps

For the uninitiated, Treasure's Ikaruga is a vertically scrolling shoot 'em up originally released for arcades, with ports for the Dreamcast and GameCube released in 2002 and 2003 respectively. It uses a simple mechanic of polarity—your ship, the Ikaruga, can switch between black and white states; there are no traditional shooter power ups, black and white beams are your only weapon. It's a system that belies its complexity. When white, the ship can absorb all white-coloured incoming enemy fire. When black, the ship can absorb all black-coloured incoming enemy fire. However, when firing on ships of the opposite colour, the Ikaruga does double the damage. Oh, but there's more to it than that, a layer of depth that makes Ikaruga one part shooter, one part puzzler, with a dash of rhythm and strategy tossed in. How does the Xbox Live Arcade port hold up, with Ikaruga now seven years old?

Warning. The big list of love and hate is approaching at full throttle. No refuge.

Still Gorgeous Graphics - Ikaruga has the best visual design of any shooter ever. The limited colour palette, in black, red, white and blue, is painted perfectly on earthy backdrops. Playing the game in high definition alone is worth the 800 Microsoft Points, even if you have the Dreamcast and GameCube ports
Soundtrack - Shooting game soundtracks are required by shmup law to feature dramatic, blood pumping anthems and Ikaruga does not disappoint. Its boss battle fanfare is classic stuff.
Punishing Difficulty - There's a certain joy to be had in beating your previous shooting performance until, ultimately, you can conquer the barrage of beams and bullets and clear the game's five chapters. After each failed attempt, you may find yourself giving it another go. And another. And another. It's hard, damn hard, but in a very satisfying way.
Options For Everyone - TATE mode lets those with rotating monitors play Ikaruga in its original, portrait aspect ratio. Replays let players save their best runs to the hard drive. Multiple difficulty options let the scrubs enjoy the later levels with continues that accrue with more play time.
Real Replayability, Real Depth - Simply beating the game isn't enough. Ikaruga's real challenge lies in racking up max combo chains—shoot groups of three of the same colour consecutively without breaking the sequence—requiring memorization, strategy, twitch controls and genuine skill.

Online Lag - In a game that demands tight control and pixel accurate perception, a quarter of a second delay in response is unacceptable. System link and local two-player options perform fine, but it's hard to take Xbox Live matches seriously.
Dull achievements - A good portion are only for the hardest of the hardcore, but as a whole they're largely uninspired. Maybe I'm just bitter that I know I'll NEVER get an A on Chapter 4.

Over the past six years, I've logged a few hundred sessions with Ikaruga in its two console incarnations, but playing through it again in high(er) fidelity helped renew my appreciation for it. It also showed how rusty I'd become, requiring nearly a week of playtime to finish all five chapters.

Ikaruga is not for everyone, but it's arguably one of the best values to hit Xbox Live Arcade, considering how much many of us paid for the import Dreamcast version (or the Naomi one!). The appeal may be limited due to its niche genre and unforgiving difficulty, but even if you've never played a Treasure shooter before, you owe it to yourself to see what the fuss is about.

Ikaruga was developed by Treasure and release on April 9. Retails for 800 Microsoft Points ($US 10). Available on Xbox Live Arcade. Completed single player mode on Normal difficulty and played six Xbox Live two-player games.


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