System: Xbox Live Arcade
Cost: 800 points (approx. £7)
This release is one of those games that forum-bound wishful thinkers have fawned over since the inception of the Live Arcade service. An uncontested classic that is wholly inappropriate for a full price DVD release, itís a textbook example of why digital distribution is worth having.
Obscure-Japanese-game-nerd favourites Treasure working in conjunction with I-have-no-clue-who-these-guys-are G.rev originally developed Ikaruga for arcades as a spiritual sequel to Radiant Silvergun, which is one of those games you're supposed to pretend to like even though you almost certainly havenít played it because you didnít own a Saturn and you arenít Japanese, statistically speaking. Ikaruga jumped from the arcades on to the sinking Dreamcast ship, albeit for another Japan-only outing, and finally deigned to allow the rest of the world to have a shot with a 2003 Gamecube release. The message from Treasure is clearly that backing winners is for losers. Microsoft should be concerned.
Ikaruga is essentially a thoroughly traditional vertical scrolling shoot Ďem up. Despite the (sometimes slightly distracting) 3D backgrounds that undulate behind the action, game play is strictly 2D, with your ship heading inexorably upwards as waves of dancing enemies swarm towards you like mechanised synchronised swimming teams running amok. The all-important gimmick in this case is one of polarity. Each enemy ship or projectile possesses either light or dark polarity, while the playerís ship and projectiles can toggle between the two on the fly. Light ships take more damage from dark projectiles and vice versa, and the playerís ship is invulnerable to projectiles of the same polarity. Whatís more, taking hits from projectiles that match your current polarity will build up an energy meter which can be unleashed in a thoroughly useful auto-targeting power attack.
Adopting the polarity concept as second nature is the key to enjoying yourself with Ikaruga. What may sound uninspiring described here in text is the crux of everything that makes Ikaruga such a gripping experience. An elegant symmetry runs through the game design, with the playerís whims the single disrupting influence to the perfect balance. At any given moment, whatever wave of enemies or cascade of projectiles presented, the player can reverse their fortunes with a simple change of polarity. Anybody experienced with this type of game will be familiar with scanning an oncoming sea of bullets, looking for patterns in the chaos and possible routes to safety. With any given portion of oncoming projectiles Ikaruga presents the player with a choice as to which polarity will enable them to best navigate the obstacle, all while trying to maximise damage on the enemies at the top of the screen. Itís a simple game mechanic, but often thatís all a game needs to stand out from the crowd.
Other than the polarity concept the game is a pure, traditional shoot Ďem up, for better or worse. This means that Ikaruga will frustrate the hell out of you, and force you to memorise levels if you want to get anywhere, and whether the rewards balance out the frustrations is a wholly subjective issue. By typical Live Arcade standards Ikaruga is far from Ďcasualí in the sense that the word has come to be defined. Three skill levels are on offer, but most players will struggle to see all of the gameís five stages even on Easy, and the leaps to Normal and Hard are painful and deadly, respectively. It should be noted, however, that these skill levels do add some depth by altering the behaviours of the enemies, rather than merely increasing the playerís life count or decreasing enemy defences. Ikaruga isnít completely merciless, however, and gives the option of increasing the allocated number of lives from three to five and, for the truly overwhelmed, activating continues. Choosing the latter option means forfeiting your right to upload scores or save replays, but it might just be worth it to dull the pain of, say, stage threeís remorseless crushing walls. Whatís more, the game rewards loyalty by granting you an extra credit for each hour played, eventually shrugging its shoulders in despair and granting you a free play mode with infinite continues. Itís a hard game, then, but one that knows how hard it is, and one willing to give struggling players a lifeline here and there.
Generally Ikaruga is to be applauded for the slew of options it offers. The detailed HUD configuration options from earlier console incarnations are retained, as is the option to rotate the play screen 90į, just in case youíre enough of a lunatic to want to sit your television on its side to optimise your experience, which is even less likely than you having played Radiant Silvergun. The excellent cooperative mode is back again, this time with online and system-link play on offer. Why you would want to play a game like this in system-link mode is beyond me, and if you do youíre probably the same person who wants to sit their TV sideways, but options are always nice. The usual online leaderboards are present, and will at least serve as proof that that boss really can be beaten, and when you finally do beat it you can save your victorious replay, although only the top scorers get the honour of uploading them.
Itís a comprehensive range of options and extras, certainly, but fundamentally Ikaruga remains a game about repeating (and, hopefully, mastering) a handful of stages. Itís impossible to recommend a game like this to everyone, but I urge everyone to at least try it. Beyond the online play and HD graphics that are good but hardly stunning, this version of Ikaruga offers little that the Gamecube version did not. However, with preowned copies of the Gamecube version commonly fetching twice the price of this new Live Arcade version, nobody is really in a position to feel ripped off.
In a token effort yo supply the bemused player with a rationale for their polarity-juggling misadventures, Ikaruga presents us with a few whimsically-translated lines of inspirational text before each stage. As the second stage commences, we are informed of the following:
ďThe stronger will you have the more you face various trials. Although you can choose to escape, "Trial" has the message for you to conquer yourself.Ē
Do you have a strong enough will to face the trial of Ikaruga? You can choose not to buy it, sure, but what Iím trying to communicate with this review is that Ikaruga has the message for you to conquer yourself. I guess.