Good evening, readers! Last week, we took to the skies on the back of a dragon. It's not as happy as it sounds, but Drakengard was still cool.
This week, we'll look at an insanely good top-down shoot-em-up that first appeared on the GameCube in America.
Yeah, there's that famous IGN quote...anyway, Ikaruga was first a Dreamcast port of an arcade game in Japan before making its way here as a GameCube exclusive, in 2003. It was developed by Treasure, who just makes some of the best damn games around. Here's one. This being a shoot-em-up ("shmup"), there's backstory here, but generally you won't care, because the focus is never on plot in these games.
But basically, you play as a dude named Shinra who is a pilot in a war between two factions. Rescued after being shot down, he swears to defeat the Horai-the bad guys-and pilots the "Ikaruga," a new kind of ship that can switch between light and dark polarities.
Screenshots from the HD re-release.
And there, in that shallow premise, lies Ikaruga's famous mechanic: see, every enemy-every enemy-is of either light or dark polarity. And a ship of light fires light weapons, while naturally, a dark ship fires dark bullets/missiles/beams. That rule applies to your ship as well.
Any shots that match the polarity of your ship, which you can switch with the press of a button, is absorbed into your ship rather than killing you. Anyone who plays shmups knows one bullet generally equals death, so it can be odd initially to deliberately fly into the path of enemy bullets. But, naturally, get hit with just one dark bullet while in light mode-or vice versa-and you're toast.
Absorbing bullets fills a power meter on the bottom of the screen, enabling you to unleash a barrage of homing missiles at your enemies. These can be invaluable for defeating the huge bosses, as you're typically absorbing tons of shots during these battles. The bosses have multiple parts to attack, much like Treasure's other brilliant shooter Radiant Silvergun, of which Ikaruga is considered a spiritual sequel.
But unlike Radiant Silvergun, Sin and Punishment, Gradius, R-Type, or so many other shmups we can name here, Ikaruga stands out due to one thing those games just don't have:
Ikaruga features just five levels. Each level is only a few minutes long. There's one playable ship (not counting Player 2's ship, the Ginkei). Every enemy is only light or only dark. They can't switch like you. You have one main weapon, and one super weapon you have to charge up. That's pretty much all in terms of gameplay. It doesn't make for a great sale. Could you imagine reading the back of the box, had Atari tried to push the game this way?
"FIVE LEVELS! TWO WEAPONS! ONE SHIP!"
But that's part of the appeal. Did you know this game was developed by a core team of just four people? Have you played Assassin's Creed III? Those ending credits went on for about three hours after you beat the game. Thousands upon thousands of people made that game. It's not just me, either.
But that's not meant to take away from ACIII. My point here is a small team of four made this masterpiece called Ikaruga. When you fire the game up and start, your ship blasts off from a huge launching...thing (it's called the "Sword of Acala" in the game's mythology). What strikes me, even today and even in the GameCube version, is how amazing all of this looks. Between the beautiful, muted color scheme, the perfect controls, and the huge, epic soundtrack, you could easily mistake Ikaruga for a big-budget, triple-A release.
It's a contrast to most every action game out there. To shmups especially, but to action games in general as well because of that minimalism-the fact that the game simply does more with less. It doesn't need the seven always-available weapons of Radiant Silvergun, nor does it need the powerups and Options of Gradius. Even relating to today's shooters, Ikaruga doesn't need elaborate set pieces or, really, even dialogue.
It simply is.
Treasure, like they always do, strove first and foremost to deliver a remarkable gameplay experience above all else. They nailed it with Ikaruga. Eleven years after it hit American shores, this game still holds up.
Oh yeah-it's hard as nails. So there's that.
Totally worth replaying, if by some chance Ikaruga passed under your radar, you owe it to yourself to play it. Get it on 360 if that's your option; just know the GameCube version also looked that good six years prior. Play it somehow.
Because it's a masterpiece.
Thanks for reading! As always, shoot me questions, comments, and future Game of The Week suggestions! You can tweet me too, if that's your bag, here: @WingZero351
Next week, I wonder whether or not a cardboard box from 1998 could still hold up today. Another one of my favorites, people. Stay tuned.