User Rating: 8.8 | Ikaruga GC
Chances are, you fall into one of two categories. Either you imported the Dreamcast release of Ikaruga last year and are already hopelessly addicted, or you’ve never heard of it before. For those of you who fit into the first category, I’m preaching to the choir here. For those who fall into the second category--you’re in for a pretty special treat with this game. Ikaruga, the brainchild of a little company called Treasure, was released to Japanese arcades toward the end of 2001. It managed to garner a pretty significant cult following, which prompted a Dreamcast port the following year. While certainly a nice send-off for Sega’s dead console, many US gamers feared it might never see the light of day outside of Japan. Atari’s unexpected announcement of a domestic Gamecube release was a pleasant surprise, to say the least. Ikaruga is modeled after the classic space shooters of an age long past. It is bound to evoke memories of games such as Gradius and R-Type in oldschool gamers, while offering a unique experience to those who have never played a proper shooter. Indeed, Ikaruga has something new to offer everyone--though the kill-everything-that-moves premise is nothing new, the game boasts several very unique innovations. At first glance, Ikaruga appears to be a fairly formulaic shooter--a series of top-down, constantly-scrolling stages filled to the brim with enemy ships, all of which you must destroy as you avoid their deadly projectiles. However, Ikaruga puts a spin on this concept. Every enemy ship is either black or white, with like-colored firepower. Your ship has the ability to change its polarity, flipping from black to white at the touch of a button. Like-colored projectiles are harmless to your ship--in fact, absorbing them is the key to charging up your homing laser, which is capable of taking out a whole mess of enemy targets at once. Touching a projectile of the opposite color (or any enemy ship, regardless of color) is lethal. Your ship’s lasers reflect its current color, and your shots deal double damage to targets of opposite polarity. However, killing a target of the same polarity yields a substantial amount of debris to absorb for your homing laser. It’s also worth mentioning that, aside from your standard cannon, the homing laser acts as your only other means of defense--no fancy power-ups here, folks. Trust me--as strange as it may sound, this does make plenty of sense once you start to understand the game’s dynamics. The game’s scoring system is color-coded as well. Destroying enemies in multiples of three (three black, or three white) yields more points; you are awarded with extra lives as your score climbs higher. Ikaruga’s unforgiving letter-grading system awards you a rank of A through F at the end of each level, which will likely keep you coming back to improve your score. All of these dynamics add up to a pretty unique gameplay experience--and a rough one; you’ll quickly discover that Ikaruga is a very hard game. Though there are only five stages, it soon becomes apparent that adding anymore would make the game near-impossible to finish. Ikaruga gets pretty relentless in the later levels, which will give your polarity-switching finger quite a bit of exercise. Similarly, the end-level bosses are extremely unforgiving juggernauts that take quite a bit of punishment before they fall. You get a finite number of continues, to boot. Not to mention there are three difficulty levels. If you want to master Ikaruga, it all comes down to stage-by-stage memorization and pattern recognition. To this end, Atari has included a special mode that allows players to post their rankings onto the game’s official website using an in-game password system. Ikaruga allows for simultaneous two-player cooperative play, which adds a whole new layer of enjoyment to the game. This allows for the possibility of using different strategies and tactics, and it definitely feels like an accomplishment to finish a few levels with a partner. Conquest mode allows you to hone your skills at individual sections of stages you’ve previously completed, or watch videos of an Ikaruga pro at work. Practice mode allows you to play through any stage in its entirety--provided you’ve reached the stage on one credit in the game’s regular mode. Several unlockable extras lie in wait for expert players, though most can be reached simply by playing the game for a set number of hours. Story-wise, Ikaruga is pretty run-of-the-mill--which is to say, there isn’t much of a plot at all. The world is in peril, and you--with your tricked-out ship--are the only thing that stands in the enemy’s way. All told, story is a pretty low priority in a game like Ikaruga. The focus here is on relentless, fast-paced, twitch-based action--and that is what Ikaruga excels at. Graphically, Ikaruga really isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It is, after all, a straight port of a nearly two-year-old arcade game. Though there aren’t any fancy FMV sequences to be found, Ikaruga’s ships are full 3D models, set against some very nice, appropriately-designed backdrops. While it certainly doesn’t push the envelope of the Gamecube’s hardware, the game does maintain a consistent, visually pleasing motif. Ikaruga’s soundtrack definitely seems inspired by the shooters of old, relying heavily on synthesized music. The sound effects are well-done, with some nice explosion effects when a boss enemy is destroyed. The game’s robotic announcer can get marginally annoying, especially since it’s near-impossible to understand anything it says. In the end, Ikaruga’s audio is much like its visuals--nothing new, but apt for what it is. Ikaruga certainly isn’t for everyone. It is aimed at hardcore gamers, through and through--its high degree of difficulty is a firm testament to this. If you’re up to the challenge, this game is definitely a breath of fresh air; Ikaruga is intense, addictive, and just flat out fun to play. It isn’t going to astound anyone in the audio or visual departments, but the gameplay is something special--and when it comes down to the wire, that’s the part that really matters.