Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade has brought back several great games and updated them with new visuals and improved gameplay. Almost six years since after its first release in Japan, Ikaruga has come home to roost on the Xbox 360, bringing another legendary shooting experience to Microsoft's online portfolio.
Ikaruga burst onto the Japanese arcade scene in 2001, capitalizing on players' devotion to the terminal art of shooters that pit one craft against legions of alien assailants. Your tiny ship must shoot down swarms of enemies and dive through devious obstacles while avoiding or absorbing enemy fire. Yes, absorbing enemy fire. Until then, most twitch shooters--like Gradius, R-Type, and Life Force--demanded all enemy fire be avoided. The key mechanic of Ikaruga--like Silhouette Mirage--was the ability to change the polarity of your craft to absorb like-colored enemy fire. Lest you be forced to scroll through a rainbow of colors, the choices have been limited to two settings: dark and light.
While simple, the mechanic makes for a subtle yet versatile experience. You can easily overcome light-colored enemies by using dark attacks or defeat dark enemies with light-infused attacks. There are no additional power-ups to pick up, but as you absorb enemy fire you can charge up a homing laser as a secondary weapon to eradicate many of the enemies onscreen. Switching the polarity of your ship never gets old. Instead, it frequently creates a tactical tradeoff: You'll find yourself debating whether to be defensive and gather up like-colored enemy fire or to play through again in the opposite form to deal additional damage.
In addition to the dark-versus-light switching, Ikaruga has a chain system built in that turns the initial shooting experience into a puzzle adventure. If you shoot three light (or dark) enemies in a row, you can get a chain. The more chains of three you get, the higher you can get your chain count. The chain count then translates into a higher score and a better overall grade for a particular level. If you wish to unlock all of the A-grade achievements, you’ll spend hours perfecting your chains and linking enemy after enemy to ensure the optimal efficiency. The marriage of a puzzle mechanic with a shoot-'em-up is one made in heaven for many players, but it may add a level of complexity few are prepared to face.
On the default settings, the game is unapologetically punishing. You have no continues, limited lives, and only your reflexes to keep you out of harm's way. Thankfully, the only random element in the game is you. Thus, you can practice to learn patterns and experiment with different paths. For those of you not obsessed with demonstrating the greatest proficiency or rising up the leaderboards, you can gerrymander the settings to soften the difficulty, enable continues, or increase the number of lives per credit. The more you play, the more credits you earn. Those credits mean more continues and a better chance to face off against the impressive onslaught of bosses at the end of the game. The ability to design the experience also allows you to select a single level to practice. This is especially important if you are trying to learn the patterns of the bosses or improve your grade on a specific level.
The gameplay remains terrific but unchanged. On the other hand, Treasure has updated the visuals to look slicker than ever. The two-dimensional, top-down combat is accentuated by impressive 3D backgrounds. You can fly over sweeping cityscapes, see swarms of enemies arrayed to destroy you, and spot space stations hovering in the distance. The graphics have been stepped up from the Dreamcast and GameCube presentations. The visuals are brighter and the rendering is cleaner. The attention to detail in the previous releases was impressive, but the visuals in the Xbox 360 version make it the most spectacular of the releases to date.
True to the previous versions, you can tackle the dangerous levels in a two-player cooperative mode on the same box. This release also adds system link and online co-op. The added firepower is appreciated, but in narrow spaces it is way too easy to bump your buddy into a wall or inadvertently shower him or her with the enemy fire that erupts from downing bogeys. While local and system link are perfect ports, online suffers from some distracting lag. Fortunately, it isn't the glitchy kind of lag, but a minor delay of control. Unfortunately, a delay means instant death if you are not able to compensate in the treacherous hail of gunfire. Despite a couple hiccups, the online is still a blast. The multiplayer change in strategies creates a very different experience than going it alone.
Along with the multiplayer lag, there are two other drawbacks of note: framerate dips, and controller drift. The frame rate slowdown experienced in certain parts of previous versions--most notably after defeating a particularly large boss--has not been corrected in this release. It isn't gamebreaking, but the fact that it has been perpetuated in the series for so long is unfortunate. Depending on whom you ask, or what controller you're using, some players may encounter a drift in the spacecraft after maneuvering. It doesn't happen to everybody or even at predictable times, but it could end up causing a tragic end to gameplay.
Ikaruga continues to deliver an experience few competitors can dream of achieving on any platform. And as far as arcade ports go, this is one of the best; it is faithful to the original and provides incremental platform improvements. While copies of this game may go for top dollar on other platforms, 800 Microsoft points is a steal for the hours of fun that can be had.