"Hi, my name is Mike, and I'm a shmup fan."
Acknowledging that you're a fan of the shoot-'em-up (or shmup, as they're lovingly referred to by the hardcore crowd) in this day and age of 3D graphics and epic games is sort of like admitting you're an alcoholic at the local AA meeting. You're bound to find a few folks who share and understand your affliction, but most of the time your proclamation will be met with blank stares or worse, looks of pity. The majority of today's gamers are simply incapable of fathoming how someone could actually enjoy playing games with 2D graphics and gameplay mechanics that essentially involve shooting everything on the screen.
Ah, but forgive them Father, for they know not what they do. The inherent beauty of the shmup is that while it appears to be a relatively simple affair at first glance (involving shooting hordes of enemies and dodging insane amounts of return fire), that couldn't be further from the truth. To become a true shmup master, one must enter a Zen-like state wherein the gamer becomes one with the controller and his onscreen avatar. Shmups, sort of like the old arcade fighters, are gaming in its purest form—contests where victory depends on practice, skill, and reflexes.
Unfortunately, the shmup (which once dominated the videogame market both on consoles and in the arcades) has become a niche genre. Longtime fans of these games still play them (as witnessed by the active shmup community online), but the casual gamer generally has little interest in playing titles that seem so archaic—or don't generate the requisite amount of hype.
Ikargua is legendary developer Treasure's (who also gave us the brilliant Radiant Silvergun for the Sega Saturn) latest attempt to breathe new life into this once proud category of games. The good news for shmup fans is that it's a complete success.
Striving for innovation in the shmup genre is almost counterproductive since part of what makes these games so intriguing (and so much fun) is their accessibility. Every shmup out there is essentially a 'pick up and play' experience, meaning that anyone can give it a shot with minimal training. Mastering the games, though, is a different matter entirely.
Ikargua is at least somewhat different in this regard. It features all the shmup staples: hordes of enemies, insane amounts of bullets to dodge, larger than life bosses, and so on. Its one innovation comes in the form of a color system that Treasure seems to have borrowed from their earlier release, Silhouette Mirage.
The color system works like this: your ship and enemy ships are either black or white. Black ships shoot black bullets and can be absorbed if your ship is also black (which powers up your special attack meter). Black bullets from your gun do double damage to white ships. The opposite of all this is true for white. So, rather than just fly through the game blasting everything in sight, one must constantly adjust the color of their ship in order to navigate the insane amounts of enemy fire and to do maximum damage when possible.
Making things even more interesting is a color-based combo system. In order to rack up legendary scores on the game, one must shoot enemies in a specific order to build up chains. For example, hit three white ships in a row, and it's a chain—hit three more (or three black ships) and the multiplier increases again. Each stage is laid out in a way where the player can achieve huge chains with a little self-restraint (those who shoot first and look later will be doomed to low scores throughout) and a touch of skill. Pretty much anyone can complete Ikaruga's five stages—few people will actually master them.
What makes Ikaruga so intriguing from a game development standpoint is that while the title is a straight up shooter at first glance, it's only after one plays for a period that they come to realize just how much the game has in common with titles in the puzzle genre. Ikaruga's patterns of alternating colors and the constant flipping of the ship are not unlike Tetris at its most complex levels (at least in terms of being forced to concentrate fully, react as quickly as possible with complete precision, and plan a few moves ahead). This really brings an extra dimension to the game in terms of mechanics as the title asks gamers to not only shoot and dodge, but also focus on finding the best path through each stage.
Visually, the game is stunning. I've long been a fan of 2D games, and Ikaruga is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. While it's not quite as colorful as a lot of the other shmups on the market, it more than compensates with the overall cohesiveness of its aesthetic design. The game strives for a sort of cyberpunk appearance throughout, and the browns, grays, and other muted colors only add to the feel of the title.
One of the main complaints leveled against shmups is that they're short, and Ikaruga is no exception. In this era of 40-hour games, a game with a mere five areas to conquer doesn't seem to offer much bang for the buck, and if players simply continue over and over the experience will indeed be a short one. However, one doesn't play a game like Ikaruga to simply reach the end—one plays it to master it. In this regard, Ikaruga offers up tons of gameplay through multiple modes, different difficulty settings, and the challenges of getting a high score (which the player can then post on the game's official ranking board). Those who strive to get good at the game will be spending a lot of time with this title.
Ultimately, this review only scratches the surface of the Ikaruga experience—and the game is indeed an experience, something better played than read about. No review will ever accurately convey the tension in navigating through a sea of multiple colored bullets that fill every inch of the screen or the joy in finally nailing a 100+ chain combo because Ikaruga, like all good shmups, is visceral. In an age where it seems like gamers spend more time reading about games than actually playing them, Ikaruga is almost an anachronism—a title that begs be experienced in person.