Behind a great game is usually a great story. So we decided to explain just how great, in a really detailed review of Ikaruga. Ready?
Few gamers were ever lucky enough to have witnessed first hand the glory that was Treasure's Radiant Silvergun for Sega's Arcade Titan ST-V board and Japanese Saturn console. Considered by many to be one of the ultimate milestones in the shooter genre, Radiant Silvergun was a rare and precious gem that reached the depths of eBay hell as arms and legs had to be given up just to own this amazing title, due to its ridiculous auction price (around $200).
Finally in 2001, when Treasure, a company not known for sequels, prepared to unleash a NAOMI powered arcade shooter with text underneath that read "Project RS2", hardcore shooter fans sang to the heavens as speculation began and ran amok all across the internet as they awaited the arrival of what they felt was at long last the long awaited sequel to Treasure's original Saturn masterpiece. Similar to Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga began its life on Sega Arcade hardware and then ported to a Sega console (Dreamcast). But unlike Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga wasn't sitting still on one console this time and is being officially released in both the U.S. and Europe.
After the controversial on-again, off-again release date fiasco of the Dreamcast version last year that had import shops panicking thanks to over six months of delays and denials of the port's existence, hopes for a home conversion were all but gone. Some hardcore gamers did all they could to cope with the thought that a port of Ikaruga would not come to pass, even going out and purchasing used NAOMI Ikaruga boards for several hundred dollars. Meanwhile the rest of us waited patiently for the dust to settle and the game of musical chairs with Ikaruga's home conversion fate to stop and be finalized one way or another.
Eventually after noticing the sizable interest and potential preorders in both America and Japan, as well as all of the begging by hardcore shooter fans and Treasure fans alike, Treasure finally graced Japanese Dreamcast owners with a fitting swan song to the consoles short but very blissful life with a port of their very HOT shooter released on the Dreamcast last September. And just like its spiritual predecessor, 'Radiant Silvergun', Ikaruga is a labor of love from Treasure that shows all throughout the game, and is a shooter tour-de-force that has to be seen and played, to be believed.
Ikaruga is a vertically scrolling two-dimensional shooter sporting some wonderful and highly detailed three-dimensional graphics that provide a great sense of depth to the game's visuals and atmosphere.
Not long after the Dreamcast version was confirmed, news of a Gamecube version was announced for release sometime in 2003. The Gamecube version has finally arrived and shooter fans can rejoice! Treasure has come through once again with flying colors (pun intended). The Gamecube edition of Ikaruga packs the same high intensity gameplay, graphics, sounds and wicked level designs as the Dreamcast version while adding some cool new options to the mix. In a genre that is slowly dying out, its developers like Treasure that seem to be keeping them alive.
The Story of Ikaruga tells the tale of an evil nation called 'Shintsusha' who acquired "The Power of God" which was excavated from the ground by Hourai Tenrou a few years ago and used for their own evil deeds. After obtaining this power, they began to wage war upon and dominate other nations. A group of Freedom Fighting rebels known as the Tenkaku Organization went to battle the Hourai and fought valiantly against them but still failed miserably and were quickly annihilated. But all was not lost as of yet, The only survivor left, A young lanky looking pilot named Shinra was shot down and crash landed in the village of Ikaruga. Recovering from his injuries thanks to the help of a kind elderly man named Kazemori, Shinra vowed to fight against the Hourai again and refused to give up. Kazemori then entrusted the fighter ship,"Ikaruga", to him to fight against the Hourai. With renewed vigor, Shinra once again went out to battle the evil Hourai one last time.
At the selection screen you get a glimpse of Shinra who happens to be a jaggedly tall, dark and not so handsome lanky looking lad that looks like he hasn't eaten a thing in a long long time.
Ikaruga uses sharp 3D-style graphics with 2D Gameplay very effectively. The environments and ships are fully rendered in gorgeous 3D and are quite impressive to see while cruising high above the 3D Landscapes. I was impressed by both the detailed graphics and smooth framerates with each level scrolling by at a beautiful and smooth 60 frames per second with dozens of enemy ships and countless bullets and shrapnel on screen at any given time.
The sweeping camera angles taking you into different areas of the levels are quite awesome! I absolutely love the transition moments when everything is rotating and zooming in and out, creating some simple but dazzling effects.
The lighting effects are also very nice. Destroying enemy bosses creates some dazzling explosion effects that are bright and fantastic! This is a game that needs to be replayed many times just so you can marvel at its great graphics and appreciate every little nuance of the game. On Presentation alone I would give it a 10!
Despite the graphical goodness, one problem some may have with the game's visuals is that since it was originally an arcade game, built for arcade vertically-scrolling shooter screen dimensions (more height, less width), the default play mode contains black borders along the sides of the screen, thus shrinking the play field quite a bit. I had no issues what so ever with it since I've been used to playing shooters like this for years, but some others may not be so embracing of it.
Luckily for those who don't like the borders, there's the option to play the game in full screen mode but it will be in horizontal scrolling form unless your TV can handle being turned onto its side for the full-screen vertically scrolling effect.
To help compliment Ikaruga's superb graphics and phenomenal gameplay is a solid soundtrack composed by Hiroshi Iuchi, who was also both the Director and Background Graphic Designer of the Ikaruga project. The high quality orchestral soundtrack works quite well to drive the onscreen action and enhance the gameplaying experience. The explosion sounds are crisp with every sonic characteristic of them registering clearly. There are also mechanical voices that sound out during successful chains and to announce boss encounters.
Unfortunately the one and only downside I found to Ikaruga was that even though the sound quality was high, I didn't really find the music composition to be very memorable or catchy. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy any of the music, I did enjoy the first Chapter's somewhat upbeat orchestrated action theme, along with certain parts of the Final Chapter's theme and the ending theme which gave an epic feel to the game.
But in a nutshell, I like game music to remain in my head even after the console's power goes off, Ikaruga's soundtrack didn't have that effect. The music isn't bad per se; it just isn't as masterful as some of Treasure's other game scores. Overall the Sound Effects are crisp, the voice samples are cool and the music works well.
When you're first starting the game, you're given the option to select your difficulty levels; you have one of three choices between Easy Mode, Normal Mode and Hard Mode. The fascinating thing about Ikaruga is that each of the difficulty levels requires a different gameplay strategy, which I'll explain later. Once you select your difficulty setting you're then presented with choice of Normal Game or Trial Game. Trial Game only takes you through two chapters in the game whereas Normal mode is the full game.
Ikaruga supports one or two players simultaneously and dangerously enough the ships can interact with each other by pushing each other across the playing field, something that can be quite dangerous while players are trying to carefully maneuver through tight spaces and avoid enemy fire but end up bumping into each other and accidentally pushing the other into enemy fire. However, two players can be very effective when they work together cooperatively to provide cover for the other while one of them causes major damage to the bosses.
Ikaruga uses a gameplay system that won't be too foreign to players of Treasure's other Saturn classic, Silhouette Mirage, in which your characters have both a life bar and a spirit bar. Turning your characters in either direction will switch their attributes from Silhouette (blue) to Mirage (red) and vice versa. If enemies the same color as your current attribute hit you, you'll lose spirit. When opposite colored enemies hit you, you'll lose a life.
Ikaruga uses a color system similar in a way to Silhouette Mirage in that your ship can switch between two attributes anytime during play with just the press of a button. The ship can change from a dark color to a white one and vice versa. Each enemy is colored similarly- either dark colored or white, or both, in the case of bosses. The bullets or energy beams they fire or the fragments they emit upon destruction are either light blue or dark red. If enemy bullets and shrapnel of the opposite color hits your ship you'll lose a life, but the similarities end there.
Just like the enemy ships, the Ikaruga shoots bullets and homing lasers that are colored the same: dark red or light blue depending on your current attribute at the time of fire. Your fire causes more damage to enemies of the opposite color, for example, shooting down light colored enemy ships with your light colored bullets causes less damage to them, but shooting them down with your dark colored bullets causes more damage which is important against tougher enemies or bosses.
The incredibly interesting and fun thing about Ikaruga is that unlike most other shooters out there where you have to constantly evade enemy fire, the point of this game is Not to avoid it all, it actually pays to get hit sometimes. Enemy fire the same color as your ship are harmless to you, the Ikaruga has the ability to absorb bullets and enemy fragments of its own color, doing so will increase your score count and fill up the gauge meter of your powerful homing laser, which can be used to counter-attack the enemy and wipe out large waves of enemy ships or cause major damage to bosses.
Sounds easy enough until actual play and confusion sets in while you're being bombarded by tons of different colored bullets and fragments while trying to keep track of which ones to dodge and which to absorb. The game is far from easy, and is one of the most challenging games out there. At times, the screen will be completely filled with bullets and shrapnel of different colors and the only way to survive is by switching back and forth at precise moments.
At the end of every Chapter are powerful Bosses that will often make life difficult by shooting out a maze of same colored bullets and shooting a smaller amount of opposite-colored bullets just to keep you awake and moving around. Boss battles are truly something else, requiring constant attention and concentration due to the high amount of alternating colored firepower thrown at you. You'll need to flip the ship's attributes with great rhythmical timing and precision at times which adds a great deal of fun and challenge to the game. Getting by the first few bosses isn't difficult once you develop your own pattern for defeating them but the last two level bosses will challenge even the most hardcore shooter-holics! And to add even more pressure, you have to defeat them within a set time limit or they'll escape and you won't receive any extra bonus points.
Other dangers in the game include crashing into enemy ships swarming all over the screen and those that dangerously appear from out of nowhere, ala the Gradius series. Crashing into certain other objects in the game and crashing into some of the walls in the game will also destroy your ship, but there are walls like those in Chapter 3 that you can safely bump into, scrape against and not get blown up.
The controls are easy to pick up and only consist of three functions: 1. Shoot, 2. Fire homing lasers and 3. Switch attributes. There are no power-ups or weapon upgrades in the game but thankfully none are needed thanks to the unique color system.
Adding even more depth to an already fantastic shooter, Ikaruga sports a unique chaining system. To start the chaining process you have to destroy enemies in the same colored groups of three, for example you begin chaining by consecutively shooting either a group of three white enemy ships or three dark ones. Once the chain's been initiated you have to repeat the sequence in order to build your chain combo count up as high as possible. If you screw up the chain by shooting only one or two white ships and then shoot a dark ship anytime during that process, or vice versa, then its back to square one with the chain building as the chain counter will reset back to zero once that happens OR if you lose a life during the chaining process. The latter sucks especially because you could have a high combo count going with the chaining, get blown up and have to redo it all over again.
While chaining successfully the chain combo count will keep increasing on the counter and so does your score. Successful chaining rewards you with a nice boost to your high score. At the end of each level the game ranks you based on a number of factors, but the scores earned from high-chain combos are the best way to rank well. Scoring in Ikaruga is both simple and complex. The simple part is just shooting anything and everything on-screen and just trying to survive long enough to get to the end. The complex part comes into play when you're aiming to get the best play ranks and scores that you can, which can only be done by performing many chaining combos throughout the game. Always striving for a higher score and better play rank adds a nice deal of replay value to the game. And with the added Challenge Mode, players can strive to be the best and enter their high scores online into the world ranking with a special password system.
As I mentioned earlier, the game contains three difficulty settings, each of which significantly changes the way the game plays. Whichever difficulty Mode you select will change your gameplay strategy a bit.
In Easy mode, regardless of what color you are, none of the enemy ships will emit any fragments when destroyed, which is sometimes a good thing but not always, especially when you need to refill the gauge of your homing laser but can't at some points. Normal mode would probably be the ideal way to start if you really want to experience Ikaruga. In Normal mode, destroying ships of the same color will cause them to emit fragments that can either destroy your ship if its the opposite color or fill your gauge by absorbing them if you're the same color. But the thing to remember in Normal mode is to not switch your ship's attribute too quickly after destroying a bunch of enemy ships or you will get bombarded by plenty of opposite colored fragments headed your way.
And don't even get me started on Hard Mode; Hard Mode is where the game gets totally crazy from the outset. Unless you're an ace pilot when it comes to performing evasive maneuvers against countless enemy bullets and fragments, you're probably going to want to shoot as little as possible since destroying ships of ANY color will cause their shrapnel to bombard you at a faster rate. So carefully selecting the ships you want to shoot would be the best bet. Boss battles are definitely more intense as they're literally RAINING different colored bullets at a much faster and more frequent rate. Consider yourself a shooter 'God' if you can survive Hard Mode on one credit!
There are a total of five Chapters in Ikaruga and each one contains two parts that consist of a short introduction to each chapter and the main chapters themselves. The introduction parts zoom by at a rapid pace and give the player the chance to start the chain bonus early. Once you reach the end point of those segments, the camera zooms away; the CPU takes control over your ship until the main chapter is presented to you. Then the Ikaruga charges its thrusters and blasts into the main chapter. Control is then returned to you as you try to ward off countless enemy ships, different colored bullets, energy beams and shrapnel headed your way.
The level designs are very well crafted. Each chapter is different enough from the last to require a different play strategy in order to make it through intact. Each Chapter and boss encounter presents some new and interesting tests of your evasive skills as well as your timing with the color swapping.
The Gamecube version plays exactly like the Dreamcast version. The game has blazingly fast load times on both consoles, so once you complete a level, your transition to the next level is pretty instant, no coffee breaks while waiting for a Now Loading bar to be completely filled.
The Controls are top notch, and amazingly enough to myself, I was more in love with the controls of the Gamecube version over that of the Dreamcast due to the analog controls, a control scheme I've never been fond of in the past. But thanks to the ergonomic Gamecube controller, I was having a total blast maneuvering around with both the analog and digital controls. The button layout and the overall feel of the controller made it feel perfect for this game and is probably the best next-gen controller for shooters. Nothing beats an import Saturn pad, but this is a very close second. Overall I felt the Gamecube's controller had the advantage over the Dreamcast version due to button layout, analog and digital support, and it felt perfect in my hands.
New additions to the Gamecube edition of Ikaruga include two new modes of play which consist of 'Conquest' (Training mode) and 'Challenge'. The Conquest mode is pretty cool as it presents you with the option of playing through certain areas of the levels in 'Slow Play' or 'Normal Play', allowing you to practice more effective game playing strategies against certain areas or bosses while in slow-motion mode, a very useful feature. Or you can learn gameplay strategies by watching the CPU play the game, successfully performing chaining combos and blasting through bosses and levels in the 'Demo play'. Unfortunately only the sound effects are active within these modes of play as the music is deactivated. In the Conquest mode, each chapter is divided into multiple sections and you can select whichever sections you want and practice them, exit them and restart them anytime without having to go through the entire levels. Each chapter you complete in the main portion of the game will become accessible in the Conquest mode.
The 'Challenge' mode lets you blast through the game in arcade mode with only three lives and no continues, piling up high scores for the Ikaruga Net Ranking. When your game is over you're given your final score and a password that you use at http://www.ikaruga-atari.net to view and compare your ranking with other Ikaruga blasters across the globe.
The extras don't stop there neither, Ikaruga is packed with unlockable goodies that probably only hardcore shooter fans will be savvy and skilled enough to unlock quickly via gameplay due to the game's high difficulty level. In the Appendix area, you can unlock art galleries (Hidden Option 1 & 2), A Sound Test mode (Hidden Option 3), and best of all; unlock the 'Game Mode', which contains the final NAOMI-faithful direct port, and the prototype game of Ikaruga (Hidden Option 4). Naomi is basically the coin-op version of Ikaruga, whereas Prototype is almost the same game, but your ship isn't equipped with as much firepower and there's no option to store up enemy fire to release a homing laser to get you out of those tight jams.
With all these hidden goodies, Ikaruga is making sure that those persistent enough to survive through the game and learn it well will be rewarded nicely. But unlocking these extras is certainly another hair-raising matter due to the game's high difficulty in later chapters. Luckily the requirements to unlock these hidden options are two-fold, you can either complete the game on certain difficulty settings without continuing or just log in as many hours of playtime as you can to eventually unlock them all. Even additional credits can be earned after each hour of play until you've unlocked Infinite credits after 15 hours of in-game playtime.
If I HAD to list one gripe about the game it would be that there was no intro of any kind and the ending was too simplistic, but other than that it's a marvelous game!
The five Chapters are cleverly designed and unlocking the cool hidden options should keep you busy for quite some time depending on your skill level. Owners of the Dreamcast version really have no reason to rush out and re-purchase the game since the Gamecube version doesn't really offer much in the way of additional extras to justify another purchase. But shooter fans who haven't been fortunate enough to play any incarnation of Ikaruga should RUN, not walk, to their nearest Game store and snatch this gem up! Ikaruga is one of the best shooters on and off the market, check it out and see if you've got what it takes!