Ikaruga a.k.a Project RS-2
Ikaruga first appeared in the Arcades in Japan 2001 and later on the Dreamcast (Japan Only) in 2002. There have been a few ports since then, most notably on the Gamecube in 2003 and of course, Xbox Live Arcade in 2008. My first experience of this game was back on the Dreamcast, long after it had died. During that time, I had gone through a bit of a collector phase, having collected many shumps and rarities on both the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast. This was by far the Jewel of the collection because its outward simplicity belies the strategy and understanding needed to actually succeed and be good at this game. While it certainly presents a challenge to even the most skilled of gamers, it also allows the more casual gamer to drop in for some mindless blasting without too much thought. In short, it is a joy to play and a wonderful piece of game design for reasons I will outline below.
This review will be divided into sections detailing my opinions on areas relevant to elements that "make a game", namely, story, graphics, sound, controls, mechanics, re/playability and achievements.
I would also like to apologize in advance for comparison to previous ports and the obvious love I have for this game. In the case of the comparisons, I feel it necessary in order to provide you with an idea how much Treasure has done to deliver a truly optimum experience on Xbox 360.
For those of you that are interested, Ikaruga is the spiritual sequel to another Treasure Shump by the name of Radiant Silvergun as indicated by the Project Name on the opening screen. Where as Radiant offered the player a variety of choice in weaponry and even stage selection, Ikaruga is its polar opposite, providing the player with the bare minimum needed to firstly, survive and secondly, excel at this game. Both of these gems are regarded as two of the finest shumps ever made and rightly so. They are both distinctly unique in a genre that is often lamented for being awash with clones and gimmicky mechanics. Both games deserve their crowns and at least a little bit of your time on a demo, if not the full game.
I'm going to be straight up here. I don't give two monkeys about this games story. This game wasn't meant to have an engrossing tale to tell. It was made for you to shoot things and score uber points. There is a story, sure, it has something to do with the "Stone-Like", an alien race or something like that and the player has to stop it from destroying whatever planet you are on. I do know that the main pilots name is Shinra and the ships name is Ikaruga while the 2P ship is called Ginkei. I also know that Shinra is given the Ikaruga by some tribal people after awaking from a coma, beyond that, I know nothing. The story is completely irrelevant in a game like this but if its something you need to enhance your gaming experience, then you are going to be sorely disappointed because Ikaruga offers slim to none in this department.
On a related note, the "Stone-Like" are also the main antagonists in Radiant Silvergun. Although they are linked "in spirit", it hasn't been confirmed whether Ikaruga and RS are set in the same Universe (at least to my knowledge).
Even when it was released on the Dreamcast, Ikaruga was a visual treat on the eyes. The mellow colouring and the emptiness of the first stage lures the player into a false sense of security, while its sense of grandeur is evident from the very first "launch ship". Most of the first stage takes place in picturesque sunset sky littered with light fluffy clouds. The second stage is a much darker affair with cold, grey steel prominent from the off only to be broken by blocks of deep red as you progress through the level. Although dark and ominous in tone, the colour palette does not distract from the frantic action on screen in the form of seemingly endless waves of black and white foes. The third stage mimics the scenery of the first stage but gives a more filled feel by placing the player in a gauntlet packed with enemies, lasers, bullets and even obstacles. Again the dingy brown steel work compliments the enveloping sky perfectly, never drawing attention from the most important elements on screen. Stage four keeps the outside theme but it is a different take on what has been presented thus far. Where as stage one was a medium pace dash from A to B, stage 2 a fidgety obstacle course and stage three an adrenaline filled gauntlet, stage four is perhaps the one that stands out the most due to the fact that it takes almost entirely on a static screen. Instead of blasting waves and waves of enemies dropping from the top to the bottom of the screen, the Ikaruga appears to be assaulting a weapons facility, suspended in the air, thousands of feet above the ground. It gives the player the feeling of vertigo as they look in between the facilities constantly moving parts. In short, it is breathtaking and truly one of the most memorable stages I have played in a game over the past 20 years. Stage five places you inside the facility you assaulted in Chapter 4, in what seems to be a gargantuan arms manufacturing facility. Due to the design choices made by the team, the 2D environments are littered with subtle animations of things being built on floors that appear to be thousands of feet below your ship. It makes the player wonder, "if I am in a ship the size equivalent to a fighter jet, how big is this thing!?"
If there is one thing I absolutely adore about the graphics in this game, its the explosions. From the tiniest bang to the most epic boss boom, every single one that plumes on screen brings a satisfied smile to my face, a smile made even more enjoyable in the knowledge that I have smited yet another foe that had the potential to kill me in a single bullet. Back on the Dreamcast, the boss explosions were notorious for causing a massive frame rate drop when that final bullet hit its target. Given the limitations of the hardware at the time, it was barely forgivable. On the 360, the fiery explosions of death are almost seamless (read edit below) while Ikaruga flies on through the glorious destruction much like Ryu Hayabusa walks away silently after demolishing his enemies. The beautiful destruction and lack of frame rate drop leaves the player feeling nothing short of epic, especially when they defeat a particularly challenging boss.
EDIT: Admittedly, when I wrote this, I hadn't played the game in a while. After playing it again after writing, I feel it necessary to edit and comment on the boss explosions. There is still some slowdown but trust me when I say its no where near as bad as the Dreamcast and Ikaruga versions. It ain't gonna crash your console like it did frequently back on the Dreamcast.
Like its predecessor, Ikaruga is on a 2D plane with 3D elements. For instance, the first boss comes in from overhead and rotates 360 degrees, giving the player a view of a wonderfully detailed model that dwarfs your tiny ship by comparison. It is because of these 3D elements that Ikaruga is given a sense of visual depth and scope unmatched by other games in its genre. The top down perspective and its verticality give the illusion more gravitas than it would had it been made as a horizontal shooter.
In comparison to the Dreamcast Version, the visuals are noticeably sharper as would be expected of a port on the Xbox 360. The colours seem to pop more and enemies never seem to "get lost" as they can do in other shumps. In short, while this game will never hold a candle graphically to the likes of Halo 4 and Mass Effect 3, they serve their purpose more than adequately, that is to say they do not distract from what really matters, the all important action on screen and the need to avoid death at all costs. That being said, it stands head and shoulders above any contemporary from its genre.
The music and sounds are one of the stand out features in this game. From the off, the player is presented with a seemingly beautiful orchestral score synthesized on an 8-bit midi soundboard. Yes you read that right, an 8-bit midi sound board. This may be obvious to better trained ears but when I first read about that in a retro mag years ago, I could hardly believe my eyes, or my ears. Each stages musical score is perfectly suited to its visual environment. The first stage is slow and melodic, almost leisurely in pace, by the time you get to the third stage (by far my favourite track of the lot), the player is compounded with a sense of urgency as they run that frantic gauntlet (you'll see what I mean). The boss theme is the same for each stage and again, does its purpose well. Its like the Halo theme, whenever you hear it, you know something awesome is about to happen. While it compliments each boss suitably, it never overshadows the sound effects caused by the bullets and explosions. The sound design is generally well done and you'll find yourself tapping your feet to the beat of the soundtrack while you're playing your favourite stage.
In comparison to the Dreamcast, the sound is noticeably clearer as one would expect on the 360. I can't say anything else other than, go play play Stage 3 with the Volume on your TV or headset turned as loud as you dare. I loved the music to this game so much that I imported the soundtrack from Japan. The music is that good, especially when you consider how it was made. 8-Bit midi soundboard!
Every shump needs a good set of controls and Ikaruga doesn't fail here either. Mimicing its core ethos; simplicity, Ikaruga has only 4 buttons you need to concern yourself with, each of which can be mapped to any button on the controller. They are fire, switch polarity, fire uber weapon and the left stick. The left stick is for movement obviously and it is tight and precise (providing you controllers tracking isn't slightly of. i.e. ship when you aren't moving the stick), a need made even more fundamental considering the variety in Ikaruga's 5 levels. The fire button has two modes. Hold it down and it fires a continued line of black/white death or it can be tapped to fire a single shot when precision is needed. The switch polarity button is used to change the colour your ship from black to white and vice versa. Considering the amount of switching you will be doing and it will be a lot, it is important that this button is responsive and it is. In almost every case, a switch will override the fire button, meaning you can hold down, lets say the A button for Rapid fire and still tap the X button for a switch while firing. The uber weapon button, typically RT, is self explanatory. Once you fill up the energy meter by absorbing a bullet of the same colour of your ship, yank the RT and Ikaruga will unleash a hail of heat-seaking destruction all across the screen.
What makes Ikaruga shine in comparison to its peers is its core mechanic, the polarity switch. This game is literally black and white. Your ship is able to switch between these colours at whim and the enemies only ever come in two colours. Can you guess what they are? Bosses typically fire both. While your ship is a certain colour, it has certain abilities. For instance, while your ship is white, it may absorb bullets from white enemies to covert to energy for your uber weapon and it can kill black coloured enemies twice as fast. If however, you are shot with a black bullet while you are white, you will die. Now this mechanic may look simple on paper, it is anything but. Considering the vast array of enemy formations and the speed at which they come on screen, the mechanics offer the player a truly rewarding set of challenges to overcome. It also provides a layer of strategy that doesn't seem apparent at first. But as you learn the game more and more, you will come to appreciate the subtlety and the genius of this gameplay element. Skilled players are able to take down swarms of enemies with masterful switching, often at the last minute. With able memories and nerves of steel, some players are bold enough to dodge bullets and take down foes whilst their ship is the opposite colour of the bullets on screen. This in turn allows them to rack up some ridiculous scores of which I can only dream of attaining.
Scoring is also a fundamental part of this game as it is with almost any shump. The highest of scores are achieved by utilizing the chaining system, a concept that was introduced in its predecessor, Radiant. By chaining 3 enemies of the same colour together, the player creates a chain which grants the player a score bonus up to a maximum of 25,600 per chain. The best players can rack up chains numbering in the hundreds allowing for scores that we see on the top of the leaderboards. If the player should shoot an enemy of a different colour mid chain (i.e. shoot 2 white then 1 black) the chain bonus will be reset to zero and the player will have to start from scratch. Seeing as chaining is the key to high scores, maintaining them adds another dimension of intensity to the game and constantly challenges the players to have their wits about them if they want to take their place among the best of the best.
Never has such a simple mechanic offered so much depth to a game, nor has it made any other game stand out quite like it has Ikaruga.
It is also important to note that Ikaruga is entirely devoid of any bomb type or weapon powerups. The only power weapon you have is your RT superweapon. The game relies and focuses on its core mechanic to do the killing. It seems odd at first but after getting used to the game, you wont miss the powerups you are used to in other shooters.
If you are a fan of shumps, then you should know what to expect. If not, I will tell you that you aren't going to get 50 hours worth of content here. In fact you can complete the game in roughly an hour. The game has 5 levels and they never change (well they do, slightly and thats based on player skill). Ikaruga's appeal lies in 2 things. Its ability to offer the common gamer a quick burst of mindless fun as well as appealing to the gamer who loves to be challenged and better themselves. For those of you who like to be taken to your limits, look no further. This game will push you to the max as you hunt for just one more chain that'll give you that magical S++ Rank. It will keep you practicing for hours long after you've said "just one more game" while pursuing a high score. I am a noob at this game and it is unlikely I will get the full 200 GS but nevertheless, it keeps me coming back for more. It makes me want to beat my last score each and every time I load it up to play.
In addition to the challenge Ikaruga's gameplay offers, it boasts 3 difficulty modes, Online co-op which opens up a whole new world of strategies and possibilities and then there's the leaderboards recording the highest scores of the best players in the world. If you're into shumps and/or a gamer looking for a challenge, there is more than enough to keep you coming back for hundreds of hours and even if you're not a fan of shumps or a "hardcore gamer", you will still enjoy the time spent dipping in and out for the odd quick stage or two.
It is important to note, that while I do not feel achievements are an element that makes or breaks a game, we are on an achievement site and felt comment on them ultimately necessary.
This will not be an easy 200 G, in fact at a TA Score of 899, the ratio speaks for itself. Only those players who have spent hours and hours practicing will be able to achieve full 100%. If you're looking for a quick 200 G, this isn't it. If you're a completionist without the time to invest in getting better at the game, go find something else to play. For its 12 achievements Ikaruga does offer some variety ranging from the "easy kill boss x" to the incredibly frustrating and way out of my league 1CC (1 Credit Clear). Its a pretty generic list for a shump but one you should ultimately enjoy completing if you have the time and patience to get good.
In closing, I can do nothing but sing this game's praise. It is one of the most unique shooters I have ever played, a veritable classic that stands up next to the likes of Radiant, Battle Garrega & Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire with its head held high.
I would like to thank you all for taking the time to read this review. Hopefully it has helped you make a decision in one way or another.