The formula for a shmup is a pretty simple one. Have a ship, add enemies, makes the screen auto-scroll and voila! And yet, there have been shmup games that are simply superior to others, some of which even reach a legendary status. Behind one of the most legendary games is a legendary developer: Treasure.
Ikaruga is a name you probably have heard multiple times, and for good reason. Since its original arcade release, Ikaruga has been brought to many other platforms throughout the years such as the Gamecube, Steam and even mobile. There is a reason an 18 year old game is still relevant, and that reason is that Ikaruga might be the greatest shooter ever made, bar none.
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release date: May 29, 2018
Ikaruga is a 2D vertical sidescroller shmup with a unique twist: polarity switch.
In this game the bullets will come in 2 different flavors: black and red or white and blue. Your ship will always be in one of the two polarities, with a button designated to toggling the your polarity. Switching is fast and seamless, which is totally perfect considering how much you will be doing it.
Your polarity has offensive and defensive benefits. By being the same polarity as the bullets, you will absorb them and fill a special gauge. At any time you can release all the stored energy in the gauge to unleash a homing barrage attack. On the other hand, you will deal extra damage to enemies of the opposite polarity. I want to say it’s double the damage, but I don’t have the exact numbers to confirm this.
Additionally, enemies will return fire when they are killed by their same color. This is your reward for beating enemies with the color that actually does the less damage to them. Of course, this all goes down the drain on hard mode where ALL enemies return fire regardless of color. Good luck with that!
Connect 3 ships
The other core mechanic of Ikaruga lies in the chain counter. If you destroy 3 enemies of the same color, you will gain bonus points and increase your chain by 1. The chain counter is not time constrained in any way, so you are entirely free to kill 2 enemies, and kill the third one much later, as long as you didn’t break your chain in the meantime. The chain can only be broken by killing an enemy of the opposite color before completing the chain, or by being hit.
It’s hard to paint the picture of everything that the chain counter entails. While it isn’t complex or hard to understand in any way, it does open up a rhythm to the gameplay. Rather than taping your finger to the fire button, you are now actively looking at the enemy formation and mentally creating blocks of 3 fighters in order to increase your chain. By doing so, you also begin to notice the effort that was put into the enemy fleet. Ikaruga isn’t just throwing more fighters than you can handle, it is giving you a canvas in which you can paint your own path to maximize your score.
The more I think about it, the harder it becomes for me to try and put into words how masterful this mechanic is to the core game. I have played hundreds of Ikaruga runs in more than 4 different platforms, and the game is still evolving with every run, or rather, my understanding of the game is evolving. With every single playthrough, more patterns emerge and different ways of keeping track of chains of 3 emerge. If you ever watched Dragon Ball Z, think of this as the part where they explained that the fighters were moving so fast that they were imperceptible to the untrained eye, but as you became stronger you would be able to follow the action.
Your own flavor of game
What makes Ikaruga such as masterpiece is that neither of the above systems are necessary at all. You are free to play Ikaruga on your own style, and can explore other styles as you progress or become better at the game.
Are you the type of player that only wants to shoot at enemies? Great! You can go through the entire game just killing every enemy in sight without worrying about chains or polarities. You can even forego the entire polarity switch mechanic and just focus on one color of bullet to dodge through the entire game (disclaimer: level 3 and 5 have section which will inevitably kill you if you don’t switch, so at least do it on those sections).
Are you an intermediate player who wants to make the most of the mechanics, but without learning to be proficient with them? That works too! Go forth and absorb bullets to unleash devastating barrages on enemies of the opposite polarity.
Are you a score junkie that wants to shoot for the leaderboards? Awesome! You can try and find all the formations that will increase your chain and go for high scores!
Are you more of a fan of surviving complex bullet patterns? We got those too! You can go through the entire game without shooting a single bullet to earn the coveted “dot eater” rank.
The way every system was built on Ikaruga opens up endless possibilities for the player, but none of them are forced into the playing experience. Ikaruga manages to be a shmup, a puzzle game and even a lesson in movement finesse.
If you ever wondered why was it that Ikaruga gained its legendary status, it is because as a game, it keeps presenting new ways to play to the player in subtle ways. Every new mode feels like a discovery to the player, and we all know that everything is 100% better (legit numbers, by the way) when it feels like we discovered it for ourselves. Ikaruga is a game that will never become stale or obsolete, simply because one game feels like 10 different games, and each of them is a gem of its own.
A game polished with every release
Part of the beauty of re-purchasing Ikaruga is that it isn’t quite the same game you might have purchased generations ago. The gameplay is intact, and remains a masterpiece, but extra options and features are always added that push the quality of the package through the roof.
One of the earliest inclusions was free play. The first time I beat Ikaruga, was on the dreamcast. Back then I vaguely remember that the game rewarded me with extra continues the more I played, with 20 continues being when I finally defeated the final boss. Now we don’t have to do that, as free play is one of the additions that was been parted of a revamped package. A lot of the fun in shmups games is to push though in order to finally reach the final level, but there’s also great game that deserves to be enjoyed by all.
You don’t need to completely toggle free play in order to complete the game, you can tweak other setting to create an experience custom built for you. Adjusting the score requirement for extra lives is one of these settings. You can also increase your continue count if you wish to give yourself better odds, without completely eliminating the risk of defeat.
One of the better features are the replays. You can finally have the game record your best runs, just so you can remember that amazing run you had the other day. Replays are only available for default setting, so it will only record when you are playing with 3 lives and no continues.
For more hardcore players, there are global leaderboards in many different categories for you to compete. And for those of us with dreams of grandeur, we can download replays from the leaderboards just to be amazed at the movement and strategies of top players.
There’s also achievements! I know some people hate them, but personally I love them and always take any chance I get to share their existence for some games. You can even make it so they are displayed on the in-game HUD to wear as your badges of honor! Or you can just not display them, we don’t shame anyone in here.
The beauty and the style
Aside from being a fantastic game to play, Ikaruga is also beautiful to the rest of the senses (except maybe smell). While the game is a 2D shmup, everything is a 3D model. The enemies look great and the backdrops are jaw-dropping. It is thanks to the camera shifts from stage intros, bosses or random mid-stage sequences that we truly appreciate the depth of the background. Shoutouts to level 4 where we were battling on top of the boss all along and we didn’t figure that out until the final explosion.
Perhaps my favorite touch is how stage intros are displayed after playing the stage for a while. These intros feature camera shifts and a short description of what is going on through the pilot’s mind. As always, I don’t understand the narrative of most Japanese shmups, but on its own those phrases still evoke that necessary dose of heroism in a hero’s journey.
Due to how short shmups generally are, Ikaruga has few songs. But what is lacking in quantity, is more than made up with the quality of every song available! Shoutouts to the music from the first boss which might be my absolute favorite track.
I bet you must be wondering where the joy of the tact sense is coming from. Well, we can thanks the wonder machines we call joy-cons for that. HD rumble is so great because it always feels natural with what is going on in the game. The intensity of every explosion is captured with the HD rumble, just don’t leave your handheld Switch on a glass table while the boss explodes.
Last words… maybe
With all that’s being said, it is quite clear that Ikaruga is by far the absolute best shmup game you could play on the Nintendo Switch. There isn’t even any unannounced contender for the throne, so rest assured your purchase would be an extremely safe one.
The reason I put off on doing this review for the longest time is because I don’t think I can make justice to how good Ikaruga actually is. Even with all the praise I gave if during this last 1658, I think there is a lot more magic to cover, but I’ll let you guys discover this on your own. The fact is that as of now, Ikaruga stands right there along the god-tier of shmups games.
THE RANKING SO FAR:
- Devil Engine
- Steredenn: Binary Stars
- Sky Force: Reloaded
- R-Type Dimensions EX
- Shikhondo – Soul Eater
- AngerForce: Reloaded
- Aero Fighters 2 (ACA Neogeo)
- Lightening Force: Quest for the darkstar (Sega Ages)
- Switch ‘N’ Shoot
- Last Resort (ACA Neogeo)