Treasure’s Ikaruga Remains One of Shoot-Em-Up’s Finest Entrants

There was a time when seeing the very first footage of a game felt truly mesmerizing, uplifting even. Before the days of YouTube and social media — before anything and everything became instantly accessible. The “hard” copy media as I like to refer to it, printed magazines and the bundled-in freebies they would often grace faithful readers with, was a wonderful thing. Yes, the internet did exist in the late-90s to early aughts, but there was always giddy anticipation in seeing that a new game magazine came bundled with a CD-ROM or a video tape. Pretty sure I’ve still got my orange-colored Gamecube VHS in the attic somewhere.

While you might splendor at catching new gameplay or footage for the titles you’ve been looking forward to, rarely is there an instance where an unexpected, previously-unaware title ensnares you. And while I made sure to watch every clip of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Metroid Prime (the two featured games for that particular collectible of sorts) at least a hundred times on that very CD-ROM, needless to say that it was the “other” category that I remember more fondly. And not because it had gameplay of Ocarina of Time under the [then referred to] name of Ura Zelda, which would eventually be the Gamecube re-release of the N64 classic. For it was this section that introduced me to a vertically-aligned on-rails shooter developed by Japanese developer Treasure by the name of Ikaruga.

Ikaruga PC Screenshot
There are/were a myriad of reasons why it stood out. The most obvious being, of course, my avid appreciation for the beloved shm’up. But beyond that, the gameplay footage shown — centering around the first chapter — had my absolute and undying attention. The music, the robotic voice proclaiming “ONE CHAIN, TWO CHAIN, THREE, FOUR, FIVESIXSEV-MAX CHAIN!”; the way the player’s ship moved up, through and about the 3D environment. Then of course there was the interesting polarity-switching mechanics whereupon your ship could change from “light” to “dark.” Similarly to the two-color art-style of the enemy ships, of which there were plenty of and seemed to thrust themselves at the player in a kind of eloquent dance-like render I hadn’t seen before. Heck, even R-Type III didn’t deliver this manner of synchronous precision in where/when/how its enemy placements were crafted.

Of course it’s easier for kids, even adolescents, to get lost in the superfluous elements and not ask critical questions on its length, difficulty and even performance. But looking back, Ikaruga — nearly eighteen years on from its original release in Arcades, seventeen from its release on the Dreamcast and fifteen years since I myself bought a copy when it eventually made its way onto Nintendo’s platform — hasn’t lost any of its weirdly-wonderful pull. One of the few games I’ve triple-dipped on (Gamecube, Xbox 360, PC) and even now find a momentary urge to jump back into from time to time. Ikaruga isn’t a flawless game by any stretch; its slightly underwhelming length of only five chapters (disregarding the additional, secondary modes that come with the main campaign) is over just as quickly as it’s begun; the previously alluring on-rails movement does lose some of its charm in parts and there are odd difficulty spikes that go against the natural incline you’d expect from a game of this ilk.

Ikaruga Artwork
Even so, the soundtrack — for what stages there actually needs to be music for — is sublime, the gameplay is addictive and the enemy design has that charismatic Japanese flair of being eccentrically complex (bordering on ridiculous) yet elegant all the same. For devoted genre nuts, the focus on muscle memory and careful timing fill one’s appetite and unlike so many games out there, the varying selected level of difficulty adds and improves on the formula set down by the initial “Easy” state. As opposed to simply giving enemies a buff in strength and leaving it at that. Normal mode allowing you to absorb energy from destroyed enemy ships of the same polarity, while Hard jettisons energy particles regardless. But even with the necessity for challenge and racking up a high score included as standard, the way the musical score and visual design always seemed to feel more punctuated than the gameplay itself gave the impression that Ikaruga was attempting to be more than just another shm’up.

I’m sure there’s a story and an actual plot in there somewhere; the fact each chapter has a peculiarly-defined title (Ideal, Trial, Faith, Reality, Metempsychosis) seems to suggest that Treasure were at least aiming for something a bit more thematic here. In the end, I gave up trying to find some deeper undercurrent of “lore” tucked away and saw the intended naming of chapters (or even the bit of text that pops up prior to your ship blasting into enemy territory) as merely just that. A name; a bit of filler text and nothing more. Admittedly, Ikaruga is one of the few shm’up entrants to end on a bit more of melancholic vibe, as opposed to sheer jubilation. But I guess disabling the limits of your ship and sacrificing yourself to stop the big-bad from escaping will do that. If anything, it only gave Treasure’s game a bit more of a lasting identity — away from the truck-load of iterations that often end things with a general “you won, aliens didn’t…the world is saved” send-off.

Ikaruga PC Screenshot 2
There are, however, better examples in the genre of a game managing to excel on its presentation and delivery, even carving out a bit more of a cinematic feel. Hudson Soft’s Soldier Blade immediately comes to mind and while it is indeed an obvious choice, R-Type III still remains unmatched in its overall execution. Rez is obviously a must as well. But it’s Ikaruga that will once more be getting a slight resurgence of activity when it becomes available on another Nintendo platform, the Switch, at the end of this month. I’m undecided on whether or not to make Ikaruga the first game I quadruple-dip over. Even so, it’s pleasing to see this cult shoot-em-up classic getting another round of media and consumer attention. Hailed as one of the best of its genre in a world where R-Type and Gradius dominate purely on reputation, Ikaruga’s stand-alone, polarity-shifting ventures are just as eventful and as fascinating to play now as it ever was those many years ago.