Ikaruga Review – Ninja Dogs Need Not Apply

Some genres seem to offer timeless gameplay, challenging the notion that innovation is the only pathway to gaming bliss. By building upon faithful traditions, a developer can take ideas, both new and old, and blend them together in ways that are compelling. A few, select developers are masters this trade, and manage to create two dimensional classics in this almost exclusively three dimensional millennium, proving that they are as good today as they were when those genres first arrived decades ago. Treasure is one of these masters of coin-op action, and the Xbox Live Arcade re-release of their 2001 arcade shoot ’em up, Ikaruga, is a prime example of such a timeless hit.

The shoot’ em up genre (SHMUPS) is certainly nothing new, and in many ways Treasure didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel. Despite using fairly traditional gameplay elements, they managed to create something unique. Many see Ikaruga as the spirtial successor to another Treasure classic, Radiant Silvergun, which originally debuted in coin-op form for the Sega Titan Video system in 1998, and was subsequently released for the Sega Saturn in Japan that same year—this concept is granted merit by the game’s introduction, which refers to Ikaruga as Project RS2. Like Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga was first introduced in arcades on Sega hardware (NAOMI) and then later ported to the Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo Gamecube. While some features are borrowed from its older brother, Ikaruga’s most prominent gameplay mechanic is very reminiscent of another Treasure classic, Silhouette Mirage.

The core gameplay element in Ikaruga revolves around the concept of bullet polarity. Enemies come in two flavors, black and white, and spray a menacing number of bullets across the play field that correspond to their base color. The player’s ship has the ability to shift polarities, changing its own color from black to white and back. If the player’s ship is white, it can absorb incoming bullets from white enemies, which in turn charge its special weapon instead of causing damage. When charged, the ship can let loose a barrage of up to twelve homing lasers, destroying multiple enemy targets at once. By switching the polarity of their ship, the player also changes the color of their own bullets, which cause double damage to enemies of the opposite polarity. This mechanic is the ultimate test of skill in Ikaruga, forcing players to switch between the two polarities often in order to achieve victory over the massive onslaught of enemy fire.

Treasure had toyed with a similar absorb and attack mechanic in Silhouette Mirage, but this was really a first within this genre. Ikaruga also features a scoring system simular to Radiant Silvergun’s, in which the player can chain together combos by destroying chains of three enemy ships of the same polarity. The higher the chain, the more points are awarded. A successful Ikaruga player will be mindful of these chains, which can assist them in boosting their score, and ultimately earn them extra lives—extra lives which you will need given the games unforgiving difficulty. Classic genre—borrowed concepts—they come together here in a way that’s surprisingly original and seriously fun.

While Ikaruga is seriously fun, it’s worth noting that it’s no cakewalk. This game is very challenging. Spanning five chapters, it take a lot of skill to master Ikaruga. Facing off against countless enemies, obstacles, and an even more intimidating bullet count before each boss encounter will test a player’s reflexes, as well as their patience. Thankfully, Ikaruga offers a variety features to ease the pain of defeat. There a assortment of difficulty modes, allowing for a slightly easier ride through the manic masses of dangers that await. There is also two player co-op, which is not only a fun diversion from the single player experience, but a bit easier too. As a final measure of pain relief, the game also includes a stage select mode, and allows for a variable number of extra lives.

Ikaruga doesn’t really feature a narrative worth discussing, although it does have a bit of a back story to support all of the action. Basically, a man from the nation of Horai—named, get this, Tenro Horai—discovers the Power of the Gods in an artifact which he finds buried deep within the Earth. He uses this power to conquer the other nations of the world, easily defeating the freedom fighters that oppose him. The player takes on the roll of one such combatant, Shinra, who is shot down in the village of Ikaruga. It’s in this small village that Shinra learns of the world’s last hope against Horai’s army, a ship named, get this, Ikaruga. This game is certainly not going to win any awards for storytelling, but it’s Ikaruga’s gameplay that really makes it a winner.

The Xbox Live Arcade release includes every feature of the original coin-op version, and also adds some very enticing enhancements. Thanks to the nature of Microsoft’s online service, multiplayer has been upgraded, and is no longer a purely local affair. Latency permitting, you and a buddy can team up against Horai from nearly any two locations in the world. The game also features the standard two hundred achievement points for an Xbox Live Arcade title, as well as an online leader-board, which is perhaps the most compelling new feature given the score attack nature of the genre. Ikaruga even includes the ability to run in “tate” mode, turning the image ninety degrees for those of you with vertical displays. This is not the most complete version of Ikaruga out there, having omitted the Gamecube exclusive Conquest Mode, however, thanks to Xbox Live, it may be the most appealing version to date, offering more replay value than ever.

Being a relatively short game, the challenge, the co-op, and the online leader boards present in the Xbox 360 version make this a real value. Value, in terms of the Xbox Live Arcade service, is something no one should take lightly. When it comes to DRM (digital-rape-management) embedded content, which may live and die with the life of this generation, it’s sometimes difficult to reason the cost what may seem like a glorified rental. Ikaruga represents the best of what Xbox Live Arcade has to offer. There are seemingly endless hours of fun crammed into this package, which make the price of admission (800 MS points) seem fair—even more so when you consider the rarity of other home conversions of this title, which have actually increased in value over the years.

By crafting something new from something old, Treasure proves once again that a game is often much more than the sum of its parts, and that truly innovative gameplay can be the product of how known ingredients can come together to create something deliciously new. This game is impressive by any measure, and amazingly, was developed by just four individuals. Kudos Treasure.


Meh, I think it's overrated.