Wot I Think: Ikaruga

By Adam Smith on February 20th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

Developers Treasure are masters of the shoot ‘em up though and Ikaruga is among their greatest works. That would be reason enough to recommend it – a superb entry from a developer horribly under-represented on PC – but there’s more than mastery at work here. Applying the sort of twist that could snap a neck, Radiant Silvergun had already shown Treasure’s willingness to reinvent and subvert the traditional shoot ‘em up without cracking the mould completely. Even though a decade has passed since its original release, Ikaruga may still be the ultimate expression of the developer’s refined risk and reward mechanics. Here’s wot I think.

Ikaruga is one of the most perfect games I’ve ever played. To the unaware, the screenshots probably look like a thousand other bullet hell games, every pulsing shot a stick to beat the player with in a game that demands perfection rather than striving for it. On top of that, the port utilises screen real estate about as well as the royal family utilise their palaces. There’s a lot of space for bedroom widescreen tax. But none of that matters because the playfield at the centre of the screen demands a sort of tunnel vision and I’ve been peering at it for so long over the last 24 hours that I’m struggling to adjust to reality.

They’d shown intent in the area with the slightly earlier Bangai-O, a game in which spaceships collect giant fruit while attempting to fill the screen with as many explosions as possible. Success is only possible when the player not only flirts with danger but takes danger out for dinner, kisses it full on the danger-lips and introduces it to the parents. It’s a challenging colourful splash of a game and the sequel, Bangai-O Spirits, is well worth seeking out if you have a Nintendo Double-Screen.

Ikaruga is more austere. By nature, if not appearance, it’s monochromatic. The player’s ship can switch from black to white with the push of a button, and the enemies that spill onto the screen in bled-out stained glass patterns are similarly split between the two extremes. Ships fire bullets of their own colour and the player can absorb any projectiles that match his/her current colour, while a single contact with a bullet of the opposite colour means death.

On the flipside, sweeping the screen for matching bullets charges the player’s super power, which fires an indiscriminate volley of guided missiles. The power charges in tiers, adding another layer of risk and patience – sometimes it’s tempting to fire a couple of missiles during a desperate moment but it’s usually wise to hold back for the fully-charged monstrosity.
Dodge bad bullets, collide with good bullets. Simple. Well, yes, until this happens.

That is not my idea of a good time. My idea of a good time is a map, some numbers and a series of management options. I like to take life at my own pace, clicking ‘end turn’ when I’ve had my breakfast and then pondering my next move. Ikaruga is most definitely not turn-based. It isn’t particularly fast but it is very busy, and it is defiantly opposed to everything that I usually enjoy.

So why do I keep coming back to it?

It’s the polarisation mechanic, that switching of colour which has been honed into a mult-faceted tool. It’s a dodge mechanic, a final desperate escape when weaving through monochrome rainbows. It’s the means of boosting that special weapon, a gadget that turns evasion into offense. But it’s also a denial of decades of training to AVOID FUCKING BULLETS.

In isolation, that might be a cheeky joke, a middle finger from a sly punk of a game, but Treasure have built a superb shoot ‘em up and then skewed it. It wouldn’t be possible to subvert the player’s instinctive responses in such brilliant and confident style if the core of the design wasn’t so solid.

There’s an extra element to the colour-switching that I haven’t mentioned – enemies of the opposite colour take double damage. That’s fairly meaningless on the first of the five stages but as enemies become increasingly difficult to destroy, it’s wise to hit them with the most damaging attacks possible. On ‘normal’ and ‘hard’ difficulty (also known, respectively, as ‘hard’ and ‘GRAARGHHH’), enemies release a cluster of bullets when they die. Those bullets are always the same colour as the enemy so an obvious tactic is to kill, switch colour and swoop in to benefit from the aftermath.

Tactics evolve as everything on the screen mixes into confusion but, amazingly, the confusion is only ever made of two elements – black and white. Between those two extremes, Treasure lace the extreme complexity with their mastery of patterns. The whole game is structured around the promise of constant improvement, every split second decision capable of salvaging an impossible situation. With such basic inputs and choices, the player has the power to escape any fate, and with the right timing it’s possible to paint a path across even the most crowded screen, triggering the right sort of immunity from one fraction of a second to the next.

Whenever I fail, I accept the blame and as gruesomely difficult as the game can be, it’s also brief. The five stages can be completed in less than half an hour but defeating the final boss really isn’t the point. The point is to become as perfect as the game. It offers a simple ruleset and patterns that can be memorised, and places an enormous amount of power in the player’s hands. Every playthrough should be identical – the computer changes nothing except the trajectory of its shots – but because every one of the million bullets has two possible states, which lead to wildly different outcomes, the path to the ending changes with every push of the button.

The first stage doesn’t require risk but the guided missiles soon become necessary so it’s essential to fly in the face of bullet-swarms, absorbing, dodging and flipping from one colour to another. I perform best when I’m slightly distracted. Focus too tightly and I start to think more than a couple of seconds ahead, which causes my fingers to fumble or freeze as they try to lag behind my brain. Music is my gateway to the zone and Mux Mool’s Skulltaste is my current Ikaruga jam.

I’m just now beginning to challenge my own highscores, which is mostly achieved by stringing together combos. Kill three enemies of the same colour to keep the chain going. I was slightly disappointed when I realised that switching my own colour doesn’t break the chain and then I realised that I was hoping for even more demands on my poor, frazzled reflexes.

But it’s when I feel like I’m tripping over my own actions that I love Ikaruga the most. It’s like falling forwards, tumbling through the air and somehow never hitting the floor. Until you do, bringing everything to a sudden and painful halt. But when everything flows, from screen to mind to fingers and back round again, that’s when the game injects something directly into my brain’s pleasure-sensors. And the memories of my best runs are almost tactile, a pushing and parting of the waves.

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75 Comments »

  1. frightlever says:

    I thought the PC was THE place to play bullethell games these days. Are they big on console?

    • Guvornator says:

      Depends which console. The Dreamcast is having a bit of a SHMUP revival these days.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Oopsie – meant Treasure’s stuff in particular. Corrected.

      TREASURE ARE A GENRE

    • gschmidl says:

      All the CAVE shooters are on Xbox 360 and iOS.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        All? Not really. But a hell of a lot of them, yes.

        Ah, Ikaruga. I respect it for its craft (especially given how small the team was) and the landmark moment in the genre it was, but as I’ve said so many times, I just don’t find it fun. IMO it is perhaps the ultimate expression of how if you’re not doing exactly what the guy in the superplay video is doing, you’re playing the game wrong. Every Cave game I am aware there’s so much more to the scoring system than I’ll ever be able to understand and that I’ll never come within shouting distance of the leaderboards but every panicked scramble to make it through their bullet patterns alive still feels like an unimaginable adrenaline rush and the sensation drags me back again, and again, and again. Ikaruga every time I break a chain there might as well be someone standing next to me shouting “WRONG” straight in my ear, and I honestly can’t understand how anyone can treat the game any differently. It feels like it’s right there in the design.

        But it’s still great to see it on PC, all the same. Really hope other (non-bedroom, non-doujin scene) developers will follow suit.

        • 5parrowhawk says:

          I’m sorry, but I have to differ on that point. You really shouldn’t be doing what the guy in the superplay does; the way to enjoy Ikaruga (IMO) is to take that knowledge, adapt it to your level of skill, and then be prepared to adapt further if/when things go pear-shaped.

          Take the section near the start of stage 2, when you’re still in the open air and the little enemy jets are swirling around you in a more or less circular pattern. The superplayers would be doing inhumanly accurate shots to take out those jets in a chain pattern while avoiding the bullets. I can’t match that; I don’t have the reflexes and coordination. So my approach is to just not shoot and sit in the safe spot where the jets don’t go, shifting slightly to dodge the bullets. Once the two white laser baddies come out to play and the jets go away, then I can continue chaining. By doing this I don’t lose the chains I picked up at the beginning of the stage.

          Similarly, immediately after you fly into the vent shaft, you get another circular enemy formation. If you destroy them very quickly, as the superplayers do (using homing lasers), you get two bonus concentric waves of enemies which are very tough to deal with. Until I figure out what to do with those guys, my approach will always be to wait a second or two before firing off my lasers. That way I only get one bonus wave, which is much easier to deal with and relatively low-risk.

          That, I think, is the genius of Ikaruga: it takes that very shmuppish conceit of “push yourself to the limit and no further”, and makes it tangible and accessible (well, relatively) in an extremely elegant fashion.

    • ChrisGWaine says:

      On PC, it’s nearly all doujin soft.

      Commercially, it was an arcade genre, which would have console ports, rather than being big on console. But it’s looking bleak, with even Cave abandoning that.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        They haven’t abandoned shooter development entirely, IIRC, but certainly people aren’t buying their stuff – they closed down their English social media accounts and drastically cut back on anything that wasn’t money-making mobile development, last I heard. Sad, after the effort they put into their iOS releases.

        • rhubarb-crisp says:

          I owned espgaluda and bug panic on my iPhone. I got the highest score in Manitoba in espgaluda!
          i haven’tbought games for my new phone, because I see phone operating systems as extremely transitory. I feel like it would only take one puddle for me to grab a new Nokia phone with the windows os and I lose all of my purchases – again. And who knows what the future holds?

          Maybe cave should have put those games out for Windows and i’d have bought more of them

          It feels so difficult to communicate with a phone. I don’t have the patience to correct any but the absolute worst mistakes in the text.

  2. Guvornator says:

    EeeeeEEEEEeeeeeeee!!!!

  3. Guvornator says:

    “On top of that, the port utilises screen real estate about as well as the royal family utilise their palaces. There’s a lot of space for bedroom widescreen tax.”

    Or you can rotate your screen 90 degrees, for full screen vertical scrolling arcade mayhem. Sadly not an option for me…

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Yeah, while it’s a good review I’m… not sure what else Treasure should be doing with that, mister Smith. If they used all the screen they’d practically be making it into an entirely different game.

    • Kefren says:

      Adam raises an interesting point though. 16:9 or 16:10 is something I resisted for a long time. It is good for some things (widescreen films and sidescrollers) but like any specialisation, becomes poor at others (e.g. vertical movement or 8 direction movement). For that reason I prefer squarer screens, and wish 4:3 hadn’t lost out in the standard wars. I’m thinking of all the Gauntlet or Parallax or Paradroid or HOMM2 or GTA games I prefer in that format, where I can move in any direction and want to be able to see an equal distance in each of them.

  4. tonyferrino says:

    Title is incorrect btw, you’ve written “Ikagura”.

  5. remon says:

    Am I the only one that noticed the typo in the title, or is it a kind of insider joke that I’m the only one who doesn’t get, or something?

  6. TreuloseTomate says:

    After playing for a while, this game becomes more about chaining combos than switching colors. Always killing 3 enemies of one color without interrupting your chain is key to get as many points (and extra lives) as possible. Once you’re good at that and can figure out the patterns, you’ll realize just how well designed this game really is.

  7. exleus says:

    I know at least the Gamecube version of this game had several different screen modes, one of the most esoteric and neat of which was to orient the entire game horizontally on the screen, with the expectation that you’d set your screen on it’s side, to better emulate the vertical screen of the original arcade cabinet.
    I’m kind of surprised to understand that those options aren’t available here? Especially when it would work so well on a computer monitor, many of which are very easy to orient vertically anyway.

  8. Synesthesia says:

    um… isn’t it called Ikaruga?

  9. Jac says:

    Had no idea this was coming out and never got the chance to play this before.

    Do people recommend a pad for this? Am assuming they haven’t implemented mouse control but would awesome if so.

    • Guvornator says:

      There is mouse control.

      EDIT: Allegedly – “Xbox360 controller, Keyboard and Mouse support.” However, I can only get the controllers to work in game – mouse only works in the menus (and has the most half arsed cursor I’ve seen)

    • Themadcow says:

      Quite frankly I can’t imagine playing this kind of game proficiently without the use of an arcade stick.

      On that subject, what is the current king of the affordable PC arcade sticks? The Datel Arcade Pro?

      • mLocke says:

        When it isn’t getting close to Evolution Championship Series (Evo), Madcatz sticks are the most affordable and come in both Noir and Vewlix layouts.

        • Themadcow says:

          Cheers. I’m aware of the Madcatz sticks but they seem to start off at over £100 which is probably stretching the definition of affordability in my head, let alone the wife if she saw the receipt…

      • Pangalaktichki says:

        I own one of those Datel sticks, pretty solid and affordable controller. You’ll probably want to mod the buttons as they press directly on PCB and don’t have that arcade “click” (I still have to gather parts and patience to mod mine).

  10. mLocke says:

    Who plays Ikaruga in yoko (horizontal) instead of tate (vertical)? If your monitor doesn’t rotate, buy a monitor stand already. If your monitor doesn’t have VESA, why crap did you buy it in the first place?

  11. Casimir's Blake says:

    Very pleased to see this on PC. Ecstatic, even, to see TREASURE VIDEO GAMES flash up on my PC as I booted this up. I’m hoping for more ports now, particularly Guardian Heroes and Bangai-O. A shame then that Ikaruga started a terrible trend.

    Bullet hell shooters. “Shmups” that have no level design whatsoever, only empty “places” full of enemies and bullets. This is BORING.

    It seems that since Ikaruga, the old-school “shmup” design of having distinct places, planets, caverns, space ships and what not, has been left behind by enemy and bullet patterns. This simplifies the gameplay (not that does NOT mean it’s “easier to play”), and bores the crap out of me. Having grown up on the likes of Thunder Force, R-Type, and Gradius, bullet-hell is just noise. Hardcore score-catching gameplay that is repetitive and tedious.

    So Ikaruga then, brilliant at what it does, and possibly better than any bullet-hell shooter because of the polarity mechanic and the level designs. Shame it ushered in a new era of “shmups” that have lazy, simplistic design and repetitive, tedious gameplay. In a similar way that practically no FPSs post Half-Life adhered to “old school” design.

    Despite this, I really hope to see more Treasure games on PC. Please bring them, Treasure, I’ll buy them! (£6.99 Ikaruga seems tremendously reasonable, I’d pay that for Bangai-O Spirits PC!)

    • Guvornator says:

      I’m not sure Ikaruga started it, DoDonpachi came out in 1997 – defiantly the forbear of the screen full of pink bullets. Hope Cave bring that to the PC, although the MAME version is perfect (not that I’d ever suggest illegally etc etc.. )

      • ramirezfm says:

        Oooooh. For me DoDonPachi was the best shmup ever. Please bring it to PC.

        • Guvornator says:

          I’d pay good money for it. Spent many a happy hour on a single credit run – the furthest I ever got was level 3. There’s a version on the iPhone but it appears to be (spits) 3d rendered…

      • squareking says:

        And Cave’s stuff was heavily influenced by Raizing and Toaplan’s stuff like Battle Garegga and Batsugun, which arguably began the bullet hell thing. Some of the talent from those companies went on to work at Cave, actually.

        Casmir, the bullet hell genre isn’t so much about slamming your face with bullets and enemies so much as using that as a venue to get a high score. Most of Cave’s titles and pretty much all of Raizing’s emphasize enemy and powerup control with behind-the-scenes ranking and all kinds of weirdness (like intentional suicide to control rank) in order to change up how you’re playing the game. Ikaruga is an attempt at putting that idea at the forefront and not hiding anything from the player. Which is interesting, but there are only one or two optimal ways to complete the game in that case, which isn’t as fun, imo.

        Come talk about this in the forum!

        http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/forums/showthread.php?2724-Insert-coin-PC-shooters-and-a-discussion-about-them

    • Wedge says:

      Considering this probably only happened because Ikaruga was already ported to the 360 I wouldn’t… oh wait nevermind Guardian Heroes was ported there as well, please carry on releasing that to PC now.

    • pepperfez says:

      Shmup fans would argue that the enemy and bullet placement is the level design.

    • fish99 says:

      Agree on the boring comment. The other branch of shmups is the twin-stick arena shooters with endless waves, which I also find boring. Give me R-Type over those games any day.

    • TCM says:

      A) Considering the very second level of Ikaruga is a maze of boxes, walls, and bullets, I think you may be mistaken about the nature of its level design.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHN3TW1VO_0

      B) In really enjoyable bullet hells — Ikaruga, Touhou, and Radiant Silvergun, to throw a few out there — the level design is by its very nature the pattern of the bullets. Touhou explicitly names several of its bullet patterns, all of which are unique, notably.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0vF-ixYAjY

      You complain about lost level design without accepting the premise that in a bullet hell, every level is unique — and that uniqueness is born from the pattern of the enemies and their attacks, no less beautiful or interesting than the caves, space stations, and biological nightmares of shmups of the standard variety.

    • Josh W says:

      I’m so happy too! I’m terrible at this game, but it’s brilliant.

      (I’ve decided the first sentence of your post is the most important one, despite having less words to it)

    • haze4peace says:

      I know what you mean. I find it more enjoyable when you have to worry about the level too, ie not crashing into it. For those who have not played it yet I highly recommend the game Hydorah. It’s very much like gradius or R-type and best of all its completely free.

    • Hypocee says:

      Ignore the level that’s an obstacle course of lasers, vehicles, walls, turrets and speed.

      Ignore the level that swoops vertiginously from horizontal to vertical to eveything in-between, making my friends and me whoop.

      Ignore the level and boss that are dancing spirals of forced-scrolling obstacle walls.

  12. ColonelClaw says:

    Worth mentioning that Ikaruga has some of the best art direction in any game of any genre. It is as beautiful as it is deadly

    • greenbananas says:

      And in the hands of a pro… It’s exhilarating. I don’t know how it does it, since the game ultimately forgoes improvisation and relies on the players knowing the pattern beforehand, but watching it cleared in hard on Youtube never ceases to amaze, not even for the twentieth time. It’s like a beautifully choreographed dance.

  13. greenbananas says:

    Wow, this caught me by surprise. My stiffy for Ikaruga is only outdone by my stiffy for Guardian Heroes. Please, Treasure? Pretty please?

  14. Wedge says:

    I’m just simply not good enough to play SHMUPs, even by Treasure. I do love pretty much all their other titles though, especially the brawlers and whatever the fuck you call Mischief Makers.

    • zairekaboom says:

      You get good if you don’t give up. I have ~50 hours on the GC version of Ikaruga and I couldn’t get past the fourth boss without continues. That’s decent in my books but happened only because I persisted.

  15. kalirion says:

    So how does Ikaruga compare to Exceed 2nd, which I guess borrowed the color switching mechanic?

  16. Chizu says:

    I prefer the Dreamcast Bangai-O to Spirits on DS. I was a little saddened by the removal of the plot element from spirits, as the dreamcast game had an pants-on-head plot full of complete gibberish coming out of characters, and that was fantastic, along with the game just being fantastic aswell.
    Though the DS version gets points for MASSIVE GAME LAG everytime you fill the screen with giant missles.

    Naturally I’ve already purchased Ikaruga, because its Ikaruga. I hope they bring us Radiant Silvergun and Bangai-O. Though I know they’ve expressed interest in doing something entirely new for PC.

    CAVE and other shmup devs need to follow suite, I never understood why they released everything on xbox360 when that was such a weak performing console in Japan anyway.

    • Casimir's Blake says:

      Agreed with you re: Bangai-O, though both versions are tremendous fun, the nutty, nonsensical plot in the Dreamcast version (and the characters) was a highlight. I would be happy to see either the DC or DS versions to come to PC, personally. Or maybe even both?

  17. Don Reba says:

    It even works with Intel graphics, with resolution turned down closer to Dreamcast’s.

  18. fart says:

    I’ve always called this game a ballet (of bullets). There’s no random factor in this game at all and the sooner your recognize it the better it becomes. It’s all about pattern recognition and efficiency. You don’t want to avoid the bullets so much as pick a colour to move across the screen with.

    And if -that- screen shot was ‘not a good time’ just wait until you get past level 2 :P

  19. Hypocee says:

    The scoring system is the only downside to Ikaruga for me. I’ll never get near the level at which it actually matters, but I find it so utterly depressing (and so distinctively Japanese, which made Phil Fish’s gaffe strike a chord with me) to know that an action game has a single, authored Correct sequence that lies within human ability..Randomisation would be utterly inappropriate – scores need to be directly comparable – but it’s so easy to imagine a version of Ikaruga where the enemies don’t come in threes or multiples of threes. Needing to give some up or break the combo sometimes would necessitate analysis and compromise, and maybe even hold out hope of an undiscovered approach in the long term.

    I can say this with authority because I was just that dense back in the Dreamcast days; I didn’t care about maximizing score, so didn’t really notice that the patterns served up trios for several weeks. It was such a letdown to suddenly realise that the game wanted to be played one,and only one way. It’s still wonderful down at the survival plateau of course.

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  22. haowan says:

    ikaruga is a giant reflex/memory/puzzle game

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