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Wot I Think: Ikaruga

Polarising Opinion

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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