by Travis Fahs2
Escape from bullet hell, to Treasure’s polar purgatory.
Ikaruga is something of a hardcore gaming legend. When it was released in Japan on the Dreamcast in 2002, well after SEGA had left their final console for dead, it became the most imported game of all time here in America. Aided in part by the reputation of its precursor, the insanely collectible Radiant Silvergun, a game in a dead genre on a dead system managed to turn enough heads to get an American release on GameCube, and eventually a re-release on Xbox Live Arcade, and led the way to a short-lived renaissance of arcade shooters. Now the little shmup that could is making its way to mobile – exclusively on Android, no less.
At a glance, Ikaruga looks a lot like other shooters. There’s a small ship, a screen that scrolls slowly forward on its own, and waves of enemy fire in intricate patterns. But Ikaruga complicated the formula with the addition of one simple mechanic: polarity. Every enemy and every bullet fired is either black or white. Your ship, the eponymous Ikaruga, has the ability to change from black to white. Only bullets of the opposite color can harm you, and bullets of the same color actually charge up your special attack. In this way, negotiating the firing patterns is a matter of well-timed polarity changes rather than just deftly weaving between fire.
This mechanic has been copped by quite a few clones, but none have ever managed to imitate Treasure’s brilliant level design. The polarity mechanic is exploited to the fullest extent possible with clever, complex patterns that have an almost puzzle-like quality. Where most modern shooters rely on fast reflexes, Ikaruga is a game of zen-like focus and perfect execution.
At the time of its release, it was undoubtedly the most beautiful coin-op shooter ever created, and it may still be today. Although the action is strictly two-dimensional, it used its 3D graphics to create backgrounds that swirled around the action to dizzying and dramatic effect. Despite utilizing 3D graphics, it featured a painterly style with some stunning texture work thanks to illustrator Yasushi Suzuki and project lead Hiroshi Iuchi (who also composed the wonderfully cinematic soundtrack for the game). These textures aren’t quite as sharp in the Android version, but it still stands head and shoulders above any other arcade shmups on the platform.
Porting Ikaruga’s controls to the touch screen poses a few hurdles not found in other shooters. While standard-issue bullet-dodgers like Dodonpachi can be played with one hand, with only the occasional need to tap the “bomb” button, Ikaruga requires constant color switching. There are a few button layouts to choose from but no true customizable mode, and these functions can also be mapped to taps or double-taps. Mapping the color-switching to a single tap proves to be an effective compromise, but a few more options would have been welcome.
Auto-fire is also the standard rule-of-law in mobile shooters, but this isn’t as ideal for Ikaruga. Although you can play for survival this way, Ikaruga’s scoring system involves killing enemies in groups of three of the same color, and often requires sniper-like accuracy and precise timing. To help solve this, they’ve included the ability to disable and enable auto-fire on the fly, but this seemed like too much to manage, and I quickly gave up on score play altogether.
These issues seem largely unavoidable. Although it would be nice to be able to manually resize and place buttons, there is no perfect solution. This is simply a more complicated game than other shooters, and adapting to a new control scheme takes practice. Despite this, and some performance issues associated with G-Gee’s use of the Vivid Runtime, it’s a solid port that recreates the original faithfully.
In its original form, Ikaruga is a nearly flawless game; the ultimate methodical shoot-‘em-up. Every wave of enemies in the 25-minute journey offers something unique, and not one moment is wasted. On Android, it suffers from some fundamental control problems that may not be entirely solvable. These can be overcome, and it makes for an enjoyable trip down memory lane, particularly when taken as a casual exercise in survival rather than serious score play, but for those who are new to Treasure’s masterpiece, the mobile version may not be the best introduction.
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Summary: Ikaruga is a beautiful, bold, and clever game with a unique hook, and a timeless classic of the genre. Playing on a touch screen requires more than a little getting used to, and G-Gee’s wrapper is a poor performer as always, but it still manages to be an enjoyable experience.
Buy it: here