Ikaruga, developed by Treasure and now available on Xbox Live Arcade, is a member of the top-down vertical shooter genre. The game play upon first glance is fairly simple in concept; you fly a little plane with hordes of bullets and bad guys coming at you. The bad guys shoot black or white bullets, while your ship can change between black and white (“changing polarity”). You absorb the bullets of whatever color you currently are (black absorbs black, for example) and die by getting hit with the opposite color. Similarly, you do more damage to enemies by hitting them with their opposite color (although unlike your ship, they still take some damage if you hit them with the same color). As far is learning curbs go, the game play is easy to understand.
Storyline wise, top-down shooters are not exactly renowned for their plots, and Ikaruga is no exception. In this case, it’s a standard “one man swears revenge against an evil empire” story. I’ll be upfront with you in that you won’t be playing this game for the storyline or the character development. There are some “ying-yang” elements, which make a lot of sense considering the core game play. If anything, this actually makes the plot a bit more palatable, as it brings attention back to the unique element of switching polarity, which keeps you from dying. The lack of a good plot is the main flaw which I found in this game, which is more reflective of the genre as a whole rather than just this case.
From an overall presentation standpoint, the game itself looks and sounds as one may expect on a current-gen console. Vibrant colors, smooth animation, the overall presentation is well done. That said, you won’t find any high definition cut scenes or anything like that, which is a good thing because you’ll be too busy dying. The sound for the game serves its purpose; it draws you into the frantic game play. You almost notice it as an afterthought, which is good in this case as you need to concentrate on not dying. Once you stop and listen to it, you’ll find that the overall score is very fitting. The sound effects are like any top-down shooter; PEW PEW LAZORS AND TEH EXPLOSIONS. Hard to mess those up, especially when people are dying.
You’ve likely noticed a running theme at this point; the dying. The fast paced action and hordes of enemies make the top-down genre as a whole a challenge, which its fans point as one of its more endearing qualities. For this reason, above all else, a top-town shooter needs to have pinpoint controls so that the game doesn’t make people too frustrated. I mean, everyone likes a challenge in their games (it usually makes the game more worthwhile). But no one wants the game to be a challenging due something like poor controls or horrible camera angles, as it takes the fun away. In this case (outside of the occasional lag when playing co-op mode over X-box Live), Ikaruga delivers without question the best controls of a top-down shooter I have ever played. The responsiveness with both the analog stick and the d-pad is precise and exact, and there is no delay while you are switching polarity. If you’re playing locally (with or without a friend), you’ll have no problem switching polarity and frantically shooting at the hordes of evil minions. And you’ll need those accurate controls, as you need to think quickly. Surprisingly for such a simple concept, there’s LOTS of strategic thinking required in the game. Examples of this include some of the bad guys have unique attacks (such as firing alternating black and white bullets), epic boss battles, and obstacles to fly around. And the game is VERY fast paced, white knuckled. In a twist, absorbing the bullets fills up an energy bar, which allows you to perform a “super shot” that seeks out and destroys multiple enemies. This unique to the top-down genre, as traditionally you want to avoid getting hit PERIOD. In Ikaruga, it’s actually a good idea to get hit as much as possible (so long as you’re absorbing the right color).
Of course, some of you will be turned off by some of what I was saying above. In fact, some of you may never have even heard of this game before this review. The problem with marketing the top-down genre is that they are by their nature difficult, and many gamers simply don’t want that kind of difficulty. Several gamers also want the visual gratification of blowing up stuff, a graphical powerhouse, or gripping storylines. The key to remember is that although the game play may appear simple, the execution of the game play is near flawless, which creates a genuine sense of accomplishment and a rewarding experience when you do well. For people like me who love their top-down shooters, you should have already bought this game before finishing reading this review. For anyone truly serious about their gaming as a whole, I highly recommend to add this title to your library. The only people who probably shouldn’t get this game are those who don’t like difficult games, and even then I encourage you just to try out this game and see if you like it. If developers and publishers take notice that people want these kinds of unique games, maybe they’ll try to think outside of the box every so often or try a “less can be more” approach.
Ikaruga is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.