For those unfamiliar with the vertical shooter genre, they generally come in two flavors. There's the methodical memorization of the Raiden style and the plane of bullet hell that most Cave shooters occupy. Ikaruga strips away the crazy weapons and other power ups, then merges these two forms into a single entity. The screen is still flooded with enemy fire, drowning out the background, but you only need to worry about half of it. The stark and lovely color scheme of white and blue contrasted with black and red is more than just art when you can flip the color of your ship at will. Matching colors mean those bullets are harmlessly absorbed to build up a homing missile attack, though your own rapid fire is weaker against enemies of the same shade. Switching back and forth between white and black is the key to survival in Ikaruga, and after long hours cursing the crazy boss patterns, you'll finally reach the end credits with a sigh, only to realize you're a few thousand places down from the top of the online leaderboards.
Each play is a joy, and each small improvement a delight. So don't fear if you tried the demo and couldn't get past the first boss.
That's where chaining comes in. Once you've learned to survive, you can approach Ikaruga in a whole new light, by destroying enemies of the same color in groups of three. This bumps up your chain count and raises your score in the same way a stretch of perfect notes in Guitar Hero paves the way to high score glory. The short but complex levels here are designed around this mechanic, forcing you to take a few more risks if you want to keep your chain going. Though you don't have to struggle to find the perfect shots on your own if you don't want to. Not only can you save and analyze your own replays, but you can download a playable record of everyone listed on the leaderboards, studying their technique and chuckling at their failures.
Having a vertical shooter in the days of widescreen TVs is hard to pull off, but Ikaruga throws a slew of customization options to ease this technological distress. Everything from zooming in on the action to moving around the HUD, as well as support for 16:10 monitors and even glorious TATE. This flips the image on its side to completely fill the screen, though it means you'll have to rotate your TV/monitor to appreciate it since this version lacks the control adjustment option of the Gamecube release. Another thing missing here was the ability to slow down the levels for practice mode, an aid to shooter newcomers and chain builders alike. You can still replay any level you've already unlocked, but it's got to be full speed and beginning right at the start.
There's something to say for artistry and talent, but I think the visuals of Ikaruga speak for themselves. It's hard to tell it wasn't made in the HD era with drifting clouds and detailed enemies, interspersed with flashes of light and fire. The sound is equally amazing with a seamless blending of music and sound effects that put the player in zen-like state needed to chain a level from beginning to end.
This is my third time playing Ikaruga, and I'm still not very good at it, but somehow that doesn't matter. Each play is a joy, and each small improvement a delight. So don't fear if you tried the demo and couldn't get past the first boss. After playing it just a few more times, you'll be slipping past his shot patterns, and bringing down vengeance upon him without a scratch, only to face the fury of the second level.