During the days of the Saturn, when it was at long last disappearing from stores, a company responsible for some of the greatest action games ever released an overhead shooter. Titled Radiant Silvergun, it grew to legendary status thanks more to eBay and overpricing than its own merits. It's a shame that it did so much so well and has the greatest story ever in its genre yet is out of reach to many thanks to its asking price. Now, years later, Treasure once again releases a shooter during (actually, past) the final days of a Sega console and the result is nothing short of astounding.
Almost opposite to how Silvergun was handled with its many additions and weapons, Ikaruga is complex through simplicity. You play as Shinra, who crash-landed in a city named Ikaruga while in the middle of a liberation battle. The residents of the area allow him to use their craft, which shares the same name as the city and has the ability to switch between the colors of black and white. This color switching, available at the touch of a button, is what the entire game revolves around, as well as plenty of killing. Everything is either black or white, including obstacles and enemies which are one or the other and fire like-minded shots that affect your vulnerability. When the Ikaruga is a certain color, it will absorb all similar-colored shots fired, but will become susceptible to the opposite color. Absorbing enemy fire fuels the homing shot meter; the more blocks you have filled the more powerful it becomes. If you kill a ship with the opposite color, you deal out twice the damage, but killing those identical to your momentary chosen color will cause them to fire out an extra helping of their shots.
As if that weren't enough to take in and comprehend during gameplay: enter the chain system, the main scoring mechanism in the game. Three enemies of the same color must be killed in a row for a chain. After that, you can kill another group of three for a higher chain and more points, and so on for as long as you can. Once you kill an enemy out of sequence (say, one white enemy and then one black), the chain ends and your bonus resets. The choice of color becomes even harder now, as you can rip through opposite colored enemies quickly but will lose out on absorbing bullets to fuel your homing shot and bolster your score even more. All of this is insane to take in at once, it literally boggles the mind the first time you start trying to chain while watching your own craft and keeping track of the color of everything. This game is stone-cold hard and enjoys handing your ego back to you. Certain sections and bosses will require perfect memorization and reflexes simply to live through, before you can even worry about things like score.
But the best part is that the wonderful gameplay doesn't come at the cost of reducing anything else. The graphics are more than drool-worthy; they transcend beauty even in this day and age when the Dreamcast is considered passť and its graphical power is thought far inferior to more recent consoles. Small enemies are constructed of wires and pipes partially encased in armor, their insides still peeking through. Bosses are giant wonderful creations of light and color with many featuring Japanese kanji and tattoo-like insignias covering their bodies. Everything is dropped in a giant vat of pure unmitigated style and displayed in such a shower of intensity it's difficult, nigh impossible, to even take in while playing. Trust me on this, hook up your Dreamcast through a VGA monitor, turn it vertical just like it was in the arcades, and have someone else play so you can stare and marvel at it all. Ikaruga is beautiful, there's simply no way around it.
Imagine you're turning the game on. You go through the opening screens and start your game, selecting your difficulty (unless you fixed it in place in the options menu) and witnessing the Ikaruga launch from within a larger cylindrical ship. There's something beyond the flashes of light that tunes itself with the graphics and provides only the most perfect of proper accompaniment. Going farther than many companies and covering more then a simple beat, the orchestrated (or simulated, it's hard to tell) music is amazing. It drums along like a war beat, pumping you towards your goal and giving everything a much more epic feel. In tune with the twirling and scene changes, it is some of the best the genre has to offer. Rather unsurprising, considering the entire game reaches a pinnacle of gaming goodness. However, there is a female robotic voice that chimes in every time you get a chain and is difficult to understand. Though she is possibly annoying to some, I was able to tune her out and only use the vague sound of her voice (instead of her indecipherable words) to keep track of my chains.
With the difficulty and madness comes a weird zen-like trance focused completely around color; something different beyond the usual shooter zone that afflicts junkies of these games. This is more then mere bullet-dodging, which is quite a feat in and of itself. It is different enough that Ikaruga literally redefines the way the shooter game is perceived. Innovation at its best is displayed here, wonderfully enchanting, fine-tuned to perfection, and unlike anything else in its field.
· · · MechDeus