”’Platform: Xbox 360”’
I say ‘Ikaruga’ to ninety per cent of you, and you’ll either think I’ve regressed thirty-odd years or that I’ve had something disagreeable for lunch. The other ten per cent, however, will realise that I’m speaking of a legend – possibly the last great traditional 2D shoot-em-up to see release, and one of the finest games to emerge from Japan’s least predictable game developer, Treasure. Released first on the Dreamcast, then on the GameCube, it’s a game that more gamers will have heard of than actually played. No longer. For a mere £7 a near-perfect 360 conversion is yours to download from Xbox Live Arcade.
Why, you might wonder, is something that looks like just another vertical scrolling shoot-em-up so revered? After all, nobody gets so poncey when they namecheck Xenon 2: The Megablast? Well, it’s partly a question of clever game mechanics, and partly a question of presentation. Ikaruga belongs vaguely to the manic school of vertical scrollers, packing the screen with enemies, objects and bullets and placing a heavy emphasis on recognising and dodging bullet patterns. However, where it differs from similar games is in the way it uses a concept of polarity. Basically, every enemy, every bullet and many objects are coloured either black or white. Your ship can switch between the two colours at the touch of a button, dealing out more damage to black ships and absorbing white bullets while white, blasting white ships better and absorbing black bullets when black. By switching colour, you instantly change which objects on the screen pose a threat and which do not, and affect you’re ability to destroy them. What’s more, bullets absorbed can be stored to power up a smart bomb, giving you additional firepower just when you need it most.
It’s a clever idea, but the genius is in the way Treasure exploits it. Where other scrolling shooters work your reflexes, Ikaruga works your brain with each level, when you break it down, amounting to a series of puzzles that ask you to recognise the pattern, work out the optimum places at which to switch polarity and navigate a route through obstacles, ship-splitting power beams and monolithic enemy craft – all the while dodging harmful bullets and blasting enemies like your life depends on it.