Gamestyle Archive intro:we still have fond memories of the Dreamcast original which came after many had abandoned the console. The Gamecube version reached a wider audience.
Published: January 2003
Whilst the Gamecube pretty much died on it’s arse this Christmas in Europe, overseas it was an entirely different story – between the US and Japan Nintendo’s latest console was playing host to the likes of Metroid Prime, Resident Evil Zero and Super Monkey Ball 2 and was just about to let loose the frankly amazing Zelda. None of these titles are likely to make it out over here in the next couple of months, though, leaving many PAL gamers once again feeling left out and neglected: Star Fox Adventures only lasts so long. However, there was another silver bullet bubbling just beneath the aforementioned big game titles – one that every discerning gamer was eagerly anticapting – Ikaruga.
Released last year as the Dreamcast’s final “f**k-you” to those that had written it off and ignored the fine system (many choosing the PS2 route instead) and it was incredible, despite being a hardcore, niche title that was never released outside of Japan. Importers went crazy for it though, any follow-up to the seminal Radiant Silvergun (in name at least) was always going to be something special, and Treasure did not disappoint those prepared to invest the time and money. And now it’s out on Gamecube. Where Ikaruga differs from the usual run of shooters is the main gameplay mechanics – instead of having to dodge every bullet and destroy every enemy (which is the norm) Treasure have introduced a positive/negative thread throughout the entire game.
What this means in essence is that your ship has two freely-switchable modes – a positive (white) one and negative (black) one. Whilst white, your ship is able to absorb bullets fired from white enemies, and vice versa for when you’re in black mode – enemies, lasers, even destructable blocks are all colour coded in this very simple way – it’s massively effective though, and adds a number of layers to the gameplay. On the most basic level it means that if there’s a screen full of white enemy fire it makes sense to switch to white mode so you’re invulnerable to the bullets. However, your own bullets do twice as much damage to enemy ships if you’re the opposite colour so if you can dodge the raining fire of white hail then being in black mode means you can dish out twice the pain to the enemy. It doesn’t stop there though – in certain game modes destroying enemy ships when you’re the same colour releases little pods you can pick up which charge your homing missiles (the only other fire apart from your lasers), and also starts notching up your chain (combo) counter which can have exponential effects on your score. It’s a brilliant concept (although we’ve come to expect such qualities from Treasure) and one that works perfectly throughout the entire game, even with regards to the inspired boss battles at the end of each of the 5 levels.
Of course, control is one thing that all shooters live or die on – if you can’t get your ship where it needs to be you’re just going to get frustrated. Somehow Treasure have tweaked the movement speed to absolute perfection – your ship always seems to move exactly as you want it, and despite having no analog speed control (although you can use the analog stick to move digitally) there wasn’t a single moment when I crashed because of an inadequecy on the part of the game. Firing defaults to the B button and the ship switch is tied to the A button. The homing missiles, once charged, are released with a quick tap of the R button – all these can be changed to your liking though, but I found them to be just perfect.
Whilst nothing has changed in terms of story (which will mostly be lost on non-Japanese speaking gamers) it’s worth quickly running it past you. The text in the manual describes a nation called Shintsusha who have just got hold of Ubusubagami Ouki No Kai – The Power of God. Using it for evil purposes, they start raging war on surrounding nations, and you, Shinra, as the sole survivor of the rebel Tenkaku organisation (opposed to the Honrai) crash land on Ikaruga. You meet Kazemori, the village elder, who helps you recover and then sets you back against the Hourai in Ikaruga (the ship) to finally settle the score. It’s not really required, though, because the gameplay is perfectly self explanatory once you’ve got to grips with the black/white mechanics. It’s actually pretty much identical graphically to the Dreamcast version (although it’s not quite as sharp due to the NTSC Gamecube not outputting a SCART-compatible RGB signal, meaning the best option is a blurry S-Video lead) but the tiny flashes of slowdown present in the DC model have been eliminated entirely – Ikaruga is as smooth a game, visually, as anything else out there, even with hundreds of bullets and enemies flying around and the gorgeous backdrops scrolling past in full 3D. For a Gamecube game it’s also remarkably high resolution which is a nice change from the blurry visuals found in the likes of Mario Sunshine.
The sound effects are great too, the intermittent speech is suitably atmospheric but I’m still not convinced of the musicial style used in Ikaruga, it just seems a little too sedate but there’s nothing stopping you playing some fast techno through the stereo instead. Ikaruga is an oddly different experience depending on the music you choose to play: it’s possible to create an apparently awkwardly slower game with some classical music instead, but of course that’s up to you. Don’t be put off by the fact that Ikaruga is Japanese though – whilst the brief lines of text in-between chapters are entirely in Japanese, the menus are in English so it’s always clear what you’re doing if you can’t wait for the US release in March (there’s still no PAL release confirmation at the time of writing though). The manual’s not as import friendly but you’re not going to miss out on much except a description of the various game modes and controls – all of which are immediately obvious – as is a quick run through the tutorial.
With respect to the various modes in the game, Ikaruga includes a practice mode (where you can play any completed chapter on any difficulty level) and Conquest Mode (which is new to the Gamecube version) which enables you to choose Demo Play or Slow Play on any of the sections to any level – watching how the pre-recorded experts play in the Demo mode is quite astonishing. There’s also a challenge mode which gives you a score-related password when it’s game over which you can upload to the game’s website to see where you rank amongst the other gamers. Ikaruga is also very configurable with regards to the number of lives and so on, but this also extends to the screen layout – Ikaruga in it’s default mode is a very ‘vertical’ game – it only uses about half of the screen – but you can just various levels of zoom and even display the game rotated at 90 degrees if you fancy recreating the arcade cabinet (although this means you’ll have to tip your TV on it’s side which I can’t recommend).
Ikaruga, then, is brilliant. It’s hugely playable, graphically sublime and even more importantly, once again Treasure have raised the bar for top-down shooters. In one-player mode it’s a mesmerising, trance-enducing experience, and by yourself you might as well lock your arse away in a dark room because you’re not ever coming out. The Power of God? Not quite, but Ikaruga is most definately divine. Another essential piece of Treasure software and a shining moment for the Gamecube.
Gamestyle Score: 9/10