Black and white. Ikaruga stands as possibly one of the only games in existence where to describe how it looks is to describe how it plays. A sequel in all but name to Treasure’s legendary shooter Radiant Silvergun, it has a simple premise. Everything onscreen – which is to say enemies, bullets and you – is either black or white, and your ship can flip between the two at the touch of a button. When black, you fire black – to which white enemies are particularly vulnerable – and absorb black. Flick to white, and the reverse is true. And so, unusually in the often inflexible world of videogames, you have the ability to reshape things to suit: enemies can become friends, but at the price of making what was safe become dangerous – black and white.
Except, of course, to describe it as such is to sell it short. Ikaruga isn’t black and white. It’s peach-pink and ice-blue, scarlet and indigo. Grey-blue mists and sunset clouds obscure the utilitarian landscapes over which your battles rage. There are few games easier to recognise at a glance than Treasure’s masterpiece of restraint. Because, if nothing else, Ikaruga is all about proving how much you can do when you limit yourself. Where Radiant Silvergun was messily exuberant – overflowing with colours, ideas and visual styles – Ikaruga is pure. The palette, though more than simply monochrome, is tightly controlled. The chaining system – sets of three, of any colour, in any sequence – is remorselessly simple. Five stages, all asking for nothing less, and nothing more complicated, than perfection. And all this in a scant 18MB. Famously small enough to email, it’s hard to think of a game that manages to feel so lavish, so elaborate, so complete despite its tiny size. There’s no sense, anywhere in Ikaruga, that a single pixel isn’t exactly how its equally tiny design team (just four people, small even by Treasure standards) intended.
It’s almost as if they knew back then that this would be the vertical shooter’s last hurrah.
Ikaruga may well prove the genre’s last mainstream release, sneaking out on GameCube in Europe and the US while later proponents (Espgaluda and Mushimesama, say) may have made it out of the arcades, but not out of Japan. The pure shooter is a genre dying from the inside out – the puritanical, merciless bullet-hells of the vertical shmup lost favour long before Gradius V and R-Type Final drew the high water-mark of the horizontal shooter, itself now in abeyance. All that’s left is the resurgence of the fixed-field shooter, pioneered by Mutant Storm and later spearheaded by Geometry Wars; games that depend on the gaming basics of unblinking determination and spring-loaded thumbs.
Because, for all their reputation as twitch-fests, vertical shooters have always had a stronger tradition of patience, strategy, nerve, restraint. Complex scoring and chaining systems demand careful study; holding fire is often as richly rewarded as letting rip. Sharp reflexes won’t help you as much as careful precision; pure instinct won’t get you as far as studious patience.
It means that one of the reasons that Ikaruga commands such respect is that it accords its players the same. The rankings it gives you, creeping slowly up from the depths of a C to the starry sight of an S++, tell you that nothing short of perfection will be rewarded. This isn’t a game in tune with any of the current gaming buzzwords – it isn’t interested in emergent gameplay, it doesn’t want to let you express yourself through customisation, or tailor the experience to match your preferences. Ikaruga is a gauntlet, thrown down by four men you’ll never meet, but whose intentions you understand perfectly. The challenge may be steep, but somehow the game never demoralises. There’s never a sense that it has been made so difficult because its designers wanted to get one up on you. Instead, throughout the crushing defeats, and the slow ascent from C+ to B to B++, there’s the sense that the challenge is as tough as it is because the designers have too much respect for you. They believe you to be equal to the task, and so failing at the game becomes failing them as well as failing yourself.
Ikaruga’s recurring warning of an approaching boss is ‘No Refuge’, and it’s this, perhaps, that best sums up the game. The restrained visuals and refined gameplay mechanics give its designers no smoke and mirrors to hide behind. The very nature of the game they’ve made means every detail of their work will be scrutinised over and over by its players. And those players don’t escape any lighter: this is a game that remorselessly reveals just how well you can plan, how fast you can think, how accurately you can move. But brought together, these things produce an extraordinary alchemy: white into black, defeat into victory, frustration into mastery.