This review originally appeared in E116, November 2002.
In a climate of extreme sports, identikit racers and FPSs of unabashed mediocrity, it would be considered commercial suicide for any modern publisher to convert an ostensibly forgotten genre to a console whose launch was infamously described as “DOA” back in 1998. And yet this is exactly what Treasure has done, by bringing last year’s Naomi shooter to Dreamcast. To the victor go the spoils? Architectural similarities aside, Ikaruga is perhaps the finest and most befitting swansong for Sega’s ill-fated console, an apt summary of the notion of ‘hardcore’ in terms of graphics, gameplay and sheer aesthetics.
Those that have followed the progress of the home port of Ikaruga will be aware of Treasure’s official stance being that it doesn’t make sequels. Forum fanboys have been adamant and yet the familiarity of the ship design, the continuing storyline and the tagline ‘Project RS2’ suggest otherwise. Ikaruga is more a ‘spiritual successor’ to the seminal Radiant Silvergun, than an outright sequel. Irrespective, the brickwork is there – drawn conclusions regarding the chronological status of the game are unimportant, as pressing ‘power’ will prove.
Certainly, Edge will attest that graphics make a good game, but they bolster an already great one immeasurably. The conversion (save for trace slowdown during the spectacular boss demises) is flawless. This is Dreamcast at the visual redline. Details are of little value, screenshots marginally more so. Realise, Ikaruga can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best on Xbox and PS2 and be proud. Indeed, to play is the only way to see. Sound matches perfectly and everything has the Treasure soul that fans will recognise from Gunstar Heroes through Yuke! Yuke! Trouble Makers to Sin and Punishment.
Negotiating the game is simple. There are choices for a Tutorial, or a Trial game, where the first two levels can be attempted in Freeplay mode. Practice allows the selection of any of the game’s previously-completed five chapters and the game sums the total number of hours played (gameplay, not power-on time). Unlockable extras include galleries, sound tests and Arcade and Prototype modes, where ammo is limited, refillable only by absorbing enemy fire.
Conversely, playing the game is tough. Very tough. Ikaruga is at the very least, merciless, often bordering on unfair. Bordering, mind, not crossing. Shades of Layer Section, Gradius and R-Type pervade in terms of the precision required to survive, as well as committing enemy patterns to memory. The system will be recognisable to those who have experienced Treasure’s Silhouette Mirage for Saturn/PlayStation; namely the ability to switch the ship between black and white modes.
Aggressors appear in the same guises, black or white and destroying either when aligned to that colour releases ‘suicide bullets’ that can be collected to fill the charge bar – engage this for a barrage of guided laser fire. Moreover, flak matching the player colour will not cause damage, although the vessels themselves will.
Such a simple mechanic brings about a strategy hitherto unseen in shooters of this ilk. Where Radiant Silvergun had three-way colour-coding, it was still possible to finish the game without bothering to ‘chain-up’ multiple hits of the same hue. Not so with Ikaruga: one is often caught in the crossfire of both colours and flicking back and forth between alignments is of paramount importance. The end of the third level is a mash that forces the player to negotiate tiny rotating gaps, constantly switching modes while avoiding physical barriers and opposing 360-degree fire. The fourth level is a Herculean task.
Treasure has once again distilled a potent, unforgiving, stunning, dramatic and overall monstrous number that, while not completely innovative (having adopted the self-referential colour system), thrills and enrages in equal measure. A case for the cream of the crop? Undoubtedly.