Ikaruga Switch Review
Combines shooter and puzzle elements seamlessly
Offers an old-school challenge
Many different option settings
Solid performance, docked and undocked
High level of difficulty might put off new players
TATE vertical mode is impractical
Fairly short, especially with free play turned on
No online co-op
This interesting and brutal shoot-’em-up by legendary game developer Treasure has come a long way since it was first introduced to Japanese arcades in 2001. After garnering a rabid following in the import scene when it was ported to the Dreamcast in Japan in 2002, it was only a matter of time before Treasure and Sega pulled the trigger on a proper Western release. Two years after its original release, Western audiences finally got their hands on the quirky little shooter in the form of a GameCube port, where the game garnered much acclaim among players and critics alike. Since then, Ikaruga has found its way onto the Xbox Live Arcade, PC, and now the Nintendo Switch, which is fitting considering it was a Nintendo console that gave the game its first legs in the West.
Original reception to Ikaruga was mixed, mostly due to the differences that separates Ikaruga from its peers, namely the polarity system. Many an arcade-goer found it difficult to wrap their brains around this revolutionary system, which grants a black or white color scheme to the player ship that can be flipped at the press of a button. The enemy ships are similarly endowed with a color, either black or white, and they fire bullets of the same color. If the player ship is the opposite color of the bullets being fired at it, it is a near-instant death. However, if the player ship is the same color as the bullets being fired at it, it will absorb the bullets and charge up a meter to the left of the screen that unleashes a powerful attack when full, with a simple tap of the R button. Similarly, if the player ship fires bullets at an enemy ship of the same color, it will do a moderate amount of damage, but if it fires bullets at an enemy ship of the opposite color, it will do much more damage. Though complicated to explain, it is a simple enough principle to understand when put in motion. That doesn’t mean, however, that the game itself is simple or easy, because it is decidedly not either of those things.
The usual strategy of dodging the wall of bullets on screen, which is standard fare in any shoot-’em-up, becomes a whole lot more complicated when the polarity system is factored in. I was forced to pay close attention to what color the enemy ships were, so that I could decide on the fly if I needed to panic and flee from their shots or not, and with many enemies flipping between colors, don’t be surprised if the extra life and continue count goes down very quickly. What seems like such a fair and balanced gimmick becomes a lot more sinister when enemy ships begin doing the same thing. Luckily, Nicalis, the publisher of this port, has covered all the bases and included an option to enable free play, which grants unlimited continues. It only took a couple levels, out of the five available, before I decided, or rather, the game decided for me, that free play was going to be necessary if I was going to complete my run-through for this review. Be forewarned, the enabling of continues or free play disables leaderboards, which is sure to tantalize hardcore shoot-’em-up fans and keep them coming back to master the brutal gameplay, if only to see their hard work displayed on the leaderboards for all to see. Besides the standard arcade mode, there is an included ‘Prototype’ mode. Conceived to be part of the original game before the developers realized that they don’t hate their customers, this mode limits ammo, and though I played it in order to get the full Ikaruga experience, it is a mode that is only for the truly hardcore, and possibly sadists.
The Nintendo Switch port performs flawlessly, though the original game’s code is nearing on twenty years old, so that may not be as big of a feat as it seems, and I found that the game performed identically whether I was playing with the dock or in handheld mode. The addition of a vertical orientation option in handheld mode was interesting, and is meant to simulate the upright and narrow display of the TATE arcade machines of the 80’s and 90’s. While an admittedly cool addition, if a bit impractical as the Joy-Cons have to be removed, I found that playing on the default setting with borders on both sides of the screen was perfectly fine. Another neat addition is the introduction of a replay mode, which helped me see exactly what parts of levels I needed to work on and, more importantly, to brag when I got past a particularly difficult section. When sections got too difficult, I was grateful for the local multiplayer mode, which lets another player grab a Joy-Con and suffer right alongside you. The one gripe about this is that it’s only local multiplayer, a shame considering the Xbox 360 port included online co-op. This leads to another point: the price. The Switch version is $15 at the time of writing, a bit more than the online co-op enabled Xbox 360 version, or even the Steam version, which doesn’t have online co-op, but features all the amenities of the Switch version; both are $10. If you’re not one to play online, it may seem a trivial feature to be removed, but having the option would have been nice.
Luckily, what Ikaruga on the Switch lacks in online co-op, it makes up for in the sheer availability of control schemes. Besides single Joy-Con support, dual Joy-Cons and Pro Controllers are also supported, and there’s even an option to control two ships with the same controller, in case the challenge of the standard arcade more and the Prototype mode weren’t enough. Overall, rock-solid performance and a myriad of customizable control and option settings ensure that you’re able to play whichever way you prefer.