There is one game in particular that shines brighter than any star in game developer Treasure’s catalogue: Sega Saturn’s Radiant Silvergun. This frantically maddening shooter made its way to the Saturn back in 1998. Silvergun single-handedly revolutionized shooters at home and in the arcades, all the while creating a dedicated cult following. Not one to ignore their fans, Treasure made an unofficial sequel to Silvergun for play on the Dreamcast. Named simply Ikaruga, for the past two years it has been available exclusively via import. In an unlikely move, Nintendo decided to license this oddity for play here in America, and I could not be happier.
Treasure’s notoriety has been gained through their subtle additions and twists on established gaming styles. Ikaruga was made in classic Treasure form. Though bereft of any traditional shielding your ship does come equipped with a polarity switch. This switch allows your ship to shift from negative energy to positive energy, or from black to white. Enemies and their respective fire come at you in two flavors: black and white. Depending on your ship’s color you will either be destroyed or gain charges when hit. Obviously, being hit by the opposite color will smash you into oblivion.
Now, here are the basics. This game is a shooter. Not a first-person shooter, rather an unadulterated old-school space ship shooter. The game play is stripped down to the fundamentals. No power-ups, no shields, no mercy. You are armed only with a standard blaster and chargeable auxiliary missiles. These energy missiles are charged up every time you absorb similarly colored enemy fire. For every ten bullets you eat, you gain one missile, up to a maximum of twelve. The missile gauge fills up quickly, because you get hit hard and heavily. These missiles do ten times the amount of damage as your blaster, and when you release twelve of these babies at once, well, you do the math! Sometimes, at least for us novices, they’re the only way out of a tight spot, so let ?em rip.
Right from the beginning Ikaruga comes out of the gates blazing and never lets down. Expect to see hundreds of enemies and thousands of bullets flying on screen at any given time. Treasure exploits the use of black and white polarity to the fullest extent. You will easily become engulfed in wave after wave of black and white bullets and it takes some pretty fast button mashing and precise control to switch between poles carefully enough to survive. As you blast through most of these levels at breakneck speeds, you need to be constantly aware of what is happening on all sides. Not only will you have to navigate through some fairly unforgiving terrain, you need to keep a constant ? albeit twitching ? eye on the color of your ship and enemy fire. Plenty of obstacles can be destroyed so watch out for alternate paths to avoid superfluous enemy fire and gain a chance for a well deserved breather. Other than the occasional pause during inter-level animations there is little but no reprieve for you here.
Boss battles are unholy. These evil creations of the blackest descent will have you cursing all the way back to Life Force on your NES. Huge and pitiless, these bad-asses will take you to school. Each more infuriating that the last, Treasure ups the ante on ingenious boss designs. A massive amount of brain power is required for simultaneously recognizing patterns and keeping your ship intact. Otherwise you’ll “have no chance to survive. Make your time.” (If you don’t know, don’t ask) Keep trying, that’s all I can say.
God, this game is beautiful! Without a doubt, it’s one of the most visually stunning I have seen on the ?Cube. Even though Ikaruga employs a simple black and white color scheme for the ships and bullets, overall the visuals are no less impressive than a Pixar film. Even though we’re dealing with a completely 2D shooter here, the landscapes and ships have all been beautifully rendered in full 3D. Their sharp resolution and high level of detail help keep this aging genre in the current era of gaming. When ships blast on-screen they shoot in from all directions performing barrel rolls and loops allowing you to see from every angle just how solid these models are. Even the gigantic boss crafts rotate and swerve with some of the most realistic motions I have ever seen from animated robots.
While the backdrops are not interactive they alone all but set the game’s tone. Mindful of the predominant use of black and white for enemies and fire, Treasure made use of a dingier color palette to help keep the surroundings where they belong. Dull browns, greens and other rusted colors in the background help accentuate the vibrancy of pure black and white in the front. Acting more like a good soundtrack, the environments blend in and never overpower the action in the foreground. Yeah, like I said, the game is beautiful and totally sweet to watch!
Ikaruga‘s sound is ample. And that’s what I want. With all of the insanity flying around on-screen, the last thing I need is an overbearing soundtrack searing heavy-metal through my ears. This game is all about concentration and perfect timing, and the tunes actually help you stay focused. While nowhere near ambient, the in game music is pulse pumping enough to stay with the action, but it never takes you out of the game. In fact, you’re drawn in even further. Everything has its place, which helps to immerse you in all that is Ikaruga. Even the sound effects aid in creating a certain level of authenticity. Ship explosions range from a quiet burst to speaker blowing megaton blasts, all at the appropriate times. Nothing innovative or even really creative has been done in this department, but there is nothing that legitimately detracts from the audio either. She does her job, and she does it well.
On top of the ruthless challenge presented by Ikaruga, we are treated to a bevy of extras. While most of these are available from the start there are a small amount of unlockables that will keep most hardcore shooters, well, shooting. You can open up a practice mode that let’s you replay any section of the game you have completed thus far. This allows you hone your skills and plan out runs. Since the game was developed for vertical screened arcade machines, the game gives you several viewing options to choose from. If you have a vertical monitor (who knows, maybe someone actually does) then you shouldn’t have to change a thing. For the rest of us, Treasure implemented a GC exclusive horizontal mode that keeps 100% of the screen intact, but you end up playing the game on its side. It may sound awkward, but it never affects the game’s play value. Or you could be bootleg about it and flip your TV on its side, but I heard that could cause a fire?
Be warned, this is not a game you’ll want to play while fighting on the phone with your ex-girlfriend. Ikaruga is like a drill sergeant demanding your full attention and he expects you to give 110%, lest you suffer an immense beating. Failing and repetition are part of Ikaruga‘s draw. This is, to be sure, every bit the shooter fan’s shooter! And even though you have not a chance in hell of making it through on your first, second or even 100th attempt, you will come back again and again. Take it from me this game is insane! Oh, and it’s fun too!