Before I begin I would like to give a special thanks to Nicalis for sending us a copy of this game to review.
While classic shooter developer Treasure was most known for making the Gunstar Heroes and Sin & Punishment games, one of their most ‘treasured’ works was Ikaruga. Considered a cult classic on the Dreamcast and GameCube, Ikaruga remixed Treasure’s usual style as a shoot-em-up and garnered critical attention, even being considered by some to be one of Treasure’s greatest games ever. Now, nearly seventeen years later, Nicalis and Treasure have teamed up to bring the title to Nintendo Switch, but does it hold up as one of the best bullet hells of all time?
Treasure has never been one for their comprehensible storylines. I still remember Sin & Punishment just throwing you into the middle of an alien-infested Tokyo with no context, and Ikaruga is the same. The game gives you an appendix with character artwork and there are brief little sayings before each level, but as far as I have gathered from playing you are a pilot called Shinra who flies in the ship Ikaruga, and you are fighting some evil force and their giant crystal. To be fair, the story really doesn’t matter in this game but if they want to have it, I would appreciate some way of discovering it in-game, rather than resorting to Wikipedia.
The gameplay if Ikaruga takes the usual shoot-em-up and adds a twist. You fly in a plane and fire lasers, but there are no power-ups other than an area shot that will charge up over time. Instead, you swap between two energy polarities, white and black, which will allow your ship to absorb fire from ships of the same energy type. Swapping is simple, and it adds another layer to the game where players have to keep dodging one color, and then the other. It gives Treasure an excuse to scare players by flooding the stage with undodgeable bullets that don’t necessarily kill you (like in many bullet hells, you die in one hit).
Players travel through five levels dodging hazards and fighting a boss at the end for a score. Each boss has to be beaten within a time limit, although the game will still continue; you just get fewer points for failing. While the game can be beaten in around an hour, that does come with the territory as an arcade game.
The games length and difficulty make it feel like an old NES game; much of the length comes from how ridiculously hard it is. It gets to the point where I found the level 4 boss just straight-up unfair thanks to the incredibly limited space and time you have to hit him. That is of course unless you cheese it.
The game is all about getting a high score and if you like that sort of thing then enjoy playing on 3-lives and no continues. I did this for a bit, but I then decided I’d actually like to see past level 3 and changed the settings to have basically unlimited lives. I’m glad there is an option for this, but changing any setting causes you to not be able to save your score. I don’t mind though, because saving your score just takes forever. You die frequently, and the amount of time it took to get from death to restarting a mission was tiring.
There are two additional modes with prototype and multiplayer. Multiplayer is just the same game with two ships and is perfect for the Joy-con. Prototype mode adds a cool layer of depth where you only have a limited amount of bullets but can get more by absorbing enemy fire of the same polarity. This is a nice addition as it makes the games challenge different enough to warrant playing through both modes.
But I hope you get used to the first two chapters as continues are turned off by default, and while there is a chapter select you can only play that one chapter and that is it. No ending the session and coming back later, unless you use the Switch’s sleep mode but then you can’t play another game.
I’m sure the visuals were really impressive when Ikaruga first launched in 2001, but they are just average now. There is plenty of variety in the enemy designs but the stages all look the same, although this might be necessary to contrast with all the bright white and black bullets covering your screen at all times. The menu and UI are nice as is the music, but apart from the opening track and the boss theme I don’t remember much of it.
One novel implementation is that you can play Ikaruga vertically, like how it was presented in arcades. This is neat, although the Switch isn’t designed to be played like that, so you will need to find your own way of holding the Switch screen up. And this is only doable in the tabletop mode of course.
When playing normally the screen is not stretched and so the blank space is filled with a big gray background covered in Kanji, as well as random gameplay information. Some of this is useful like your lives, current combo, and weapon charge, while other stuff is random like which achievements you have.
Overall, Ikaruga is an innovative shoot-em up and I can see why fans of this kind of game really enjoyed it. Personally, I still prefer Capcom’s 1942 series and its various copycats. The ability to swap between polarities to survive is a neat gimmick and its used very well in the final boss but the game is hard almost to the point of being unfair. There is a reason this game is a cult classic; it certainly won’t appeal to most but for you masochists out there (as well as shoot-em up fans, but is there really a difference?), this one’s for you. At the very least, I am glad more people are getting to experience this title once more.