The main premise behind Ikaruga is so simple, and yet so deep, it makes me wonder why it hasn't been attempted before. In Ikaruga, your ship can change colors, or polarities, from black to white with the tap of a button. Your lasers and shields share the same color, and you are invulnerable to enemy projectiles of whatever polarity you are in. Your weapons do double damage against enemies of the opposite color, so there is some incentive to swap polarities often. You must be careful though, because changing colors at the wrong time can be devastating. It is impossible to stay the same color for very long, though, as the game forces you to change often, and usually abruptly. The color changing gameplay, simple as it sounds, gives Ikaruga a depth adn freshness that makes it as compelling as the most modern of games.
You may have heard that Ikaruga is a difficult game, and indeed, it is brutal. In my first solo playthrough, I lost all my lives within the first minute. However, I was quite surprised to defeat the first boss on my fourth attempt. The feeling of accomplishment was amazing; I thought that perhaps this fancy shooter wasn't all it was cracked up to be when tackled by an old school veteran like myself. With a bit of a swagger, I dove right into Chapter 2. This time, I lasted about 30 seconds. Ouch. My ego deflated, I did what any good gamer would do: I called for a wing man. My 13 year old son sat down with me to play.
Co-op play in Ikaruga is a totally different experience than going solo. First of all, the number and difficulty of enemies does not change with an extra player. The same patterns of enemies took the exact same number of shots before dying during co-op play. You may think of this as a drawback, as you really have doubled your own firepower, which usually makes a game easier. Remember though, that this game is tough. With two of us playing, we were able to divide the screen and kill most enemies before they had a chance to even shoot at us. The game felt easier, but it still took us several tries to even make it to the first boss.
Unfortunately, this was due to the biggest problem with co-op in Ikaruga: both players' ships look so similar it is nearly impossible to determine who is who in the thick of battle. In some areas of the game, you can just alternate polarities; one player can be black while the other is white, and this works quite well. However, certain areas all but require you to be a certain color. When both players are the same color, firing the same lasers, and surrounded by the same color shields, it is easy to lose track of your ship. I would guess that about one fourth of the time I died, it was because I didn't know where my ship was. I can't think of a solution to this problem; the color based gameplay is the core concept of Ikaruga, so it isn't as simple as P1 is red, P2 is blue. However, it wasn't all that frustrating; we were so busy having fun, the similarity of the ships was merely an annoyance, not a game-killer.
After the first level was finally beaten, Chapter Two became available to start in from the main menu. Gleefully, we dove right in. It was here that the fun of co-op really showed up. Within a few playthroughs, we were able to position ourselves ahead of time, calling out to each other to swap colors in order to maximize damage. The toughness of the game ramps up as some puzzle elements appear. Moving blocks in alternating colors, plus some invulnerable blocks, appear in your path, and in addition to dodging bullets, you have to evade the blocks. It feels like Tetris, in a way; my son put it best when he said "this is tough, it's like a puzzle game, you really have to use your head." I think this is the best part of Ikaruga. Good reflexes will only get you so far; you have to think ahead and plan to make your way efficiently through these sections. One part in particular is almost impossible unless you save your missile burst to clear an area ahead of time. Some may call it frustrating, but there was a definite feeling of accomplishment when we made our way through these puzzle-like sections for the first time.
The second boss is a co-op player's dream; it is almost trivial to defeat it when you have a friend backing you up. (Once you figure it out, that is.) With a high five and a war cry, we prepared to wade into Chapter 3. Imagine our disappointment when we were kicked back to the main menu. Unfortunately, if you choose to start your game on a particular Chapter, then you can only play through that level, and not beyond. This doesn't sound too bad, but when you realize that you have to play through Chapter One and Two, defeating both bosses, to unlock Chapter 3... given the difficulty, that seems daunting. Imagine having to clear the first three chapters to unlock Chapter 4 for the first time, and to do all four to unlock Chapter 5! Mercifully, the game has only five Chapters, but I can guarantee you it will be quite a while before we see them all.
Make no mistake: Ikaruga is tough, and very unforgiving. Some sections take experimentation and planning ahead to navigate successfully; others are so fast and frenetic that changing colors the slightest bit early will do you in. Ikaruga does show you some mercy, however; You can change the settings to allow for up to 5 ships per credit/continue. In addition, for each hour you play, you get another credit, allowing you to continue one more time. At 8 hours, you get infinite continues, so eventually, anyone can see the game through to the end. However, playing with alterations to the base settings doesn't allow for saving of high scores locally or on the leaderboards. To me, this doesn't matter too much, but to some, it may be a deal breaker. It should be noted that we still earned achievements for defeating bosses when using continues.
The most intriguing part of Ikaruga is the replay factor. I would estimate that I will "beat" the game for the first time only after I have infinite continues. However, I have totally ignored the chaining and scoring aspects of the game so far, concentrating on survival. Killing 3 or more enemies of one polarity in a row and then swapping to the opposite color increases your chain, which sends scores through the roof. Playing through one level over and over and getting chains as high as possible sounds both challenging and entertaining. Also, there is the "dot eater" strategy, where a player doesn't fire at all, instead using shields to destroy ships and avoiding or absorbing bullets whenever possible. Even bosses are defeatable this way; if you can last for a set time period against them, they will eventually withdraw. That's an awful lot of bang for your buck for a game with only five levels.
Additionally, the simple act of watching replays from the leaderboards is quite enjoyable. The game is very appealing, visually, and the patterns of bullets in some areas is almost hypnotic. Watching a replay a master player traveling through some of the toughest sections of the game while maintaining a perfect chain combo and not dying is awe-inspiring. Given the difficulty of the game, the immense replay factor, and the low price, and of course the awesome co-op play, I highly recommend Ikaruga. This is especially true for fans of the genre.
Shoot em ups have been around from the dawn of video games. Space Invaders, Galaga, and Gradius, for example, are all classic games most of us love, but over time, shooters as a whole got a bit stale and faded from popularity. In the past few years, though, brand new games like Geometry Wars and Super Stardust HD have invaded XBLA and PSN. With the addition of a solid title like Ikaruga to the mix, we may be experiencing a rebirth of the popularity of the genre.