Treasure's most popular shoot 'em up has seen a console release for every one of the past three generations. Now that it's available for Nintendo Switch, let's see if it holds up more than 15 years after its debut.
For the unfamiliar, Ikaruga is played like your average vertical shmup where you dodge clouds of projectiles and shoot down your opponents. However it has one defining characteristic that sets it apart from its peers. Basically, you can switch your polarity on the fly. When you're black, you absorb black projectiles yet white ones kill you and the opposite is true for when you're white. This also effects how you can hurt your enemies as foes with the opposite colour are damaged more heavily. That being said, if you destroy an enemy that matches your polarity then you can absorb some extra energy. Absorbing energy and projectiles allows you to charge a special homing attack that has multiple power thresholds. When you combine this innovative mechanic with the tight core gameplay, clever scenarios, and incredible level of challenge, you're left with one undeniably great shmup.
One aspect of Ikaruga that I don't think gets enough attention is its amazingly immersive atmosphere. The environments are extremely detailed with many moving parts and an overall eerie vibe. It kind of reminds me of the R-Type series in this sense, especially the latter entries in the series. The soundtrack is perfect for this sort of setting, too, with many subtle orchestral and electronic pieces that always suit the mood. Finally, the sound effects bring it all together and make every onscreen event satisfying.
As I've already touched upon, Ikaruga's campaign is full of clever scenarios. This is true when it comes to both the stages and bosses. The trickiest segments have you carefully move through tight spaces while avoiding enemy fire. One boss even has you open a small recess that you have to occupy in order to shoot it as it closes in on you. Another boss will have you flying around a maze-like structure while trying to shoot its shielded core. It's super-tough stuff and hardcore gamers will get a huge kick out of these moments.
One part of the gameplay that adds a great deal of replay value for gamers who care about high scores and climbing leaderboards is the chain system. Essentially, for every group of three similarly coloured enemies that you shoot down in a row, you're awarded a multiplied score bonus. However, if you shoot just one enemy out of sequence, the multiplier resets. It's a very cool system.
Although many gamers feel that Ikaruga is the greatest shoot 'em up of all time, I don't quite agree with them. It's definitely up there as one of the best but there are better shmups out there. One thing that I always thought it lacked was a variety of power-ups and weapons. Its spiritual prequel Radiant Silvergun certainly didn't lack in this department. I find that it makes the gameplay more unvaried than it could have been. Also, there are only five stages to master which isn't that many at all. They are lengthy but they generally look too similar and don't stand out much. Finally, it's been more than 15 years since Ikaruga first debuted and there isn't much additional content to be found here. I compared it side-by-side to the Xbox 360 version and nothing substantial has been added. You can view images, documents, and listen to the soundtrack in the Appendix menu but this was featured in previous versions, too.
Ikaruga is a classic shoot 'em up in every sense of the word and I'm happy to say that it holds up beautifully after over 15 years. Its polarity mechanic and breathtaking atmosphere certainly put it head and shoulders above many other entries in the genre.
- + Tight and challenging shooting with a very innovative polarity mechanic
- + Immersive atmosphere and music
- + Chain system adds replay value
- - No power-ups or different weapons
- - Not much added since the last iteration
- - Only five stages to master