Ikaruga is a classic arcade overhead scrolling shooter with Dreamcast-era 3D graphics, and challenging 2D gameplay. The real hook of this game is your ability to change the polarity of your spaceship with the press of a button, between black and white. Like your ship, every enemy and projectile in the game is either black or white. You can absorb projectiles of the same color for a special attack, while avoiding projectiles of the opposite color, or change the polarity of your ship to match opposing projectiles and move through them instead!
I was first introduced to this game in 2002 by Nintendo Times head honcho, Craig Majaski. YouTube didn’t exist yet, and broadband wasn’t widely adopted, so at that time, we used to watch low quality QuickTime videos on a now-dissolved GameTrailers website. It was there where Craig showed me a trailer for the 2002 Japan-only Dreamcast version of the game, around the time that it was announced for GameCube in North America. I was immediately impressed, and bought it as soon as it came out on GameCube the next year.
Although I had only played Ikaruga on the GameCube for many years, it eventually became one of my favorite games in the arcade. In 2013, I sought it out in the game centers of Tokyo, and found it at Taito HEY (Hirose Entertainment Yard) in Akihabara, right next to Radiant Silvergun, its 1998 prequel. Although I had played through it on GameCube many times on Easy Mode, I decided to play through it again, this time in the arcade, while in Osaka’s own “Akihabara”, Den Den Town. It’s not graceful to keep pumping coins into a score-based game like Ikaruga in order to beat it, but that’s how I played. It cost me a thousand yen (about ten dollars) to play through it in one sitting, but it became one of my favorite gaming memories.
Like the GameCube version, the Switch iteration is an outstanding port of the arcade game, only better. Although it’s essentially the same game, additional options improve the experience, especially for shooter fans. First, this version does support vertical mode. In the arcade, this game plays on a screen rotated vertically, so playing the game horizontally means the game is squashed to fit the screen, and much of the screen goes unused, resulting in a large border on each side. Because of the unique design of the Nintendo Switch, this game can be enjoyed in vertical mode on the portable screen (or on any screen that can be safely rotated). There are leaderboards, both globally, and between friends, which bring scoring between challengers back into the game from the arcade. There is an option to map both Joy-Cons separately for “double play”, where advanced players can control two ships at once. There is a replay feature, where you can watch automatically saved videos of your plays, in their entirety or by chapter (individual levels). There is also a special Prototype game mode, based on the original development of the game, where players have limited ammunition and have to absorb enemy projectiles to replenish.
Although it can be cleared in less than one hour, Ikaruga is notoriously difficult. Because of the polarity game mechanic, much of the game is spent navigating a screen that is completely full of black and white projectiles. There are several times in the game where there is a pinwheel of projectiles moving clockwise, and another pinwheel of opposing projectiles moving in the opposite direction. The result is a game where you are constantly surveying the landscape, using your peripheral vision to focus on one color at a time, and having to flip to the other color at a moment’s notice. The bosses are especially difficult, and may be frustrating for a lot of players, or even seem unfair to newcomers (although I’ll disagree).
Despite its reputation, this game can be enjoyed by anyone because of the options available to the player. The difficulty, the number of continues, and the number of lives can all be adjusted. Gamers can jump into the game for short periods of time without reliving the first chapter again and again, thanks to a chapter select feature. The best feature in the game, for many, might be the option for “free play”, where you can play through the game with unlimited lives. Hey, you already paid for the game, which gives you the right for unlimited quarters, right?
The graphics and music in Ikaruga have aged well. The game plays in a 2D plane, but there is constant, intricate 3D motion in the background, where objects seamlessly pop into and out of the field of play. The white projectiles are highlighted with blue, and the black with red, which make them as easy to distinguish as the enemies. Because the polarity game mechanic allows you to move through same-color projectiles, the screen is often full of enemies and projectiles of both colors. For this reason, watching can almost be as fun as playing. The soundtrack is memorable, and matches the pace of the game. This pairing of the soundtrack with the gameplay is most obvious at the start of each chapter, where the game makes a transition between the introduction to the level, and the action scenes. The music starts more softly, and when the transition is complete, becomes dramatic as your ship launches forward.
I keep coming back to this game because of the unique polarity gameplay mechanic, its accessibly (despite its reputation as a difficult game), and the overall atmosphere of the game, especially the music. This is a game that I’ll be playing for years to come, and unless I finally buy the arcade game, the Switch is the best place to experience it!
Final Thoughts: OUTSTANDING
Ikaruga is an outstanding classic, which I find myself mentioning to anyone who will listen. It is a defining game in the shooting genre that all gamers should experience. The Switch version is true to the arcade, but goes above and beyond with the portable vertical play and global leaderboards. Don’t miss out!
Ikaruga was reviewed using a final retail Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher.
Adam “McSNES” Martinez, gaming drop-out and FuncoLand ghost, has spent his entire life training to review games for YOU, the loyal readers of Nintendo Times. Adam is permanently banned from Final Fantasy XI: Online, his favorite game.