a review of Ikaruga
a videogame developed by treasure
and published by atari (et al)
for the arcades, the microsoft xbox live arcade, the nintendo gamecube and the sega dreamcast
text by tim rogers
A game concept should ideally fit on a bar napkin. That said, Pac-Man probably didn’t fit on a bar napkin. The only way Tooru Iwatani could have spelled Pac-Man out was to write up the concept and draw the maze. Games were young then; we lacked conceptual vocabulary. The simple duality of a character being hunted through a maze by enemies and every so often being offered the opportunity to turn the tables and become the hunter had to be spelled out in terms of math, logistics, and visual flow: what happened if all the enemies died? How much time would elapse before they appeared again? Two decades later, Pac-Man was an archetype, both with regard to pop culture and with regard to game design. Some people hear “Pac-Man” and think of the munching sound effect; some think of terrible cartoons; some people think in very concrete mathematical terms, of the turning of tables, of hunted becoming hunter, of ensuing score multipliers.
If Treasure’s Ikaruga fits on a bar napkin, it’s not because Treasure stocks unreasonably large bar napkins. It’s because it’s made by people who know exactly what each other are talking about. The concept for Ikaruga probably originally occurred to its creator Hiroshi Iuchi (also the music composer and 3D background graphic modeler) as a bullet-pointed list:
1. Top-down 2D shooter
2. Two buttons: fire, and change color
3. Ship has two colors: black and white
4. Black ship fires black bullets
5. White ship fires white bullets
6. Black ship absorbs black enemy bullets (white bullets kill black ship)
7. White ship absorbs white enemy bullets (black bullets kill white ship)
8. Absorbing bullets charges super-weapon
9. Press both buttons at once to fire super-weapon
He passed this along to his trusted colleagues, and they probably had a playable level up and running within a week. A month later, they had a videogame. Several months later, it was a masterpiece. Years down the road, it’s an official Action Button Dot Net Manifesto Selection.
A lot of things can go wrong when you plan a game from the concept up. Or, at least, that’s what games-industry types will tell you. They say you need strong characters, an affecting story, a good marketing push. Fans of Treasure games — perhaps-ironically the videogamer community’s equivalent of an Illuminati — know that precisely none of this matters. They want mechanics that demand skill. Treasure games never fail to provide such mechanics. They have, however, in the past, fallen flat in other areas. In attempting to be “cute” in the 16-bit era, Treasure filled Dynamite Headdy with a suffocating amount of personality. That game was like a cat dropping a dead bird in your lap. A year previous, they’d held themselves back, developing a solider-than-rock core system in Gunstar Heroes (a 2D side-scrolling run-and-gun where touching enemies not only does not result in death, it allows you to execute super-powerful throwing moves with magically delicious physics), and then turning all of the game’s stages into explorations on distinct concepts or themes. There was an on-rails mine-cart-racing level, an upward-scrolling aerial fortress level, a level where you actually control a ship in outer space, a final level where you see the enemies watching you on a TV monitor, and a dice-rolling “board game” level (which we here at Action Button Dot Net cannot wholeheartedly salute), in which the game engine’s infinitely deep potential for endless kinetic motion was squandered by making the player participate in one-screen disconnected challenges. Only in stage five, the one called “DESTROY THEM ALL”, did the game make sense: the player runs to the right on a seemingly endless horizontal plane, killing hundreds upon hundreds of rampaging enemy soldiers. When Gunstar Heroes received critical love, Treasure plopped out Dynamite Headdy, repulsed many, retreated deeper into the shell that birthed Gunstar, released Alien Soldier, flipped officially to the “dark side” of hardcore appreciation, and lay in hiding for several years. They released a top-down 2D shooter called Radiant Silvergun, in which the ship has six weapons that can be used at any time; the game was and is extremely rare. (We hope they put it on PlayStation Network or Xbox Live sometime. That’d be nice.) Playing it leaves no one without the impression that this is a game made by a bunch of awesome, friendly dudes who just want to make the games they want to play.
When at last Treasure dared to attempt to ensnare the general public again, they poured oodles of money into Sin and Punishment, which was a brilliant game that failed because it had a story where it shouldn’t have had a story. Generally, it was a problem of graphic design: in a game with core mechanics so slim and iconic, our main character should not be a bustier-wearing blade-haired anorexic young man who can transform into a blood-gushing giant robot. The omnipresence of huge, flashing, yellow “PRESS START TO SKIP” during all the machine-translated English-scripted voice-acted cut-scenes serves to highlight the problem: they knew we were going to skip. Who were they trying to fool? One day, they produced a bar-napkin game called Rakugaki Showtime, a fighting game where one button throws the nearest object at the nearest enemy, one button throws the nearest enemy at the second-nearest enemy, a third button throws the nearest enemy at the nearest object, and the fourth button throws the nearest object at the second-nearest object. That game was about precisely as awesome as it sounds on paper. If you have read our one-sentence description, you are as entitled to award it a star rating as we are. (We’d give it three and a half.)
Eventually, there was Bangaioh, in 1999, and then, there was Ikaruga. Though Bangai-oh Spirits for the DS is Action Button Dot Net official One Game To Take To A Desert Island, we must concede that Ikaruga is the more important game.
Back to the bullet-pointed list. As you can see, the game’s specific genre is item #1. This is because “genre” is actually a very loose concept when you’re dealing with a Treasure game. Ask any groundling rube, and they’ll tell you “Treasure makes action games”. This is not true: Treasure makes videogames; it’s just that they all require timing, skill, and (to a lesser extent) pattern recognition. More often than not, Treasure isn’t thinking of making a “shooting game” or an “action game” or a “fighting game”: they’re thinking of making something that they are very certain they themselves (at the very least) will enjoy playing. Some will groan and call this method “self-absorbed”. These people are, in fact, arrogant. This “self-absorbed” method is how Quentin Tarantino makes motion pictures, for example. How much more human and generous can you get, than to make something that you are dead confident you will like, in the hopes that others will like it as well? If you call this method “self-absorbed”, then you are assuming that the creators of entertainment consider themselves better than normal humans, and that highlights a problem with your personality.
The “genre” of 2D top-down shooter, to be bottom-line honest, isn’t interesting at all. The current pioneers are Cave, whose games are less about shooting than moving as little as possible while avoiding bullets. There’s hardly a shooting game alive these days where the player is ever tempted to not hold down the fire button at all times. In other words, you never pick your shots. There’s never an incentive not to shoot. Why do we even have to press a button at all? It’s silly. Enemies spit out bullet patterns — pink, purple, easily visible to the player’s eyes — and the player dodges while keeping that fire button held down, certain that damage is being done somewhere. Walk up behind a bespectacled Japanese man sitting before a luxurious tall-screen cabinet of any modern Cave shooter, and witness the approximate distance between his nose and his avatar. Now go look at a fighting gamer, legs crossed, chest forward like a peacock. These are games for certain types of people: those who look closely. These people will often remark on such-and-such game’s bullet patterns as being better-looking than other games’ bullet patterns.
Hold down that fire button, feel out the cracks in labyrinthine bullet patterns, twitch, twitch. Enemies explode, gold coins / medals / amber chips / what-have-you scattering. So as to not insult the player’s intelligence by requiring him to go forth and pick these things up, they fly toward his avatar with great fanfare, huge yellow numerals fireworking all over the screen: “x100”. “x1000”. “x10000”. “POWER UP”. The laser blasts echoing out of the player’s ship multiply. The Eurobeat drones on. On another day, with another cigarette in hand, these same slaves might have decided on a whim to go to medical school, just so they can scream out names of medicines as they run alongside a gurney into a surgery ward, just like the doctors on “ER”.
(Side note: the default (not-powered-up) gun in Cave’s latest Dodonpachi fires literally thirty-two bullets per button tap. That is not a typo. This might be a self-parody of the shooting genre, though really, when everything produced by the monopoly-holding champions of a specific genre is self-parody, what are you living for? That said, Cave’s Ibara is still probably one of the best action games of the decade.)
Ikaruga is not, precisely, a game for those people. It’s a game for the man who made it. Other people are welcome to share. You have one weapon. It does not upgrade. Tap the button, and one laser shoots out of your ship. Hold the button, and two fly out in a side-by-side stream. Everything in Ikaruga is either black (glowing red) or white (glowing blue), and your ship possesses the unique ability to change colors. Changing the color of your ship from black to white or vice versa, as laid out above, changes the color of your bullets, which changes which color of enemy they are most effective on. Your ship can also absorb bullets of its current color. Absorb bullets to charge your smart bomb. Fire the smart bomb while white to send white blasts to home in on black enemies. Fire the smart bomb while black to send black blasts to home in on white enemies. You don’t have to use this attack if you don’t want to. In fact, there’s hardly a single core element of Ikaruga that you have to participate in if you don’t want to. This is usually the case with Treasure games: these are games made by and for the people who heard Shigeru Miyamoto say “if you want extra challenge, you can try playing Super Mario Bros. without collecting a single coin” and immediately stood up with clenched, trembling fists, sparks exploding in their awakened brains.
You can play Ikaruga without changing colors. (You have to move more.) You can play Ikaruga without absorbing fire. (You have to move a lot more.) You can play Ikaruga like a straight-ahead shooting game (just firing and dodging and absorbing). You can play Ikaruga for the combo system (fire single shots, kill three white enemies, three black enemies, three white enemies, et cetera). You can play Ikaruga without firing a single shot (they call this “dot-eating” (the bosses are polite enough to die automatically if you survive their onslaught long enough)). You can play Ikaruga simultaneous cooperative-style with a second player. If that’s the case, either player can use any of the possible rules laid out in this paragraph. You can coordinate your actions with that of the second player, progressing through certain passages where one player absorbs black bullets while the other absorbs white bullets. The permutations of enjoy styles number at least a dozen. We’re not going to count. Suffice it to say, it’s a generous game.
Ikaruga‘s generosity was not “planned” from the beginning. There’s no way. These days, game designers will sit around their boardroom tables and say, “We need to make this game generous. Replayable. We need to give it modes.” With Ikaruga — as with all things Treasure — there are no “modes”. There’s just “GAME START”, your whims, and infinitely wise level design. A team of iron-pumping men sat very still, in meditative poses, for hours on end in the name of assuring that the enemy patterns were compelling, that the difficulty level of maintaining a combo climbed gradually, that the conceptual hearts of the bosses increased in complexity, and that — as with Sin and Punishment (which turns into Missile Command) and Halo 3 (which turns into a racing game) — the ending moments challenge the player who has proved his worth at this one game to now adapt to another. Only it’s less pronounced than in Sin and Punishment: basically, Ikaruga gives you an invincible opponent and a psycho-labyrinth of bullets, and tells you to just survive. The key here is that, if you want, you can play the whole game the way you play the final boss.
This is to say that Ikaruga‘s generosity was simply inherent in its bar-napkin concept. That’s how you make a “deep” and “replayable” game: by being pure of heart, by keeping the design gloriously slim, by sticking to your guns, and by expressing your game’s novelty through rigorously fine-tuned level design. You design those levels, you lay out those situations, until you can think of absolutely nothing else to do with your mechanics. If still your game feels lacking, it’s because it was always destined to be so.
Here, if we were feeling mean, we could list a dozen games that fail to be Treasure-esque, like Panzer Dragoon Orta, which offers the player the choice to switch between three dragon types for three different situations. Speedy dragon with rapid fire, big dragon with strong fire, normal dragon with normal everything. However, by visually differentiating the dragons so strikingly, the game only enunciates the forcedness of the design. That the game requires you to use certain dragon types in certain situations is beyond worrying: it kills the game. Shoots it in the head. It’s a lot like the iron boots in modern 3D Zelda games: you have these 200kg boots in your inventory; you’re swimming in water; you open the menu and choose to put the boots “on”; you sink to the bottom of the water. Are the boots only heavy when they’re on your feet? (Maybe they’re magical.) It’s not a puzzle; it’s not “thinking”. It’s just “there”. With Ikargua — with All Things Treasure — nothing is ever just “there”. How awfully nice of them.
“Videogame journalists” are often quick to attribute the creation of their favorite games to one man — Thief and Deus Ex to Warren Spector, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus to Fumito Ueda, Metal Gear Solid to Hideo Kojima, and Rez to Tetsuya Mizuguchi, to name just a few. This is really silly (we’ve met the man who really made Rez, for example. He’s great.) No one, however, ever attributes Ikaruga to Hiroshi Iuchi, who — and we say this with gong-pounding confidence — really did kind of make this entire game on his own. He designed the game, coded the engine, wrote the “story”, planned the stage progressions and bullet patterns, designed all of the 3D backgrounds, and even composed and programmed the music, for god’s sake. He wasn’t alone, per se — he had a team of the most experienced action-button-happy programmers in history at his disposal — though really. Let’s give him credit. Let’s speak his name. His name is Hiroshi Iuchi. Hiroshi Iuchi. Hiroshi Iuchi.
This review would not be complete without mentioning that this is the game that coined the term “frothing demand”. Namely, gaming journalism’s Wall Street Journal — IGN.com — said of the game, in a preview, “Our frothing demand for this game increases.” This would mean nothing — seriously, IGN — if some marketing fiend at Atari hadn’t snapped his head up sharply from the mirror on his desktop, snorted hard, and screamed “FrrrROTHY!”
The quote ended up on the box. The front of the box. In large font. Large italic font.
The back of the box is even more peculiar, because we get to see some of Cokey Marketman’s original work. According to the back-of-box copy, Ikaruga is a game which “combines fighter pilot heroics with manga-style storytelling”. Uh, if you say so! “Fighter pilot heroics” — what does that mean? Maybe he’s indicating that, if you beat the game straight through, in one shot, then the performance of the on-screen ship actually does come to look kind of “heroic”, death-defying. The game is about one ship taking on an armada. Then again, so are all of these other games. It’s kind of novel to think that the guy who wrote this might have never seen a 2D shooting game before — then again, he wouldn’t have had to. Ikaruga is the alpha and the omega.
The bit about manga, even after all these years, is still a little confusing.
Truly, the game aspires to tell a story. Yet the story is so visual, so backseated, so confined to the instruction manual, that we might never notice. Before some boss battles and at the introductions to stages — we fly seamlessly from one location to another — a vertical black bar extends along the side of the screen, with a chapter title and super-cryptic text. They didn’t even translate the text for the English release. That probably says something right there.
The game ends with the player’s ship absorbing tens of thousands of bullets (over the course of the final sequence), and self-destructing as it expels a hurricane of gunfire on the final boss.
The final moments show birds flying over lush green wilderness and stoic blue waterfalls. The first time you see it, it doesn’t mean much. The second time, you want to play again.
Most people who’ve played again are still playing again.