There once was a time when shmups (shoot-’em ups) were commonplace on consoles. Classic shmups like Contra, Gradius and R-Type received numerous sequels, making the genre a norm for most consoles. By the early 2000s, the genre started to lose its popularity. Then came Ikaruga, a game unlike any other shmup before it. Few games have come close to matching Ikaruga’s brilliance, and after 17 years, the classic shmup makes its way onto Nintendo Switch with amazing results.
Ikaruga was first released on SEGA NAOMI arcade cabinets in 2001, making its way to the Sega Dreamcast in Japan in 2002 and worldwide on Nintendo GameCube in 2003. Ikaruga is widely regarded as one of the greatest shoot-’em ups ever made, and each port of Ikaruga has allowed new platforms the chance to play such a great experience. Now in 2018, Nicalis has brought the classic game to Nintendo Switch, where it feels right at home.
At first glance, you might think Ikaruga is like any other shoot-’em up. Shoot a lot of bullets, avoid being hit and that’s basically the game. However, Ikaruga distinguishes itself from other shmups with very unique gameplay elements. Both the Ikaruga (the ship player 1 controls) and the Ginkei (player 2’s ship) can switch polarity on command. If your ship is black, your bullets will deal twice the damage to white polarity ships and can store black bullets that fill your special attack gauge. If you get hit by a single white bullet, game over. Hitting the switch polarity command instantly makes the opposite work in your favor (white ship deals twice the damage to black ships). This is a wonderful gameplay element that makes Ikaruga shine. Such a simple mechanic constantly drives you have to make tough decisions. Do I stay safe by having my polarity absorb bullets, or do I take the chance and race forward to defeat the enemy? It’s a simple mechanic that’s very hard to master, but that’s what makes the game shine.
The game is also extremely simple to control. There are only 3 buttons to press: fire, polarity switch, and unleash energy charge. There aren’t any complex control schemes to learn after that. Controlling the ship is very simple too, just use the D-pad (or analog stick) to avoid bullets and enemies you can crash into. On Nintendo Switch, the game works great. The Switch version offers some of the newer updates made to the game, such as the ability to change the gameplay around. You can set to have infinite lives, play as 2 ships at once, or play the game on Prototype mode. Prototype mode is a way harder version of the game that I’d only recommend to shmup pros….or people who really hate themselves and want to suffer. The game runs perfectly on Nintendo Switch, which is a must for the shmup genre. Playing the game docked allows you to see the full details of the game on the big screen, while handheld mode offers the same great experience on the go. The Nintendo Switch version also features an arcade mode screen orientation. Simply flip the Switch to stand upright and play the game like the original arcade version. A really nice touch.
All that said, Ikaruga is not a game for everyone. It’s not even a game for casual shmup fans. The game is really, really hard. If you’re someone who casually likes to play shoot-’em ups, then Ikaruga isn’t for you. The game will frustrate you often. Death comes extremely frequently, sometimes mere moments after starting a level. Ikaruga doesn’t just require quick reflexes, like most shmups. It requires quick reflexes and instant adaptability to survive the crazy battles happening around you. The ability on the Switch version to add infinite lives is a fantastic addition because, otherwise, you die so quick, you’ll throw your Switch into the wall within seconds, and that’s not good for anyone.
Platforms: Arcade, Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo GameCube, Xbox 360, Nintendo Switch, PC
Release Date: 20th December 2001 (Arcade), 5th September 2002 (Dreamcast), 15th April 2003 (GameCube), 9th April 2008 (Xbox 360), 18th February 2014 (PC), 29th May 2018 (Nintendo Switch)