January 26, 2023

An impulse purchase twenty years in the making.

I think I first read about this game when it was released for Gamecube in 2003, back when I still followed gaming news with even a little bit of regularity. It seemed to be an intense, well-crafted classic 2D shooter with some unique ideas, which felt uncommon then and still does today. I never played it, but I clearly filed it away in my mind, should the opportunity to play it ever turn up.

A year or two later, I got to borrow a Gamecube. I think I got close enough to purchase that I was actually holding the game in my hand in a store. I guess it felt strange to buy a game for someone else's console, and when I later got a Wii I guess … I do not know 🤷🏻‍♂️

Clearly, having a Switch sitting around was the trigger it took. I was thinking about getting some more games suitable for quick bursts of play, and for some reason Ikaruga picked that moment to come roaring back into my mind:

Ikaruga, in vertical mode on a Nintendo Switch Ikaruga, in vertical mode on a Nintendo Switch

Made for arcade machines with a vertically-oriented screen, the game supports screen rotation and was thus perfect to slot the Switch into the Hoverbar for.

So what kind of game is it, anyway? Ikaruga is a classic scrolling shooter where you control a small space ship shooting its way trough waves and waves of enemies coming at you in various patterns, broken up by boss fights every now and then. Enemies and their bullets are either light or dark, and your ship and bullets can also change between light and dark at the press of a button. A bullet of the other colour kills you - no energy bars here - while bullets of your current colour are absorbed and gather power for special attacks. You will be switching colour very often to stay alive, and there is a puzzle-like aspect of planning and reaction to make it through the encounters. You have three lives, and five levels to battle through.

So far, I have reached the second level. I may never see the fifth, and at least so far that does not particularly bother me.

I read somewhere that the game felt like a shooter lovers' love letter to shooters, and that rings true to me. Plays are intense, brief, and unforgiving, but also feel fair. I run out of my three lives in a few minutes tops, but it always feels like I lose because I did not play well enough, not like the game pulled some cheap trick on me. I look forward to repeating, doing a little bit better next time, and to eventually look at the early stages and have a hard time understanding why I ever had a problem with them.

It looks very good too, in a very … sharp way. All lines feel razor sharp, designed for screens of much lower resolution and displayed at 1:1 pixel ratio rather than scaled or stretched. It feels luxurious, somehow, to have a big arcade machine game running so effortlessly on this little screen hovering in front of me.

There are even little hints of a story, so quick that you blink and miss them. Completely out of the way, just the way they should be. Just little hints of a world and a character.

I bet that my total play time is less than an hour, and that it will grow very slowly, but I deeply enjoy what Ikaruga is and does.

I think I should play more old-school shooters.