While most people know Pixel's work from the excellent Cave Story, that's not the only game he's ever made, and exploring his lesser known titles can be a lot of fun in itself. Ikachan is one such title, released as freeware for the PC in 2000. That's four years before Cave Story, and you'll definitely see some overlap in terms of graphics, storyline and even some characters between the two releases.
Ikachan casts you as the titular squid-like creature. When the game begins you wake up in a cavern with no idea of who you are or what you're supposed to be doing — sound familiar? By exploring and speaking with friendly sea creatures you'll come to learn, piece by piece, exactly what's happening here, and what you'll need to do to help.
The narrative style is similar to Cave Story's, as the plot is never exactly spelled out for you. You'll learn tidbits here and there, and get given guidance on what you need to accomplish next, but the player will have to fill in a lot of blanks and assemble the pieces separately in order to gain a complete picture of what's happened here. For those who enjoyed that sort of passive narrative approach in Cave Story, this is a shorter but still rich attempt at the same. For those who were frustrated or confused by it, don't expect much different of Ikachan.
In fact to say anything about the story would be to spoil at least some of it, as the experience itself is incredibly short; we therefore wouldn't want to rob you of any of the possibility for discovery. Front to back the adventure lasted, for us, exactly one hour. That involved a lot of backtracking and level grinding as we had no idea what to expect, and we're sure that foreknowledge could reduce the playtime down to around thirty minutes, without rushing.
This abbreviated runtime is Ikachan's biggest drawback, but it's not its only one. Great concepts and big potential lie almost entirely untapped, as you guide Ikachan around and around a very tiny map, chatting repeatedly with the same NPCs, until the game's one and only boss fight occurs and the game ends. We don't mind short gaming experiences here at Nintendo Life, but we tend to enjoy the ones that offer something memorable. Ikachan comes close, but doesn't quite accomplish that.
Ikachan controls understandably for a squid; he can only propel himself in the way his head is pointing, and he cannot point downward. A press of the A button causes him to swim slightly in that direction, and pressing nothing causes Ikachan to sink down. As you explore the teeny tiny map you'll encounter bizarre structures that award you with upgrades, a la Metroid. However there are only a handful of these, and none of them get the chance to shine before the game so abruptly ends.
You'll need to avoid spikes and aggressive sea creatures until you find the upgrade that allows you to attack them by swimming into them. Once you do you can kill them for experience points, and earning enough experience will give you a higher level, which increases your attack power and health. This lends an RPG-element to the game, but again it doesn't really get the chance to be enjoyed, as we beat the game with a measly level 5 character, and that included a lot of grinding that turned out to be unnecessary.
Graphically it all looks nice, though the 3D effect contributes nothing except placing a nice backdrop further into the distance. It implies a scope and depth to the game world that the game itself doesn't quite support, with its small amount of cramped rooms and corridors. The music is understandably great, but the fact that one single song plays through nearly the entire experience hinders enjoyment a bit.
Ikachan is not a bad game, but there's very little to recommend it apart from its pedigree and connection to Cave Story. There's not much to explore, no real challenge, and no reason whatsoever to come back. It introduces concepts that depart almost immediately, and does not provide optional objectives, and its lone boss fight is criminally easy. It may be worth taking a dip, but don't expect much depth.