Upon first release on Sega NAOMI-powered arcades back in 2001, Ikaruga polarised audiences. While it most certainly was a vertical scrolling shmup like one would expect from the spiritual sequel to Radiant Silvergun, it played nothing like it. In fact, it played like no shmup before it and even today few manage to come close to its simple yet brilliant design. With the passing of the years came the cult status, making for many shmup fans the crown jewel of their Dreamcast and/or GameCube collections. 17 long years later it now graces the de facto current generation shmup playground, but does it still shine among the rest of its peers on the Nintendo Switch?
If you missed out on the original release (not surprising considering Treasure’s niche audience, limited retail availability and the fact that shmups were declining in popularity by the early 2000s) know that Ikaruga was produced almost by pure chance. While the team at Treasure was hard at work completing another cult classic, director Hiroshi Iuchi was prototyping a second entry of the Radiant Silvergun series in his spare time. However, instead of simply taking queues from the original game, the most striking design choice was instead lifted from Treasure's platformer Silhouette Mirage: the 'double polarity' system.
At first glance the game presents itself like any other bullet-hell TATE shmup. There are five 'Chapters' to challenge ('Ideal','Trial','Faith','Reality' and 'Metempsychosis') and each is guarded by a big end-of-level boss that loves nothing more than to riddle the screen with bullet patterns. You will immediately realise that both your titular ship and the enemies are either white with a blue glow or black with a dark orange aura. Far beyond outstanding visual aesthetics, this is exactly where the game distinguishes itself from the pack.
Both the Ikaruga and the Ginkei (the second player’s ship) can flip between white or black polarity on command. If your ship is white, your bullets will deal double damage to black polarity enemies and you can absorb and store white polarity bullets to fill up your special attack gauge. You are immune to the aforementioned type but a single hit from any black polarity armament will instantly destroy your ship and cost you a precious life. Hit the polarity switch button and the exact opposite becomes your reality. You will need to master judgement of flipping between white and black according to the action on screen, often having to choose between the safety of a polarity or the risk of its counter-polarity for the sake of double enemy damage. A simple but incredibly hard to master mechanic that truly shines when facing the massive end-of-level bosses.
With your brain being taxed nearly every single second of on-screen action by the polarity system, the controls are thankfully simple. Relying on a three button configuration for ‘fire’, ‘polarity switch’ and ‘unleash energy charge’, with the later unleashing the accumulated energy into stream of homing lasers that will often clear most of baddies on screen and offer a brief respite. You can actually die from both crashing into enemies or pieces of the scenario, so keep that in mind when you’re flicking the right analog stick or the digital D-pad around.
This Nintendo Switch remaster comes with all the ‘quality of life’ updates present on the previous releases. Despite being an incredibly difficult game you can customise your experience to you liking, even play with infinite continues if you wish to see all the game has to offer. However, changing any of the default settings (even enabling the ‘Continue’ option) and the game will not submit your scores on the online leaderboards, so high score chasers will need to stick to the brutal default settings. Advanced players looking for even bigger challenges can attempt to score the largest chains per level (by taking down three enemies of the same polarity in a row to increase the counter) or even configure a single controller to play as both the Ikaruga and Ginkei at the same time. Included in this release is the nearly cruel ‘Prototype’ mode, featuring a gameplay mechanic that was scrapped from the original release: limited regular ammo.
When played in portable mode, the Switch version benefits further from the option to flip the screen orientation and despite still not displaying at full screen (to keep the original game aspect correct), the small area in the bottom does provide a tidy spot to keep score and other counters from the play area. Do not worry if you can’t read the tiny text in portable mode - this too is easily changed in the options menu. Nothing was left to chance by Treasure here.
The game performs exceptionally in both docked and portable modes, going as far as to include the original release’s slowdown when the end-of-level bosses explode. The graphics showcase the same detailed polygonal models and backgrounds from the original game, a lovely showcase of the NAOMI board prowess to throw polygons and lighting effects around. The sound effects are spot on and the epic soundtrack shifts from quiet moments and hectic orchestral beats just as easy as your ship shifts polarity. The passing of time has left both the visual and audio splendor from 17 years ago unscathed.
Despite all of the above praise, what was true in 2001 remains true in 2018: Ikaruga is not a shmup for everyone. If you play this one with the regular carefree approach of other games in the genre you will fair poorly, possibly frustratingly so. The very high difficulty curve means that it remains hard to recommend for the casual player looking for a quick shmup fix. The game still demands a sort of 'brain training' to properly enjoy since it not only requires reflexes but puzzle solving quick decisions to survive the dual polarity mechanics.
Ikaruga is not so highly revered by chance, despite its near accidental creation. It is the result of a combination between an incredibly talented team making the most of excellent hardware, bringing in the unique double polarity gimmick that stealthy introduces puzzle solving mechanics into a bullet hell shmup. So it's no great surprise it not only remains an incredibly compelling experience but it lands smoothly on top of the currently available shmup list on Nintendo’s hybrid console library. Beyond portability what truly drives this version above all others is the possibility of throwing a Joy-Con to a friend for a spot of co-op play anytime, anywhere as easy as your ship switches polarity. The perfect shmup on the perfect system. The old king sits once again in its rightful throne atop the shmup mountain.