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Ikaruga: A Case Study in Old-School

Atari Revives the Joy of 2D Gaming

By Chad Serrant

staff writer


Published by Atari

Made for the Nintendo Gamecube

Rated E for Everyone


The technological leap from 2D to 3D games was volatile. Challenge and clever design were traded for flashy graphics and loose controls. But there are still a few diamonds in the rough that manage to be incredibly challenging, pleasing to the eyes, and well designed. Ikaruga is one of them.

The first hint of Ikaruga's greatness is its developer, Treasure. They have been known for their quirky-yet-successful gameplay. The second hint is the game’s genre: top-down shooter. It’s the classic scenario where one heroic spaceship goes up against a giant robot armada. These games were quite popular back in the day and they were also incredibly difficult. Usually, the enemy would litter the screen with shots and it would be up to the player to dodge everything.

Ikaruga follows this trend but it adds an interesting ingredient to the mix: color. The player’s ship is either light or dark, and it can switch between the two on the fly. The enemies are also either light or dark, and they shoot light or dark bullets. The player can absorb bullets of the same tone as the ship.

This dramatically changes things. In a standard top-down shooter, players are required to avoid every single object on the screen. But in Ikaruga, players only have to avoid half of the objects. This is a good thing, because now the designers have an excuse to throw even more projectiles. Players have to switch colors constantly to safely navigate through enemy territory. Absorbing bullets of the same color also charges up the homing laser, so there are benefits to absorbing shots.

Using the opposite color has its benefits. The player can deal double damage by hitting an enemy ship with its opposite color. This leads to an intricate balance. Play it safe or kill it quickly? The other strategy is chain combos. By destroying three light or three dark enemies in succession, more points are awarded. This technique helps the hardcore rack up huge amounts of points -- and bragging rights -- and it also adds more challenge. Sure, you can beat the game, but can you get the high score?

Atari did a good job publishing Ikaruga in North America. Because the game is a port of an arcade game -- and thus has different dimensions than a standard television -- the game has multiple display modes. The disc also has recorded battles in slow motion. For extras, it has added continues, art galleries, and a bullet eater mode where one must beat the game without firing a single shot. It even has challenge mode, where experts can get a password for their high scores. They can enter the score on the Ikaruga Web site <> and compare it against other players.

The graphics are designed to get the job done, and they do. There aren’t any bad textures or simplistic models, but at the same time, there are not a lot of fancy -- and unnecessary -- special effects. The color scheme for the game works well, as the player can always distinguish light objects from dark objects.

The sound does what it is supposed to do and nothing else. Shots, explosions, and big lasers all sound appropriate. The music is catchy and fits the genre very well.

Ikaruga took an old concept, added one small feature, and the results are pure bliss. This game is what old-school 2D gaming was about. Good gameplay, functional visuals, and a difficult yet satisfying experience. This makes Ikaruga the lost gem of 2D gaming.