As modern gamers, we've evolved into a sort of ravenous, wasteful species of creature I'm not sure I'm comfortable with. We chomp through games like we're fighting to get to the other side of something; licking the frosting out of our Oreos and pitching what's left out the window so we can get to the Chips Ahoy.
I'm as guilty of it as anyone else, if not moreso for being a gaming journalist. Approach the buffet, take one of everything so you can say you know what it tastes like, and slide your tray down the line. This isn't always the case, but sometimes it can't be helped. However, there comes a time when you run into something so delicious, so fascinating, that you can't stop going back for more. You become addicted to it. Obsessed with it.
Many of us have one. A cherished, shining favorite that towers above everything else in our game collection. I found mine about six years ago, and it was Treasure's most infamous vertical shooter, Ikaruga. If you'll join me after the jump, I'd like to explain to you why that is, and hopefully encourage you to take a closer look at some of your own favorites.
[Disclaimer: This post is intended for those of you who might be interested in playing Ikaruga when it finally becomes available on XBLA. I thought you might like a closer look at the game, from someone who knows quite a bit about it. If you're not one of those people, I assure you that long post is long and I don't want to hear any crap about it. Thank you.]
1. The backstory
Let it be known that I'm a sucker for a good metaphor. Anything that exists in a story to represent something else gets me every time, and often adds so much to a story or a game that it becomes something far more. Ikaruga is a prime example of this, and that's exactly the way it was intended.
The game's director, Hiroshi Iuchi, has stated that he meant for Ikaruga to hold a much deeper, more spiritual meaning than what appears on its surface. The game is rich with Buddhist symbolism, as evidenced by everything from the names of the Five chapters (Ideal, Trial, Faith, Reality, and Metempsychosis, suggesting mankind's path toward enlightenment,) to the names of different craft found in the game.
The Sword of Acala, the craft which launches your ship at the beginning of the game, is named for the Buddhist religious figure Acala, "The immovable one," whose purpose was to destroy delusion and stand strong in the face of temptation, aiding mankind in remaining focused while reaching for his goals. The scene of the sword launching Shinra into battle at the beginning of the game is strengthened by this metaphor.
The name of the ship itself, Ikaruga, means "spotted bird," and as the ship is meant to represent the human soul, this name (along wih the game's polarity mechanic) is thought to have been chosen to represent mankind's capacity for both good an evil, agression and pacifism, and his choices on when to use one or the other in order to reach his destination.
The entire game is a lesson in duality; a complex intertwining of Yin and Yang from beginning to end. Everything you see can be taken to mean something more, such as in the case of the Chapter 2 boss, whose weak points can only be reached by firing bullets of the same polarity into the covers which hide them, before you quickly switch and deliver your assault. This can be interpereted as showing kindness to another in order to open their heart, leaving them exposed and in danger of incredible pain if you should turn on them. I didn't say the metaphors were always nice, I'm just pointing them out to you.
4. The point
Ikaruga is much more than a tough shmup, and worth exponentially more than its face value. It's a glowing example of what video games used to be, and should be. Aaron Linde touched on this point in his Real men play Gradius article, (which remains my favorite piece to ever grace the pages of Destructoid to this day, and probably inspired what you're reading now, to some degree. Stop looking at me like that, Linde) and I'd like to reiterate it here. Games should be fun to play, not just fun to beat.
We sometimes rush through our games, trying to suck out as much as we can, as fast as we can, leaving what's left in our wake as we charge on toward the next big thing. Ikaruga, like most good shmups, doesn't permit you to do that. It takes study, practice, and skill to be any good at, and the fun of it is right there with you the whole time, regardless of whether you'll ever complete it or not.
I have an almost unhealthy passion for vertical shooters that started at the age of four, when I first stood on a milk crate at my local 7-eleven to play Galaga. It's a passion that carried on from there through Ikaruga's spiritual predecesor, Radiant Silvergun and beyond. I love metaphors. I love the concept of duality. I love the beautiful Japanese design seen in the game's stunning visuals. Simply put, Ikaruga strikes too many of my pressure points in one shot for it not to have become my favorite game.
For a vertical shooter developed by a small, four-person team, it's pretty remarkable how much there is to love about it. I could easily go on for another ten paragraphs, but there's a good chance you haven't even read this far. If you have, I'd just like you to know that It's much more than a game to me. I know that i will play it for as long as my thumbs still function, and I hope that you find a game that you'll love that much someday, if you haven't already.
I also hope that you'll think about some of the things I've mentioned if you play it when its updated version is released for XBLA soon.