I once said that the Shoot Em Up genre isn’t usually the place where one would find life-changing experiences. “Usually” being the imperative word. Like with every media, circumstances dictate how much of an impact any given work will have on our lives as much as personal taste. Video games always struck me as a special case. By definition, they are interactive experiences, but it’s rare that gameplay alone can make a title memorable. I love To The Moon, but I’d be lying if I said I was drawn in by its gameplay. Unreal Tournament has phenomenal gunplay, but without my best mates to play with, it's just a fine shooter. Hell, Space Invaders would not have been the phenomenon it was without encouraging competition through high scores. Think about your favorite games and I’m sure a similar pattern will emerge.
So what happens when a game comes around that does stand on its own by gameplay alone? Or better yet, what happens when that gameplay actively reinforces its other aspects, making for an experience that could only ever be a video game? To me, that’s when they transcend the limits of the medium to become works that not only inspire its players but that leave a mark, however small, in society’s zeitgeist. There are very few games I can confidently say meet that criteria: Metal Gear Solid 2, anything by Yoko Taro, and of course, the subject of today’s blog, and my favorite shoot em up, Ikaruga.
Alas, the Ikaruga departs...
Ikaruga had an interesting trajectory. Released in 2001 for the Sega NAOMI line of arcades, this was a self-funded and self-published title by developer Treasure. It was later ported to Dreamcast in 2002, exclusively in Japan. This was a risky move, given that the console had already been discontinued and the shmup genre had become something of a niche. One that ultimately proved to be the right one, as its success both in Japan and overseas as an import made sure the game received an international port to the Gamecube later in 2003, and from there, it took over the world. Its popularity precedes itself. Even amongst those that don’t play shooting games, Ikaruga stands as a point of reference, a shining example of its kind. The reason it broke that barrier is that, for one, it’s a pretty fucking good game. In fact, it might be as close to perfection as we’re ever going to get. A bold claim, I know, but I truly believe that. Ikaruga has a vision and every single byte of it works towards that. There’s not a single element that didn’t need to be there, and together they become more than the sum of their parts.
The other reason Ikaruga became a success is that its message is universal. This is a game about persistence and courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and although you don’t need the story to appreciate the game, I do believe it’s the element that brings it all together. It goes as follows: years before the events of the game, a man named Tenro Horai discovered “The Power of the Gods”, an artifact that granted him unimaginable power. He then led his nation in a global conquest in the name of peace, and soon was opposed by a resistance faction called Tenkaku. However, they were no match for the Horai forces and were all annihilated, save for one man named Shinra. After their defeat, he built a new ship from whatever he could scrap from other fighters and tried one more time. Though not out skilled, he was outclassed by the Eboshidori—the boss of Stage 1—and after being shot down, he crash-landed in a remote village named Ikaruga. The people of that village rescued and nursed him back to health. They aren’t too happy with Horai’s conquest, and after witnessing Shinra’s unwavering determination to fight, they entrust him with a ship of their own design, the Ikaruga, the first of its kind capable of switching between the two energy polarities used by the Horai army. And thus, Shinra departs for one final confrontation. If a second player is present, he is joined by Kagari, a mercenary woman who decided to fight Horai after Shinra spared her life.
It’s a simple setup, but it does tell you everything you need to know, and gives context to your mission. But you won’t find any of that plot playing the game. Like any shmup worth its salt, Ikaruga doesn’t waste your time, so all of that information is reserved for the manual and the unlockable gallery. You select a game mode, the difficulty, and seconds later you’re already flying the eponymous ship (or Ginkei if that’s your thing), while the game’s thesis statement fades away: “I will not die until I achieve something. Even though the ideal is high, I never give in. Therefore, I never die with regrets.” If you’re anything like me, this sentence will burn itself into your mind by the sheer number of times you’ll see it on screen, and what it means is hardly something that needs explaining, but the last part is something that always stood out to me. Ikaruga is full of Engrish in its text—so much that I’m using an alternate translation for the ones you’re seeing here—so it’s kinda easy to assume that they meant “I won’t die with regrets”. But its current “wrong” form always felt right to me, because it kind of implies that there will be multiple deaths, and oh boy, if that isn’t right on the money. From start to finish, Ikaruga doesn’t last more than 20 or so minutes, but to beat it the “legit” way—a.k.a. the 1 credit clear—will take nothing less than dedication, concentration, and persistence. If you’re going for score, you could spend a lifetime and still be finding new ways to improve yourself. This is a perfectly designed game and I do not say that lightly. Super plays of Ikaruga are like poetry in motion, and I can’t help but be in awe every time I watch one.
As the prologue song seamlessly transitions into the Stage 1 theme, the Ikaruga departs from the Sword of Acala, perfectly synchronized with the music. Acala is said to be an immovable being whose sword smites down evil, and whose teachings guide mankind towards the path of Buddha. The game is just rife with Buddhist themes, and it’s part of why its story is so appealing. The beliefs of Buddhism lend themselves perfectly to the genre. The parallels between the Samsara (the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth) and the act of playing shoot em ups is an easy one to draw, as both are about repeating a cycle of suffering in pursuit of something greater. It’s a lot more complicated in the case of the former, but the basic idea applies nicely. Ikaruga’s parallels aren’t subtle, not with the polarity system and the name of its ships, but they are fitting, and as we leave the Sword of Acala behind and the first title card appears, that becomes very apparent.
Ikaruga is divided into five chapters, each a representation of man’s path toward enlightenment. What I love is that this representation goes beyond just the title cards, the stages themselves can be considered an extension of that. Let me explain. We start at Ideal. Comparatively, this is the easiest stage in the game, but you shouldn’t get careless. God knows you’ll probably use a continue here on your first playthrough. The opening text flat out asks, what makes you move. In Shinra’s case, that’s an easy answer: his unbreakable will to defeat the armies of Horai. It’s his life mission, the one thing he would gladly die trying to accomplish. It’s his Ideal and at this point, even though he already failed (twice), he keeps going.
His goal is clear as day in his head, and this is reflected in the gameplay by presenting the simplest and most straightforward stage in the game. Enemies come at predictable or simple patterns, and you’ll have many chances to get yourself acquainted with the polarity system. If you’re scoring, your route is also clear, even if you may lack the execution to pull off a few tricky parts, you know what you must do. Even the boss presents a safe and obvious strategy to deal with it, although you can choose to challenge yourself to yield greater rewards.
With his goal in mind and an unbreakable conviction, we reach Stage 2, Trial. If you make it past Stage 1, this is where you’ll start to run into trouble. Your first go at this stage will feel chaotic, confusing, and maybe even unfair. Patterns become erratic, the screen fills with bullets faster, and chaining feels impossible. Here, the game wants to teach you two things: switching between polarities under pressure is good, and hitting obstacles is bad. This is a brutal stage for newcomers. The first choke point.
But this isn’t meant to discourage you. Chapter 2 wants you to slow down and learn every skill you’ll need to finish the game. It’s not about overcoming this one single ordeal, it’s about becoming strong enough to overcome all of them. More than that it is also about accepting that it doesn’t get any easier from here. Much like in real life, there’s a new obstacle every step of the way. Accepting that and steeling yourself for the challenge is part of the process. But if you can overcome this chapter, then you are more than ready.
Chapter 3, Faith, is all about putting you in a confined space. It’s pretty much a corridor full of obstacles. Here, knowing how to move is more important than knowing how to shoot. You have a limited field from start to finish, walls move in to force you into narrow passages, and enemies can come from the bottom of the screen, making it impossible for you to hug that. It’s at this point that one might start to have second thoughts. Maybe make excuses like “if only I was faster I could’ve dodged that”. Doubt starts to creep in, and your conviction starts to waver.
But Ikaruga is here to tell you that’s bullshit. You already have everything you need to succeed. This stage also reminds me of the idea of the Noble Eightfold Path, the set of rules and practices that lead to Enlightenment. Or it can also represent how after finding your ideal, you’re locked in a path that can sometimes feel suffocating. You just need to have Faith, and the courage to act.
Finally, we arrive at Reality, the place where dreams come to die. By far the hardest stage of the game, this is where Ikaruga throws everything it has at you. The entire chapter consists of a single, multi-stage fight against the Misago, a massive satellite looking battle station. If you’re on a 1CC run, this is where it ends my friend. The constant laser barrage from the Misago, the moving obstacles in your way, the many popcorn enemies, none of this is new by itself, but that combination along with the very confined space you’ll find yourself make this the place where Ikaruga ends you, and it’s only fitting, right? Reality always gets in the way of a dream. It’s where we struggle and fail. It’s here, in the face of unreasonable burdens, that one has to prove the worth of their ideals, and the true extent of their will. To fail time and time again, but moving on nonetheless because that’s the right thing to do.
After experiencing Reality, it is not uncommon for most to give up. Some might go back and try again, or move on to other games. But for those that stick with Ikaruga, they will eventually find the answer and reach the final chapter: Metempsychosis. The migration of the soul, or Reincarnation (the Japanese kanji literally spells that in the title card), and the final steps of the journey. After what you've been through in Chapter 4, this one is a victory lap. 99% of the enemies come in white polarity, so it’s easy to rack up a giant chain and maybe even get an extra life. There are no obstacles and very quickly, you’ll reach the final boss: Tageri, piloted by Horai himself. This is another boss with multiple phases, and like Misago, it also likes to fill the screen with shots of both colors. However, this time the patterns are much clearer, even if it doesn’t feel like that at first. His third and final phase is a battle of attrition: he’ll fire homing shots at you (identical to the ones you’ve been using the whole game), then change polarity and repeat. All of that while still filling the screen with regular shots, and this all repeats at a progressively faster rate. At this point, there’s no need to think too hard. You’ve come this far, so just clear your mind, feel the rhythm, and keep returning every shot at the boss.
But you’re not done yet. As Tageri is destroyed, one last enemy reveals itself. “The Power of the Gods," an artifact all too familiar to fans of Radiant Silvergun: The Stone-Like. That’s right, this was an actual sequel all along! I’ve been told “Stone-Like” is a somewhat adapted translation of “The Immovable Object”, but I can’t verify its veracity. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Ikaruga has a musical leitmotif throughout its entire soundtrack. Here, that motif is at its strongest, by replaying it exactly as you heard in Stage 1. This type of bookending isn’t uncommon by any means, but for a game like Ikaruga, it just feels right. Here, at the cusp of victory, Ikaruga wants you to remember who you were when you first envisioned your ideal, how impossible and out of reach, it must’ve once felt. To see how far you’ve come and to know that your actions made it possible. This effect is somewhat lost if you’re using continues, but I argue that just the fact you’re still trying, is good enough.
This final battle is a repeat of Silvergun’s: you cannot fire at the boss. You can only survive. It’s the last ordeal, the final obstacle, the last test of your will, and probably the most frustrating of them all. Since you can’t fire, there’s no way to speed up the boss, you just gotta take the blows, dodging its erratic patterns and trying not to let your nerves get the better of you. And after 60 seconds that feel like an eternity, the game tallies your final score as Ikaruga releases its limiter and fires a massive barrage of all the energy you just stored back at the boss, destroying itself but also taking out the Stone-Like. Shinra dies, just moments before his goal is accomplished. The credits start to roll, and we see a flock of Japanese grosbeaks—the ikaruga—flying over the mountains. It’s a bittersweet ending, and we don’t get to see the aftermath of Shinra’s victory, but we don’t need to. He broke the eternal cycle that started in Radiant Silvergun, freeing humanity once and for all. He died without regrets. “And life is succeeded into the distant future.” I won’t lie, this still makes me tear up.
This is what peak performance looks like...
Ikaruga is a special game. It looks unassuming at first glance, but the more you dig, the more meaning you can extract from it. There’s a reason it keeps getting ported to modern systems: it speaks to the human spirit. If there’s one thing mankind is good at, it’s being resilient and stubborn as fuck, even when it’s not for the best. Ikaruga captures that feeling perfectly. It’s difficult, but not impossible. It guides you but doesn’t hold your hand. More importantly, it’s a game that inspires people. Shinra’s sacrifice isn’t his alone, it’s also ours. We, too, put in the time and effort to get there, suffering defeat after defeat, but conquering it one stage at a time. And victory feels all the sweeter because of it. Like its protagonist, Ikaruga left a mark. One that still echoes to this day.