I have never played a bullet hell, shoot-em-up, “shmup”, whatever. The closest I’ve come was Enter the Gungeon, as my penchant for roguelites allowed me to taste a very simplified version of the genre. When I saw Ikaruga being released for Switch, adapted by the talented team at Nicalis, I thought its “switching” (heh) mechanic would make it an easier first outing than something like Radiant Silvergun. I was very wrong, but I’m glad I was. Ikaruga is considered by many to be one of the hardest games ever made. So there I was, without any experience, trying my best to conquer its intricacies on a time limit for this review. I thought I was toast. At the time of writing this, I’m at the top of the leaderboards.
Ikaruga, the spiritual successor to Radiant Silvergun (which I learned by watching a YouTube documentary) is a technically perfect game in its own right. There are two “polarities” that your ship and enemy bullets can possess: white and red. If your ship is white, you aren’t damaged by white bullets, and vice versa. In fact, you want to be actively running into bullets of your polarity to build your energy, which can be unleashed in the form of brutally powerful homing missiles. You can also move around and shoot your guns. That’s the whole game. Don’t get hit.
I now have to ask myself how this genre has passed me by for so long. I consider Devil Daggers and Nex Machina to be perfect games for the very same simplicity of mechanics and brutal difficulty. Ikaruga is much the same: you will die, you will feel that sections are impossible, and you will overcome them. After around 10 hours I was capable of beating the Chapter 2 boss without having died once. Some readers will scoff at this, but that goes to show how much of a learning curve Ikaruga has. It’s not a gentle ride, as each Chapter is exponentially harder than the last, but learning each stages’ patterns and how best to exploit them is eternally gratifying.
Some have called Ikaruga more of a puzzle game than a shooter. I can attest to this, and I think it may be the game’s only fault. There is very little in the way of improvisation: all stages proceed along the same route, every time. You can know in advance when to move where, when to switch poles, and when to use missiles. That’s not to say there’s no skill involved, because enemy bullet patterns do vary and some techniques are extremely difficult, but experience is everything when it comes to overcoming the challenge laid out before you.
I mentioned leaderboards before, and bragged about being at the top of them (out of like, 30 people). I don’t expect that to last any longer than the nanosecond the game releases publicly. The scoring system in Ikaruga takes advantage of “chaining” together kills. Kill three enemies of the same color in a row and you’ve got yourself a chain. Chaining is the definitive way to score points, but it can seriously hamper your ability to survive. It’s a brilliant way to add more depth to stages players have already mastered, while being an optional choice for those still just trying to not die.
I’ve said many times to many people who couldn’t care less that, no, [game] doesn’t belong on Switch, please stop port begging. Ikaruga does belong on Switch. It belongs on Switch so hard. Playing handheld, I was getting pretty tired of the iPhone-sized field of view on my widescreen display. I took a shot in the dark and looked at the video settings, and there it was. Screen Rotation: Off. I rotated the screen, the game now filling the Switch’s whole display. I propped it up on an iPhone stand and sat back with my Pro Controller, fully contented. The future is now.
As far as the port goes, my super minor complaint is that in Ikaruga, control is everything. Your ship’s hitbox is the size of a quark, but if it touches a wall, bullet, or enemy, you’re done. This means the Pro Controller analog stick has a distinct advantage over the Joycon nub. I found myself accidentally moving up or down, left or right when playing traditionally handheld. The game is perfectly playable with a Joycon, especially if you have a knack for using its D-pad. Maybe I just have dopey thumbs, but for those of you out there who have the ability, my wholehearted recommendation is to flip the display and play with either a D-pad or Pro Controller.
The Switch port of Ikaruga is a beautiful, clean affair. It has all the functionality a game of its type should be expected to have on the system, with its tight gameplay and wonderful mechanics intact. If you’re a Switch owner with a penchant for arcade games or shoot-em-ups, this is an easy recommendation. Just be sure to put on your learning pants if you’re a newcomer: Ikaruga is a difficult beast to wrangle. But it’s an affair polished and addicting enough that I believe almost anyone could find something to love in its madness.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by Nicalis.
If you're a Switch owner with a penchant for arcade games or shoot-em-ups, this is an easy recommendation. Just be sure to put on your learning pants if you're a newcomer: Ikaruga is a difficult beast to wrangle.