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…of the Decade: The Shmup (Ikaruga)

December 23, 2009

I’ve loved space shooters / shoot ’em ups / shmups / whatever you want to call them for a long time now — probably since it was discovered that the Contra code worked in Life Force, the latter perhaps the best of a good bunch of NES shooters. The 16-bit era cemented that love with games like U.N. Squadron and Gaiares, and I’ve followed and defended the genre ever since.

yes, this is the easy partWhat I’ve never done in all the time I’ve been playing these games, however, is call a shmup “beautiful”, with one notable exception: Ikaruga. Ikaruga is a beautiful game, from its simple-yet-innovative light-vs.-dark gameplay mechanic that allows you, at all times, to absorb a subset of the bullets in the game, to its unobtrusive-yet-epic soundtrack, to the smooth-as-silk graphic style. It’s a shooter that takes its cues from the modern “bullet-hell” style of shmup that delights in throwing millions of things at you at once and daring you to find the on-screen pixel in which you won’t die, but it twists the concept by encouraging you to run into half of those bullets at once.

I owned Ikaruga on the GameCube and I now own it on Xbox Live Arcade, on which I have the privilege of playing it in all its HD glory; I’ve beaten the game (thanks mostly to the ever-expanding arsenal of continues you get as you keep dying), but I’ve never scored an A or better on a level. Despite my long history with the genre, I’m still an amateur, though I can’t remember ever playing a shmup (save perhaps the Sega CD’s Silpheed) that I wanted to come back to over and over again like Ikaruga.

Why would I come back? For the punishment? For the achievements? Well, sure, those two things are fine, but it’s mostly because the true beauty in Ikaruga is in watching a master play. When you find someone who has unraveled the intricacies of Ikaruga‘s gameplay, you realize just how complex and well-designed the game truly is.

The fourth level, really, is the game’s shining moment, a stage in which you hardly travel at all; instead of moving forward, as in most games of this type, you spend your time chipping away at a circular structure as bullets literally rain around you. It looks impossible when you see it; it feels impossible the first time you play it, but somewhere around the 15th time you play it…the pattern clicks. It’s still difficult, but you realize just how navigable it is, if only you take constant advantage of the ability to shift from light to dark and back again.

And then you lose two more lives as you stare at the game in quiet awe. It’s that good.

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