Since it released last year, the Nintendo Switch has become home to some amazing shoot ’em ups (shmups). Many retro games have made their way to the platform thanks to the NEO GEO Classics through HAMSTER and the ZERODIV ports. Even some modern games like Sine Mora and Danmaku Unlimited 3 have found a nice home on the platform. Nicalis now brings a true classic to the platform in the form of Ikaruga from Treasure and this is a fantastic version of the classic that has been played by far too few people.
Ikaruga originally released in arcades in Japan before seeing a release on Dreamcast and then GameCube over 15 years ago. It did get a release on both Xbox 360 and Windows later on but hasn’t seen a release on a Nintendo system since the GameCube and completely skipped the PlayStation platforms. Now, the legendary shmup is back on the best platform for the genre (I’ll get into this in a bit). While some shmups do a good job at adding some form of a narrative, it is never the focus. The story here is pretty straightforward. You’re tasked with saving humanity as you pilot a ship with unlimited ammo and a very interesting skill as you try and take down hordes of alien ships and enemies in pure bullet hell mayhem.
Unlike most games in the genre that have you just try and avoid the various enemy bullet patterns while trying to take down the enemy hordes, Ikaruga has a polar shifting mechanism. Your ship colour and the enemy ship colours in addition to bullet colours are very important. You can switch polarity from black to white and the opposite colour bullets do much more damage to enemies. If an enemy fires white bullets, if your ship is currently in that polarity, you absorb the bullets. The opposite polarity is an instant kill for you. This mechanism of shifting while avoiding enemy bullets of the opposite colour and trying to take down various ships and enemies is a fantastic and addictive experience. It isn’t an easy one either but you can begin here by playing on the lower difficulties to get the hang of things. The difficulties change how enemies behave and drastically affect things so I’d recommend starting low and moving up slowly to get the most out of this classic if you’ve never played it before.
As with most games in the genre, the arcade first release makes for a portrait aspect ratio game. If you play on the Switch docked or handheld with the Joy-Cons attached, the actual gameplay is in a vertical rectangle in the middle of the screen. One of the best parts of the Switch release is the ability to play with the screen in TATE mode making for a fantastic handheld game. You can even do this docked if your display can be rotated physically. This really is the best way to experience IKARUGA. Given the release timing for the original game, Ikaruga looks fantastic. The designs are super and there’s a nice gallery to peruse through if you so desire. The Switch port itself runs brilliantly as well even with 2 players together playing with a single Joy-Con each.
The only visual flaw is the fact that the text is a bit too small in certain situations and in the main menu. Another nice aspect of the Switch port is the addition of HD Rumble which is a nice touch in a game like this. On the music side of things, the synth soundtrack is a great complement to the visuals and playing this on portable mode with split Joy-Cons in TATE mode is the definitive Ikaruga experience.
Overall, Ikaruga is an accessible and beautiful experience and one that newcomers and veterans to the genre will enjoy. The Switch version is my favourite version of the game. The only thing I’d like to see going forward from this release is a physical release since Nicalis does some really great ones for games on Switch.