I love shmups despite never having beaten one. Most videogames go to incredible lengths to inspire a false sense of machismo and bravado in the player. Shmups don't have to do that, they are by their very nature exercises in bravado and what it means to be a hard ass. With the exception of the fighter, no genre places the player's skill on public display quite like a shmup. As much as games have become about narratives and 'plain old fun', watching a skillful shmup player will still elicit admiration and envy from most people. To be sure, there is plenty of elite FPS play, but these skills are only relevant to the players directly involved; the rules of the game are too loose to effectively display the artistry at work to the layman. The shmup's measure of skill isn't relative - it is absolute. Dodging waves and waves of bullets involves doing exactly that, and even though the waves are identical every playthrough, there is no guarantee a player will make it through.
It is this transparency of intention on the game's behalf, as well as the ability to put your skill on display for an audience, that makes the shmup truly great. For a while it looked as if the shmup might have shared the fate of its arcade brethren, but YouTube and Xbox Live reinvigorated the public display of skill that is part of the shmup's lifeblood. People once admired the kid in our neighborhood who held the high score, now they admire the best in the world through the internet. That is the golden carrot Ikaruga's release on Xbox Live dangles in front of players: the chance, however distant, to have our name on that leaderboard.
While most people will never see that sort of glory, everyone can appreciate the singular vision that is Ikaruga. Made by a team of three people, the game is as close to the work of an auteur as this industry allows. While shmups once grew steadily more complex with their addition of options, pods, and all other manner of paraphanelia, Ikaruga is symbolically minimalistic. Its a rebirth for the shooter; a return to the days where the only variable was raw skill. Its visual aesthetic follows this philosophy by utilizing a palatte of aged ivories and aubergines to symbolize light and dark. It is a far cry from the pyrotechnic explosions of its brethren. To see the game in action is to watch the ebb and flow of night and day; an expression of wabi and sabi.
Of course all of this visual scheme is in service of Ikaruga's primary gameplay mechanic - polarity switching. The player's ship can flip between light and dark polarities, in turn allowing it to absorb like colors of bullets. By absorbing these bullets the player also builds the power of his more powerful secondary weapon. Enemies are also weaker to shots opposite their own color. By making the ship's color transient, myriad styles of gameplay emerge. Will the player join the ranks of the famous bullet eaters who clear entire levels only by absorbing the shots of their enemies, or will he take the more conventional route and switch polarities as needed? In this way Ikaruga allows the player to develop a primitive sense of style, a modus operandi that everyone can identify on the Xbox Live replay videos. Its also worth noting that, like most Treasure games, the polarity mechanic acts as a starting point that branches out to all manner of more complicated scoring opportunities, the details of which grow more important if the player wishes to flirt with leaderboard fame.
Ikaruga puts on display, in clear black and white, the interplay between pain and pleasure that all videogames must reckon with. The game's initial moments can be truly daunting as waves of bullets fill the screen and the player fights the instinct to dodge all of them. But this frustration is eventually supplanted by the sense of euphoria and freedom that accompanies the moment the player physically understands a game mechanic. It is the liberation I felt when I finally understood how to move Mario, I knew it when I threw Ryu's first fireball, and I know it yet again when I steer my ship into the wall of ivory colored bullets matching that glowing soul of a ship I control.
Ikaruga is about relishing the frustration of repeated loss and knowing that blame lies only with my slow reflexes and poor memory. It is also about that quiet satisfaction that arrives when the uninitiated walk into the room, see the player navigating their ship through curtains of bullets, and look on with the disbelief and wonder we all had as children, watching those cigarette smoking arcade gods dominate the shmups of yesteryear. Ikaruga is a celebration of hand eye coordination, a love letter to difficulty, and one of the purest expressions of genre this medium has to offer.
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