Like bathing in a pool of videogame nostalgia richer than most of the games you pine for.
It's with no tiny degree of irony that I announce that Ikachan on the 3DS is the best game I've played all year. However, it's with no sarcasm that I can say I expect it to be one of my favorite gaming experiences this year.
Ikachan was developed by Daisuke Amaya (who works under the art name "Pixel") at a point during the development of Cave Story. While working on Cave Story, he felt he needed to get more game authoring experience under his belt before he finished it—the resulting game is Ikachan, an elegant exercise in game development.
Ikachan places you in the role of a squid ("ika" is Japanese for squid, and "-chan" is the name modifier used for small children or to denote cute affection; making a common translation "Squidie") who wakes at the bottom of the sea in a series of caves. As you move through the caves, the story unfolds through Sea Urchin NPCs who give you information about the environment and quests.
The game is designed to unfold Metroid-style—your first item is a pointy hat that lets you attack enemies and bust through breakable blocks—and as you fulfill objectives, you'll find more power-ups to unlock the larger cave system. It also has a basic RPG leveling system, with some enemies too tough to damage until ikachan is sufficiently leveled up. It's not a terribly difficult game, but I did die several times during the boss fights, making me glad for the well-placed save-clamshells.
When asked about the game by some friends who play games more casually, I described it as being "like if you played as one of the squids in Super Mario Bros." It and the Metroid comparison are not for nothing—Ikachan has a pixel art style and tile set that give it a look that would be comfortable sitting next to the best games on the NES. On the 3DS, even the 3D effect has a nice, retro, advanced-diorama feel that fits the game well.
Ikachan is a game that reminds me of Portal, in that it provides a great argument for brevity in making the length of a game match the need of design. Ikachan is short and can be completed in 2-3 hours. However, nothing in that 2-3 hours is wasted; and it's able to tell a complete story in that time. It's like someone making a case for a short form for games, like the gaming equivalent of a short story filmic short; a well-produced, well-designed piece of entertainment that is brief and to the point.
Part of that point may have something to do with nostalgia. Where there are triple-A franchises being revived, with modern game bloat, from the 8-bit era (Bionic Commando, Splatterhouse) Amaya has taken a different tack, capturing the best part of an era without any of its excesses in a short, self-contained game.
The game has been previously available in a free PC build, but the 3DS version has the benefit of a professional translation and optimization for the 3DS, where the GamePad and buttons feel very much like the old-school NES controller as one plays. Ikachan releases on the Nintendo eShop for 3DS on January 31st and is a good way to throw money at some real independent developers and publishers, if nothing else.