Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ikaruga: Practicing Faith

For those of us who've gotten "A"s and "S"s at the end of each chapter of Ikaruga, this one is for you. For those who don't quite understand how to get past that ridiculous symmetrical bullet-dodging section of Chapter 2, this one is for you. For those who haven't gotten into Ikaruga (shame on you and your friends for not getting you into it), this one is especially for you. There's a quality in this game and few others that we've taken for granted. I haven't come across too many games in my time where varying levels of challenge, skill sets, and excitement can all be experienced from the same game without even changing the difficulty or settings. For the sake of simplicity found in Chapter 3: Faith, I'll use the entire chapter as an example of what you may have already forgotten (or soon will be learning).

Chapter 3 contains the longest intro of any chapter, which accounts for it being the most difficult to chain perfectly (Chapter 2 coming in a very close second). There are several pinpoint shots that must be timed accordingly with your position on screen in order to not get crunched by the oncoming enemies... but I think I'm getting ahead of myself. The real joy and pleasure of this game - at least for me - comes from three very distinct moments in realization and accomplishments.

First is becoming aware of polarities and consciously switching to anticipate a future action, whether it be for dodging debris, to absorb bullet fire, or to drain an enemy's health faster. Regardless of your reasons for fine-tuning this ability into the hard-wirings of your brain, there's a moment where you step outside of your body, take a look at yourself, and see how much you've grown adept at switching polarities without having to be told why. You're a shining star in the world - if only for that one moment. This one really only applies to the earlier chapters, as this skill naturally carries over into later levels. The other two are on a chapter-to-chapter basis.

The second moment in memorable Ikaruga milestones is in the feeling of taking down a boss. That doesn't just mean you took down a boss. That means you also successfully understood the majority of what was going on throughout the entire chapter, which is something that does not come on the first try. Even Chapter 1 has its hardships towards the end when two lanes of little guys fall from the middle while two large pods do a ballet about the screen's perimeter, with helpless little you trying to survive the crisscrossing of enemy bullet fire streams. Then there's of course, you know, all of Chapter 4...

The third and most important moment you can possibly have in Treasure's (♥) masterpiece is chaining a level from start to finish. This arrives in varying degrees, from knowing of the chains that should be tackled and how, to actually doing a full chain without losing a life. I don't know about some of you (okay, none of you, so keep in touch), but I never really understood chaining even after being shown the art by a friend. It wasn't until I watched a couple superplays that it at least made sense on paper. It's not until you go in and do it yourself that it'll really click and you'll begin to appreciate the work that was put into this game.

Many other shmups out there have a chaining system of some sort. While they, too, have a strict script of actors that appear on screen, strategically placed for the sake of a specific methodology for chaining, it's never more apparent and satisfying than in Ikaruga. Perhaps it's the simplicity of your firing that allows you to know for sure what it was you just blew up and what's left on screen. Maybe it's your ability to count to three in your head rather than space out your shots hoping that your meter doesn't run low (my fist remains clenched for DoDonPachi).

So let's get back to Chapter 3. Right off the bat, you're presented with a whole screen of dancing foes and these guys that run down the side and turn when at your position in y-coordination notation. Eventually I learned to do some backtracking on the screen in order to fake them out, but the superplay spoke of a different method. Watch the clip below and pay attention to how the double sets of three spinning enemies open up a hole just wide enough for a bullet to get through and destroy all three of the inside ones in a single shot. Also pay attention to how the side guys are tricked into coming for your ship as you lure them in prematurely. Pause at 0:17 and continue reading. We'll take a look at other sections soon enough.

And that's just how you start the intro. The whole screen was cleared, not an enemy was spared, and the chain is unbroken. Gorgeous. Keep in mind that this player is quite flashy with his movements and switches polarity for the sake of collecting a few extra pieces of enemy debris, making his final score a few thousand points higher than the rest of the handful of shmup gods out there who also go for the small details in life. Let's move on.

Below you'll see a section that comes up halfway in the chapter wherein the walls close in, making your area for movement quite tight. As if that isn't enough, gates start closing in on you at staggered positions, requiring you to watch your spacing even further. A series of enemies are found within these tight spaces, not really posing a threat as long as you're constantly firing. Upon the first few playthroughs, they're nothing more than an afterthought. Eventually, once you learn the method for chaining them, the whole sequence is seen in a new light. The formations of their arrival is no mistake, as you must fire a rapid shot at one column, then the other, for shooting straight-on will immediately break the chain. A few spherical stragglers break up the rhythm (our player here releases his homing shot as it yields more points in the long run. That and it's a lot safer than going past the destination hole to single-shot those guys). As for the second set of enemy columns, they may appear similar, but this time they need to be rapidly shot down the middle, as they're now approaching in even-odd formation. Take a look below and then pause at 2:30.

It goes by so quickly, doesn't it? That's probably a good reason why people have such a hard time getting into shmups, but I'll save that thought for another week. In the meantime, let's focus on the next segment. A miniboss appears behind you, rendering your past strategy of hugging the back wall useless (and putting all of your practice in dodgeball down the gutter. Well, at least I hugged the back wall). This forces you up a little bit and closer to a series of closing gates that each have a spherical friend (i.e. foe) waiting in place. Of course we all had enough to worry about, what with the closing gates and big metal thing chasing on our tails, so we just held down the fire button and didn't even worry about those bystanders. Little did we know that we needed to single-shot them all, in order, to achieve a full chain. The genius design of this section is that if you shoot rapidly, your line of fire will skip ahead to an enemy above the closest one, breaking the chain. This requires you to utilize the ability to change rhythms on the fly, weave through gates, stay above the miniboss (which really isn't that daunting. The fear factor is what makes him worth mentioning), and single-shot those suckers right before you have a head-on collision and have to tell Guinness to come back another day to see you hit that world record. Watch below. Then pause at 2:42.

As if that strict set of movements wasn't enough, you also need to remember to move out of the way because that thing that was chasing you before suddenly feels the need to scoot ahead and take control of the situation. Yes, memorization is key in this game, though there's a point at which you stop thinking about what's coming and your mind simply knows. It's hard to explain, but your fingers eventually do all of the thinking, allowing your brain to focus on other things happening on screen. Seriously, I can't be the only one who has a spectator ask, "How did you know to dodge that?" and my only response is, "I'm not too sure... I just knew."

Continuing along, once the miniboss is kaput, a series of seemingly randomly-spawned enemies appear on the screen. And when you shoot one, it only multiplies into two, until the entire screen is filled with a chaotic nonsense of bouncing sphere guys. Well, at least it was random to us at first. There's a very definitive pattern here, and our player below exploits it for all it's worth. He doesn't finish killing them off as this section is just a filler until the boss (or rather, a bonus section as a reward for killing the miniboss earlier than expected. Afterall, the entire game is synced to the soundtrack). Go ahead and watch to the end. We'll discuss the boss battle in a hot second.

Yes, so... a phenomenal performance on the final boss of Chapter 3. Our player's strategy was to weaken the outer units each to the brink of blowing up, then summoning a homing laser that destroys the bulk of them simultaneously. The remainder of them is finished off amongst some mighty angry laser action coming from the core, which is strikingly similar to one of the bosses in Chapter 3 of Treasure's previous shmup, Radiant Silvergun. And speaking of bringing back battles, that miniboss hearkens of another battle from Silvergun wherein you were chasing / being chased by a miniboss. That same battle seemed to evolve yet again in Sin & Punishment. One can only hope these foes make their spiritual reappearance in Project RS3 (or Sin & Punishment 2).

As you've seen (and hopefully experienced), there are quite a few layers of play packed into Ikaruga's deceptively simple design. Strategies change quite a bit once you play on the different difficulties, though the harder it gets, the more you have to achieve. It's design like this that really keeps me entertained, excited, and glad to be a part of the shmup community. Indie developers are constantly finding fresh ways to keep an old genre alive, while a few larger-scale companies out there are still dedicated to providing high-quality adventures in the skies (and seas!) that we've come to love.

And for those of you wondering why I never mentioned the fourth Ikaruga milestone - achieving a one credit full-game completion - I'm still working on that one. I've only been able to get halfway through Chapter 5 on one credit, so some of you may agree that I have a long road ahead :]

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

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