Ikaruga (Switch) review: Path to Enlightenment

Ikaruga is the rare sort of game that comes around once in a generation. It’s famous for its difficulty, even among bullet hell shoot ’em ups—a genre known for being brutal and unforgiving—but it’s so much more than that. It’s not just a game with clever systems and creative level design; it’s a game that finds philosophical depth in the cycle of death and failure that goes hand in hand with shoot ’em ups.

Duality

On the surface, Ikaruga shares a lot with its peers: as the pilot of a futuristic fighter jet, you’re pitted against wave after wave of enemies who tend to flood the screen with bullets. Navigating the maze of gunfire is as much an exercise in rote practice as it is reflexes and strategy, but the process of repeated failure, each one getting you a step closer to victory, as exhilarating.

Where Ikaruga stands out from other shoot ’em ups is with its polarity system. Enemies and their shots all exist in one of two polarities, light (with a white/blue colour scheme) and dark (black/red). You can change the the polarity of your ship at the press of a button, which is crucial to getting through Ikaruga‘s challenges: bullets of a matching polarity can’t hurt you—rather, you absorb them to fill up a special attack gauge—and your own shots do extra damage to enemies of the opposite polarity.

It’s a simple, elegant system that brings a lot of depth to the game. For each individual encounter, there’s a risk/reward assessment to be made: do you take an offensive approach and use the opposite polarity, dealing more damage but forcing you to dodge their fire, or do you defensively match their polarity?

In most cases, you’ll have enemies of both types on screen at once, and that’s where things get even more interesting. Ikaruga adds another layer to the usual bullet hell maze by having shot patterns that would be impossible to get through if not for the bullet-absorbing aspect of your ship. Changing polarity is the only way to create safe passage, and as the patterns get more complex, being able to rapidly shift back and forth, and doing so safely, becomes crucial.

The polarity system alone is enough to make Ikaruga stand out, but it goes a step further with its level design. In most shoot ’em ups, the only threats you face are enemies and the bullets they shoot; in Ikaruga, you also have to navigate mazes of narrow passageways and moving obstacles. You can’t simply shoot your way through, so you have to carefully maneuver around all these hazards, while looking ahead to make sure you’re not about to force yourself into a trap. These segments aren’t free of regular enemies, either, so it all gets beautifully chaotic.

That all makes for an shoot ’em up that’s not quite like any other out there. It has all the usual bullet hell challenges, but with an extra level of strategy in how  you manage polarities, and level design that forces you to think ahead and carefully manage your space. Bosses take that to another extreme. Purely in its game design, Ikaruga is one of the most creative shoot ’em ups ever made.

Trial

It’s also obscenely, brutally difficult. That’s normal for bullet hells, but unlike most others, Ikaruga finds philosophical depth in the process of repeated death and failure as a path to eventual success.

“I will not die until I achieve something. Even though the ideal is high, I never give in. Therefore, I never die with regrets.” Those are the opening words of Ikaruga‘s somewhat abstract narrative, and they set the tone for struggle, focus, sacrifice, and a focus on something bigger than yourself.

That continues through the brief messages that appear at the start of each level. “What makes them go? It is nothing else than the principle of the man who has the reason for being.” “Although you can choose to escape, ‘Trial’ has the message for you to conquer yourself.” “In order to overcome, you need a firm conviction, penetration, and the ability to overcome.”

Even though the ultimate goal in Ikaruga is to complete the game without dying, getting to that point requires a lot practice and failure. But “failure” here isn’t absolute or final; rather, it’s a vital step towards success. This is true of any bullet hell, but Ikaruga really drives home the point.

That is, in some sense, a metaphor for enlightenment as well. Ikaruga plays heavily off Buddhist and Taoist imagery, in everything from the polarity system (yin-yang) to the boss designs. According to developer comments around its original release, all the level names are based on the stages of Buddhist enlightenment, while the spaceship is represents the human soul. I’m not well versed enough in Buddhism to comment on that, but at the very least, that process of trial, death, respawning, and eventual victory reflects the cycle of death, rebirth, and eventual enlightenment.

Meditation

For all this talk of how difficult Ikaruga is, it can also be as easy as you want it to be, for one reason: free play. In the Switch version (and the Steam release before it), there’s an option to play with unlimited continues, and in standard shoot ’em up fashion, continuing just respawns you right where you died, rather than sending you back to a checkpoint. Because of that, no matter how difficult you find the game, you can keep going until you get to the end. In fact, you could plausibly “finish” the game without ever pressing a button other than start—you’d use a lot of continues, but you’d get there.

Importantly, this isn’t just an “easy mode” that takes away the challenge (Ikaruga has Easy/Normal/Hard difficulty settings, but even Easy is still brutal). Given the role that dying and failure plays, something would be lost if you just removed the challenge; free play just removes some of the consequences of that failure. It retains its thematic challenges will casting aside some its mechanical ones, and becomes almost meditative in the process.

The trade off is that you can’t upload high scores if you play with anything other than the default settings. So there’s still incentive to not use free play, over and above the drive to get better. Ikaruga isn’t unique in this setup—it’s pretty standard across most modern ports of bullet hell games—but it’s worth celebrating, because it’s a good way to balance difficulty with accessibility.

Rebirth

The Switch port doesn’t bring anything new to the fold, other than the convenience of having Ikaruga on a portable console. I don’t just mean the portability aspect, either; playing in an arcade-authentic vertical orientation is a lot easier on Switch than with any of the previous ports, because you can simply detach the joycons and prop the tablet up vertically—which is definitely the best way to play.

The Switch version has achievements to earn, but oddly, I can’t find anywhere to actually see a list of them. You get a notification when you earn one, and you can see icons representing your achievements among the UI when you’re paying in horizontal orientation, but there’s no way that I’ve found to actually see the full list and how to earn any missing ones. There’s also no in-game way to read up on the game’s plot; it’s not really touched on in the game itself, but earlier console releases had a plot outline in the manual. With no manual for the download version, there’s no way to read up on the story.

Those are minor concerns, though. Ikaruga is a brilliant game—it’s clever, it’s creative, and it it finds philosophical depth in the bullet hell genre’s infamous difficulty. The Switch port will only give it a new lease on life, and hopefully help it find a few more fans.

Essential


Ikaruga is developed by Treasure and published by Nicalis. The Switch version is due to release on 29 May 2018.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.