Treasure’s beloved arcade shoot-’em-up Ikaruga has made its way onto yet another generation of consoles. Ikaruga is widely believed to be one of the genre’s greatest, and rightfully so. The Nintendo Switch version of Ikaruga is more of the same, and if you’ve ever experienced this title before, you know that is a good thing. If you have not yet tried Ikaruga, the Switch-specific version offers portability and an optional vertical-screen mode to take advantage of the hardware and create what many will see as the definitive Ikaruga experience.
Not everything is always black and white, except for when it comes to Ikaruga. Even if you have not played Ikaruga before, you may be familiar with the game’s famous polarity-switching mechanic. Polarities are important to the game, as they dictate strategy and what can and cannot hurt you. Your ship can change polarities to be either black or white. All enemy ships are black or white. Black ships fire black bullets, white ships fire white bullets. When the player ship is white, it absorbs white bullets, is vulnerable to black bullets, and does double damage to black ships. When the player ship is black, it absorbs black bullets, is vulnerable to white bullets, and does double damage to white ships. Absorbed bullets can be released in a massive energy burst at any time. Switching polarities is easily done with the press of the button, enabling players to survive dangerous maneuvers through bullet-fields interwoven with never-ending streams of white and black projectiles.
The relatively simple rules governing gameplay make for an incredibly unique shmup. Polarity-switching, which is easy to learn but hard to master, leaves the player with a constant risk-versus-reward assessment in their heads. Will you play it safe by using the same polarity as most of your enemies, or will you put yourself in danger while using the opposite polarity to deal more damage, get more points, and shred through more enemies? Different modes and difficulty levels also take advantage of polarity; Prototype Mode, for example, limits your ammunition so that you can only fire the bullets you absorb in combat. Difficulty, meanwhile, is controlled by adjusting whether or not and how enemies fire at you upon their death. On easy mode, no downed enemies will shoot at you. On normal, enemies the same color as you will use their last moments to fire back, which only poses an issue if you switch polarities at the wrong time. On hard, as you may have guessed, any enemy you destroy will send out a last desperate flurry of bullets as they head to their grave, necessitating quick back-and-forth polarity swaps.
In summary, polarity-switching makes for a wonderfully simple yet effective hook. As a result, Ikaruga is incredibly addictive. Despite having already spent plenty of hours of my life on this game while growing up the GameCube version, I found myself coming back to Ikaruga on the Switch again and again and again. A “just one more run” mentality is absolutely present here. I was always eager to play again, no matter how many times the game chewed me up and spat me out–and, believe me, Ikaruga will do exactly that, many, many times.
One of Ikaruga’s most famous traits, aside from polarity-swapping, is its difficulty. At only five chapters long, it is a short game, but it is still a massive accomplishment to even make it to chapter five in the first place. While a successful run can be completed in under an hour, it will likely take new players several hours to become accustomed to the game’s difficulty before they stand a chance at completing the game. If players are too intimidated by the difficulty, they can make things easier on themselves by adding continues and easing extra life requirements.
The difficulty is unforgiving, but is hardly unfair, as it heavily revolves around mastering polarity-switching. Once polarities start to work for you, once-dizzying enemy attacks become opportunities to charge up and earn high scores, making every personal best feel immensely rewarding. Players go from timid pilots to aerial aces, dodging and absorbing bullets as they switch between black and white on a dime. The backdrop provided by the fantastically epic score feels more and more appropriate as players become more and more experienced.
Ikaruga is incredibly challenging, but even if you manage to beat it, there is still incentive to replay the game again and again, mainly if you are into chasing high scores and rankings. To get high scores, you will need to master the game’s chain system (consecutively downing three same-polarity ships will yield a chain, doing so multiple times in a row builds the chain with a generous score-multiplayer). Then, you can take on the world. The online leaderboards, for example, compare your scores to your friends along with every other Ikaruga Switch player in the world, and can lead to some high-pressure and competitive runs as you strive to improve your score and rank. I experienced this firsthand earlier this week, when after several failed runs, I was able to temporarily push my score to number one in the world (this was when only about forty people had ever played the Switch version of the game, but still, let me have my moment). Aside from leaderboards, individual chapter scores are assigned rankings on the typical C through S scale. You can also experiment with the aforementioned higher difficulties, Prototype Mode, and co-op.
Ikaruga is available on a few systems other than the Switch, but some Switch-specific features make a compelling argument for playing on Nintendo’s system. Most notably, the Switch version offers a vertical display option for handheld mode, resulting in a faithful representation of the arcade display. Ikaruga can also be played in standard handheld mode, and while the display is somewhat small, it is perfectly functional and is the best way to play Ikaruga on a portable. Furthermore, the Switch’s accessibility makes it easier than ever to take advantage of the game’s co-op mode, which is not a major draw but is still fairly fun. Finally, the Switch version comes with new, active leaderboards that will be competitive for as long as Ikaruga has a Switch playerbase.
As it always has been, Ikaruga is a must-play for anyone even remotely interested in shoot ‘em ups. Truthfully, its budget price and extreme quality make it a worthwhile foray into the genre even for those who have never been interested in shmups. The difficulty is daunting, but does not detract from the rewarding experience, and polarity-switching makes for a unique and addictive experience. Slowly getting a feel for the intricacies of this game is a blast, making it easy to see why Ikaruga is so well-revered by those who have played it. The Switch version of Ikaruga is the same cult classic that fans know and love, this time with a few new handheld options making it possible to take the game with you for the first time ever. If you have played Ikaruga before, and you like portable gaming, I should not need to tell you that the Switch version is well worth it. If you have never played Ikaruga, you have made a grave mistake that fortunately can and should be immediately corrected. Play this game.
Andrew Rockett mainly handles news and reviews. He has has been gaming for about as long as he’s been alive. Originally raised on Nintendo, Andrew is now a proud owner of every major console. You can follow him on Twitter @habitablestorm3, where he tweets about the numerous old games he loves to spend time with.