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Jonzor's Video Game Reviews (41)

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Batman: Arkham Knight 4.5/5
Magicka 4/5
Bravely Default 4/5
Awesomenauts 4/5
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon 4/5
Far Cry 3 4/5
Halo: Combat Evolved An... 4/5
Crysis Warhead 4.5/5
Crysis 4.5/5
Final Fantasy: The 4 He... 1.5/5
The Legend of Zelda: A ... 4.5/5
Borderlands 2 4/5
Final Fight 3/5
Command & Conquer 4: Ti... 1.5/5
Resident Evil: Revelati... 3.5/5
Bastion 4/5
Defense Grid: The Awake... 4.5/5
Borderlands 4/5
Mass Effect 3 4.5/5
Mass Effect 2 4.5/5
Mass Effect 4/5
Batman: Arkham Asylum 4.5/5
Ikaruga 4/5
The Legend of Zelda: Oc... 5/5
Mario Kart: Double Dash... 4.5/5

Next 16
 

Ikaruga   GameCube 

Yeah, I said it: Episode IX    4/5 stars

The 2D shooter (frequently nicknamed “shmup”) is one of the oldest genres in existence, and for good reason. It was a perfect mixture of easy to understand (don’t get shot by the lasers, shoot anything that moves), easy to build, and easy to STEAL MONEY FROM PEOPLE IN ARCADES.

“Okay, so here’s the plan. A quarter buys you three lives. We make a game that’s impossibly hard (but technically beatable if you’re some kind of savant) so that people will play briefly, die quickly, and then put MORE quarters into the machine. Sound good?”

It was perfect for the arcade. People at the mall wander in randomly because, well, it was either that or going to shop for earrings with their girlfriend. They see a game that seems simple enough to become instantly appealing and has all sorts of flashy lights to seem entertaining. Plop 25 cents into the machine and away you fly in your futuristic prototype spacecraft as humanity’s last hope. Then you die quickly because the entire screen is filled with stuff you have to constantly dodge and it only takes one hit to wipe you out. You wander off and don’t bother to warn the next hapless chump you see make a beeline for the machine. Easy money and high turnover.

The genre hasn’t aged much over the years. The gaming community doesn’t seem to be in a rush to hold it to the same standards of innovation that the rest of the industry is held to, and let’s be honest, there’s a reason. The genre really only works as a delivery system for hardship and a yardstick to measure your memorization, reflexes, and patience against other gamers. If you’ve got a story to tell or a graphics engine to show off, no one is going to use a 2D shooter. If you’ve got a single, fairly simple gameplay mechanic, however, this may be the genre for you.

Just look at the history of 2D shooters and you’ll see the formula of “standard 2D shooter template + one idea = new game”. Galaga had the idea to take your captured ship and steal it back, doubling your firepower. Space Invaders had the destructible cover you could hide behind. R-Type had the Force (not that “Force”) power up.

Ikaruga is no different. Our gameplay mechanic this time around is “absorbing enemy weapons fire”. If this game was a war movie, there would have been a scene where all the baddies were being deployed, and in that scene would be at least one of those shots where you see the stack of rifles as each guy runs by and picks one up. Well, in Ikaruga, there were two lines of bad guys at the start of the war. The guys in one line picked up the white guns, and the other guys picked up the black guns. Some, really important guys picked up both guns. Each enemy then fires at your ship with either the white bullets or the black ones.

You can be invincible to one of these weapons at a time. Switching which polarity of enemy fire to be impervious to on the fly in the middle of a fight with the single press of a button is central to the gameplay. But, though you’re safe against white bullets when your shield is white, you can also switch to the opposing color to deal double damage to enemies. This makes every moment of Ikaruga a tense battle between paying attention to what the enemies are doing and also trying to dish out some gunfire of your own.

It’s a wonderfully simple game to explain. You move with this, shoot with this, switch polarity with this, and this uses your special weapon. Ikaruga is great.

Ikaruga is also HARD.

If you’ve played Ikaruga, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t played Ikaruga, but have played 2D shooters before, you THINK you know what I’m talking about.

It starts out easy enough. Enemies (usually very clearly marked as “I’m going to fire white/I’m going for fire black”) fly in Galaga-style, take a few pot-shots, which you’ll either dodge or absorb with your shield, and fly away if you’ve not claimed their life. But somewhere around the 1st level, it starts to get more complicated than that. You start seeing waves after waves of enemy fire. It fills the screen, leaving no dead space for you to fly to, do a nice, safe shield-switch, and then get back to work. The game will soon be granting you nothing but a few pixels here and there to make your switches.

I don’t know about everyone else, but one of the hardest things to do in video games (I’ve always thought) was the “maneuver through this narrow corridor with instant death on either side” gag. Falling down shafts lined with spikes in Mega Man, piloting the Vic Viper through tunnels, where grazing one side amounts to a “crash”, or doing that one level in Battletoads where you have to run/fall down that huge pit to defuse bombs with the giant rat chasing you.

You thought I was going to say the speeder bike level, didn’t you? Ha! That level is for schoolgirls.

Well, Ikaruga eventually turns into an entire game of “fly through this narrow corridor,” where the enemy fire you can absorb is the corridor, the fire you can’t absorb is the walls/spikes, and with the added challenge of having to time your shield-switches. There are other challenges, as well, like actual walls to crash into. Some enemies have extremely powerful weapons that, as you absorb their fire, will push your ship around, making it even harder to evade danger. The biggest (and most fiendish) additional challenge is enemies that launch suicide bullets upon their death. Changing the difficulty alters this mechanic from shooting no bullets on easy, to shooting bullets of their same polarity on normal, and lastly to shooting OPPOSITELY charged bullets on hard. That’s right, you throw up your white shield to protect you from the fire of a white enemy, and when you kill him, black bullets fly out of the resulting explosion. This game was made by people who want your ship dead.

Your only other allies in this fight are your special weapon and 2nd player, if you so choose. The special weapon is a homing canon that gains a charge as you absorb fire. You can fire this canon at any time with the press of a button, and whatever stored energy you have will be released. Some parts of the game are made much easier by daring to park your ship directly in heavy fire and just hammering the special buttons repeatedly.

Taking a friend along for the ride is a blessing and a curse. Suicide bullets now become more problematic as you not only have to dodge your own kills, but now your partner’s kills... and who knows what his shield will be when the bullets are released. Tight spaces (and I do mean TIGHT) are made more complicated by two ships that can and will push and shove each other into walls. But still, having the extra firepower comes in awfully handy.

The graphics in Ikaruga are a pretty interesting. Everything is clearly discernible, from what color you’re about to be killed by, to what solid objects you need to avoid. The game is 2D, but everything is fully rendered in 3D, and looks fantastic. The art design has a quirky, gritty, industrial feel to it’s sci-fi foundation, like the paint on the entire world started to chip about three years ago and things are starting to rust. The framerate is consistent (incredibly important in a shooter) except for the slowdown occurring upon the death of bosses. And believe me, you’ll enjoy that extra time to savor the flavor of their death. The slowdown was probably even intentional there. It can be played as a “flying up” shooter, or the screen can be rotated in the options to allow you to play it flying to the right. I just could never get the hang of going to the right; it’s probably genetic, like whether or not you can taste litmus paper.

Like all good 2D shooters, there’s a persistent scoreboard to assign your feats of luck and skill a numerical value and rank them. This scoreboard is designed for people who have somehow mastered survival and are ready for the final game mechanic, useful ONLY for scoring points. When killing enemies, killing three in a row all of one color grants you bonus points. Kill three MORE of an identical color (but it doesn’t have to be the same color as the first three) and you get a bigger bonus. The longer you keep killing in threes, the bigger the bonuses get. I managed to get through the entire first level on normal without breaking the chain and I nearly went to a trophy shop and bought myself a plaque. That’s just the first level, mind you. there are videos of people playing the entire game without breaking a chain.

And there ARE videos. They are the saving grace of this game, and the thing that will turn the game from Satanic self-flagellation into a thing of beauty. The game disk has unlockable videos to demonstrate for you every segment of every level in the game, and suddenly, you’ll understand. Seeing the game played properly is like watching an orchestra being conducted. You’ll see rhythm and pattern and logic where before you just saw waves of death. It’s still hard, insanely hard to recreate on your own, and do it consistently, but the point is that you’ll see it. You’re not just watching a video to see “that” someone has done it. Seeing the videos truly shows you the “how”. And suddenly you’ll wonder how you didn’t see the pattern all along.

Not since Tetris has the gulf between “easy to learn” and “difficult to master” been so wide in a game as it is in Ikaruga.

Yeah, I said it.

 

 


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