The most legendary of shmup games amongst people who don't self-identify as shmup fans, Ikaruga is now on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008 after seeing release on the GameCube in 2003, the Dreamcast in 2002, and Japanese arcades in 2001.

01 June 2008, 12:00am

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Publisher: Treasure

The most legendary of shmup games amongst people who don’t self-identify as shmup fans, Ikaruga is now on Xbox Live Arcade in 2008 after seeing release on the GameCube in 2003, the Dreamcast in 2002, and Japanese arcades in 2001. So, after seven years of hearing about it, I can finally play the game.

I feel confident anyone reading this has access to Wikipedia, but for those of you too lazy to check that august and well-respected repository of Pokémon trivia or who’re reading this from a workplace that somehow bans Wikipedia access but not access to Viceworld (what the hell do you do for a living?), shmup is short for shoot-‘em-up, and generally refers to top-down games where you pilot a one-hit ship, facing the top of the screen while enemies scroll from the top to the bottom. Think highly evolved Space Invaders. Ikaruga in particular is a bullet hell shmup, which is like a regular shmup except designed by sadists for masochists and with the screen 90% filled with enemy bullets.

Ikaruga is famous for its two-color play gimmick: Enemies are either white or black; they shoot bullets the same color as themselves; and your ship can switch between the two. While you're white your ship is invulnerable to white enemy bullets and does double damage to black enemies, and while black vice versa. This means at any given time the player ship is immune to about half the bullets on the screen, which gives the game designers the excuse they no doubt always wanted to manufacture situations where enemy bullets, in rapidly moving criss-crossing patterns of black and white, cover a full 100% of the screen rather than a measly 90. Ikaruga is hard. You die a lot. It’s only five levels long but I still haven’t beaten the second level without continues (which count as cheating if you’re a shmup fan, or so I have been told), although I have seen the whole game beaten because the Xbox Live Arcade version lets people upload their playthroughs for others to download—the uploaded playthroughs at the top of the leaderboards are objects of beauty and grace.

I find myself admiring Ikaruga even as it often leaves me exclaiming “Oh, come on.” My experience of gaming is enriched by having played it. As a $10 Live Arcade title it’s well worth it, even taking into account Microsoft’s “always sell you more points than you need” shenaniganry. I mentioned above that it’s the most legendary of shmup games among non-shmup fans; I wish I could tell you what shmup fans think of it, but they will not have me in their obscure and mystical cabal. Fortunately I don’t need to, because if you’re not a shmup fan all you need to know is that non-shmup fans tend to love it (or at least hold it in a sense of frightened awe), and if you are a shmup fan you don’t need this review because you already played Ikaruga half a decade ago.

Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Sega

Secret Level, the dudes what made this game, clearly put a lot of thought into making sure you can do everything Iron Man can do. Three ranged weapon slots, two types of melee combat, active defensive countermeasures (two kinds, if you count the rocket-assisted dodge), gunship-style hovering plus jet-powered flight (and easy switching between the two on a whim), grabbing missiles in the air and lobbing them back at whatever fired them… pretty much anything Iron Man does in the movie, and much of what he does in the comics, you can do here. Plus, the suit’s upgradeable, so you can tweak the flight thrusters for power or agility, swap in different sorts of weapons, and choose between balanced armor, or armor of different strengths against explosions or bullets. The game even lets you re-allocate power to different systems on the fly. I haven’t played a lot of games with power sets as robust as Iron Man provides—it's almost as in-depth as a good PC combat flight sim.

As a result of all that robustness though, the controls are complex. I found them clumsy at first. Eventually I got the hang of them, and they became intuitive, but… put it this way: A well-designed game gives the player a set of interesting abilities in an environment tailored for their use. Iron Man has the former but not the latter.

For example: During play, bullet fire exists at a near-constant level. The stealth system (which comes with the strong-against-explosions armor) makes Iron Man difficult to target with bullets for a short time—and because bullet attacks are a constant, rather than occasionally being strong and occasionally weak, there’s really no point during play where a brief burst of strong bullet protection is useful.

Another example: Missiles tend to come in volleys. If you catch the first missile in a volley, you won’t be able to dodge the next one, and the explosion will detonate the one you caught. If you dodge the first missile in a volley, it’ll put you out of range of catching the next one. There’s never an opportunity to make “catch a missile and lob it back” a useful tactic outside of the training mission.

The game provides a theoretically versatile suite of abilities, but never lets you use them in fun ways.

Maybe rent it if you don’t mind never having a chance to use those abilities in cool ways. Otherwise, it’s not even bargain bin material. It’s a shame—this could have been a much better game than it is, if only enemy and environment design had been given as much attention as player character design. Spider-Man 2 did the same thing but everyone loved it because swinging around New York was a blast, even if the combat and story were pants. Unfortunately, that approach didn’t work here.

Platform: Xbox Live Arcade

For the benefit of the zero of you who don’t know what I’m talking about (but I have to write it anyway on the off chance that there’s one), Penny Arcade is a gaming webcomic, or more accurately it’s the gaming webcomic and, in many ways, the webcomic, period. Others came first, but none have been as influential or as consistent. It stars the alter-egos of its writer Jerry “Tycho Brahe” Holkins and its writer-illustrator Michael “Johnathan Gabriel” Krahulik (who is only ever officially credited as the illustrator, though anyone who’s listened to the podcasts knows he contributes situations, characters, and dialogue, which makes him a co-writer in my mind at least).

Aside from nine and a half years of almost totally uninterrupted three-day-per-week updates (of the comic itself and the accompanying newspost by Tycho), they started a charity to donate money and video games to children’s hospitals which has now raised over three million dollars, they started a video game convention that appears to have become the video game convention since E3 died, they broke the news of Jeff Gerstmann getting fired from GameSpot for not giving Kane & Lynch: Dead Men a good enough review (allegedly, though GameSpot’s PR people have a different story, which as Tycho himself points out they would have even if the allegations were true—that’s how corporate PR works), and they once donated ten thousand dollars to the Entertainment Software Association Foundation just to spite Jack Thompson. Remembering that last bit always makes me smile.

Anyway, now they’ve released a video game.

It’s set in the fictional 1920s city of New Arcadia, where various parodies of Lovecraftian cultists lurk and gibber. All the writing is by Tycho, and all the art is in Gabe’s style. It’s a very Penny Arcade Penny Arcade video game. I don’t think it could be more Penny Arcade. The gameplay mostly consists of wandering around several zones collecting items for mini-quests, plus CRPG-style combat. Each character (Tycho, Gabe, and a player-created avatar) has three battle gauges, which fill up one after the other—item, normal attack, special attack. The game also supplies three support characters, who pop in to perform special attacks once their gauges fill. Additionally, a timed L or R trigger pull when an enemy attacks blocks all or part of the enemy damage, and also sometimes provides a free counterattack. It ends up being very attention-grabbing for a CRPG combat system. I can’t help but feel this is a bit of a wasted opportunity—at six hours, I felt like my characters finally had enough combat options and I finally had enough of a grasp of all the required multitasking to really make use of the combat engine, and then the game ended.

So. The visual style is consistently cool, even if one could not exactly call the graphics state-of-the-art. The writing is consistently witty and memorable, especially all the random stuff the game spits at you when you investigate objects around the landscape. The gameplay never gets to be as cool as it could, and would benefit from a better difficulty curve and more length to show off the full potential depth of the system (but hey, there’ll be an episode two). The price tag is $20 worth of Microsoft points, twice as much as most XBLA titles. If you’re a Penny Arcade fan who wants to spend $20 on more of the same writing and art you get free three times per week, this is the game for you.