If you have 800 Microsoft Points (US $10), set them aside. If you don't, go buy some. Ikaruga has finally made its way to Xbox Live Arcade. The classic Dreamcast and GameCube arcade shooter has landed on the service with more features and a cheaper price than ever before and you want to download it. Even if this is the first you're ever hearing of Ikaruga, you want to download it. You just didn't know it yet.
There are just five stages in Ikaruga, but getting through them all takes some serious skill. It's an old-school shooter, so it demands perfection and memorization to go from start to finish. The enemy patterns are fantastic and complex with many that look impossible to beat at first glance. It's tough and you'll die a lot when you first start. But you'll keep playing, desperate for improvement as the evening turns into night and you find yourself missing sleep.
Survival alone isn't enough. To truly excel at Ikaruga requires a mastery of the polarity system and a lot of practice. There are two colors of enemies and you can switch your polarity at any time to match them. White bullets can't hurt you while you're white and likewise for black. Instead, the ship absorbs the attacks which can later be unleashed in a bomb. In this way it becomes possible to survive even as the majority of the screen is covered in an unending stream of bullets. The polarity works in your favor offensively as well. Opposite colored attacks do more damage on the ships you're trying to take down.
And then you get to worry about what order to attack the oncoming ships. High scores can only be had by chaining together attacks on like-colored enemies in groups of three. If you hadn't memorized the attack patterns precisely to survive, you'll have to do it for a high score.
Despite the predetermined enemy patterns, it always feels like there is room for improvement on the player's end. On the flip side, the extreme challenge can be a bit of a deterrent for casual gamers. The difficulty rapidly ratchets up to levels of intensity that command total concentration and it can be a bit much for people looking for something to mess around with every now and again.
There is now Xbox Live co-op.Treasure could have settled for a quick port and most would still fawn over Ikaruga. Seeing as how many have paid luxury prices to track down one of the limited copies on GameCube or import the game on Dreamcast, the 800 Microsoft Point price tag alone would be enough for many to see this as a steal. Thankfully, Treasure didn't follow that train of thought. Though the game is still a vertical shooter that leaves a heck of a lot of screen space wasted on a widescreen TV and looks largely the same as it did years ago, improvements have been made to take advantage of its new home.
Leaderboards are now built into the game for you to see exactly how much better some people are. You can even download saved recordings of the best players to see how they did it. You can save your own as well, but if you're like me they're not much to brag about. There's online, offline, and system link co-op as well, and in my experience it runs without any noticeable lag. It's also my experience that a second ship on screen can be a bit much and Ikaruga is best as a solo game, but the option is there if you want it. And of course, the game can be customized from button configuration to the positioning of different parts of the heads-up-display to how you want to rotate the display on your screen (for those of you with TV that can swivel vertically).
There may not ever be a better 2D shooter on Xbox Live Arcade. Ikaruga is that good. The only downside to the game is exactly what makes it so compelling for most; the challenge. Casual gamers may find themselves overwhelmed and unable to scratch the surface of this classic. That would be a shame, though, as this is easily one of the best titles on the Live Arcade.