Just like when I was ten.

I used to play a lot of top-down shooters. When I was a kid, there was a little smokey room in the back of 7-11, and it always had three or four cabinet games. I remember a lot of them, especially a few that I really liked. One of those was 1941. I guess it isn’t fair to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: all top-down shooters are basically the same. There are some simple variations – bombs, power-ups, even elevation – but basically they were all the same game. This made it pretty easy to go from one to the other, especially if you hadn’t bothered doing crazy things like memorizing enemy attack patterns.

To me, all top-down shooters are 1941. I bought Ikaruga expecting something like that. I read a lot about the whole black-and-white gimmick, but I figured it would be a lot like any other TDS anyway.

Well, yes and no.

It’s clearly a TDS. I’m looking down on the action, I’m moving from bottom to top, it’s scrolling, and I’m shooting up the screen at baddies. I must admit to a certain joy at the feeling of the controller in my hand. Or, better, at the way the on-screen ship responded. The simple 2-D movement was really pleasantly familiar. I couldn’t say exactly why, but it always makes me feel a little like I’m playing air hockey. My ship glides effortlessly across the screen at a uniform velocity. Even when enemy fire pushes me back, it feels like I’m being pushed by a wind or wave, not by jarring fire. That much is familiar.

The black-and-white thing, I will now testify, is no simple gimmick. That’s the heart of this game. That’s what makes this game a twitch as well as a TDS. You don’t need to switch ever few seconds as new opponants appear. You need to switch two or three times a second, sometimes, as you pass through arcing beams of mixed-polarity fire. It’s almost as if this is a much simpler game, posing as a shooter. I suppose, actually, that Ikaruga is the result of the hybridization of a shooter and this simple black-and-white game.

It’s very impressive.

It’s also very, /very/ difficult.

This may be the most difficult game I’ve ever played. I don’t say that lightly. It’s not that I’ve never found a game harder to play. Many games are harder to play because they suck. Ikaruga, though, forces me to expose all my TDS-playing skills; then it laughs on them and tears them to shreds. I am left feeling like a total chump. I don’t know if it’s in me to become good at Ikaruga. This is a game for people who beat Pac Man on one quarter while chugging beer. This is a game for people who use the two-fisted controller scheme in 007. This is a game for people whose ability to Zen a game is such Dogen himself would bow down.

Obviously, I will continue to struggle to reach Level 3. My family honor demands it.

Written on April 18, 2003
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