Black and White

I didn’t spend $20 on World in Conflict yesterday but today I threw $12.50 at some Microsoft Points to get Ikaruga from Xbox Live Arcade. I’m hopeless.

Treasure has made some of my favorite games, one of them being the game I call my all-time favorite in the list we were forced to supply for our profiles at Crispy Gamer. Ikaruga isn’t at the top of my list of Treasure video games, but it’s close.

The basics of gameplay are simple. It’s a shooter where enemies and bullets are colored either white or black. Your ship can change polarity to one of those same two colors. Shoot a black enemy while your ship is black and it will spew out more black bullets as it explodes. Shoot it while your ship is white and it won’t. You also get a bonus to firepower when you shoot things with the opposite color, and collecting bullets of the same color will power up a possible 12-beam super shot. You die if you crash into something or are hit by a bullet of the opposite color.

Just playing the game with those basics in mind is enough for most people to handle. In fact, some can’t even be bothered to get that far. Their loss. It’s a brilliant twist on the standard shooting game and plays all sorts of havoc with your mind as you navigate its tricky levels. Making your way to each boss is a difficult task, but Treasure never leaves it at just that. There’s always something else in the scoring that ratchets up the technique to legendary levels of gamer prowess. In Ikaruga, it’s all about the chains.

In order to send your score into the stratosphere, you must kill three enemies of a single color in a row over and over again. Each time you do this, you double the bonus for each chain up to a maximum of 25,600 for each link. The first bonus is 100, the second 200, the third 400, etc. until you’re earning MAX COMBO for each group of three. Of course the game is designed such that things come at you in multiples or combinations of threes, so after you’re comfortable just surviving, you become obsessed with continuing your chains!

I’m at the point now where I can play the entire first level without dying and maintain as high as a 33 combo from the start. Once I lose the combo, I rarely get back to Max ever again, but I change my fundamental play goal to survival instead of the chain after that first death. With only three lives, most folks aren’t going to get too far trying for combos until they really know the levels inside and out. But that’s ok! It’s part of the game’s longevity. Consider that I’ve been playing this since 2001 when it was first released on Dreamcast in Japan (I imported) and it’s still rare for me to get halfway through level two on one credit (three ships).

The Xbox Live Arcade port is very good, though it’s missing the awesome startup and menu screens of the Dreamcast original as well as some of the cool voice synth work that was done there.  The 360 version is hampered majorly by the awful d-pad on the 360’s controller, but the analog stick seems to have a very small dead zone for this title so you can get by with that if necessary. I don’t usually care about Achievements anymore, but these are the type that more games should have. Not many folks are going to get A rankings (or better) on any of the levels, so don’t expect to see many that have those Achievements on their Gamerscore. Graphically, this game has always been beautiful to my eyes. It’s a powerful statement of gameplay function juxtaposed with detailed artistic form. It’s a signature Treasure videogame trait and part of the reason the company endeared itself to me right from the first day I played Gunstar Heroes.

If you like shooters at all, this is one worth getting. At $10 (800 points), it’s about $40 less than I paid for the Dreamcast original behind me on the shelf. You can flip your TV on its side for some vertical scrolling gameplay done right, too. I’ve actually got a swivelling PC monitor so I plan to bring the 360 over here to try that out sometime after I get the proper cable for it. The HD upgrade to the visuals is noticeable and they even translated some of the on-screen text that wasn’t there before. I hope it sells well so we get some more Treasure oldies on Xbox Live Arcade. But even if it doesn’t, this one will last me a very long time.

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