Margaret Robertson

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One of the most enduring relationships I have is with four men I’ve never met. Seven years ago, Hiroshi Iuchi, Atsutomo Nakagawa, Yasushi Suzuki and Satoshi Murata created Ikaruga, the spiritual successor to Treasure’s majestic Radiant Silvergun. Ikaruga is what some people call a top-down, vertically scrolling, combo-based, arcade shoot-’em-up. What I call it is art.

Now, the whole ‘what is art and are we it yet and if we are can we have a cookie?’ is one more futile arguments generated by videogames. It’s not a useful question, for many obvious reasons, but there is one answer to it that I rather like. It goes like this: the hallmark of good art is that every time you go back to see it, it’s changed. Or rather, it hasn’t, but you have, so through viewing it you’re able to measure and identify the changes within yourself. It’s as good an answer as any other to the great unresolvable what-is-art conundrum, and if you apply it to videogames, then my Mona Lisa is Ikaruga. Beautiful, enigmatic, alluring and unmasterable.The first time I met Ikaruga was when it was released on Dreamcast. At a time when even the spine-cards from Radiant Silvergun boxes were selling for a premium on eBay, it was a affordable way to gain access to the wonderful mysteries of Treasure. It felt like contraband – delivered in a little package, marked with little lies to throw Her Majesty’s Customs off the scent.


And, like any other illicit substance, it initiated me into a whole new world of paraphernalia and arcane procedure. Could you run it on a UK Dreamcast through DC-X? Would you risk turning your old CRT on its side so you could play it in proper vertical Tate mode? Did the telly you could up-end run 60 Hz? But eventually even all these elaborate preparations weren’t enough to satisfy and so, craving the purest possible fix, I made for the Tokyo arcades, where a small crowd of Japanese youths gathered and wondered how it was genetically possible for a human being to be so crap at games.

Time passed, of course, as did that initial, clandestine excitement. What remained was one of gaming’s sternest challenges. Seven years on, I’ve still never seen chapter five, except on YouTube. Ikaruga’s brutally simple colour-swap mechanic is totally uncompromising and totally unforgiving. Pitting my feeble wits against it became an exercise in apparent futility, as I walked away from encounter after encounter with a handful of C+s, the occasional B, and once, a single fleeting A-. But my adoration of the game didn’t dim. Indeed, if anything, the harsher the experience was, the more devoted I became.

You see, Ikaruga doesn’t treat you mean because it wants to see you fail. Ikaruga treats you mean because it wants winning to feel wonderful. But the more I became addicted to that mechanic, the more uneasy I started to feel. Volunteering to be beaten and humiliated on the promise of eventual pleasure? Isn’t there a word for that?


Probably time to take a break.

A good few years have passed since then, but today, I find myself turning once again to Ikaruga. Why? Because my new specs – my very first specs – have arrived. Twenty years of squinting at screens have taken their toll, and I can no longer pretend that the ugly smudge of a HUD is somehow the fault of a poorly calibrated plasma. But coming back to Ikaruga – complete with my newly minted eyes – has proven only that it’s more perfect than ever, and I’m more even more imperfect. It slices crisply up the centre of my screen, rippling from scarlet to indigo, from peach to aquamarine with relentless precision.

My scores, by contrast, once again refuse to budge above a C. I’m not surprised to be rubbish – that, after all has been the one constant in my relationship with this game – but now I have a new question. Are my thumbs starting to fail me too, just as my eyes have? Because now it’s impossible to ignore that a new, and even bigger, enemy is approaching: old age. And so, having been my drug and my master, now Ikaruga is my companion, a trusted guide against which I’ll measure my inevitable decline as the years pass and my faculties gradually decay. Nor does that thought depress me, because, thanks to Messrs Iuchi, Nakagawa, Suzuki and Murata, when my time comes, I won’t go gently into that good night. I’ll go spitting light and fury, flashing blue and gold, and claim my S-rank on the other side.

[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can’t stop going back to.]

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  1. Did you ever try the Gamecube version? That’s the only version I own and as someone who had barely played any shootemup for more than 5 minutes straight, I was able to (eventually) finish the game (on easy). This was partly due to the fact that the more hours you logged on the game, it would periodically unlock extra credits which made it much easier to progress.

    Ironically though, my run through the game where I finally beat it didn’t use more than the original number of credits. Not sure if the Dreamcast or XBLA versions were any different.

    And yes, I did have a CRT when I played it at the time, and turned it on it’s side, and it was glorious…..until the top right corner took on a vivid pink hue.

  2. Ikaruga also has one of the best difficult modifiers ever. On hard mode, enemies explode into their respective color. On medium only the enemies the same color of your ship explode into bullets. On easy mode nothing happens when you kill an enemy. Each setting is harder but can be beneficial if you’re able to absorb all the bullets. Beating Ikaruga on hard is one of my life goals.

  3. This game is 14 special brands of win. It hurts my brain trying to comprehend it. And methinks I’m just about as good at it as you are.

  4. ADORE this game. Scoured Gamestop after Gamestop trying to hunt down a used copy of this for my Gamecube, since its impossible to buy for a reasonable price on eBay. Love it.

  5. I’ve been playing this game off and on for nearly 5 years, and I refuse to play it on anything else but hard. I can make it about halfway through now… someday when I’m in my 80’s I’ll beat it and run into the street to yell –

    “I just beat Ikaruga on hard”

    only to hear the reply “WTF is Ikaruga?”

    and then I’ll drop dead.

  6. Games can be art, just as anything can be art, if a significant level of attention is payed to what makes it quality. I never played Ikaruga, but I have played games that easily fall under ‘art.’

  7. i first saw this game at Arcade Infinity in Rowland Heights, CA about 7 years ago. it’s the best arcade in California (everything is imported). i never knew that some one looked at ikaruga the same way i do, because it’s hard to find people that truly appreciate it’s beauty.

  8. ha! that is right on. got mines contraband style as well,. from the russian mafia guy in Toronto china town,. sells ‘backups’ and imports from a booth in the market. I too turned my tv on its side for the fullscreen effect and messed up the magnetics,. not sure how far I got,. the game is a fine work of art, and danm tough. especially for folks who thorughly suck at pattern shooters,. I just loved the beauty of the thing,. the visuals, sound, and design of it,. mine was stollen with all my games in a home robbery some time ago,. wonder if the DC emu will run it?? and if i can find an image file,. . .

  9. > my Mona Lisa is Ikaruga

    Yes yes a thousand times YES!

    > Volunteering to be beaten and humiliated on the promise of eventual pleasure?

    It’s called challenge. It’s what Mirror’s Edge has and Animal Crossing doesn’t. Which is alright, if you’re into that sort of thing.

    > now Ikaruga is my companion, a trusted guide against which I’ll measure my inevitable decline as the years pass and my faculties gradually decay

    I also use Ikaruga to measure my tolerance towards joysticks, the arcade kind. I feel I cannot learn how to use them though. Old dog here.

    Perhaps exercising your hands would be a good way to get back into the game? I use a Rubik’s Cube to (try to) keep my fingers and my mind flexible.

  10. I have never heard of this game until this article. I have promptly bought it off XBLA, and have lasted almost three minutes without dying.

    Thank you, Margaret.

  11. Guess I’m a little late to the discussion, so I’ll just add that beating Ikaruga and seeing the ending…it was an emotionally heavy moment for me. As the epilogue music played and the credits rolled, I cried. A story in a language that, even now, I struggle to understand in some small measure, and I was touched nonetheless.

  12. Really people make it out to be harder than it really is. Its not like typical manic/bullet hell Cave shooters. Its like a well played dance that you have to practice and learn. The different diffacultys are the styles of dance that you play at. Watch some dr. Ian, Wiz videos and just copy exactly what they do. Its more execution than reaction. Still as a game of its time and truely a work of art.

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