The shoot ‘em up genre is about as old as video games in general. The basic formula has remained largely the same. You control a spaceship (the spaceship is sometimes a magical girl or homoerotic bodybuilder) and shoot down enemies while avoiding their return fire. The genre is best when it keeps the mechanics simple, instead shaping the challenge around the level design. As such, many end up blurring together, with particularly bothersome entries being little more than trial and error.
Ikaruga offers a unique twist on the formula; instead of avoiding all danger, enemy attacks are colored either white or black. The player’s ship carries a shield which can flip between the two colors, absorbing all attacks that match. Not only do you avoid the damage, but the absorption powers your own special attack. Thus, the game operates as a bullet ballet, relying on well-timed shifts between shield colors to move between the ever-changing attacks.
This is technically a short game; I don’t believe a full play through takes more than half an hour. But this is about as challenging as video games come, even on the easiest difficulty. This is a game you play almost purely for the challenge – look at any screenshot from the hardest difficulty and you won’t believe it’s possible. Then you keep playing because you know it must be and you want to see how. You will die a lot, but that comes with the territory, and it’s always so quick to jump back in.
When we talk about the cultural merits of video games, much of the focus turns toward artistry, which quickly devolves toward narrative. A game like Ikaruga has little to offer in the straightforward search for human understanding which rests at the center of most art; but if we are to view the medium as an art form, and accepting these minimalist games as among the most noteworthy, there must be something beneath the surface. If a great game does not remark upon a human experience, that is only because it is the experience.
Every work of art has a thematic purpose, whether or not the creators were consciously aware what that would be. For a game like Ikaruga, that theme can only be sussed out through the experience: what might seem impossible can be overcome through enough dedication and perseverance. This is at the heart of most challenging video games – the human drive to improve oneself. Some might argue that this is not enough, but what is the point of recognizing video games as an art form if we only apply that term to so-called universal elements between mediums? Some look to the Ikarugas of the world with a certain disdain, as if the players are entering a sado-masochistic relationship with the designers. They think we play these games because we want to suffer, but it’s quite the opposite. We want a chance to win against something we expect not to. Video games offer a simulated chance to overcome strife.
But there is good art and bad art, and nothing’s worse than a game so frustrating that you give up. The artistry of Ikaruga is making everything so fluid that it’s even harder to put down, even as you eat through the hours just trying to get past the second stage. A good challenge brings you inches closer to victory with every new attempt. Add in that Ikaruga’s gameplay is naturally hypnotic with its ever-changing colors, and you end up with something as difficult as it is inviting.