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A Quick Look At Ikaruga: Dreamcast & Switch Comparison

The Dreamcast's stable of shoot 'em ups is legendary and is up there with the best line ups of any console ever released. Sitting proudly atop that stable, like a shimmering diamond is Treasure's marvellous Ikaruga. Ikaruga was initially released in the arcades as a NAOMI powered coin-op, before being published on the Dreamcast in 2002 as a Japan-only title. Like many late era Dreamcast shmups, the lack of a release outside its native territory has given Ikargua an almost mythical status amongst its peers, and the general scarcity of the title has inevitably pushed the price up.
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A Gamecube port was released in the west later in 2003, allowing Ikaruga to reach a wider audience, but even that version commands a healthy price tag in today's climate; while further releases for the Xbox 360 and Steam followed in 2008 and 2013 respectively. Much like Zerodiv's re-release of Zero Gunner 2, Ikaruga now heads to the Nintendo Switch and brings with it a whole lot of history and reputation. Being dusted off and put out on Nintendo's hot new hybrid system can only be applauded, especially when offered at a budget price point - original copies of the Dreamcast game can reach into the hundreds of pounds depending on condition of disc, manual and case.

Before we get ahead of ourselves though, let's take a look at the game itself, its main features and selling points. Then, once that's all squared away we'll investigate how faithful a port this new Ikaruga is, and what - if any - differences there are between the Dreamcast / NAOMI original and this brand new resurrection for the Switch generation...

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As alluded to earlier, Ikaruga is a shoot 'em up (which in invariably shortened to 'shmup' by hipsters like me). It is shmup of the vertical variety to be more specific and the story concerns itself with the player taking control of the eponymous Ikaruga, a fighter craft that has the ability to switch between two differing 'polarities' - light and dark (or bluish-white and browny-orange, if you prefer). Other than this rather intriguing mechanic, Ikaruga is pretty standard fayre for this genre and if you're familiar with any of the Dreamcast's other vertical shooters then you'll feel right at home here. The world in which Ikaruga is set has a typical technologically advanced sci-fi aesthetic, full of foreboding techno landscapes, plunging caverns, forests, bruised skies and randomly moving obstacles and enemies; all of which are hell bent on destroying you, either by simply getting in the way or by spewing bullets in your general direction. Where Ikaruga differs from the majority though, is in the previously mentioned polarity system - a trait shared with previous Treasure developed shooter, Radiant Silvergun.
Image credit: Hardcore Gaming 101
The way this polarity system works is that your ship can flip between light and dark, and fire projectiles to the same effect. Enemies too come in both flavours and the way in which either your ship or bullets interact with the enemy ships or bullets depends on which polarity you are aligned to. The polarity is switched on the fly at the tap of a button, and is vital for both inflicting damage and also absorbing the projectiles of enemies. Absorbing bullets of the same polarity of your ship allows you to fill up a special meter which when full, can unleash a torrent of homing missiles. Conversely, hitting enemies of the opposite colour with your standard guns will deal double damage. There's quite a bit of tactical gameplay on offer in Ikaruga, and the screen can - and does - fill with enemies and projectiles on a regular basis. I wouldn't necessarily tag Ikaruga as a 'bullet hell' shmup though, simply because you always have the option of flipping your polarity to absorb some - if not all - of the projectiles filling the play field.
It does sound quite simple on paper (or screen, as the case may be), but in practice this polarity flipping lark actually leads to some staggeringly complex and overwhelmingly strategic gameplay. See, if you are fighting a boss character for example, and it's spraying out loads of dark bullets, you can just sit there in dark mode absorbing everything and filling up your special meter and dole out a bit of damage from your main guns. However, if you were in light mode while the boss was in dark mode, you'd be dealing double damage. It's all about knowing when to flip between the two polarities to either take some heat off and absorb some bullets; and when to flip to the opposite polarity to your foe and kick some serious ass. This is pretty much required as you progress, and you rinse and repeat across five stages, with increasing levels of frantic action and overwhelming odds stacking up against you (and your fellow pilot, if playing with two players).

At this point, I'm going to change tack slightly and pivot away from the original Treasure-developed Dreamcast game, and smoothly into the Nicalis-published Nintendo Switch game and look at how closely it recreates the original. Unlike Zero Gunner 2, Ikaruga does not appear to have been created from scratch. It has been published by Nicalis (and by Pikii in Japan) and there are faithful Treasure logos all over the front end, and so you'd be forgiven for thinking this port was based on the original NAOMI code or possibly even the Gamecube edition. However, on delving a little deeper into the credits screen, an outfit called Zereo is name checked as the studio responsible for the port.
A quick scoot around Google reveals that Zereo is a Japan-based developer that is primarily involved with mobile gaming and was also involved with the Android port of Ikaruga back in 2012...which leads me to believe that there may be some evidence that this Nintendo Switch port is also based on the Android version. I could be totally wrong and I have no other evidence other than the mention of Zereo in the credits, but it isn't that far fetched a theory. Naturally, I could just ask Nicalis but at the time of writing they haven't responded to any of the emails I have sent. But if my theory is correct, is this necessarily a bad thing? Most certainly not. That's because Ikaruga on the Switch is a total joy to play and is every bit as worthy of your time as the original Dreamcast port.

There are a few nice extras added to the Switch version of Ikaruga (which I'll come to in a moment), but for the most part this is a wholly authentic Ikaruga experience. If you've played the Dreamcast game (or any of the other previously mentioned ports), then you'll pick up the Switch version's mechanics in no time at all. And even if you're totally new to the game then you'll also have a blast if you're a fan of the genre. Another aspect of Switch Ikaruga that is totally faithful to the Dreamcast game is the punishing difficulty level, even when the game is played on an easy setting.
See, as mentioned earlier, success is attained not only through metered use of your special attack (homing lasers charged by absorbing enemy bullets) and killing the screen-filling bosses; but through an alarming amount of muscle memory. Knowing when to flip polarities as enemies belch monochrome projectiles from all angles (and destroying colour-coded obstructions) is just as important and critical to survival as holding down the fire button - and holding down that fire button is something you'll be doing quite a bit in both versions of Ikaruga.

But let's talk about differences between and similarities shared by the Dreamcast and Switch iterations of this stellar shooter. First up, the front end is given something of an overhaul on Switch. The Dreamcast menu is totally done away with and several new options are presented in the Switch game. The most obvious is the Appendix option, where artwork and other unlockables are stored and available to view right from the off, should you so desire (or you can chose not to unlock it straight away and instead earn it through completing the game).
CRT or go home (unless you're on the bus with a Switch)
Elsewhere, you'll note that the intro text that covers half the screen when entering a new chapter is now in English as opposed to Japanese. Also, the waves in which some enemies present themselves in certain parts of certain stages is slightly different to those seen in the Dreamcast game - at least it seemed so to me. Graphically, both games do appear to be very similar although the Switch game does have slightly better distance fogging in some stages. It looks super sharp on the little handheld's screen, and is easily a match for a Dreamcast in VGA mode using a proper CRT computer monitor. Ikaruga was always a bit of a looker despite the over reliance on a somewhat muddy colour palette, and it looks every bit as good on Switch as it does on Dreamcast (or any other platform for that matter). Interestingly, slowdown does present itself in the same places in both games - namely once you destroy a boss and a gigantic explosion fills the screen. I'm not sure if the slowdown is intentional for dramatic effect, but it's present and correct in the same places in both versions.
Switch TATE mode offers a number of different HUD options
Music, as you'd expect is pretty much identical (that is, it's fecking awesome across the board) and even the default button layouts are the same on the Dreamcast and Switch. In truth, there is very little to separate the two different iterations save for the initial options and such. It's nice to finally be able to play Ikaruga with fully localised menus and chapter intro text, although the robotic menu announcer in the Dreamcast original is most helpful when it comes to deciphering the kanji options (it speaks fluent English, as it happens).
Dreamcast TATE mode
I suppose the one thing that really separates the two different games then, is the Switch's portability. See, being able to play Ikaruga on the bus has never really been an option until now, and the inclusion of a TATE mode that lets you flip the console on its side and use a single Joy-con to play is simply inspired. That's not to say that the Dreamcast doesn't have a great TATE mode too (and with differing control methods that even let you play in TATE if you can't flip your monitor on its side); but being able to just get a Switch out on your lunch break and just jump into a faithful TATE version of Ikaruga is just perfection.
Ikaruga boasts some fantastic artwork and a great story
In summary, there's very little to differentiate between the Dreamcast and Switch versions of Ikaruga, and that's probably because this game more than any other totally lives up to the old mantra of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' Ikaruga is the real deal. It's a cerebral experience wrapped up in a fun, engaging and gorgeous shoot 'em up, one that sounds amazing and is both challenging and enjoyable. Special mention must also go to the much lauded but oft neglected 'HD rumble' feature of the Switch as Ikaruga makes great use of it. It's easily one of the greatest Dreamcast games, and that it can now be enjoyed on the go via the Nintendo Switch is applaudable. Highly recommended even if you also own the Dreamcast (or any other) version of Treasure's seminal shooter.
Flipping between dark and light is your only hope!
Will you be picking up Ikaruga for the Switch? Or are you waiting for the teased PlayStation 4 port? Or are you a purist and only the Dreamcast or NAOMI games will do? Let us know in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter or in our Facebook group.

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Full disclosure: The copy of Ikaruga I used on Switch was not provided by Nicalis. I bought it with my own money on that eShop thingy and played it on my own Switch, which I also bought with my own money. The Dreamcast and copy of Ikaruga I used on said Dreamcast were also bought with - you guessed it - my own money. Cheers.


DCGX said...

I disagree about the sound. From the video, the Dreamcast sound is much crisper and the Switch a little muffled. The DC also seemed to have slightly better color.

I have the DC version, but for those that don't they should download this great game to their Switch.

hoogafanter said...

Dreamcast version stays superior, no contest!