Raiden was my introduction to STGs.
What hooked me into the game was its clean presentation and great controls. It was the first scrolling shooter that I played with any level of seriousness.
My goal in those years was always to see how far I could get on only one credit. While I never beat Raiden without continuing, I really enjoyed the time I spent with the game.
The Raiden series has grown up since the first game came out in 1990, but it has retained much of what defined that first entry developed by Seibu Kaihatsu.
However, the series has not aged well. Even later entries such as Raiden IV (developed by MOSS, a team of ex-Seibu devs formed after the company went bankrupt) retain much of the early mechanics (direct fire, sparse enemies).
I understand that what makes one series in a genre stand out from another is precisely what the devs define as the series’ core values. In the case of Raiden, those values center around precision. The game wants you to be in the right places firing at the right speed as enemies shoot directly at your ship.
With its insistence on precision, Raiden cannot keep up with the innovations of the genre.
It was a faster game, it was the kind of game that forced you to focus.
It was the fighting game of shooters.
The enemies would swoop in and fire rapid bullet streams that spread through the screen, forcing the player to weave and counter. Each boss was comprised of nested mini-bosses. The music drove everything.
Strikers was the better game, why? With all its elegance, why couldn’t the Raiden series stand up to this?
Because Strikers had intensity, it was all digital grit where Raiden was the stuff of cold patience.
After Strikers, STGs became mind-melting exercises in intensity.
A movement that was especially driven by Japanese developer Cave.
Cave released DoDonPachi in 1997 after the success of the more mild DonPachi in 1995. DoDonPachi featured swarms of enemies that fired massive bullet curtains, a very intense aesthetic, excellent music, and great animation.
DoDonPachi took everything that made Strikers great and pushed things even further. DDP is as close to an ideal arcade game as any company could get at the time. It never felt ‘cheap’, it was very much a game of skill, and it was visually captivating.
After DoDonPachi, shooters have only become more intense. Games like Mushihimesama Futari 1.5 (also developed by Cave) have bullet patterns that look like ocean waves.
The DonPachi series itself has remained fairly close to its roots throughout the years. DoDonPachi DaiOuJou (the fourth game in the series, released in 2002) is arguably the best STG ever made (more on that later).
There are two schools of thought in the world of scrolling shooters:
1) The genre won’t continue to exist unless new gameplay mechanics are added.
2) The genre will always thrive if it stays true to its roots.
In the first school, we see games like Sine Mora (developed by Digital Reality and Grasshopper, released in 2012) which features a strong plot and a unique time-manipulation mechanic. Time is important in Sine More because it is the measure by which you succeed or fail.
Ikaruga has reached legendary status not only among STG enthusiasts, but among the gaming community as a whole. It has been ported to system after system through each console generation and was recently released in February 2014 on Steam.
It is an icon.
Ikaruga’s attraction lies in the innovations it makes in the three core game elements present in any STG: Aesthetics, shooting mechanics, and music.
The game has fantastic art. The environments are well-defined and deep, your ship is asymmetrical and beautiful, the enemies (especially the bosses) are extremely detailed and fluid. The whole game is amazingly cohesive. The hook in Ikaruga is that you don’t simply dodge bullets, you transform your ship to absorb one of two kinds of bullets.
The game has two enemy types: light and dark. Each enemy type fires either light or dark bullets. The player’s ship can switch between light and dark, whatever color the ship is, is whatever color you can absorb. This has made Ikaruga a favorite for players looking for High Score challenges.
What makes Ikaruga’s soundtrack so unique in the genre, is that it is voluminous. Most arcade STGs rely on electronic thumping and grinding to push their games forward. Ikaruga’s music is very orchestral and does an excellent job at conveying a sense of loss.
If Ikaruga is the best game of the innovative shooter school, which game is the best of the second, more traditional school?
In spite of all the innovations and the high-level coherence Ikaruga displays, it feels like a puzzle game.
Ikaruga is less Raiden and more Tetris: Maneuver the ship to fit into the bullet patterns.
I admire the game for what it does. I admire the devs behind Ikaruga for making a shooter that takes itself seriously, that is somber and heroic.
But there are times when the gloss tears, that you cannot help but feel that the game is a series of novelties, the game plays with itself and its own mechanics. After playing Ikaruga long enough, it gets a little boring.
The strange part is that the game starts out so strong, it throws you right into the action, but with its constant referencing to a single mechanic (switching colors), both by enemies and by the environments, it wears on you.
This is where DaiOuJou wins.
DOJ lacks all of the finesse that defines Ikaruga. Its music is brash and loud. The environments are dark, synthetic, and alive.
DaiOuJou is all about force: Gunning through the swarm.
The title of the game is roughly translated as “Blissful Death.” It has no illusions about itself. It asks a lot of the player.
I recently described DaiOuJou as a ‘cyberpunk samurai death poem.’
It is an ode to the extreme focus and insight demanded of the player in occupying a beautiful and uncomfortable place. It is a process of celebrating your mistakes and being reborn.
The action in DOJ is intense. Enemies explode, multi-colored bullet spreads cover the screen, you scrape by in pixels.
This is a vast departure from what Ikaruga offers.
For a non-traditional game, Ikaruga can almost be seen as an extension of Raiden’s elegance. Ikaruga and Raiden are both quiet, cool, thoroughly-designed games.
On the other hand: DaiOuJou is the diary of a medieval battle-axe.
For all the credit that Ikaruga has received over the years, DOJ never quite got the attention it deserved.
I understand that a lot of this has to do with taste, but as an avid fan of shooters, it is very difficult for me not to see the amount of thought that went into crafting and honing DaiOuJou from a team of arcade purists that almost single-handedly drive the genre today.
It is Ikaruga’s mechanical novelty that fundamentally propels it as a phenomenon. DoDonPachi DaiOuJou, though, is driven by the purity of its action.
It is a rapid-fire exploration of the significance of moments.
DaiOuJou is a celebration of beauty and decay.
It deserves a second look.
It is the better game.