Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Ikaruga

 

 

At.

 

 

I joined Twitter in 2010.

I had been unemployed for almost a year since graduation and was eating through the endless time on my hands by looking for work, writing, and reading.

The year before, I developed a larger appreciation for Japanese culture.

For Japanese history, art, literature: Expanding beyond the world of games and anime.

In 2009, Jake Adelstein released his memoir: Tokyo Vice.

It told the story of Jake’s life in Japan as an investigative journalist and the only American to be admitted to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club.

Having turned down the opportunity to work in Japan, I was able to experience Tokyo through his work.

After finishing Tokyo Vice, I spent days finding a way to get in touch with Jake.

Due to the sensitive nature of his work, he had made himself difficult to find.

Scouring the internet was fruitless, so I settled on the only public face he had: Twitter.

I explicitly joined Twitter to tell him how much I enjoyed his book.

I was absorbed by it.

After a few exchanges with Jake, I had no idea what to do with this network.

When I moved to Rochester, I stopped writing.

When I started working, social networks didn’t mean much to me.

Through SRK, I found the Rochester FGC and because of that, after a three year absence, I was pulled back into maintaining an internet presence.

I reopened Twitter in 2013 and saw how much it had changed.

The sheer amount of content Twitter was producing, the amount of access it was allowing.

I understood it better now.

I had been listening to the Insert Credit Podcast since its inception, having been a follower of the original site.

I always felt Tim Rogers understood games and language on an intrinsic level.

I always felt he understood what was necessary to express and understand.

After hearing him plug his Twitter account on numerous podcast episodes, I went on to find him.

I thanked him for his excellent writing. He thanked me back.

I was still buying games from Gamestop and stopped by one day to purchase Muramasa Rebirth.

A child was digging through the used game bin and found a knockoff, CoD-style, console FPS.

As I handed the money to the cashier, I overhear the child pleading with his father:

“I want to get this game because I want to be in the army when I grow up!”

I laughed. I remember dropping lines like that to convince my parents of whatever games caught my eye.

At home, I related the story to Tim.

He wrote back: I could have just downloaded Kokuga for the 3DS and I would never have had to leave my house.

I looked up Kokuga.

I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this game.

 

Seal.

 

Kokuga had been released for a year by the time I downloaded it.

As I have often stated: I have a deep, profound love of STGs and have always prided myself on knowing of the ones that mattered.

I couldn’t believe how I had lapsed here.

Kokuga was not only made by G.rev, one of the world’s last remaining and most storied STG houses responsible for the likes of Under Defeat, Ikaruga, and Border Down, but was also directed by Hiroshi Iuchi: Director of Radiant Silvergun, Gradius V, and Ikaruga.

What makes G.Rev’s STGs different from Cave‘s is that they all rely on a combination of fringe mechanics that push the conceptual identity of the genre.

Cave is a company driven by pure arcade action, overflowing with style.

G.rev is a laboratory.

Ikaruga has color-switching. Radiant Silvergun has seven weapons. Border Down’s levels change depending on where you are shot down.

And Kokuga isn’t any different.

Kokuga is not afraid of experimentation and may be the purest form of G.rev’s vision to date.

The game takes place in an era of war between two nations and the player is tasked with piloting country A’s most advanced weapon: Kokuga, a tank of the future.

This is a game made at the cross-section of freedom and gambling.

The player is left to choose where to begin the game.

Levels are all labeled alphabetically and the general trend is that as levels progress upwards, the more difficult they are.

Unlike many of its famous ancestors, Kokuga is a multi-directional, non-scrolling shooter.

It maintains the verticality of other shooters, but allows the player more maneuverability.

The levels are very tightly designed. Nearly claustrophobic.

Levels are littered with obstacles and embedded/mobile enemy types.

To succeed in Kokuga, the player must be aware of the spaces around them, more so than in nearly any other shooter I’ve seen.

Kokuga isn’t just about dodging bullets, it’s about tactical positioning and resource management.

It’s a roguelike disguised as an action game.

The game takes place on the top screen, while the bottom screen is utilized for selecting powerups.

There are four powerups, assigned at random, sitting on the bottom screen.

Any one of them may be selected at any time to bolster either the tank’s defensive or offensive ability.

Each powerup is limited in both duration and frequency. Once you use a powerup, another one is assigned to the slot at random until they run out.

Burn through powerups too quickly and the boss fights become overwhelming. Burn through them too slow and the player is bogged down by the enemy.

This is a game that actually holds the player accountable for the decisions they make.

This is a game that does a fantastic job at giving the player a simulation of the responsibility that comes with power.

The player is free to decide where they would like to enter the world and after making the choice, they are thrown into closed, tight spaces and forced to fight through swarms with very limited resources.

This transition is seamless.

In a traditional STG, the player is only ever allowed to make micro-tactical decisions that mainly involve movement.

The urgency in classic STGs is filtered through the forced scrolling levels.

Even in newer STGs, urgency is manufactured through inverted mechanics: Sine Mora uses time/time-manipulation. Luftrausers uses a simulation of gravity.

While there is tactical urgency in Kokuga, the focus is more on the broader, more strategic plane.

It is a type of urgency which burns slowly at first and accelerates as the level becomes increasingly difficult.

This is further reinforced by the smooth, calm movement of the tank itself. Nothing feels rushed.

Kokuga’s greatest strength is that it does not rely on only one mechanic.

Even though by releasing it on the 3DS eShop, one may get the impression that this isn’t an important game, it is by far the purest manifestation of G.rev.

One of G.rev’s weaknesses has always been their over-reliance on one main mechanic around which others revolve.

One of the problems with Ikaruga was that after awhile it’s color-switching became so overused that it quickly lost its novelty.

With Kokuga, G.rev have been able to multithread their innovative style, creating a game full of interesting mechanics that fit together in a near-perfect way.

Kokuga’s systems not only maximize the game’s obvious strengths, but give the player a more dynamic experience by broadening their access to choice while throwing in a randomness element (powerups) within already tight margins.

Kokuga is a deep meditation on elegant, immersive, mobile game design.

It’s frightening this game almost passed by me unnoticed.

It’s frightening that it has flown under the radar of so many others.

Kokuga is everything G.rev have worked toward: A pure distillation of their innovative style.

With it’s somber tone, wonderful styling, and mechanical coherency: It is the true evolution of Ikaruga.

A true evolution of G.rev’s experimental precision.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

 

 

Deform.

 

 

When I first picked up Advance Wars in 2001, I had no idea what I was doing.

I enjoyed strategic war games, but I never played them with any tactical focus.

Always brute forcing through missions.

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I would spend hours amassing huge tank swarms, sending them into the enemy base at once.

In Age of Empires II, I would scour the map for every last remaining enemy before the mission ended.

I always thought of myself as a strategic person, but I needed a narrative draw to act strategically.

In RPGs, I did well at managing my parties and character abilities.

But whenever the narrative layer was removed, I had no drive, no patience, for strategy.

When I first picked up Advance Wars, I had no idea what I was doing.

The game frustrated me because unlike Red Alert and AoE, I didn’t have total control.

Each mission was tight. The parameters were clear.

There was no free rein to sit back and amass units.

There was no brute forcing the enemy.

Because of the tight margins, Advance Wars taught the player how to be tactical, but only if the player had the right kind of eyes.

Advance Wars required the right kind of mind.

I struggled with the game because I had neither. I resented its limitation.

I hated the game for keeping me focused.

I stopped playing.

 

Contort.

 

Advance Wars lingered in the back of my mind the following years.

Whenever I came across a war game that gave me the space to breathe and slow the game down, I felt like a fraud.

I’d recall my time feeling stressed and pushed to act in AW’s world.

That urgency felt more authentic in a strategy war game.

No one else seemed to get it right.

Advance Wars became the lens through which I would assess myself in other war games:

“Would this strategy have worked in an Advance Wars level?”

The answer was always no.

My tactics, my strategy, lacked all focus and urgency.

I was using war games to fulfill my inherent desire for spectacle and completion.

I was using strategic war games as engines of ego.

I needed to return to a place of focus.

I went back to Advance Wars, 13 years later.

What shocked me was how the game had lingered in my mind.

The controls were so elegant and logical that they were impossible to forget.

The rest of the game struck me as lean and clear.

Now that I had the right kind of eyes, now that I approached the game with a softer mind:

I understood what the missions were.

I understood what the game was.

 

Arms.

 

Advance Wars is a strategy puzzle game hiding within a turn-based war game.

AW is more about solving than attacking. Much like Ikaruga, it is about adapting.

The ‘puzzle’ elements of Ikaruga (switching the ship’s colors to absorb bullets) slow the game down and it becomes a sequence of novel set-pieces.

By not giving the player free rein to hold back or charge forward, digging out the ideal strategy for the mission is much more engaging in Advance Wars.

Unlike other war games, the UI in AW is simple and concise.

The player can do everything  inside of two small menu screens.

It avoids the clutter and bloat of larger games.

It rewards a player’s attention. The proper strategies are not immediately obvious, but also are not buried under layers of difficulty.

They are there if the player chooses to focus.

In spite of all that it does stunningly well, Advance Wars does have its design problems.

Rather than acutely increasing the difficulty each mission, the game increases the options available to the player.

The player might gain a new Commanding Officer (CO’s determine the special passive stats and active abilities that a player has access to) or the ability to build and manage units, or adding new units.

Intelligent Systems did an excellent job in gradually ramping up the player’s options.

But by focusing so much on access to options, the difficulty is uneven.

There is no gradual development of difficulty, only plateaus.

The ratio seems to be 3:1 or 4:1. For every three or four missions, there is one which spikes.

Advance Wars is a game about patience, but it doesn’t take the time to teach the player how to be patient. It operates as if it expects the player to stick through it.

These vertical difficulty spikes were one of my problems with Dark Souls II.

One of the stranger things about Advance Wars is the art style.

It is a war game that does not take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the unit icons are bubbly, and the dialogue can be childish.

This creates a fair bit of dissonance considering that soldiers are supposed to be dying.

This clash of style and substance has left me with quite a bit of  cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, I’m happy to play a war game with a different aesthetic: One that isn’t entirely drab and brown.

On the other hand, this is trivializing the worst parts of us.

The way the COs carry on talking as if no one is dying adds to the sense that of avoidance. It’s happening everywhere, but no one talks about it.

Intelligent Systems has worked very closely with Nintendo since the very early NES days.

Seeing as how Nintendo likes to keep their games from tackling cultural issues like homosexuality in their latest Tomodachi Life release, I could see them not having a problem white-washing the brutality of war.

Although, IS is also the developer behind the Fire Emblem series and does not seem to have an issue tackling questions of sovereignty, nationalism, death, and sacrifice in that series.

In spite of these issues, Advance Wars is a substantial game, especially for an aging portable system.

It is a thorough study of excellent design.

With clean controls, a unique aesthetic, and tight levels: It is a strategy game that out-maneuvers nearly every other war game in the genre.

13 years after its release and the game still shines…

long after many have forgotten it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bullets.

 


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.

When I first played Strikers 1945 (developed and released by Psikyo in 1995) it felt like something had totally changed.

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).

 

Watercolor.

 

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.

However, the best game to come out of this school is Ikaruga (developed by G.Rev and Treasure, released in 2002).

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?

DoDonPachi DaiOuJou.

 

Dollhouse.

 

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.