Ikaruga

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Stanshall
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Ikaruga

Post by Stanshall » July 2nd, 2018, 10:27 pm

I think it's about time.

For me, the past twelve months in gaming has been very much a deeper and deeper love affair with shmups. I can partly attribute this to getting a One S last year and finding quite a few big names and assorted corkers either on backwards compatibility or on regular release. Mostly the former. I also started to visit Arcade Club in Bury semi-regularly and was thoroughly amazed by Ketsui, Armed Police Batrider and - more than anything I'd played in a long long time - Dodonpachi DaiOuJou (not that I knew what any of them were until six months ago). I would look forward to playing these strange intense impossible overwhelming shoot em ups, all in Japanese, without any idea of how to play them or even how the danmaku genre worked. Every visit, I would credit feed my way through at least one of them and feel like an absolute champ, despite the utter pointlessness of doing this.

At home, I started to get into Guwange (not knowing it was a Cave game, too) and I put in a few hours into both Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun. Honestly, I thought the idea was simply to get to the end of the game and while I was aware of the Ikaruga chain system, I was not used to playing for score and found the idea quite boring. This is genuinely shocking to me now, like when an album really gets under your skin but you couldn't possibly understand it the first twenty times and now you can't remember how you ever even felt like that, or how your mind was so closed. That's how I feel about shmups, and very specifically how I feel about Ikaruga. But more in a moment.

Meanwhile, I started to pick up anything and everything STG on the Switch. We're talking Gunbird, Samurai Aces, Zero Gunner 2, Blazing Star, Strikers 1945, Tengai, and even the largely shit curios like Sol Divide. I was becoming quite obsessed with the genre, and the Psikyo games in particular were really floating my boat. I think it was the relative simplicity - blow everything up, clear the screen. While I'm sure they have their own complex scoring systems, they are more straightforward examples of the genre. Dodge the bullets, send a hell of a lot more back. My Switch became a shoot em up machine for a good while and I felt like I had a glorious arcade in my hands. Not long after, I decided to investigate emulation and Steam and was surprised to find that my creaking laptop could run Dodonpachi DaiOuJou, Mushihimesama, Ketsui, Crimzon Clover and much more and I dove deeper into the genre and started to ruin my sleep patterns watching superplays in bed, sneaking into the spare room so as not to wake my wife and being unable to fall asleep, my mind dancing with the cascading 'curtains' of bullet patterns being herded this way and that. It was a glorious few weeks - until my laptop died of exhaustion during the April heatwave.

I had few fond memories of Ikaruga. I had played it on my mate's Dreamcast way back on release, along with Radiant Silvergun, and I had found it weird, confusing and disorienting. It was also bloody hard. I preferred Radiant Silvergun because the weapon synergies were pretty cool. That was the limit of my appreciation. Fast forward to last year's XBox BC playthrough and while I was enjoying the genre, Ikaruga did relatively very little for me. It seemed like a puzzle game, even playing pure survival and ignoring the scoring mechanics. It was just absurdly difficult and I kept dying to the bullets I generated by killing enemies. It seemed much easier to just not shoot anything!

I didn't especially anticipate the Switch release then but I did realise that if I were ever to give the game a fair crack, it would be on this system. Playing in bed or on the couch, having a quick bash at a level and then sleep. Yep, it all seemed more promising and more palatable. And I did soon enjoy it much more than I had ever done before. I beat the first boss on my first go! I got up to the second a few goes later. Yes, I was getting into it. 600k high score. I'm making progress. 800k. Huh, getting better. Quick check of the leaderboards...

Four million?

On the first level?!

I don't really know why I suddenly cared. Even when I was learning DaiOuJou, I wasn't really playing for score as much as enjoying clearing the screen and increasing my chances of staying alive. I'd heard things about Ikaruga though which made me question my experience of the game, I'd heard about the chains and the puzzle elements of the scoring not just the survival. It had put me off, to be honest, as I say. Suddenly, though, I had a glimpse of what the game really was, and what the potential was, what my potential might be. I checked the Friends leaderboard and saw that quite a few of my Switch friends were comfortably ahead of me. Maybe that was it, the old competitive spirit. I wanted to at least break a million.

So I started to experiment with the scoring systems. I knew I could study some superplays (and I had seen at least one on Ikaruga, it just hadn't made much of an impression besides switching polarity to stay alive) but I wanted to see what I could figure out for myself:

Off we go. Hmm. Bollocks. Dead. OK, again. Just watch. Six whites, six blacks, six whites, six blacks. Ah, OK. Start right, go left, then right again...I see. Heh. Clever. It's like a rhythm game. Now try to shoot them with the same colour and...charge up the energy bar. Nice. What the hell is this now? Forget it. Three columns on each side, white and black, how am I meant to get all them before they go? Impossible. Ugh, this is infuriating. Oh, err, the energy bar. Hmm. If I can take out the whites fast enough. Maybe...Shit, that actually worked. Take out the whites in black polarity, missile the blacks. Quality. That actually works. And hold on, I can scoop up the black bullets which burst across the screen and recharge and...fuck me...I can missile the next wave without even shooting...and...scoop up those bullets, too...

And that's how it started. I am now obsessed with Ikaruga. What an incredibly elegant, beautiful anomaly it is. I finally got the 1 million on the first chapter and I've been chipping away ever since, linking sections together, thinking about my route when I'm in work or driving or before bed, on the bog, when cooking. It's such a delicate intricate puzzle to gently unlock, trying to eke an extra chain out of your strategy before realising the entire strategy is doomed to fail and heading back for a more ambitious pass at a familiar wave. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to get a B++ with 1.6m on the first chapter, and I was stuck there for a good while. I started to feel I was going backwards, in fact.

This past couple of weeks, I've been playing every night, locking some easier sections into muscle memory and being able to experiment and practise and practise and fail and fail but sometimes see some potential. I still have a long long way to go. Some sections I largely ignore for fear of destroying my chain. Last night, I finally made the next little step up. 1.987 million. Painfully close. I played for another hour before bed and just slid further and further backwards. Tonight, finally, I did it. The 4+2 white, then 4+2 black, then straight into the B/W mini bosses with the satellite ships rotating around them. Chain, chain, chain, chain. The big ships with the little columns of descending ships to jink in and out of. I'll skip them for now, just take down the big bastards, keep this chain going, I knew it was a good run. Bang, down. Bang, down. One more, down. Mad rush, chain the turrets and...not quite. Still, I'm onto the boss with nearly 1.5m on the board already. Max energy bar, missile, instant phase two. Black, sit on that shield, absorb absorb absorb, bang, full missile. Phase three. Switch, switch, switch, missile. White homing beams, absorb absorb absorb, black, missile.

Holy shit.

Image

Now, this is nothing. It doesn't even place me at the top of my friend list for the chapter, but it is a real gaming achievement for me. And the best thing is that I have so so much more to learn about this game. In a year, I will likely look back on this and chuckle. At least, I really hope I do. It's been extraordinarily satisfying and I can't wait to peel back the next layer. For context, I think the maximum chain for the first chapter is roughly double what I've got there and that says it all. I'll very likely never ever achieve that. I might have already hit my limit. I also acknowledge that this thread is tragically self-indulgent but I have cherished the experience of falling in love with this game so much, I just wanted to put it into words. If anyone is doubtful of the beauty of Ikaruga, please do have another look because it has so much to give. I was wrong. I was a fool. It is glorious.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by KSubzero1000 » July 3rd, 2018, 8:32 am

Fascinating read. I don't have much to add since I unfortunately bounced off Ikaruga pretty quickly when the 360 version first came out, although I'm certainly looking forward to revisiting it on Switch (and with a better controller this time around). But your post definitely captures the exhilarating sense of progression and achievement that can be earned from perseverance and highscore-chasing. Although niche and considered outdated by some, this is an integral part of gaming for me. Great stuff. :)

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Suits » July 3rd, 2018, 11:19 am

Lovely stuff man, great to hear, read and see that you've found a seam of wealth in gaming here - looks like it's a big one too if it's been going on this long and taken over your subliminal mind :lol: .

I love finding little niches in games that I know noting about and exploring them - often not really getting into the game myself just learning about the cultures and community's they create. Fighting games was one I've explored more recently. Schumps seems deep and dark - very cool.

Actual Ikaruga itself, I only own on the GameCube I think. I've played it but struggled greatly not only with the game itself but the genre also. So much so, I don't know if I can spare the time to even give it another go with so many other gaming curios out there.

Cool man, nice to hear and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Michiel K » July 3rd, 2018, 5:09 pm

Fantastic read. Someone else also inspired me to revisit Ikaruga, very recently. It's a sign.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by ratsoalbion » July 3rd, 2018, 9:23 pm

In case folks missed it, the PS4 version snuck out the other day, and for half the price of the Switch version.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by KSubzero1000 » July 3rd, 2018, 9:39 pm

I totally missed that! When did this happen?! I had to look the game up manually, because it didn't even show up in the "New Games"-section. :o

Is it a good complete version, or would I be missing out on exclusive Switch content?

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by ratsoalbion » July 3rd, 2018, 10:57 pm

29th June.

You’re missing out on portability and a kind of built-in TATE mode I suppose, otherwise I guess it’s the full package, same as on PC, 360 (and Xbox One back/compat) - though I haven’t had hands-on.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Stanshall » July 3rd, 2018, 11:38 pm

Thanks for the kind words, gents. Rather lengthy, self-regarding thread but I hoped also one of some interest. That sense of genuine progression in both skills and understanding is so rich with this one.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Stanshall » July 8th, 2018, 8:58 pm

I finally beat my score above, managed to improve my execution on a few sections and slowly but surely added those 'best bits' to a pretty consistent series of runs, and finally did 'the best I can do' with what I've learned so far. I also squeezed a few more bonus rows because I was clearing the screen faster and got these down. Finally, I learned the timing on the shrinking spinning ring, just before the large black and white ships with the tricky central columns of little ships. And here's where I'm up to:

Image

"69, dude."

For all the leaps in consistency and so on, and I've put probably five or ten hours in this week just on this first stage, it's not that much of an improvement in terms of score. Still A class. I also couldn't have done the boss much faster at all. To make the next leap forward, I'm going to have to develop some newer, bolder, more aggressive tactics. And the beauty of the game is that I can feel that I'll be able to do that. It really is a series of intricate little puzzles. At first, certain sections seem unattainable and too complex but you can get there by breaking it down further and further. It's like *klaxon* Dark Souls, in that respect. Every little encounter requires separate planning, timing, order and execution, and once you master it, muscle memory locks everything in and you're playing without thinking.

I have three key sections to improve now. There's a short series of four mini bosses, each with two rotating ships. That makes for four chains. If you switch polarity you can destroy them pretty easily and quickly. Black on the right hand white ships, switch to the other side and fire white on the black, rinse and repeat. It's consistent and pretty easy. But to really improve the speed, my next move must be white on white, fire missiles, absorb and immediately missile (white) on the black to the left. Switch polarity to black, finish them off, absorb and then immediately missile black to the next white boss. Switch to white and finish it off quickly, absorb then fire white missiles, switch to black, finish the final mini boss and absorb. That will then trigger a good few more bonus rows, which require some pretty tricky timing, spacing and execution. I reckon I can probably get another eight or so chains there as well as all the bonus points for shots absorbed. It is bloody hard, though! It's my next goal, nevertheless. And after that, I'll have to really step it up with the large rotating turret ships, and the columns which move in and out, and then maybe I can trigger the final bonus rows which are worth a shitload, probably another quarter of a million or more. It might take me months, it might be years but I'll hit that S class. "Even though the ideal is high, I never give in."

And that's just chapter one.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by KSubzero1000 » July 8th, 2018, 9:13 pm

Congrats! You can do it, keep going for that sweet S rank! :D

May I ask what difficulty level you're playing this on, btw? I'm afraid I'm getting destroyed even on easy...

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Stanshall » July 8th, 2018, 9:56 pm

Cheers, mate. I'll get there! I'm playing on Normal and I dare say that it's 'easier' in a way than Easy because when you destroy ships of the same colour, they spray a few bullets at you so you can charge up your missile energy. That's pretty much the only way to clear certain sections quickly. It's also a good way to just save yourself if you get swarmed by enemies. The ones of the same colour will charge you back up again.

I'd definitely recommend it.

I should say that I've barely even touched the second stage and I have never beaten the stage two boss! I'm just really enjoying this steady drip drip of progress in stage one. It's an absolute joy.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Michiel K » July 9th, 2018, 9:26 pm

Games like this, with a single digit amount of stages, can last you a long time. Great approach!

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by KSubzero1000 » July 10th, 2018, 8:06 am

Tried again yesterday without anything to show for it. I think I really need to get the hang of the absorption mechanic - my conventional simplistic play style of "dodge everything" is simply not enough to withstand some of the boss' bullet patterns.

What I find so intriguing is that I've felt the exact same fantastic sense of progression / score-chasing upon repeated attempts described in the OP when playing Nex Machina and AAC recently. But this is a weight class above it, or so it seems.

I shall persevere.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Stanshall » July 10th, 2018, 11:10 am

Without telling you how to play it, of course, a general tip would be to focus on absorbing as much as possible and dodging relatively little. You'll rack up more points but most importantly, that energy bar will fill more quickly. Learning how and when to fire the missiles is really useful in clearing waves and ending boss phases quickly.

Also, I don't know if you're aware but you can also play the game without shooting! You don't even need to destroy the boss, just survive until the timer runs out. That's a really good way to practise absorbing and switching polarity and there might be a little extra reason to give it a go, too.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by KSubzero1000 » July 10th, 2018, 12:16 pm

Great tips, thanks mate. I didn't know about the timer!
Stanshall wrote:
July 10th, 2018, 11:10 am
Without telling you how to play it, of course
By all means, please do. I'm a complete novice when it comes to japanese shoot 'em ups, so any help is appreciated.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Stanshall » July 10th, 2018, 2:06 pm

Well, if you insist! :D

The first thing to say is that it depends on whether you're playing for survival or for score. If it's the former, I've got no worthwhile advice because I haven't even seen past the second boss! I also don't think it's a particularly interesting game playing for survival, which is probably partly why it's taken me so long to get into it. It's like reading a prose translation of the Aeneid, when the verse form itself is so fundamental to the beauty and intention of the work. Pretentiousness aside, I think it's impossible to appreciate much of what Ikaruga does without playing for score.

So, with that in mind, the most important thing to build your score is maintaining your chain. This often means NOT shooting everything on screen. For an extreme example to show how true this is, if you currently have max chain and you just shot two whites, you are better off ignoring the next twenty four (!) black enemies and waiting to complete your white chain. You need to shoot eight sets of three, whether black or white, to hit max chain. At that point, each subsequent set is worth around 26k or so. If you break the chain, I believe your first new set is only worth 100 points. So, don't be afraid to let go of the fire button. Or, more accurately, only shoot when you know what you're shooting. I strongly suspect that you will double or triple your current high score by firing 90% less.

The next bit of advice is common to all shmups, ie. knowing what's coming next and learning the waves, but Ikaruga's polarity mechanic gives this considerable depth. Let's just concentrate on the first four sets of six in the 'prologue' to chapter one. From the right, six whites, from the left, six blacks, and then repeat. Technically, you've got eight easy sets of three there which should very quickly put you at Max Chain. If you stay in the centre and wait for them to move into your fire, however, the blacks and whites will converge in your line of fire and destroy any hope of a chain. So, spacing is important: Move right, six, move left, six, right six, left six. Max chain. But there's more...

A big part of dealing with the next wave is having a good quantity of charge in your energy bar, which means absorbing those bullets. To briefly jump ahead, the next wave involves six columns of six enemies, with the left half white and the right half black. You can't destroy them quickly enough with your regular shot, either without breaking your chain or without them leaving the screen. You have to destroy one side, I usually go for the left, and then immediately unleash your missile charge and quickly finish off any remaining enemies. So, how do you get to that point with a full charge? Go back to the first four sets of six. Make sure you're white, destroy the first six, and absorb the bullets. Switch black, go left, destroy, absorb. Then white, right, destroy, absorb. Left, black, destroy, absorb. That may well give you a full charge. However, if you are halfway down the screen or lower, more likely is that you will not absorb many 'suicide bullets' as they spray from the defeated enemies and when you switch polarity, you will quite possibly die trying to avoid the previous spray.

So, your actual approach needs to be move right and up towards the top of the screen, shoot, absorb (almost every bullet), switch, move left, down and then up, etc. The higher up the screen you destroy them, and the closer you are, the more bullets you will absorb. Then, you can take a (hopefully) full charge to the next wave of six columns and wipe them out quickly as discussed. I usually stay black, hose down the three white columns, missile black (on black) and start moving down and right to clean up any remaining enemies. A full charge will only destroy twelve enemies (or cause twelve hits of damage), which means that there will be six enemies left which you need to shoot. Because I've just destroyed black with black, however, I can also absorb lots of the black bullets which spray everywhere and immediately missile again! I wish I could missile away household chores as efficiently. Due to the speed at which you destroy this wave with this method, the game sends another two easy sets for you to end the prologue with 22 max chain and approximately 400, 000 points. If you're looking to practise and understand the systems, I'd say that's the first goal. Beyond the prologue, pretty much everything else is applying the same rules and approach to an increasing variety of enemies, waves and bosses. Once you have your strategy, spacing and timing, it's just about improving your execution. I'll quote myself:
Stanshall wrote:
July 8th, 2018, 8:58 pm

There's a short series of four mini bosses, each with two rotating ships. That makes for four chains. If you switch polarity you can destroy them pretty easily and quickly. Black on the right hand white ships, switch to the other side and fire white on the black, rinse and repeat. It's consistent and pretty easy. But to really improve the speed, my next move must be white on white, fire missiles, absorb and immediately missile (white) on the black to the left. Switch polarity to black, finish them off, absorb and then immediately missile black to the next white boss. Switch to white and finish it off quickly, absorb then fire white missiles, switch to black, finish the final mini boss and absorb. That will then trigger a good few more bonus rows, which require some pretty tricky timing, spacing and execution. I reckon I can probably get another eight or so chains there as well as all the bonus points for shots absorbed. It is bloody hard, though! It's my next goal, nevertheless.
After trying and failing many times over the last couple of days, I literally dreamed about Ikaruga last night, I dreamed about that first chapter, turned it on at lunch today and nailed that section above on the first attempt. It was all about taking a full charge in and I melted the four bosses in about five seconds. No S class yet but A+ is a significant step forward.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by KSubzero1000 » July 10th, 2018, 2:21 pm

Hey man, thanks a lot for the extensive write-up! I shall put all this into practice and report back. :)

Stanshall wrote:
July 10th, 2018, 2:06 pm
It's like reading a prose translation of the Aeneid, when the verse form itself is so fundamental to the beauty and intention of the work.
Vergil fanboy, huh? Is this you?

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:lol:

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Stanshall » July 10th, 2018, 2:53 pm

Haha, close enough. I love how he's swapped that lovely blue coat for bed sheets!

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by KSubzero1000 » July 11th, 2018, 4:57 pm

Okay, so I went back to it today and I've completed the first chapter several times now. I even got the trophy for completing a stage without firing a shot! I think I've gotten used to the absorption mechanic now - knowing when and where to switch can indeed make an enormous difference.

Next hurdle for me is the combo system. I understand how it works in theory, but I don't find it intuitive to say the least. It's the triple chain concept that is opaque, especially when it (seemingly arbitrarily?) goes up when shooting a boss, despite me not seeing any singular enemies of that color being destroyed by my shots. The missiles also largely turn out to be constant combo breakers for me.

To be continued.

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Re: Ikaruga

Post by Stanshall » July 11th, 2018, 6:32 pm

Hmm, it shouldn't be the case that the combo adds up at all without you destroying an enemy. In fact, I'm pretty certain that it doesn't. Which boss are you referring to? When you reach the end of chapter boss (with sword and shield), the combo meter disappears, in fact.

The triple chain system is built into how the waves come at you. You'll find that they always come in threes or sixes, or multiples thereof. One of the easiest sections to mess up numerically and accurately is the 2-2-4-4-4-4-2-2 wave where the alternating rows appear at the same time but there are various methods to do that quickly so you're not aiming every shot very carefully.

I think it's probably fair to say that I'm never counting up to three, but rather I know the points where the threes will break down if I don't stop firing. When you reach the section with the large black and white ships which rotate around the screen while the double column of smaller ships moves down, even there you have multiple sets of three. Each large ship has eight turrets. Destroy them first, then the ship itself and there's your chain. Repeat for each of the other ships. Completely ignore the double column for the moment, that's the hardest part of the level (and the bit I need for S class!).

Glad to hear you're getting into it and making progress. Keep us posted!

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