First things first: Props must be given to Atari and any company that, in this age of 3D excess, will publish a 2D shooter. Far from dead—and, in fact, about to enjoy quite the renaissance, thanks to the upcoming Gradius and R-Type games—the genre gets a much-needed breath of life thanks to the incoming Ikaruga.

As import-savvy gamers already know, this game is the spiritual successor to the Japan-only Saturn title Radiant Silvergun. The Ebay holy grail of 2D shooters (a copy typically sells for $200), Silvergun combined a limited but well-balanced selection of weapons, RPG-like elements, a compelling story, and graphics that still hold their own against next-generation efforts like Silpheed (PS2).

While Ikaruga emulates Silvergun’s ship designs, the similarities end there; the ultra-streamlined combat engine (no power-ups or smart-bombs) is unlike anything we’ve played before. The game requires you to switch your ship from black to white at the touch of a button; if your ship is white, you can absorb the enemy’s white shots (thus charging up for your special attack) but can be destroyed by black shots. Your own shots can twice as effectively destroy enemies of the opposite color, making for an innovative premise that, when applied to a 2D scrolling shooter, elevates Ikaruga from the realm of traditional shooters. And therein lies the rub.

The best shooters give a gamer the ultimate ship and then pit him against endless waves of enemies. You know you’re playing a great shooter when you find yourself “in the zone,” instinctively gliding through hundreds of shots. It’s ironic, then, that Ikaruga, as one of the best-looking blasters ever, makes it impossible to enjoy the sights: Against every shooter instinct in your body, you’re always hurtling toward certain shots while trying to avoid others (and steering clear of enemy ships and solid background objects). It’s a claustrophobic eye-dryer whose thrills are offset by the demands it places on the gamer. Innovative even when not compared to Silvergun, at heart, Ikaruga is a thoroughbred—an intense, no-nonsense shooter that’s strictly for the hardcore, and only slightly worse for it.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in GMR Magazine.