There are few games out there that call out the hardcore gamers like Ikaruga. Simply mentioning it on a game related forum will get you plenty of conversation, bragging and links to YouTube videos that show people that are clearly not human playing this game like it was an art. Perhaps the concept of playing Ikaruga like an art form isn't too far off the truth. Containing some of the most frantic gameplay ever devised you can literally spend hours playing and never get past the first stage.
But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves, let's discuss the game itself. The basic premise of Ikaruga is about as simple as it gets. You will control one of the Ikaruga and you will be destroying all of the enemy ships in your path. There is a storyline here but it is more or less irrelevant to the path of destruction you must cut through the game. Something to do with the pilot of Ikaruga, Shinra, being a resistance fighter that was shot down near a village that had built the ultimate fighter plane, the (you guessed it) Ikaruga. What makes this ship so special is its ability to switch polarities, something no other ship is able to do. Now Shinra is bringing the fight to the enemy with his newly created super-ship and taking down the evil overlord who is taking over the world.
Ikaruga plays just like every other top down shooter for the most part but it has one thing that sets it apart and forms the crux of the games intensity; the duality system. The two ships you control have two polarity configurations, the white and black, and each has total immunity to attacks of that color while your shots will do double damage to enemies of opposing colors. This means you will be trying to balance how often you stay each color so that you can destroy enemies easier without staying that one color too long and getting destroyed. Seeing as how the screen will often be full of energy attacks of both colors at almost all times you will be constantly flipping back and forth between black and white, absorbing attacks and destroying enemies as you go. It gets hectic on even the easiest difficulty level.
Absorbing attacks not only protects you but it also fills a meter along the bottom of your screen. This is your special meter and it allows you to unleash powerful homing laser blasts. This only further adds to the chaos since you will be diving around the screen, absorbing some attacks while dodging others and blasting at your foes only to release a huge laser blast. It can do more harm than good at times, especially against bosses, where it can sometimes obscure enemy attacks but it's still incredibly helpful.
The whole system works so well but the developers knew how good it was. Since you can be immune to one attack at all times you will traditionally find yourself literally flying through waves of enemy blasts. So while you are flying through a wave of white energy blasts, happily ignoring the attacks, suddenly an enemy will appear and begin firing off black bursts all over the screen forcing you to literally dance. It's hard to adjust to this at first but it soon becomes quite thrilling. One thing this game never is, is boring.
While impossible to call Ikaruga a powerhouse the game still looks really good, especially the scrolling backgrounds. Particle effects about and bursts of energy will fly all over the screen with nary a drop of slowdown in sight. It doesn't look good enough for HD graphics fanatics to pick it up based on looks alone but it is still incredibly serviceable. On the other hand the sound is a bit sparse and very forgettable.
With the addition of local and online co-op modes you can easily play through the game with a friend, something you might find to be a necessity as you try to master the game. If you're willing to invest the time and energy to learn how to play the game and master its unique combat mechanics then you are in for a quite enjoyable time. For just 800 Microsoft points you get what is possibly one of the best games released on the Xbox Live Arcade and the single best top-down shoot 'em up of all time.