The greatest vertical shooter ever made is now available on PC. “Bullet hell” shooters fill the screen with waves of instant death and it’s your job to kill it all. They’re such pure expressions of arcade joy that ten pence pieces start forming in my pocket even when I’m playing it at home. They’re based on awareness and reflexes and a wonderfully important shift in priorities: you might want to detonate everything, but you definitely need to stay in one piece to do that, and every time you die it’s because you let your destructive impulses win. It’s the Force applied to arcade games.
Games like 1942 may be Bullet Hell, but Ikaruga takes Dante’s Inferno and selects “Flatten All Layers”, squeezing nine hells into one beautiful hellish vision but one wise player can still get all the way through unscathed. Just like the Catholic sinner version, the most important part of a bullet hell is knowing that it’s all your fault. It’s easy to fill a screen with dots. It’s hard to arrange those dots in a way which will kill people without really upsetting them. The game lives or dies based on whether your deaths are “bullshit!” or “aughh, next time!” Which is where Ikaruga’s incredibly simple genius comes in: it has a “don’t die” button and it’s your fault if you didn’t press it.
All enemy fire is either black or white, if you’re the same color it charges your superweapon instead of shooting you, and you can flip any time. This releases the game from wimpy constraints like “ever having a single spot of the screen which isnt’ covered in laser fire”, and it embraces this newfound freedom with the fury of a thousand killer suns. It is amazing. Later levels are like being inside three competing fireworks displays, a murderous Mandelbrot set, and a killer crossword, simultaneously, and it’s always your fault if you die and it is glorious.
It’s Buddhist reincarnation as a game mechanic. You don’t get upset about dying, you know what you did wrong, and you know you can do better and reach a higher level next time. And you’ll keep going until you finish it and break free of a cycle you now see is only an incredible game. A game wrapped in gorgeous giant mech design, stirring music, and scraps of scene text giving the impression of an entire intelligent world adding depth to your two-dimensional quest to get up and end everything you meet. Even the level intro text paragraphs understands the gameplay, because you don’t have quite enough time to read it all at once. They know you’ll be back.
And when you’re done there’s the insane difficulty mode where you can only fire out bullets you’ve absorbed first. You wonderful lunatic.
More glorious games with
- The Retro Gaming Drinking Experiment: Behold one man versus the Manic Miner, Battletoads, and more!
- New Classes for Counter-Strike.