As a brief aside to start off, I think it’s only fair to tell you all that I’m no longer very good at Ikaruga.
There was probably a time where I was passable at Ikaruga, when I’d play at least an hour or two a day, training my videogame muscles to twitch movements and split second decisions. Where I could usually get to the level three boss without needing a continue, at the very least. But that was in college, when I could spare an hour away every day to pursue the passion of mastering an unmasterable system. Now I’m absolutely horrid at the game.
That’s an overstatement, but I find myself frustrated by my inability to do any of the deft, quick, and ultimately calming moves I was able to do 10 years ago (please use this sentence in any context for a quick joke at my expense). But far from making me appreciate Ikaruga less, it’s made me appreciate the game more. Because like Dark Souls, Ikaruga really has no concern for its player; difficulty is a feature, not a bug. But unlike Dark Souls, Ikaruga gives you every mechanic up front in a simple, straightforward mechanic. So while Dark Souls is difficult, mysterious, and frustrating, Ikaruga is difficult and absolutely transparent in its goals. Shoot everything and try to survive by using the game’s one rule: white can’t hurt white and black can’t hurt black.
Taking a second to defuse the racial overtones — there’s no there there in Ikaruga as regards social critique, trust me — black and white here are literal colors, the only two kinds of bullet types you see in the game. Each enemy ship in the game can shoot either black or white bullets. Your ship — and this is big if you read, like, the plot summary, which plays into the game not at all — is specially designed to switch polarities, being able to shoot black or white bullets. When your ship is in black mode, it can absorb black bullets, and vice versa for white mode. White bullets hurt black ships more; black bullets hurt white ships more; same colored bullets will often cause ships to fire back at you after they die (unless you’re in hard mode, where every ship shoots back). If you absorb enough energy, you can let out a super attack (at which point you begin charging again.
And this might seem complex! It kind of is, but it’s premised on the almost absurdly simple structure of your ship: you can switch between black and white and absorb same color bullets. The game operates completely through this Manichean split between polarities. It’s that simple mechanical twist that lets Ikaruga be the rare bullet hell that does not include powerups as the equalizer between you and the hordes of enemies fighting you. What you see on the first screen of the game is what you get until the end.
And this is what I find so fascinating about Ikaruga. The game, much like popular games in the real world like baseball, functions within the bounds determined by its initial rule-set. The philosophy of the game, whether it lives or dies as an experience, is bound up in the one-line description you could give of the game’s plot: you’re a ship, you fight a bunch of dudes, and you can change color.
In a large sense, this rule injects a pathos into Ikaruga as well, however unlikely that might seem from my cursory description. Each level begins with a short prose-poem about futility, and the game itself opens with the somewhat foreboding legend “I will not die until I achieve something. / Even though the ideal is high, I never give in. / Therefore, I never die with regrets.”
I realize that this sounds like something that someone would get tattooed under a backpiece of Shinji Ikari, but bear with me. The poem isn’t profound, but the sentiment is interesting given the difficulty of the game and the artistry of it. The “ideal” of Ikaruga is perfection: completion, as effectively impossible as even that seems, isn’t enough. To really perfect the game, to kill enemies in groups of same-colored threes to build your points multiplier, to play the game with the style and contemplative calm that it implicitly asks — that’s the ideal. And it’s basically impossible. As you’ll see through my video posted on the patreon (www.patreon.com/Hegelbon — free videos for a little while longer, but not forever), I can keep up the combo perfection through…uh, 45 seconds of gameplay, maybe. And that’s not on hard mode, which killed me but fast.
And certainly there are people who can complete the ideal of perfect Ikaruga style; I’m sure a simple youtube search would pull a bunch up. But the point of the game’s dour poetry is that, really, the attempt is the beautiful thing. The ideal is high, and you really have no choice but to go for it if you’re playing the game. Even if you aim for bare completion, it’s no easy task. And so when you die (inevitably), it isn’t so bad. There’s none of the frustration, for me, in Ikaruga; it’s calming, which is absolutely counter intuitive. But part of that comes from the fact that a) you know the rules you’re to expect from frame one, and b) that you can understand from even a cursory playthrough that those rules stack the deck against you tremendously.
But importantly, the deck is not stacked against you totally. It is not impossible to beat Ikaruga nor is it impossible to complete Hard Mode with perfect combo scores. It’s perfectly possible because the rules and the game design insist that it’s possible. Simple rules require deeply careful design to complete the contractual obligation they imply. Because Ikaruga isn’t anomalous — all videogames rely upon more or less complex rule-sets to determine their playability. And just as foul lines in baseball need to be measured and remeasured to be sure that they are standard, fair, and won’t get in the way of the game itself but determine its course appropriately, videogames need to be sure that the rules don’t get in the way of the work itself. Ikaruga is directed and determined by its rules, yes, but the other end of that contract with the player is the developer promising that, yes, if you commit to these rules, you can reach the end of the game.
And this is perhaps another reason that Ikaruga is calming. Life rarely gives us these assurances: most of the time, halfway through a difficult slog professionally or personally, we might start wondering what we’re guaranteed by playing out the string and trying to finish. And the answer is “well, nothing?” There’s no right way or clear rule in life to follow to succeed, sadly. In Ikaruga there is, however. And no matter how often one dies, one also has to know that the contract is there, set in stone: the game is beatable because the artistry and balance of the game’s rules demand that it must be.
I am unsure if this makes Ikaruga more an analogue to tromp l’oeil or Oulipo, whether the game is a well-wrought urn or a master-class in creating under constraint. It’s ultimately, I guess, a bit of both. But in order to be about constraint, as I think it most interestingly is, the game needs a player to engage with it on its own terms. The contract, in other words, needs to be signed by beginning the game, and as a result the cheesy prose poem that opens the game is a handshake as well. Ikaruga tells you that the ideal is nearly impossible, and you agree to go for it for the promise that there’s no regret or shame in falling short.
If videogames are to have a true, unique pathos as a medium, it might very well be a distillation of this. Agree and expect to fall short, knowing there’s no shame in taking a work of art on its own terms.