The Agency Group is my effort to create a Criterion Collection for gaming; the name comes from the definition of "agency" related to choice. Over the next few weeks, I'm planning on daily posts detailing which games I believe should qualify for this honor, preserved for influential classics in gaming. Here's my original post on the subject, which should explain the basic concept in more detail.

Yesterday I covered Deus Ex, an expansive and acclaimed FPS/RPG hybrid that has spawned a sequel and prequel while constantly appearing at or near the top of numerous lists celebrating the best in video gaming. Today's inductee is considerably smaller: a five-level, two-button, extraordinarily difficult shoot-'em-up that finds beauty and challenge in simplicity, both with its art style and gameplay.

Ikaruga

  • Released: 2001
  • Dev/Pub: Treasure
  • Platform: Arcade

Treasure Co. could've easily had multiple titles make the Agency Group, and will assuredly be one of the better-represented developers as the classes roll out. Gunstar Heroes nearly made this first class, and both Sin and Punishment and Radiant Silvergun have maintained their status as high-quality, classic games through time. But I chose a spiritual sequel to Silvergun...why?

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Ikaruga deserves its spot in the Agency Group because of what it isn't. Especially within the shoot-'em-up genre, developers tend to hew towards complexity. Tens of different enemies spaced across fifty levels, with different ships, weapons, powerups, etc. They'll include increasingly expansive storylines and try their hand at deep character development and crazy twists when they really arent' necessary.

The shoot-'em-up is a type of game that has remained essentially unchanged since Galaga and Space Invaders. Sure, the ships are shinier and the enemies have multiplied, but the gameplay is still largely the same. Ikaruga, instead of going "bigger", fully embraces that legacy by building something excellent within admittedly limited parameters, and serving as one of the last great examples of this dying - but no less vibrant - genre.

The entire game is built on one mechanic: polarity. Your ship can switch between white and black; while the ship is one color, it absorbs bullets of the same color and is destroyed by bullets of the opposite color. Additionally, enemies of the opposite color are dealt double damage when shot, but be warned, they will fire back. Frequently.

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The challenge comes through the near-choreographed dance the player must perform to survive the incoming onslaught and destroy your enemies, all while constantly switching polarities. That's "all" you do: fire with one button, switch with another, and move as smoothly as possible, with the occasional bomb to detonate. And yet the game invokes an almost trance-like state very quickly, interrupted only by short cutscenes detailing the little storyline Treasure did include.

Just when you think you've conquered the challenge of one of Ikaruga's five levels, you encounter its boss and, without sounding too clichéd...all hell breaks loose.

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I owned this for Gamecube a while back and so help me I could never best the ridiculous challenge of the game's "later" levels. It took enough out of me to even attempt a high score in the first level; the player can increase their score by destroying sets of three enemies with matching polarity in a row. The longer the streak continues, the higher your score rises, though the balance between boosting your score and staying alive is extremely delicate.

Replay value doesn't come through finding Easter eggs - there basically aren't any - or conquering every possible level and side-quest. Instead, like the classic arcade shooters before it, you are presented with a singular test: break the high score. There's a reason that worked so well in the 70s and 80s...a straightforward challenge allows for focus, drive, and moments of true greatness. Plus, while attempting such an arduous task, you can appreciate the simple brilliance of Ikaruga's black and white dynamic.

A vibrant online community developed once Ikaruga was ported to the late, great Dreamcast and Gamecube, and that spirit continued through the leaderboards built into the game for its 2008 Xbox Live Arcade re-release. If you're up for the challenge, this game will reward you despite its short running time, and bring an amazing sense of peace and satisfaction once it's done.

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Ikaruga masks a deep level of difficulty within an easily understandable, binary dynamic and further proves that excellence in gaming can come in packages that aren't just hundred-hour AAA experiences. Sometimes, excellence comes in two colors...and a hail of bullets.

You can download Ikaruga on XBLA or Android...if you're really committed, Dreamcast and Gamecube copies are available online , though you'll likely have to pay a pretty penny.

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Next up: The Godfather.

*Photo Credits to The GAF Collection, Electric Blue Skies, and Wikipedia*