Over the last few days, inspired by Ikaruga’s temporary half-pricedness thanks to Xbox Live’s often maligned Deal of the Week (this was how to do it right, Microsoft; more please), I’ve been revisiting a few old favorites from the last decade or so of gaming. And they all involve shooting things!
Let’s start with Ikaruga itself. It’s a top-down scrolling shoot-’em-up of the very old school variety, as one would expect from developer Treasure, but with a couple of twists. After twenty-something years of learning to avoid all enemy fire in games of this ilk, Ikaruga actually expects you to unlearn this extremely base impulse. At the press of a button, you can change your ship from white to black and back again, and you’ll immediately notice that every enemy is based on one of these colors also – and their shots will match their color. The trick is that enemy fire the opposite color to you is lethal, but the same color is actually beneficial, charging up your only power-up weapon as you collect the energy of these shots. Also, you deal double damage to enemies the opposite color to you. The first couple of minutes of the game introduces this unique mechanic simply enough, but it’s not long before the game bombards you with both black and white at the same time; and after the first level it will demand of you very accurate and fast color-switching just to survive. In HD on the Xbox 360 the game’s visuals – 3D despite its 2D gameplay – look absolutely incredible, and it was pretty enough to begin with in its older incarnations in arcades and on the Dreamcast in Japan, and latterly on the Gamecube worldwide. It’s a savagely hard but extremely satisfying game that really puts an interesting spin on one of gaming’s oldest styles of gameplay.
Gradius V, on the PlayStation 2, is another example of an old-style 2D shoot-’em-up with 3D graphics, this time a side-scroller and part of one of the most storied and venerable franchises in that genre. Coincidentally, like Ikaruga, it was also developed by Treasure. Mechanically, though, it’s far more traditional – anyone who’s played any of the older Gradius games will be instantly at home with the game’s classic power-up system, where you get to pick and choose what to get as you go along with a mere button-press at the right time. Gradius V also is slightly more forgiving than its predecessors, allowing you to re-collect your Multiples (glowing indestructible orbs that follow your ship’s movement and mimic your shots for extra firepower) when you die. The Multiples – called Options in the Japanese release and older games in the series – also have an extra use determined by your choice of power-up array when you start the game or use a continue: they can be held in place, rotate their shots, be assigned a fixed formation, and more. The genius level design, which takes a lot of cues from its predecessors, makes all these variants useful if you keep a clear head, especially since your ship is always facing to the right but threats can come at you from any direction in some places. Gradius V is, again, an extremely hard game, but it plays fair; you initially start with three continues, and every hour you play, it unlocks another continue for you to use when you’re out of lives. When it hits 15, it unlocks free play, so you have unlimited continues. The level design is also so good that you never feel like the game’s actually being unfairly hard; you know that when you died, it’s because you screwed up, and you know how you could make it through next time; and make it through you will, progressing further and further into its ever more challenging levels. It’s a PS2-exclusive game so far, but hopefully it will come to one or more of the modern consoles’ download services eventually – its already beautiful graphics would look fantastic in HD. It also sports a phenomenal soundtrack that complements the action perfectly.
Unreal Tournament is a name known to most gamers with even a passing knowledge of first-person shooters. Originally a spin-off from Unreal, and released in late 1999 to compete with Quake III Arena, UT ditched the story mode completely and focused entirely on multiplayer. Okay, that’s not strictly true – it does have a rudimentary campaign that involves playing a series of matches with and against AI bots, but it’s totally optional since the only unlock is the character model of the final boss character. The bots, essentially NPCs or AI players, are actually one of UT’s standout features. Whereas many similar games – Quake III included – only ever seemed to ramp up the bots’ accuracy with guns as you turned their skill up, UT’s bots actually get smarter; varying their tactics, defending themselves more carefully, running different paths around the levels but never quite being infallible. Not far off human opponents, at least by the genre’s standards. And make no mistake, this is a game about sheer, unadulterated carnage. Throw out your tactical plans and cover mechanics, and warm up that twitch instinct. Looking back on UT, it’s amazing how well it’s aged. The first incarnation of the now-ubiquitous Unreal Engine, upgraded from the first Unreal game, is not only extremely efficient in its use of power (a 200MHz Pentium with no 3D acceleration at all can actually run the game quite playably, albeit in a low resolution, so rest assured it will run on almost literally anything – good news for netbook owners wanting to shoot stuff), but also scales well to look pretty decent even now, happily playing with any graphics hardware you can find at any resolution or aspect ratio with nary a hiccup. You won’t mistake it for Crysis, say, but it looks good; much credit is due to both its art style – the best Epic have ever had, in my opinion – and its pioneering use of translucent detail textures (enable them by delving into the hidden preferences menu, accessed by hitting the tilde key and typing “preferences” into the console) that can still put some modern games to shame. The action is perfectly tuned and absolutely relentless, the weapon selection is spectacular, the vast number of maps are also consistently brilliant (as seen by how often many have been revisited in subsequent UT games), the game modes are all great fun and can be heavily tweaked by a huge array of “mutators”, control is spot-on and there are a ton of mods and new maps to be had for free online that the game makes a snap to install. Whether you play it alone (with bots) or as it was truly intended with up to fifteen other people online or over a LAN, the original UT – on PC, not one of the watered-down console ports – still holds up as one of the greatest first-person shooters ever made, and still for me it remains Epic’s finest game.