Power-Ups and Pitfalls: Ikaruga and Nights into Dreams…

[Our series, Power-Ups and Pitfalls, examines truly innovative and exceptional examples of level design in games.]

Level design is easily one of the most important disciplines in the video game industry. Things like an interesting art style, deep characters, and exciting new mechanics are all well and good but the entire game falls apart if the levels (the vehicles through which the player experiences the art, controls said characters, and preforms the mechanics) are poorly made. And that’s why we’re starting this Power-Ups and Pitfalls series, to highlight exceptional and interesting examples of level design (that and because writing about it’s a hell of a lot of fun). Both of the games we’re looking at this week manage to create fast paced and exciting levels that capitalize fully on the unique mechanics these games offer. So, without further ado:

Ikaruga (2001)

The game’s unique mechanics make this fight easier than it appears.

Like most shmupsIkaruga is a brutally difficult game– at least it’s difficult to play well (the more attempts you make, the more continues you unlock). However, what sets Ikaruga apart from other shmups is it’s simplicity. While most other games of this genre focus on gathering as many power-ups as possible to survive the extremely difficult levels (and not dying and losing said power-ups for future attempts), Ikaruga doesn’t feature speed boosts or spread shots. It structures all of its levels around one simple mechanic, the ability switch your ship’s polarity between light and dark and absorb the enemy shots of whichever polarity you currently have. Absorbing enough shots will fill up a meter at the bottom of the screen that will allow you to fire a salvo of homing missiles of either polarity. Also, in order to add  a risk/reward element to the gameplay, your shots do extra damage to enemies of the opposite polarity, meaning that you’ll destroy a white enemy faster with dark polarity even though you’ll be vulnerable to it’s light shots.

Don’t worry, it get’s tougher.

The first level of Ikaruga is comparatively easy to the rest of the game. The game gives the player plenty of room to fly around the screen and, at least at the beginning, enemies don’t fire so frequently. This gives the player plenty of time to experiment with the game’s unique mechanics and get a feel for how to play. In order to defeat the first boss (pictured above), you need to be familiar with the basics of the polarity system. The second level forces the player to deal with more shots of differing polarity at the same time while making the player fly through a narrow pathways for much of the stage. Level three is where things really get tougher as it takes the narrow navigating room and increased enemy fire of level two and makes you deal with it at a much faster pace. The fourth level increases the rate of enemy fire significantly and the boss does the same, but gives you a minuscule amount of maneuvering room. Finally, the short fifth stage bombards you with projectiles of the same polarity, to get you in the habit of rapidly filling up your meter and using your super attack constantly, a strategy that will prove invaluable on the final boss.

So as you can see, Ikaruga does a stellar job of using its mechanics to create varied and increasingly challenging levels, the basis of good level design in nearly any game, but that’s only the half of it. You can play through the entire game without dying at all (a very difficult feat), and still get low rankings (C and C-) on all the levels. That’s because you weren’t taking full advantage of your scoring opportunities. Shooting three enemies of the same color will initiate a chain set at one, killing three more enemies of the same color (they can be the opposite color of the first three though) will set your chain at two, and so forth. The higher you get this chain, the higher the multiplier will be for your score and the higher your rank at the end of the stage. Surviving a stage in this game while making sure to only shoot an enemy of the color you need requires a huge amount of skill and planning, making Ikaruga’s levels optionally even more complex, while still catering to more casual players, since you can just choose to ignore the score and concentrate on surviving. This feat is why Ikaruga truly excels in level design and is definitely a game to check out, especially if you like shmups. Also, the boss theme kicks huge amounts of ass.

Nights into Dreams… (1996)

Not exactly the most self-explanatory game.

Nights into Dreams is one of those games (like Pikmin or Katamari) that is truly unlike anything else out there. What genre does it belong to? The game is a mix of adventure, action, flight, racing, even bobsledding. The game let’s you play as one of two kids (each one has four stages to play through), who have to travel to another world through their dreams to free a magic jester named Nights who then has to collect four multi colored crystals called Ideya while avoiding enemies within a time limit so he can fight the boss of the level *gasp for air*. So yeah, this isn’t the easiest game to describe. Essentially, while you’re controlling one of the kids (while searching for Nights at the beginning of the stage or after running out of time), the game is a 3D platformer/adventure, and while controlling Nights (flying around to destroy the cages the Ideya are kept in), flying as if in a 2.5D game.

In dreams, even flying through rings is fun.

Like Ikaruga, Night’s levels are entertaining, challenging, and certainly unique even when stripped down to the bare minimum needed in order to finish. But these levels also become incredibly hard to master for players who want to earn the highest possible score. During the Nights sections, which are the vast majority of the game, (if you’re good, you’ll only control the kids briefly at the start of a level), the player must collect twenty blue chips to destroy the cage holding one of the four Ideya. These chips are placed in such a way that the player can usually collect twenty within the time limit and recover the Ideya, which will allow the player to complete the stage with an adequate score. However, by exploring the levels, players can uncover hidden caches blue chips letting them claim the Ideya faster and use the remaining time to score extra points, by flying through rings, collecting stars, and other trinkets. In order to unlock the final stage in both of the kids’ quests, players must earn at least a C rank on the three previous levels. So the game forces the players to engage in some of this level exploration in order to complete the game. Some players may stop there, but the developers are hoping that this will hook other players into going for A ranks on all the levels. They’re essentially easing players into a more hardcore play-style in order to make the game (which is very different from any other) less daunting– the design allows players to “opt in” to higher levels of difficulty through exploration.

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