It’s been years since I’ve played a good 2D shoot-em-up (or shmup, as the kids today seem to call them), but I just couldn’t ignore the release of Ikaruga on Xbox Live Arcade this week. It looks awesome, but the gameplay is definitely old-school, so the closest thing to a save system is that you can choose a specific level to play once you’ve unlocked it.

The concept and controls are simple, with no power-ups or alternate weapons to speak of. Instead, there’s a “polarity” system — enemy ships and bullets can be either black and white, and you can switch the colour of your ship to match. Hitting bullets that match your polarity charges up a smartbomb-style weapon, while hitting opposite bullets kills you instantly. The game is full of moments where it’s all-but impossible to dodge every bullet, so getting through depends on your ability to switch polarities in time with the flow of bullets.

It’s as hard as nails, so I’m not sure why it’s so compelling, but it probably has something to do with the fact that each time you play, you seem to get just a little further, until you find yourself flitting through situations that left you dead dozens of times over before.

listen, buddy

Perhaps I’m strange, but I really don’t like earbud headphones. I’ve tried a few models over the years, but in every case, they sound awful, and they’re far from comfortable in my ears. The worst offenders are usually the buds that get bundled in with players — including those ubiquitous white iPod buds — since they’re made on a budget of cents rather than dollars, so they can’t help but sound bad. One of the bullet-points on the back of my Walkman box is “premium” buds, compared to the “standard” buds that come with the cheaper S618 Walkman model, but given that I already had a decent set of near-full-size portable headphones, I didn’t give it a second thought.

Unfortunately, my headphones are a bit fucked at the moment — I got the cable caught on something on the bus the other day, and it actually shredded the wire inside the cable to pieces, so they’re out of action until I can replace the cable. In desperation, I grabbed my new pack-in buds, and to my surprise, they’re actually really good.

They’re not actually earbuds, you see, but rather canalphones, as described by Dan Rutter here. They have squishy rubber bits on the end that actually go in to your ear canal, and even though these are fairly low-end examples, the result is that they can reproduce frequencies right across the spectrum. I still don’t find them super-comfortable, but they do seem a touch better in that regard too — I guess my ears prefer having squishy things in them than hard plastic things just outside them. I won’t be using them forever, nor will I be dropping $200-300 on a pair of high-quality canalphones, but it’s handy to know that I have tiny things that I can throw in my pocket that still sound good.