Ah, the vertically scrolling shooter. It hasn't really been a videogame genre I've been overly enthusiastic for since my Spectrum days, but when I heard about Nanostray, it piqued my interest. Perhaps it was that 'Old Skool' appeal, or maybe I've just gotten tired of playing derivative FPS titles... After a few minutes' play, it becomes very obvious that despite the upwardly-spiralling power of gaming hardware in the last twenty years, the scrolling shooter has remained a genre that's been relatively untouched by the technical revolution. The more things change, the more they stay the same; a trite way to sum up the scrolling shooter genre, but an accurate one. Other than looking a heck of a lot prettier than genre progenitor Xevious, the fundamentals of Nanostray are essentially the same: learn enemy wave patterns and blow up stuff for a High Score.
No detailed breakdown of controls is necessary here - suffice to say, if you've played any shooter from the last five years you've probably seen it all before: standard weapons, secondary power weapons, smart bomb, etc. However, without having any peers in the genre on the DS, Nanostray is certainly worth investigating if you want to satisfy your twitch-gaming urges.
The game has four modes of play: Adventure mode, with which you unlock stages for the other two Single-player modes; Arcade mode; Challenge mode; plus the Multiplayer game. I'll start with the Multiplayer and get it out of the way first, as you probably will too, because frankly, it's rather rubbish. The Multiplayer mode has four dedicated stages for head-to-head play, but I didn't find them nearly as challenging or interesting as the Single-player levels. Multiplayer games have two end conditions that you can select - Timeout or Sudden Death. Sudden Death does exactly what it says on the tin: you have one life, and if you lose it, you forfeit the game. Timeout, however, will let the game run until the victory condition of one of the four Multiplayer game types has been achieved.
'Given the wireless capabilities of the DS, a co-op mode for the Adventure levels really should have been included...'
It's all fairly self-explanatory; the 60-second and 120-second modes are quick smash-and-grab rushes for points; the 25k mode is likewise a race to see who reaches a score of 25,000 the quickest; and the final game type is the most interesting - Bonus Race. This game type is a timed run, where the two players try to grab as many bonus power-ups dropped by destroying enemy waves as they can. The hook is that not all of the power-ups are beneficial. Whilst some speed you up and others contribute to your score, others prevent you from firing or drastically cut your movement rate, which is invariably fatal if you're playing in Sudden Death mode. Perhaps "rubbish" is a bit harsh, but given the quality of the Single-player game, the Multiplayer doesn't really cut the mustard. Given the wireless capabilities of the DS, a co-op mode for the Adventure levels really should have been included and must be considered to be an opportunity missed.
The Single-player mode, therefore, is where it's really at, and the natural starting point for Nanostray players is by necessity the Adventure mode. The eight Single-player levels are broken up by difficulty: three levels of 'Low Resistance', another three of 'Medium Resistance' and two of 'High Resistance'. You need to conquer all of the levels in the 'Low' bracket before being able to progress to 'Medium'. After mastering the medium difficulty levels, the two 'High Resistance' levels are given to you one at a time. The Adventure mode has three difficulty levels, Normal, Advanced and Expert. Normal allows you unlimited game continues (a bit like "Insert Credit" on an arcade cabinet), lets you have five ships per credit and gives you three smart bombs per life. Advanced and Expert cut down on the number of ships you have per credit (4 for Advanced and 3 for Expert), reduce the number of smart bombs you get after being killed and both modes only allow you to continue three times. The learning curve is well judged; though expect to play a level a dozen or more times before you pick up its nuances, especially if your twitch-gaming neural pathways are a bit flabby. The stage design is good, and whilst the movement is essentially restricted to a 2D plane, there is a real sense of height and depth. Some enemies can even be flown under without jeopardising your ship, though it takes some experimentation to find out which ones.
Nanostray, it must be said, is one of the most graphically impressive titles on the DS and a very handsome shooter. The texture quality is excellent given the relatively puny processing power of the DS and the vibrant stage backgrounds add lots of atmosphere to the game; the viciously erupting gouts of lava spewing from Hibashira Plains and the ultra-hostile urban sprawl of Chuuroh City rank amongst my favourites. All in-game objects are rendered fully in 3D, and it's a pleasant surprise to find that the frame rate rarely suffers from all the polygons being pushed. There are a few dips in animation speed when you have lots of enemies and pyrotechnics being drawn simultaneously on-screen, but nothing which hampers game play too much.
The eight weapon effects are pleasing on the eye (especially the power weapon effects), and each weapon occupies a useful niche, whether it be in wave destruction or in Boss battles. Enemy variety and design is good, and there's always something nice to look at on the screen (mainly to distract the unfocussed from concentrating on the bullets, making them lose yet another life). Sonically, the game is also impressive, with satisfyingly chunky sound effects and enthusiastically pulsing techno-themes to accompany the destruction.