In Depth Review: Nanostray [NDS]
Nanostray doesn't set out to reinvent the shmup genre. In fact, it doesn't do anything much too differently at all. It plays in vertical fashion (with a small twist), sends waves of enemies at you, and is content to equip you with readily accessible weapons and smart bombs. Basic gameplay mechanics, emphasis on reflexes and rote memorization, coupled with a fun scoring system, make Nanostray a predictible but highly enjoyable endeavor.
Bad News First.
Nanostray's a top-down vertical shmup in the vein of Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga, but its perspective is skewed to provide more of a "from-behind" point of view. Therefore when you press "up" on the d-pad, you move up but also "into" the screen. Press "down", and you'll move but also "towards you." It's a similar viewpoint to that used in Shin'En's own Iridion and Iridion 2 for the Gameboy Advance, and the Slipheed games for the Sega CD and PS2. This can seem a bit disorienting at first, as you'll have to learn how to guage where enemy shots actually are in the grand scheme of things, and it also carries the unfortunate flaw of restricting your movement such that you can never ever find yourself in the upper-left and upper-right sides of the screen. It's as if, when skewing the perspective, Shin'En forgot that there was empty space for your ship to be able to move in. Therefore, any enemies and coins that appear in the corners of the screen are inaccessible. To me, this is a small design flaw that should have been rectified.
Once you get used to that, you'll have to get used to weapon switching on the touch screen. This will either slightly bug you or immensely frustrate you; I fall in the first boat. It's seriously not difficult at all to remember where the button placement is on the DS' touch screen, and once I learned it in the matter of a minute, I never had to take my eyes off the screen to use my thumb to select the weapons. Yes, my thumb was taken off the "fire" button, but thankfully you're able to use the L button as a secondary fire button. A simple press of the index finger and my ship never had to stop firing. Yet, some will rightfully have fits trying to get used to this mechanic, and it's bizzare that Shin'En didn't include an option to use regular buttons to switch weapons. It would have provided for less hassle, and made the touch screen implementation seem less forced. This is also a design flaw, and a shame given that the DS has more than enough buttons to handle every weapon.
The button layout makes this all the more obvious. A and L each fire a regular shot; B fires a powered-up shot. X launches a screen-clearing smartbomb, of which you have 3 at the start. R "sucks in" coins that are dropped by defeated enemies, which add to your score. The touch screen is used to switch between the four weapons. Why not an option where each face button is a different weapon? You could hold down L to trigger the powered-up version, and tap anywhere on the touch screen to activate a smart bomb. Opportunities lost, lessons learned.
Weapons of Mass Deshmuption
At least the weapons are fun to use. You're given constant access to four weapons, similar to Radiant Silvergun. The four varieties are the straight shot, a horizontal shot that showers plasma from the sides of your ship, the homing blast which sends two beams of energy that make a slight turn towards the nearest enemy, and finally the lighting bolt - the most useful of the bunch, as the beam both oscillates AND latches onto a single enemy that may wander into its path.
Each weapon has a powered-up variant which drains energy from a finite meter. The first two powered-up variants basically perform the same basic functionality as their normal versions with more screen-dazzling special effects. The powered-up homing shot sends plumes of energy that actually home in directly on a target on the screen, and the lightning weapon's powered version envelopes your ship in streaks of short-ranged lighting that essentially protects you from collisions with lesser enemies.
A negligible gripe with the weapon system is that the lightning truly is the most useful weapon over most everything else the majority of the time, relegating the other three weapons to "special case" usage. Furthermore, defeating large enemies using the lightning shot nets you double the coins that other guns would. The silver lining here, however, is that this will lessen the need to use the touch screen to switch weaponry.
As with most shmups, the weaponry at your disposal is provided to the gamer so that s/he may accumulate mass amounts of pointage. The more obvious goal in shmups is to survive. But the meatier goal is to score more points than that other guy who bragged about his million-point conquest. Instead of being satisfied with just scoring more points the more enemies you defeat, Nanostray does what most shooting games do today and incorporates a more structured scoring system that the gamer can master to maximize his or her score.
Like most shmups, a combination of enemy "waves" and large enemies torment your ship. When you destroy all of the enemies in a wave, not only do they leave behind gold coins; the last enemy leaves behind a blue coin. Normally, the blue coins are used to replenish whatever you've used from your special weapon meter. However, if this meter is already full, each consecutive blue coin that you collect contributes to a running multiplier. The first coin you collect - 500 points. The second, 2 x 500. And so on, until you reach a point where you're netting upwards of 15,000 points per coin (30 x 500). But if you ever use a powered-up weapon, thus depleting some of your weapon meter, you're back to square 1 x 500. So this system encourages you to get better: destroy as many entire waves as you can (no ship left behind), and do it without touching your powered-up weapons.
Another force is at work here, though, in the form of the "Valor" system. There is a set point bonus that's added at each stage's end, but for every frame of animation that you are firing your weapon or sucking in coins with the R button, that point bonus gets depleted. What this does is force you to make sure that you don't fire superfluous shot; every shot must count. It also forces you to man up and grab the coins your damn self, instead of relying on the R button. I like this; to me, the R button is merely a convenience, and I am willing to practice to become a more skilled Nanostray player to get a higher score by grabbing coin bonuses manually.
Finally, the number of lives and smart bombs you still carry after defeating each stage's hulking boss character add 3000 points each to your score. Die less, bomb less, score more. Typical stuff.
Simple. Shmuppy. Difficult.
Past the scoring system, the design of Nanostray is basically that of any good shmup: the waves come in one after the other, not necessarily from the top of the screen and sometimes even surprising you from behind. It's not always easy to get all of the ships in a wave, as their larger cohorts will attempt to thwart you by getting in the way. Bullets cover the area most of the time and, though the formations not as elegant and screen-hogging as something like Ikaruga, can still cause fits for those unitiated in the world of shmups - and unskilled veterans such as myself.
Environmental obstacles are few and far between in some stages, and omnipresent in others. In this sense, Nanostray really does not surprise; it does everything any decent shmup does in terms of throwing enemies at you. While not groundbreaking, it's perfectly acceptable and still fun on the go.
It also offers big bad bosses at the end of each stage, each of which take some patience and a lot of firepower to take down. The typical exposed weakpoints and showers of bullets are present here, forcing you to dodge and weave through patterns of attacks with minimal manuevering room - just like any good ol' shmup would force you to do.
In a nutshell, if you're looking for something new from shmups, look elsewhere. If you want to dive into something familiar and satisfying, Nanostray's gameplay should do the trick - it has for me.
Happy Eyes, Happy Ears
Regardless of what you're looking for in a shmup though, I think it's pretty obvious that Nanostray is a great looking game given the Nintendo DS' 3D capabilities. It takes a cue from, again, Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga, and drops you into a totally polygonal world whose backdrops twist, turn, and rotate. Each stage has a distinctly different feel; you'll start off flying over a beautifully rendered jungle and into a valley over a flowing river. In other stages you'll be skimming the water over what appears to be a submerged city, through a heavily armored structure, and over a blazing volcanic disaster where beams of lava shoot up in an attempt to scare you away.
The ship models look fairly decent, though they aren't anything remarkable or original. The boss ships follow suit - some of them look pretty cool, but fail to evoke the same sense of awe that I felt when looking at Treasure's finest shmup boss creatures. One boss in particular is this pink-red submarine that eventually levitates above the water, and it looks slightly amusing when compared to the other bosses. However, they're certainly not bad designs, and they do their job.
All of this runs at an almost-consistent 60 frames a second - Shin'En would accept no less. The only slowdown occurs when the entire screen is filled with bullets, enemies, and environmental obstacles waiting to destroy you. Otherwise, at first glance, you'll almost wonder, "How did Shin'En port Radiant Silvergun to the DS?" It looks that good.
It sounds pretty good too, though not nearly as memorable or impressive as it looks. Like the gameplay, the music is typical but good shooter fare - nothing epic, heroic or unique, as heard in the aurally masterful Gradius V - but potentially memorable, nonetheless. It's good enough for me to stick into my Videogame Music playlist, that's for sure. The sound effects are standard fare, and there's nothing really to say here unless you really want to hear about how rich the explosions are. They sound glass-shatteringly good - again, like a typical shooter nowadays.
"I'm taking my wife to the back of my car! And I won't be back for ten minutes!"
Alright, so as a shmup, you can expect this game to be - from beginning to end - short lived. The game sports eight stages, each of which lasts about 3 to 5 minutes. Of course, the initial replay value comes from the fact that Nanostray is indeed a challenging affair. Nevermind that your ship can actually withstand more than one hit before it goes down - you will die, a lot, without practice. Finishing the game in under an hour after taking it out of the shrinkwrap is hardly a sensible proposition, unless you came out of the womb with the inherent ability to foresee the future of every shmup you play.
After you finish, of course, there's the motivation to go back and get higher and higher scores by playing each stage individually in Arcade mode. You can upload these scores to www.nanostray.com and see where you rank amongst the worlds best. You are also offered "challenges" for each stage you've beaten. These challenges range from "score x amount of points" to "defeat the stage on only one life", and so on, and they are similar across each stage. They're difficult, but attainable, and are interesting enough to add at least a few more hours of extra value onto the endgame.
The multiplayer could have added some spice too, but unfortunately multiplayer is limited to some sparse versus modes where you try to outscore or outlive your opponent in unimpressive levels built specifically for multiplay. A co-op mode is greatly missed here.
Buy me if you can find me
When all is said and done, Nanostray is a good shmup for a system which has yet to receive a traditional action game. Matter of fact, it's a good shmup period. It doesn't push the boundaries of what the genre does, and it unfortunately doesn't come without its own quirky flaws. But the core shooting action is very solid, the scoring system is addictive, and the extra challenges and online world ranking definitely add incentive to continue playing this game.
If you're not a fan of shmups, I don't even know why you read this til the end; it's safe to avoid this one. If you're expecting to see rotating multiples, combo-weapons and switching polarities, borrow this from a friend. But if you've got a DS and are just honestly looking for a quality spaceship shooter with which to take a break from scribbling away with a stylus, then Nanostray comes definitely recommended. If nothing else, Shin'En Multimedia has shown that it can design a shmup that does most of the right things and that it has mastered the DS' graphics hardware.
Download the Audio Review in our Media section.