Within the last couple console generations, the number of shoot-em-ups (or “shmups” as the hardcore call them) has dwindled considerably. The 16-bit saw a cornucopia of shooter clones, but with the advent of more advanced technology, top-down perspective ship blasters have lost a lot of popularity.
Developer Shin’en has done its best to repopulate the genre with titles like Iridion 2, a solid shmup for the Gameboy Advance. Their spiritual DS follow up is a jump to the next level of shooters, and it packs quite a punch for a handheld title.
As with most shmups, Nanostray
is entirely devoid of story and has you playing as a small, fragile ship, tearing apart anything in your way. Bottomless ammo allows for the standard rule of shmups: if it moves, shoot it, and if it doesn’t, shoot it anyway. In that sense, it’s a fairly standard shooter that doesn’t deviate from the tried and true norm. The only major change is that the touch screen is used to toggle between the four beam weapons at your disposal.
This feature is innovative, but could use a little work. The frenetic pace of Nanostray demands that your eyes be locked on the top screen the entire time, so glancing at the bottom screen can mean quick destruction. Also, you can plan to get plenty of fingerprints on your touch screen while playing this game. Using the stylus or thumb nub to switch guns is awkward, and is roughly equivalent to suicide.
Aside from the few touch screen quirks, the controls are dependable and comfortable. The left trigger also doubles as a fire button, and feels quite natural. The D-pad moves the ship with acceptable speed and fluidity, and the face buttons perform secondary tasks. The right trigger tractors pickups to your fighter, so you don’t have to dodge and weave to grab every last point token.
The element that makes Nanostray
stand out from the pack is its visuals. This is simply the most graphically stunning game to hit the DS yet. Explosions, particle effects, lasers, light flares and high poly vehicles are all outstanding, and presented against beautiful, in-game rendered planetary backgrounds. Amazingly, the frame rate hardly ever dips, and when it does it’s barely noticeable. Screenshots do not do this game justice. It must be played to be fully appreciated.
Sound is almost on par with the graphics. Shin’en has composed more of its notoriously catchy techno to accompany the nonstop action, and you’ll often find yourself grooving along with the beat. Sound effects are surprisingly fresh, aside from a few staple explosions and lasers. The aural experience is truly immersive, pumping out from the DS’s powerful stereo speakers, and it’s even better on headphones.
One of the only drawbacks to Nanostray
is its rather light multiplayer. It is purely co-op competitive, with two players trying for a higher score. There are various modes, but nothing we haven’t seen before. Still, it was nice of Shin’en to incorporate a multi feature.
The multiplayer’s lack of depth compounds another problem: this game is painfully short. It spans only eight levels, and most of the replay value comes from the arcade mode, where you try for higher scores. This is truly in the tradition of old school shmups, and seasoned twitch fans will find a lot to like, but more causal gamers might become aggravated. Even on the easiest difficulty, this game is nail-bitingly difficult, and it isn’t the best thing to play for kicks. You’ll be sweating by the end of a level, and you’ll probably have to try more than once to beat a stage in the first place. For the shmup junkies, there’s a hefty challenge waiting.
Sadly, even though Nanostray
is a tight, polished shooter with some considerable substance, it might never get the chance to gain popularity. It’s practically impossible to find, at least in the US. EB Games isn’t even carrying the title, and it is in scarce supply elsewhere. I had to go to Ebay to grab my copy. If you find this one idle on a store shelf, snag it. Its eye-popping graphics will leave you dazzled, and it’s a great game to plug away at when you want a short boost of adrenaline.
Nanostray is a solid, old school shooter with a lot of polish and high production values. Its only hindrance is its short length and highly limited availability.
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