by Polly

It's nice to see the shmup (shoot-em-up for all you noobs) still getting some love in this crazy modern age of gaming. While it's nice to see some of the older and more recognizable faces of the genre return (Gradius V and R-Type Final) it's nice to see that new franchises are still trying to get a start with one of the most basic gaming concepts.

Nanostray for the DS is the first shmup entry on Nintendo's innovative new handheld. While it may not be the best entry we see into this genre or franchise, I certainly hope it's not the last.

Coming from the same studio that produced the Iridion games on the GBA, Nanostray continues the studio's pattern of trying to create innovative and challenging shooters. While I can't exactly call Nanostray innovative, it certainly is a well put together challenge.

No one's certainly going to accuse Nanostray of looking bad. It's probably one of the best examples of the 3D capabilities of the DS. Stages are beautifully detailed and colorful and rotate every which way making the action taking place on screen seem very intense. You'll see a whole world of variety in the stages' designs, so even if the action on-screen gets monotonous, the backgrounds sure won't (I'm not really sure if that's a good thing or not). Whether you're taking down huge gunships over a dense jungle or inside a huge mechanized futuristic city, the action always looks fantastic. You won't have a problem spotting your enemies on screen either, as they're all very well detailed and stand out on their own. Enemy fire is vibrant and easy to spot as it screams toward your little vessel and the explosions, though large and very exciting, don't ever get in the way of the action costing you lives for something you couldn't see. All of the game's bosses look incredible and take up well over 1/2 of the screen at times. While they may not appear all that fierce, they sure are pretty (once again, I'm not really sure if that's a good thing or not).

Nanostray's soundtrack delivers the usual techno variety we've come to expect in these games, and while it's expected and overdone, it's certainly not bad at all. Lots of memorable tunes come blaring through the DS' stereo speakers to compliment the action nicely. Sound effects are exactly what you'd expect in a shooter. Laser fire and explosions. All 4 of your main weapons have their own distinct sound effect and buried into the audio mix enough to keep them from ever being intrusive or annoying.

Then things start falling apart...

Nanostray's gameplay isn't bad. In fact, it's a pretty damn solid and overly challenging shooter. It's you vs the world and the world is having a really good day. You have four weapons to choose from and you never lose them, a'la Contra: Shattered Soldier. You're just given the tools to get the job done, and it's up to you to figure out when to use them.

Every weapon then has its own sub-weapon that delivers a huge chunk of damage in a small amount of time, but it's limited by how much energy you've got saved up for it. And of course, the screen clearing smart-bomb that decimates anything in its path and takes the heat of a thousand bullets off your ass for a couple seconds. You're armed to the teeth and quite able to handle the job.

Unlike most shooters, you're given a life gauge. Your ship can take 3-6 hits (depending on your difficulty) from projectile weapons before exploding. If an enemy touches you, however, it's an automatic death. The life gauge goes a long way toward making this game not so frustrating, so kudos to that. You're not gonna get any introductory "walk in the park" stages, either. Nanostray starts off pounding you in the ass as hard as it can right from the get-go. Flurries of enemy fire can fill the screen, but it's never so bad that you can't find a way to navigate through it with a little practice. Enemies approach from all directions, and in the later levels of the game, there is no "safe spot." Everywhere you're at on screen is a prime entry point for a new enemy so you really need to be on guard the whole time. Bosses are fierce endeavors and can take quite a few tries to take down. They all operate on their own specified attack patterns though, so it's nothing you can't study a few times and pick up on. It's a damn tough, but fair challenge.

However, the first shortcoming is the playfield. The area that your ship can travel on screen isn't a square or rectangle like most shooters. It's actually more of a cone because of the camera's perspective. This means that the further you travel up-screen, the less room you have to maneuver around in and dodge enemies and their attacks. Also, since most bosses tend to rotate around the screen and try to get behind you, it may make some of these challenges seem a bit on the unfair side.

Secondly, is that the game forces you to use the touch screen to switch weapons. Since the game has you using the A button to fire, B button for sub-weapons, and X for smart-bombs, wouldn't it make a little more sense to have at least given us the option to cycle through weapons with the Y or R button? Of course it would have, there's no thinking to it. Instead, the game basically wants you to use the L button to fire, while you move your right thumb over to the touch screen to select a weapon. Any other method and you're fucked. Another problem with the touch screen is that the weapons are aligned down the right hand side of it in an odd curving manner. So in order to switch to the lightning weapon you're got to move your entire hand over to the left a little bit and then hope you actually hit the button because taking your eyes off screen for even a second ensures that you're gonna lose a life. There's just too much damn information on the bottom screen. The stats could have been easily condensed so that the weapons are easily selectable.

There's a lot of gameplay modes to choose from, but you'll soon find that Nanostray is kind of like the sports game of shmups. The game's Story mode is useless. Its only function is to open the game's 8 stages for the Arcade Mode. In Arcade Mode, you play one stage with one set of lives and no continues trying to get the highest score possible. And that's it. The game's main feature is the Arcade Mode where you'll simply try to best your own high scores and others around the world on the online high score boards. After that, there's not much left aside from the challenges which can have you trying to one life stages, to being completely nerfed removing your autofire ability completely. The problem is that the rewards for accomplishing these Godly tasks just aren't worth it.

Nanostray isn't a bad game. Hell it's a great shmup! It's merely marred with some really bad design choices. According to the developers, Majesco didn't give them the time to finish polishing up the game the way they'd intended. I can only imagine what would have been. I really hope that this game is only a taste of things to come in terms of both this series and shmups on the DS, because this handheld is just prime for them.

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