While somewhat unpopular with the general populace, shooters seem to be a favorite genre of a few of us here at Videolamer. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that shooters are more old school than just about any other genre out there. The qualities that make up a good shooter really have not changed over the past couple decades. You control one ship against a horde of enemies, and only your guns and manual dexterity can save you. Good shooters differentiate themselves from mediocre shooters through subtle gameplay differences such as finely tuned balance and difficulty. Power-ups are often included, but are non-essential (as Ikaruga has demonstrated). All that is really required are impossible odds and a screen crowded with lasers.
Nanostray starts out as a basic decent shooter and then never really goes anywhere from there. The core gameplay has you in a spaceship fighting upwards from the bottom of the screen (Ikaruga style rather than Gradius style) shooting a multitude of other spaceships over the course of 8 different boards/planets. One of the biggest draws to shooters is the perfectly satisfying level of control the player can demonstrate by dodging tons of lasers/bullets while taking down his opponents. At this point it becomes reasonable to wonder exactly how the good people at Shin’en dealt with the fact that they were displaying their game on a screen of several square inches rather than several square feet. My answer is “poorly.” There are always enemies rushing you on the screen, but you never get the feeling of scale you can with a console shooter. Doing so would apparently require either your ship to be microscopic or the enemies to be larger than the screen. During some of the more crowded moments, which are usually the most exhilarating, the game slows down unpredictably often leading to death, or at least a few shots to your shields. Also, the designers made the inexplicably bad decision to shrink the screen even further.
Basically they made the rectangular DS screen into a trapezoid by gradually narrowing towards the top. This seems to have been done as a graphical touch, as your ship also becomes smaller as you move upwards, giving the effect of depth, but it really just serves to exacerbate the problem of playing a shooter on a small screen. Also, boss battles, while challenging, lose some of the awe they are capable of generating on a big screen when they are scaled down to a fraction of their size.
There are a few game modes – adventure, arcade and challenge. Adventure is the standard mode used for unlocking boards. Arcade allows you to replay any boards you have previously accessed and attempt to achieve higher scores. Challenge is an interesting attempt at introducing the challenges gamers frequently make up for themselves once they master a game. Challenges include things like achieving a certain score or completing a board without bombs. The difficulty settings vary in the adventure mode, but the things affected (lives, continues, etc) are set in the other modes. I like the idea of Challenge mode and it would be very alluring to me if I fell in love with the game more deeply than I actually did.
The scoring system is also somewhat strange. As is always the case, you gain points for killing enemies, but you also lose points for using your weapons. There are four styles of weapons (straight-ahead, homing, area, and sideways), each with a weak version and a strong version that needs to be charged, as well as the obligatory screen clearing bombs. If you can avoid using both the powered up version of the weapons, and the bombs, as well as miss as little as possible, you can expect a good score. Should you hope to actually destroy any enemies though, you will likely need to use the powered up weapons as the weaker versions are frequently insufficient for the amount of time an enemy spends on screen. This is not all bad, as it does add an element of choice into the game. You can pass most levels with relative ease should you choose to go all out with bombs and weapons, but you will feel much more satisfied if you can defeat the planet without resorting to them. The scoring system is a mixed bag. It discourages you from using your weapons, which is bad, but does afford more of a challenge for the truly hardcore, which is good.
My complaints about balance are based largely on the weapons available. Of the four basic weapons mentioned above some seem drastically more useful than others. My first few playthroughs I always started with the default straight ahead laser and then played around some with the others. Eventually I settled on this area of attack/homing electric field weapon that renders the rest basically useless. It fires ahead until finding an enemy then continues attacking until the enemy is destroyed or something crosses your beam and is then itself destroyed. I could not ask for a more efficient weapon. So I don’t – and then I don’t use the others.
Although I would be more likely to use the others if they were easier to select. It seems as though the game was designed and ready to print when they said “Wait – DS? Isn’t that the system with the touch screen? We really should incorporate that.” And then came up with the idea to make you take your thumb off the fire button to change weapons on the touch screen.
I have complained quite a bit about this game so far, but that is only because it seems as though it could have been really good. Probably never great, since the rarified air of shooter greatness includes some truly classic titles (the genre should be refined, designers have had plenty of time to work on it) but it could have been much better. The graphics are beautiful and the sound is very good, but the cumbersome controls and archaic scoring system knock it down a few pegs. I also do not think the size of the handheld screen is an unsolvable problem, but the answer may include not making the playable area smaller. So the bottom line, to quote an earlier review by Jay – “if you like it that’s because shooters are great and if you dislike it, it’s this specific game’s fault because shooters are great.”