Saturday, September 03, 2005

Byte: Rusty

I can tell I've not played an arcade-style shoot-'em-up game in years. Last night I got my arse emphatically handed back to me on a plate by Nanostray. It took about twenty or thirty attempts to complete a single stage. I don't know whether it's because the game is hard, or because all my twitch-gaming neural pathways have just atrophied to hell. Most likely the latter.

I've managed to conquer the first five stages on the normal difficulty level, which is okay, I suppose, after a few hours play. There are eight stages in total: three "Low resistance" levels (which I've beaten), three "Medium resistance" levels (one of which I've got left to complete) and 2 more levels, which I presume will be labelled "High" or "Heavy" resistance.

I haven't played enough modern shooters to really know how it compares to the best titles in the genre, but my initial impressions so far are positive. Graphically, it's good: there's a real sense of depth to the levels, and you can tell that the objects are properly rendered in 3D, rather than animated sprites. Textures aren't spectacularly good - but are probably as pretty as you can get on the relatively puny CPUs of the DS - and they certainly make the game attractive enough to look at.

There's the odd hint of slowdown when you've got lots of enemies and explosions on the screen, though not to the degree where it becomes even mildly unplayable. The more I play the game, the better I'm getting and the more I like it. Nanostray doesn't have the feel of a truly revolutionary game - not like something like World of Warcraft or Meteos, for example - but it's a compelling and rewarding title. All shoot-'em-ups have that element of compulsion - they appeal to the perfectionist nature inherent in most gamers - and Nanostray is no different. It's not revolutionary, and doesn't really make good use of the DS's touch screen (which is used solely for menu navigation, weapon selection and a mostly redundant "radar" view) but it's a solid title. It's not without a few flaws - which are even recognisable to a player who has not been an avid follower of the genre for a good decade or more.

Firstly, you need to take your hand away from the main controls to change weapon (leaving you momentarily vulnerable) - it would have been nice to be able to use the unbound Y button to cycle through the four available weapons without having to move your thumb away from the main weapons controls.

Secondly, you can destroy enemies that aren't even viewable on the screen. Whilst the playing area is relatively small compared to the size of your ship (it feels smaller than the playing area of most Spectrum top-scrolling shooters - though this may be due to the smaller screen size more than anything), the movement rate of your ship is fast enough to handle most of the enemies, assuming your reflexes and co-ordination are good enough - so this could be categorised as a major flaw. Certainly once you are able to recall the patterns of enemy waves, you could use this foreknowledge to your advantage and this would drastically reduce the difficulty level of the game - but I suppose that's an inherent flaw in the design of nearly all "schmups" - the predictability of the way enemies are introduced. Arguably, it's not even a flaw - the player's desire for "the perfect game" and the intention of replayability is a primary concern in the design of this type of game - but it strikes a player of even with my relative inexposure to the genre as being open to exploitation - being able to progress through repetition and learning, rather than through natural skill.

It's not quite that simple, of course. Even after a dozen or more times playing a particular level, you'll still make those tiny errors of judgement that will prevent you from playing the game without making mistakes. This is what makes the "Challenge" mode of the game so enticing. You'll try again and again to complete Challenge stages with just one ship, or without your secondary "Power" weapons, or completing stages with high "Valor" - i.e. shooting only when necessary, and not using the Attract ability to retrieve power-ups. I haven't tried the Multiplayer yet - I need to wait until my friend Charles gets back from holiday for that. I expect that it's as much of an afterthought as the touch-screen integration.

That's not to say that Nanostray is an unworthy title - I'm certainly pleased to have it in my somewhat sparse DS collection. There certainly aren't many shooters available that have been specifically designed for the DS. Whilst a schmup title with only 8 stages might seem a little miserly (especially given that each stage is only 4 or 5 minutes long), it's the replay value that's important, and in Nanostray, that doesn't seem to be lacking. With the main Adventure mode (playable at three difficulty levels), plus the Challenge and Arcade modes, there is plenty of replayability in the game. Nanostray is also likely to be the best shooter on the DS for some time, too. I'm not aware of any other schmup available or planned for the DS in the near future.

Regrettably, since the game's publisher, Majesco, seems to be having some financial difficulty at the moment; a European release has not been confirmed at this point. If you're interested in a shooter for your DS, an import from the US via Play Asia or eBay is undoubtedly worth your while. Rumour has it that this is a title that's going to be increasingly difficult to pick up as time goes on. Pick it up while you can.
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