Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Nanostray 2 - Thoughts

In regards to each of Shin'en's previous shmup titles, I've always had a fondness for their peculiar camera choices. Sure, it made dodging bullets quite awkward and it wasn't always clear if you were going to collide with something, but their cinematic bent was a style fitting for the experimental handheld series. Nanostray 2—Shin'en's final attempt at a "straight" shooter—is their most conventional and streamlined entry yet: gone are the strange perspectives and questionable collisions. Instead, we're given a game that takes notes from Life Force, providing ship-partnered "options" and alternating perspectives every other stage. Though I can't help but gravitate towards the other titles in the series (for no reason other than nostalgia alone), from a design standpoint Nanostray 2 is undoubtedly Shin'en's best shooter.

Part of the reason why I didn't warm to Nanostray 2 when I was younger is that the Adventure mode (the standard shmup campaign in the game) was structured too rigidly for me to complete. Whereas the previous games had an imbalanced health system where one bullet took a small chunk off of your health bar while any ship collisions outright killed you, Nanostray 2 addresses this by making all damage immediately lethal. I do prefer playing STGs that take this "1 hit = death" approach, but Nanostray 2 awkwardly attaches limited continues it, making it so you have to restart a level should you lose all your lives on said stage. Not only that, but the game saves your lives remaining if you quit to the main menu, which means that all lives lost on a stage are permanent unless you hard reset the handheld.

While it's fair to say this keeps the game feeling like an oldschool shooter that you have to complete in a single sitting, I think the simultaneous inclusion of one hit deaths, limited continues, restart upon game over, and inability to return to an old save makes Adventure mode ultimately too demanding. Knocking out two of those facets would've provided me with an enjoyable—and still challenging!—experience, but instead I had to play it with a prudent mindset, powering off my DS should I die within the first minute of a stage. Thankfully there is an Arcade mode that lets you play the individual stages with five lives and all of the weapons available, but there's no cozy middle ground between the two modes; you're either playing each level as its own separate experience or struggling to make it through the brutal campaign thanks to its harsh, disciplinarian structure...

... which is a shame too, because the game is pretty fun!

With the shedding of unconventional camera angles comes more conventional gameplay. No longer do you have to pray to the RNG gods for your warping hitbox to avoid damage near the top of the screen—its pretty clear what the size of your ship is and when you'll get hit. Like with the first Nanostray, you have a handful of nifty special weapons available to you, though you'll only be able to equip one of them for a mission (and why would you pick anything other than the highly damaging Ionstrike?). The luminescent satellites orbiting your ship can be placed into three customizable configurations which is neat too, though like with the special weapons you're likely to find something that works for you and stick to it. There's also challenge modes and cute minigames that add some quirky variation to an otherwise standard shmup, but they feel more or less like distractions from the delicious meat of the main game.

Eight decently sized levels are at the core of Nanostray 2, and there's not a lot to comment on here other than that they're a blast to shoot through. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing while playing the game is that difficulty is all over the place: Nanostray 2 peaks in difficulty at Naizoh Habitat (level 3) while Daitoshi Station (level 5) is the easiest in the game. Besides that perplexing roadbump, you'll get plenty of variation from each of the settings and their denizens, whether it be the claustrophobic sewers of Kohai City, the Life Force-inspired organic interiors of the Naizoh Habitat, or the arctic laboratories of Himuro Base. Bosses are also a hoot to duel too, nearly all of them (besides the first) putting up a fair fight on your very first encounter. In a way, it truly feels like Shin'en took everything they learned about level design from the previous titles and applied it here. The game is crisp, clean, and offers some no-nonsense fun from its first stage to its last, no doubt helped by the standardized camera angle.

As prosaic as it sounds, Nanostray 2 in one word is "competent". The unattractive parts have been hewn off in favor for more stability, almost all of the weirdness of Iridion 3D finally stripped away. True, I think it doesn't have heart in the same way the old GBA titles did (their soundtracks probably played a major part in establishing that), but it's not hard for me to recommend Nanostray 2 to STG fans looking for some portable action. Had Adventure mode been more accommodating, I could easily list this as the best shmup designed for handhelds—as it stands now, it's simply one of the best.

(And a special thanks to Manfred Linzner for contributing so much to these games... awesome to see him promoted to director here!)

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