Version tested: Wii U
Does the world need another twin-stick shooter? The competition is fierce with Super Stardust HD and Delta occupying the PS3 and Vita respectively, while Geometry Wars 2 remains as fun as ever on Xbox Live Arcade. Nintendo never had an entrant in the genre - probably due to the Wii and DS' lack of a second analogue stick. That's changed now with the Wii U. (Can we please start calling it a WU?) Shin'en's twin-stick shooter Nano Assault Neo is front and centre at the eShop at launch, hoping for a Geometry Wars-style success, but it does little to distinguish itself in an increasingly saturated genre.
The obvious comparison to Nano Assault Neo is the Stardust series, in which you pilot a craft around spherical planets while blowing all manner of malevolent minerals and machinery to smithereens. Nano Assault Neo follows a similar tack, with the primary difference being that the playing field has been expanded from spheres to awkwardly shaped lumps called “cells” that take their inspiration from Super Mario Galaxy.
This more defined terrain is an initially welcome change that grants each level a distinct identity, but the more oddly shaped stages end up confusing the camera. You'll soon find yourself looping around in certain directions purely because that's where you'll get the best viewing angle.
It does look pretty, though. The Metroid-y organic neon aesthetic of what's supposedly the inside of a body is appropriately otherworldly and the brash, colourful environments are a nice showcase for Nintendo's first HD console.
The problem is that Shin'en goes overboard trying to show off its graphical prowess, often to the detriment of gameplay. You can gain four "satellites" (i.e. guns) giving you five times the firepower, but mixed with the cacophony of pink and white projectiles and shimmering explosions, it can be difficult to distinguish where your ship is in relation to the harm; something that's crucial to any bullet-hell game. The overreaching artistry is most apparent when sliding around the scenery only ends up obscuring the playing field by shining the sun in your eyes. Why is there even a sun in a body, anyway?
There are a few other faux pas that hold Nano Assault Neo back from its competitors. For one, the difficulty is all over the map. Of the campaign's four clusters - each a self-enclosed mini-campaign comprised of four maps - the first stage of the third cluster is the most difficult, while the final boss might be the game's easiest level. In fact, every cluster gets easier after the beginning because you're allowed to upgrade your craft between levels. Once you pile on additional guns, a shield, a magnet to suck up nearby collectibles and an upgrade that gives you double currency for whatever you collect, the subsequent stages pose little challenge. As such, you'll likely breeze through the entire campaign in a scant couple of hours with only high score chases, the one-life Survivor Mode and two-player co-op left to round out the package.
The co-op is an adequate, if unremarkable, way to show off the new hardware. One person plays on the GamePad's screen while the other uses the Pro Controller to pilot their craft on the TV. If you don't have one you can use the Wii remote and Nunchuk, which requires aiming with the d-pad. It's passable, but awkward.
Curiously, Nano Assaut Neo's best use of the Wii U is a hidden feature that I didn't even discover until the end of the game. By tapping on the touch-screen, you bring up a different pause menu than you would by hitting start. From here you can adjust the satellites around your craft so they can fire at any angle. Do you want them to spread out, shoot in a plus sign formation, or all focus on a single target? It's a smart addition that's never explained anywhere, but since the game is easily beatable without it, the motivation to experiment never resonates. Beyond that, the second screen is used as a map, which is never worth peeling your eyes away from the TV to look at.
Ultimately, Nano Assault Neo is my least favourite kind of game; the kind that follows in others' footsteps with little to call its own. It's not a bad game in the conventional sense - it's not tedious or broken - and it's even moderately amusing, but it's not especially refined and I'm not sure why it exists beyond trying to score a quick buck during a deserted launch window.
So does the world need another twin-stick shooter? Sure it does. There will always be room for great games to transcend their humble genres, else we would have grown tired of 2D platformers decades ago. I'm just not convinced the world needs this twin-stick shooter.
4 / 10