Version tested: DS
The first thing that must be overcome when playing Nanostray is shouting the word "NA-NO-STRAY!" in a faux-Native American voice, over and over again until you have no friends left, and everyone on the train moves to another carriage.
The second thing is exploding.
Vertical scrolling shooters no longer bask in the fame and glory they once knew...
Here's a guest cameo in this review. We're on a train journey to Sheffield, and John's just gone to the toilet and left his PC on. So I'm taking over. What's the game like? It's - like - a vertical scrolling shooter. I've had a quick crack on the end-of-game baddie who was giving John so much trouble, and he didn't seem that hard to me. I think John Walker is rubbish!
And at the game!
Laters! - Kieron
Where was I? Fame and glory. There was a time when the gaming community would step over itself to get hold of such things, clamouring for a go on Xenon 2: Megablast with the passion of a hungry lover. Those were simpler times, when games didn't have to have 5-D nitrographics and googolplex nanochips to be acceptable for the pie-faced yoofs and their X-Stationcube 3s. The days when Kieron knew what he was doing.
Time is a cruel headmistress, and it's hard to make room for such comparative simplicity in our modern hairstyles. Such morsel-sized treats are most usually the stuff of internet-released freegoods, and expecting us to part with our hard-earned is a high demand. And then along came the DS.
Handheldity is not an excuse for accepting relics of the past, but instead the correct sized room for re-imagining new carpets and wallpaper of a familiar pattern. Nanostray (ah, there it is) is such a furnishing. Offering the choice of three levels at its opening, it invites you to shoot at absolutely everything on screen an awful lot, while avoiding an awful lot of everything on screen shooting at you.
And that's it. But it's about how that's it that's it. Scrolling shooters come and go, but only occasionally do they so precisely satisfy while they're there. Your PS2 had Gradius V and R-Type Final, your Gamecube Ikaruga, but now there's something for your DS.
Everything in Nanostray explodes exactly when it should. Looking at something for the first time, you already know whether it's going to take one shot, five, or a sustained blast of your secondary fire. Their shape creates a synesthesia that allows you to feel their vulnerability. It's animation meets design meets speed meets size, and it adds up to being just right. Every destruction (about ten a second) is earned, and with them, holding terminal hands, are your own annihilations. You don't die because Nanostray cheated you, or became ludicrously hard, but because you failed. You failure. You messed up: flew into an enemy, went left instead of right in a moment of panic, or allowed yourself to fall into a split-second trap. Idiot.
After the three opening levels are tamed and caged, final bosses' vulnerabilities exposed, exploited and exploded, another three appear. Then one more. And then one more. Yes, there's a vague story, but no, it's not important. What's important is not running low on ships before the final encounter of each section, making sure to destroy all of a wave so the blue coin is released (drawn on board with the right shoulder button) and the secondary fire replenished. It's important to know when to switch to the sideways fire, lock-on lightning, seeking lasers, or the trusty blue blast.
On the way back from Sheffield, John's made the mistake of going to the toilet again. And that's a double mistake, as it allows me at the keyboard again AND it's one of those Virgin Rail toilets with the Star Trek doors which barely work and leave everyone staring at you alone, confused, in the toilet. Reading the above, it's clear that Walker's getting into it. He's not wrong - as shooters go, it's taut and tight. I'm not entirely convinced that the D-pad on the DS is up to the diagonals demanded, but this is a new boy to the DS speaking. It's also worth noting, while we're talking about shooters, that Kenta Cho has released a new game and everyone should download and play it. It's - essentially - Centipede meets Robotron meets Sumo, all thrown through Kenta's usual crystal-psychedelic filter. Go play!
He's back and reading my copy of the first issue of Supermarket by Brian Wood and Kristian. Better go! See everyone later in the week with my review of Galactic Civilisation 2, which is as far away from Nanostray as you can imagine. It's got a manual and I've actually had to read it. That shit's not right.
Laters! - KG
This is most unusual. And distracting. I was trying to explain 'Adventure' mode, played on the initial 'Normal' difficulty. Continues are infinite, the end is achievable in a deeply satisfying couple of hours. Less deeply satisfying is that it's only a couple of hours. Step up to 'Advanced' and you've a far harder task ahead of you, and a significantly weaker ship. And it is here that Nanostray shines most brightly, the difficulty perfect, the challenge balancing tippy-toe on the wire between rewarding and frustrating, and the agony of limited continues driven into your head like an angry railway spike. 'Expert' remains the domain of the lunatic, more powerful that this mere-mortal, and the near-mortal sat opposite me.
Adventure is a ridiculous misnomer for 'Having The Levels In A Row'. It's the core of the game, and the motivating pull to better yourself, even in so redundant a way. The rest of the options are predictable, and predictably mediocre. There's 'Arcade', which offers the chance to beat your high score on a particular level (once unlocked via your Adventures). If this is the particular needle-content of your jacked up high of choice, then all the best to you and your kind. But in a game that presents more incentive for survival than pushing for pedantic precision, it's not the most overwhelming calling.
Even less enthused is 'Challenge', which repeats 'Arcade' but with obvious restrictions, such as reaching a particular score, or completing a level on limited ships. Certainly, they offer the titular 'challenge', but they do not inspire paintings and poetry with their tasks, and little imagination has gone into their inclusion. They're not bad, perhaps an extra couple of hours of game, but they're the levels you already completed a few times with an artificial goal or compromise, and rather than being deeply at fault, simply could have offered a great deal more.
Multiplayer lets your friend - mine is called Kieron, sat opposite - join in without having to pay for his own version. This is fortunate, since he won't pay for anything. He calls this "celebrity". I call it cheap. And it reveals a brand new looping stage where you go head-to-head in a range of play-modes that sadly lack range. There's a quick burst of fun to be found as you discover that the newly appearing tokens can be used to temporarily hinder your opponent - reverse his controls, slow him down, take away his weapons, that sort of thing. The stage is short, the variety limited, and despite a few minutes of competitive fun (please note: I won), offers no everlasting cakes for your picnic table.
So there sits Nanostray's dilemma, not bold, but not shy. Eight beautifully crafted levels offer much, but they can never grow a stage older. Everything explodes to order, the difficulty is set in place with the care of a well-trained caterer. But like a train journey with a friend, a few hours can be lots of fun, but then you've arrived at your destination, the conversations are put back in your bag, and the rest of your life is ready for the living.
7 / 10