Shooters—what's not to like? Taking control of spaceships or airplanes (or sometimes just people flying in the sky) and blasting the hell out of everything that moves is just a good time. Unfortunately, the genre's releases have dwindled to the point that each new game that lands on a shelf is a cause to celebrate for those who appreciate the hyperkinetic reflex action. The first such game to hit the Nintendo DS, Nanostray, is a welcome arrival that mostly holds its own, though it doesn't break any new ground.
Shooters (or shmups, as they are sometimes called) aren't known for deep plots or involving stories, but Nanostray takes it to a new level, since there isn't any story at all—even in the instruction booklet. No, pop in the slim DS card, and it's straight to the action.
Taking control of a nifty li'l spaceship, there are eight levels to fly through on three different difficulty levels, with continues from the start of each level for those who choose to use them. Personally, I found the difficulty settings to offer a good range of challenge, so no complaints there.
Graphically, watching Nanostray on the upper screen is sharp and attractive. Featuring a mostly top-down camera perspective with vertical scrolling, an illusion of depth is created by the ship shrinking as it flies into the horizon, somewhat reminiscent of the classic SNES shooter Axelay. A couple of levels feature geographical objects to maneuver around, but the bulk of the game's 3D environments whiz harmlessly by as background decoration. However, while this disconnect between the ship and the world it's blasting above usually irritates me, there was just enough interaction sprinkled throughout to make the formula work to my satisfaction.
The art design is good, featuring bio-mechanical creatures in colorful, varied environments. The music is passable, and on the whole the production values were right where they should be for a DS game at this stage in its life.
So far, I've just described a generic-sounding shooter that could be one of any number of games. But, since this is the DS I'm talking about, naturally there has to be a twist. Unfortunately, Nanostray is a perfect example of how not to implement dual screens and a stylus.
Holding the DS in my hands, I controlled the ship's movement via the D-Pad in my left hand. With my right hand, I fired regular shots with the A button, power shots with B, and deployed screen-clearing superbombs with Y. the important thing to note in this situation? Both of my hands are occupied.
The ship in Nanostray has four types of weapons (straight ahead, sideways, curved, and enemy-seeking lightning). How am I supposed to switch between them? By using the stylus to tag a dashboard interface on the lower touch screen. How was I supposed to do this? I have no idea. I started out trying to pin the stylus between two fingers (while simultaneously manning the gun buttons) and then quickly whipping it up onto the screen in a crazy chopstick fashion, but doing this meant my entire right hand went out of action. In a rapid-fire shmup, this is a no-no. I quickly tucked the stylus back into its hole and just used the nail on my right thumb to try and tag the weapon button I wanted, but even this was problematic since I had to look at the lower screen, and taking my eyes away from my ship was another no-no.
Long story short, asking players to take either their eyes or hands away from the action in a shooter like Nanostray is a very bad idea. I stuck with the default weapon for almost the entire game since it was so difficult to shift guns effectively, and I completely ignored the bottom screen's displays of score, life, radar, and weapon energy. Splitting focus in action games doesn't work, especially since a weapon switch function could have very easily been mapped to one of the face buttons. The setup in Nanostray strikes me as being different for the sake of being different, and in this case, it's a failure.
Nanostray's controls may have fixed something that wasn't broken, but even so, it still managed to provide a pleasing, fast-paced jaunt through the cosmos. After I saw credits roll, there were some skill and score-based challenges, a two-player competitive mode (two DS units and two copies of the game are necessary) and an Internet-based ranking mode to squeeze a little more playtime out of it. It's nothing that hasn' been seen before, but for those like me who still enjoy some good, old-fashioned shooting action, it's not a bad little package.