Majesco's first DS game is a worthy shmup original with very snazzy visuals.
The very first level of Nanostray proves two things: this game is really pretty, and it's also really hard. Insanely hardcore shoot-em-up (shmup) fans won't have any problem with the game's difficulty, but everyone else will. Luckily, this is the kind of game in which you can feel yourself getting better as you keep playing, so that within a few days (and after a lot of continues), nearly anyone should be able to get through all eight stages of the Adventure mode. Then the real challenge begins.
You see, there really isn't much to Adventure mode. It's just one level after another with nothing to tie them together; there is no story whatsoever. And you can get through the whole mode in less than half an hour if you're good, but even if you suck, unlimited continues and powerful smart bombs will eventually push you through every level (albeit with horrible scores). There's still a lot of gameplay left in Nanostray, though.
Arcade mode lets you jump to any of the eight stages and play it for a new high score. This mode gives you a "Nanocode" password that can be entered on the game's website, which keeps track of global rankings. There are separate rankings for each level, so you don't have to be able to play through the entire game on one continue to compete. Since part of the thrill of any shmup is getting a high score, Arcade mode is likely to be played far more than Adventure mode.
The scoring system in Nanostray is unusual. You get points for every enemy you destroy, obviously. Large enemies also leave behind gold coins which give you extra points. Destroying an entire wave of small enemies gives you a wave bonus, and you also get a blue coin that fills up your special meter. If your meter is already full, you'll get bonus points for the blue coin, and the bonus is cumulative for each successive coin you get this way. So one very viable strategy for high scoring is to destroy every wave and never use your special weapons; by the end of the stage, each blue coin will be worth tens of thousands of points. There's also a "valor" bonus that rewards you for not excessively firing your normal weapons and for avoiding the temptation to pull in coins with the convenient attract button. This system opens up another strategy: use only your special weapons so that you get the maximum possible valor bonus. These two scoring strategies are in direct opposition, and the only way to figure out which one works best on each stage is to experiment. It may be frustrating that you can't play "perfectly" and get both the blue coin points and the valor bonus, but the tension between these features lets you develop your own playing style.
The final mode is Challenge. There are 22 challenges, about three per stage, and each one asks you to complete that stage under a special set of conditions. For instance, you may need to reach a certain score, or achieve a certain valor bonus, or beat the level with only one life or without your special weapons. Challenge mode lives up to its name, but it rewards you with unlockable content for each completed task. The special content isn't really worth the effort, but the challenges themselves are so tough that you feel great whenever you manage to beat one, making this mode quite addictive.
Nanostray also features a single-card multiplayer mode for two players, but it's not co-op as you might expect. Instead, players compete against each other on one of four special levels to get the highest score, reach a target score the fastest, grab the most coins, etc. It's a cool option for showing off the game to your DS-owning friends, but you probably won't want to sink much time into multiplayer since it doesn't offer a fuller experience.
Nanostray has four main weapons, each with a powered up special version. Figuring out which weapon works best in each situation is a lot of fun, and all four of the weapons have some merit. The problem is that you have to switch among them with the touch screen, which is otherwise unused during gameplay. There are plenty of free buttons that could have been used for this function, but the developers insist that you use the touch screen even though the rest of the game takes place on the top screen. Needless to say, in a game which regularly fills the screen with bullets and huge bosses, you don't want to be taking your eyes from the action. And no, you can't switch weapons while paused. The touch screen also displays your score and smart bomb quantity, which helps keep the top screen uncluttered. There's also a radar display, which is completely useless, but it can be fun to try to play the game while only looking at it instead of the real game display. (I did pretty well until I hit an environmental obstacle which didn't appear on radar.)
German developer Shin'en is well known for its techno soundtracks and high fidelity sound engine for GBA, which has been licensed out to many other companies. Nanostray definitely packs a catchy soundtrack full of complex arrangements, both rock and techno. However, the songs loop quickly, and I heard a low buzzing sound even at medium volume and with headphones. The graphics are more reliably impressive. Nanostray features some of the best 3D graphics yet seen on the DS, complete with smoother textures and better effects than Super Mario 64 DS and other polygon-intensive games. The best part is that Nanostray pushes around a lot of enemies and bullets at once and almost never slows down. This is a game that will catch people's eyes and make them ask, "Is that really on the DS?"
Perhaps in a few years, other DS games will far surpass Nanostray's technical accomplishments. Its old-fashioned gameplay will hold up well, though. There aren't many shmup games released at all outside of Japan, so DS owners are lucky to get not just any shmup, but a beautiful new one that sticks close to the high scoring spirit of the genre's beloved classics.