German developer Shin'en has been creating Japanese-style scrolling shooters for Nintendo handhelds for a while now, first with the Iridion series on the Game Boy Advance, and then with the less-than-perfect Nanostray two years ago on the Nintendo DS. We spent some time with the new sequel, Nanostray 2, and it looks as if Shin'en has learned from the handful of mistakes it made on the original. This appears to be a fully featured, entertaining, and sometimes maddeningly difficult genre game that diehard fans of things like insane bullet patterns will be able to appreciate immediately.
Shooters don't really need storylines, but give Nanostray 2 points for trying. You're part of a force battling against the deadly Nanostray virus that's ravaging the galaxy. In practical terms, that means jumping into a well-equipped space fighter and shooting thousands of enemies, large and small. The designers actually use this premise to give you some nonlinearity in the main single-player game. For instance, after finishing the first mission, you'll have to find three viral fragments to reconstruct the Nanostray virus's complete DNA sequence. The game will then give you the three levels where those fragments are located and let you tackle them in any order via a navigational star map.
The levels so far have presented a good amount of variety, too, and not only because about half are side-scrolling and the other half from a top-down perspective. You'll also get a good mix of industrial space installations teeming with robotic enemies, and various terrestrial locations on a lava planet, a mostly aquatic world, and so on. One organic level reminded us quite a bit of the old classic Gradius offshoot Life Force, with scores of amoeba-like enemies flying at us out of gross-looking fleshy pink walls. It was sort of like playing a side-scrolling shooter set in an intestinal tract, if you can wrap your head around that.
Your ship has some interesting customization features onboard. In another feature similar to the Gradius series, you can pick up two small extra guns via power-ups that float to the sides of your ship. Before each mission, you can set up three positional presets for these two extra weapons that determine their placement around your ship and the direction they'll fire in. Then you can switch between the three presets by tapping a shoulder button, which makes it relatively easy to fight off enemies coming at you from directions other than the front. Luckily, the developer won't force you to use the touch screen for weapon switching or any other activity, which it did in the first game. The action is so fast and intense here that you'd have no chance of survival if you had to look down at the second screen, anyway.
There are also a handful of special weapons, of which you can choose one before a mission. These include a powerful front-firing beam, an enemy-seeking dual shot, and an electrical field that expands in all directions around your fighter. The engineers who are apparently supporting your mission will continue to cook up new toys for you to play with as you progress, and you'll get these new special weapons as you complete certain levels. For example, as we progressed through the campaign, we also acquired a localized energy bomb that we could explode to clear out an area in front of our ship.
Outside of the main campaign mode, you can hit the arcade mode to replay any stages you've unlocked. Then there's the uncomfortably difficult challenge mode, which gives you four sets of eight short action stages that each require a particular task. Sometimes you'll have to survive an onslaught of lasers for half a minute; at other times, you need to score a specific number of points in the allotted time. It's always really, really difficult. Once you finish the eight challenges in a given set, you'll unlock parts of a simulation mode, which contains minigames that seem to resemble classic arcade games, yet rendered in Nanostray 2's own aesthetic. We unfortunately can't tell you much about that mode yet because, again, those challenges are hard with a capital "H."
It looks like Shin'en has built on its past shooter experience with Nanostray 2, which has got all the trappings you'd want in this style of game but also appears to avoid some of the pitfalls into which the first Nanostray unfortunately fell. This sequel is due out in January, so we'll be back with a full review then.