Sunday, September 29, 2019

Nanostray 2 (Nintendo DS)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable (per level)
- - - - - - -
Developed by Shin'en Multimedia

Published by Majesco Entertainment in 2008

The best thing that can happen to a video game sequel is the feeling that things have really evolved and you're not just playing more of the same. I'm happy to state that Nanostray 2 is a prime example of that: a good, well designed sequel that takes the best out of the first game while moving things around a little in order to deliver a fresh, different and worthwhile shooting experience. Nanostray had flair, explosions and a nice challenge backed up by a neat sci-fi environment. The overall style and interface remains the same for Nanostray 2, but graphics are enhanced even further and stages now alternate between horizontal and vertical (which now unfold in a standard plane instead of the tilted perspective seen in the first game). Throw in a few gameplay changes and the improvement package is complete.

Another striking difference in Nanostray 2, at least for the more experienced shmuppers, is the amount of diverse influences developer Shin'en was able to incorporate into the gameplay. Think Gradius/Salamander meets Trizeal, with extra nods to games by Taito and even Cave. Of course everything is tailored to the handheld format with nice results, from the density in bullet patterns to the varying scrolling speeds you face across eight stages/planets with relatively long and varied campaigns. On top of that you're bound to listen to one of the best sci-fi soundtracks ever composed for a video game, an aspect that definitely plays a major part in understanding why Nanostray 2 is so engaging from the get go. And if you care about the story there are fully voiced intermissions between levels that flesh out the narrative quite nicely.

In every selected world you need to equip the ship before diving into the action. There are three preset speeds to choose from, as well as the choice of a special weapon and the preferred shot direction of your pods. Button A shoots, button B deploys a special attack and buttons L/R switch the position of the pods (no need to use the touchscreen at all, yay!). These pods/satellites are always absent when you start a level, but are also the first two items you get when destroying full enemy waves. That's an odd take on the weapon system, but it only causes real pressure in the Naizoh Habitat level (the 3rd one in the default order) since you must navigate a shower of organic flocks for quite a while with your pea shot until the first enemy wave appears.

Against the bullet sprays from boss Tessemi

Once the pods are acquired every single enemy wave that's obliterated will release a blue coin that refills a slice of the special attack gauge. Larger enemies and mid-bosses release yellow coins that give you some points. Coins always drift towards your current position as soon as they appear but never change course, so take that into consideration if you want to plan on getting them before they disappear (there's no attract effect as in the first Nanostray, unfortunately). The other item you might come across is the 1UP, which will only appear once per level if you happen to be on your last life. Pods aren't lost upon death if you have already got them within the stage.

Speaking of which, stage structure is always the same regardless of the scrolling orientation. Halfway into the level you must defeat a mid-boss, with a stage boss waiting at the end. An energy gauge tells you how much damage you must inflict before they fall, and in the case of some bosses the confrontation does seem a little longer than usual. These are the only moments where the game drags, but fortunately most boss fights are quite fun, requiring unique strategies from the player. The battle against second boss Tessemi, for instance, is one of my favorites because it's very claustrophobic. The overlapping pattern of fourth boss Ishigani om the other hand demands quite a few twitchy dodges, which is always a fun thing to have in a vertical shooter.

Completely up to the player's approach is the choice of special weapon. Their energy drainage of the special attack gauge varies, but since you're always refilling it with blue coins that doesn't pose any serious restraint in the long run. Each of the first three levels unlocks a new special weapon, so by the end of the third stage you'll have all six types available for selection. More important than the choice of special weapon, however, is your strategy for satellite usage. Knowing where the enemy is coming from is of course imperative, but beware of a minor dead zone up close to the pods where your firing stream does not do any damage. Enemies might get through it and inevitably kill you.

Nanostray 2 is a game that excels in diversity from beginning to end, especially with regards to the enemy gallery. Every level is unique, and some of them are just plain beautiful to look at. The sewer level, called Kohai City, is a prime example of amazing graphics, exquisite stage design, intelligent 3D modelling and outstanding music. Himuro Base, the final level, feels like a natural extension to the initial moments of Gradius Gaiden mixed with several other elements of Konami's most famous shmup frachise. With these observations I have come to the conclusion that in the case of Nanostray 2 stage highlights are in the horizontal sections, whereas vertical levels shine a little more during boss fights.

Official trailer for Nanostray 2
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTimeline)

The main mode in Nanostray 2 is Adventure, where you select stages and play them all until the end. Each level won is then unlocked for individual play in Arcade mode. Strangely enough, high scores are not tracked/memorized for Adventure mode, only for Arcade mode. The scoring system doesn't seem to change between them, and is primarily based on chaining enemy kills according to the time limit of the "nano gauge" (imagine a less strict Dodonpachi-like system and you get the picture). Unfortunately only Arcade mode includes some sort of visual aid for players to track their chaining progress, in the form of tiny multiplier tags that appear when enemies die. Adventure mode has no indication whatsoever, so I just tried to come up with a general sense of timing and worried only about destroying full waves to get their rewards (blue coins are also worth a few points). No end-of-stage bonuses exist this time around, unlike what we got in the first Nanostray.

Other variations available besides Adventure and Arcade (which also serves the noble purpose of single stage practice) include Challenge mode (where you must fulfill several short missions in order to unlock four simulators), Simulators (which consist of the mini-games unlocked by completing Challenge mode) and a couple of two-player distinct modes to try out with a friend. Given the fact that all simulators were available when I checked them out and I hadn't completed any challenge, I suspect that once you beat the game on a single credit they're all unlocked at the same time.

Except for the missed opportunities related to the scoring system, Nanostray 2 is by all means a truly awesome game. I beat Adventure mode on Normal difficulty with the final score shown below (pause as soon as the last boss dies or you won't be able to get a picture of your score). I followed the default stage order and used special weapons seeker in stages 1 and 2, pulse in stage 3 and spin for the rest of the game, with speed set to 1 and no alteration of pod positions from beginning to end.

Next in the Nano series of shooters is Nano Assault on the Nintendo 3DS.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Silver Surfer (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Software Creations
Published by Arcadia Systems in 1990

When it comes down to the cosmic roster of Marvel Comics characters, Silver Surfer is probably the coolest one of them. Initially appearing as a supporting character in the adventures of the Fantastic Four, he was the first and most famous herald of the all powerful Galactus, devourer of planets. Rising up from a tragic past and a slew of ominous duties, the Surfer soon gained his own series and more notoriety, to the point of starring in his own video game. I can only imagine how awesome it might have been for a fan back in the 90s to control such an iconic comic book character in a shmup. Silver Surfer's reputation, however, soon delved into the ranks of oblivion thanks to successive reports of extreme difficulty, which for many people was reason enough to shun the game and make it infamous for all eternity.

The question that lingered since then, at least for me, is whether Silver Surfer is indeed the beast everybody says it is. I'm a sucker for comic book based media so I was already kinda engaged before even trying the game. As soon as I put my hands on it the reason for the hate became quite clear to me: kids at the time probably weren't akin to using turbo controllers, and since Silver Surfer is a shmup that demands a steady, intense firing rate, playing it without any means of autofire would be the equivalent to video game torture. On the other hand, if you have autofire from the get go there's no reason to fret as you accept yet another heroic mission imposed by none other than the almighty Galactus.

Mephisto and Reptyl unite against Norrin Radd
(courtesy of YouTube user KyperTrast)

Following the game's introduction the player must choose one of the five worlds that hide a piece of a powerful cosmic gadget. My suggestion is tackling the default order, which sees you battle through the domains of Reptyl, Firelord, Possessor, (Skrull) Emperor and Mephisto. Only when these five worlds have been conquered will you have a shot at the realm of Magik, apparently run by none other than X-Men's notorious villain Mr. Sinister – this is technically a spoiler, but one that doesn't make any sense storywise as you'll see from the visual appearance of the final boss. Each stage has three segments, with at least one of them being a vertical section where you see the character from above.

Shooting a single bullet is what button A does. SELECT triggers a screen-clearing bomb, provided you have one in stock. Button B is only functional once you get a silver orb that serves as an option and increments your firepower. It moves the orb's position around Silver Surfer: in horizontal parts the orb is switched between front, below and behind, whereas in vertical parts it's positioned at the front, sideways and behind. Additionally, with two orbs you're able to fire two additional bullet streams in vertical sections, as opposed to just one in horizontal ones. Besides the orb, which might appear from destroyed enemies or floating in fixed places, you'll also come across other very important items: F increases your firing rate and power, B gives you an extra bomb, an orange S acts as a speed-up and a silver S gives you an extra life (extends are also granted for every hundred thousand points scored).

Silver Surfer shows very nice production values. Graphics are creative and reflect the environments of the boss characters with a decent amount of detail (lame boss fights notwithstanding). The soundtrack composed by the revered Tim Follin is energetic enough to make you forgive the fact that there are only two very similar themes that repeat from beginning to end in all levels. As for the gameplay, all I can say is that Silver Surfer is a very demanding game that's best approached with an open mind. The rule is simple but allows little room for error: get shot or touch anything and you're dead meat. Die and restart at a previous checkpoint stripped of all powers you had already acquired. That said, it's important to mention that the extreme difficulty of the game is a myth.

Possessor shall fall

I'm well aware there are those who will fiercely contest my assessment of the game's difficulty. Many times I hear people stating it is "unfair", when in fact it's just "very strict". Yes, touching walls is deadly, often times you ram into something that kills you, the hitbox of that surfboard in vertical stages is huge and later levels tend to add enemies with erratic behavior on top of the character being clearly underpowered upon death. However, even though our hero comes out as a wimpy wreck instead of a badass cosmic entity, there are a few breathers we can rely on. The Surfer is able, for instance, to destroy some of the enemy bullets, and he can also wipe all enemies at once with a single bomb, a very useful resource that many people take for granted since it's activated by the SELECT button. After some practice the player can also hoard lots of extra lives, which is in line with the benefits brought about by successive credits. After all, just like in every classic shmup memorization is of utmost importance, especially when you realize all items are spawned in the very same place in every run.

My feeling is that Silver Surfer is a very special game in the NES library due to its particular setting. It's quite unique, even though Irem and Konami can be seen as the main sources of inspiration for gameplay and aesthetics. The game is definitely challenging and fun, frustating at times but never unfair. And the story bits shown in the introduction and in the intermission prior to the final stage are a treat for Marvel fans. Unfortunately Silver Surfer can't be played for score since it's easily exploitable by infinite milking on bosses. Those 4.000 points you get for each item picked up in excess will merely serve the purpose of gaining extends faster.

The picture below was taken as soon as the last boss was defeated. 1CC mission accomplished, now let's move on to the next challenge.