Friday, October 13, 2023

Nanotek Warrior (Playstation)

Tube shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tetragon
Published by Virgin Interactive in 1997

In the 23rd century nanotechnology is so advanced that starts to turn against the human kind, with nanorobots creating nanocolonies to dominate the galaxy. The player takes the role of the commander of a new class of remote-controllable nanowar machines, navigating through nanotubes in a desperate attempt to destroy eight mega nanobosses. Yes, there are lots of mentions to "nano" everywhere when you check out the instruction manual to this game but make no mistake, there's nothing "nano" about the gameplay of another unsuspectedly decent entry in the Playstation shmup library.

Not counting Tempest X3, which is in a league of its own in terms of gameplay, Nanotek Warrior is part of the tube shooter trifecta of the Playstation platform and is certainly recommended, as is iS - Internal Section. These games are often dismissed as old 3D novelties, but suffice it to say that all of them (including N2O - Nitrous Oxide, which I still haven't played) are more approachable than any rail shooter of the same era for a very simple reason: they behave just like fixed shooters set on a scrolling torus. Released in all main gaming regions, Nanotek Warrior is a great example of how to implement such a concept, providing solid fun, good hit detection and a difficulty slope that feels natural, even offering the ability to practice individual levels with a simple but efficient password feature (the existence of a password system obviously means that the game has no saving functionalities).

Checkpoints are determined by rings of light along the tube

Don't get frightened by the control settings of Nanotek Warrior, which offers no less than 14 variations of button layouts. Half of them are labeled "flight" and the other half "arcade". The only difference between them is that the vertical directions are normal for arcade and inverted for flight. Then you have inputs for shot, jump and special attack, as well as strafe and bank, which always work with the shoulder/trigger buttons. Strafe is a weird designation since you're actually always strafing while navigating the game tubes – what it does is actually fire one single diagonal shot towards the chosen direction. Bank makes the ship fly vertically on its wings for approximately one second. While strafing is quite useful throughout the whole game, banking is only needed in the final stages, and even so quite sparingly (you can do without it, honestly). Finally, by pressing up and down you can accelerate and slow down the speed of the ship.

As you slide both outside and inside the nanotubes (mostly outside), an energy bar allows the ship to take some damage, but if this bar is depleted a life is lost and you get sent back to a checkpoint. Enemies and obstacles will require the use of pretty much all basic inputs mentioned above. Sometimes it's just not enough to dodge, you will have to jump or even jump while accelerating or slowing down. Good timing is required to pass through giant fans, laser gates or horizontal barriers without getting hit, whereas tiny ramps are strategically positioned to help you jump even higher, in most cases with the purpose of allowing the collection of otherwise unreachable items.

Speaking of which, items come in three colors. Yellow ones recover lost energy. Red ones provide the ship with an assortment of special attacks, including scattering bombs, piercing wave shots, forward-clearing ground blasts and outward boomerang-like shards. Some of them will also endow the ship with a temporary 3-way shot (additionally, whenever a few selected enemies are destroyed the default single shot gets upgraded to a two-shot blast). Regardless of how you end a stage, the next one will start with a full energy bar and no special attacks. Finally, the green item gives you an extra life. Besides that, score-based extends are granted at every 100.000 points you're able to score.

An aspect that deviates from the rest of the game are the boss fights. They all take place inside a chamber instead of over a running tube, in what the game calls "orbit" mode. You need to fly around the boss, dodging its attacks and aiming at weak spots. While some bosses are easy, a few of them can be quite tricky due to the weird perspective of orbit mode. In order to circumvent that my strategy was to move a lot either hugging the top or the bottom of the screen, and always take out smaller satellites before targeting the boss itself. Besides making the battle easier, most satellites release either yellow or red items.

A full credit of Nanotek Warrior
(courtesy of YouTube user Completionator)

With eight very distinctly themed stages, Nanotek Warrior leans towards a dark design that takes advantage of varied textures and lighting effects. It feels a little gritty overall, but everything moves along nicely with no hiccups whatsoever. The game might feel longer than it actually is due to the duration of checkpoints and the presence of two bonus levels after stages 3 and 6 that play a lot like the bonus areas of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (!). Some checkpoints are very short while others, such as the starting checkpoint of the final stage, can be excruciatingly long. Another source of dynamic halts can be mid-bosses, which show up twice in each level and reappear once in the last stage. All of them can be safely taken out with well-established strategies and some practice. Practicing is in fact very much needed from stage 6 onwards due to a noticeable leap in difficulty.

Decent gameplay aside, it's just a little disappointing that Nanotek Warrior can't be played for score. All extra lives keep reappearing in the same place if you die, which means players can exploit checkpoints indefinitely to achieve higher scores. Since you do get lots of extra lives just by regular game progression, the impression is that final success is always around the corner the closest you get to the finish line. On a final note, since the techno music often seems engulfed by sound effects, it might be good to tinker with the sound balance in the options.
Without any checkpoint milking I barely surpassed one million points in my successful attempt to the 1CC the game in the Normal difficulty, as seen in the picture below (I used the "flight B" control setup). It was a fun and fulfilling ride nonetheless. The ending shows a nice animation where the blue ship is upgraded to a red ship, and if you use the bonus password the game gives you the credit will then start with this new ship. It comes with a brand new 3-way pattern instead of the default single shot, as well as infinite special attacks that cycle through all types endlessly (red items are all replaced by the point tokens of the bonus levels). For quite a satisfying spectacle of destruction one might as well have the special attack button set to permanent turbofire! Just for reference, the bonus password I got for the Normal difficulty was ×□×□□○×∆×.

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