Review: Nano Assault (Nintendo 3DS)

Nano Assault
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Shin’en
Publisher: Majesco
Release Date: 12/05/2011

Developer Shin’en has an interesting track record as a developer; a brief review of their development history shows that, until about three years ago, their projects consisted entirely of licensed games (Maya the Bee, Miss Spider: Harvest Time Hop and Fly, Garfield’s Nightmare) and shooters (Iridion 3D, Iridion 2). While this is an incredibly… specific development philosophy, it has also allowed Shin’en to expand their development in the past few years on the WiiWare service, allowing them to make more of their own games instead of games based on Strawberry Shortcake or whatever. You can tell the company has something of a soft spot for shooters, though, as they keep coming back to the genre, between the Iridion series on the GBA and the Nanostray series on the Nintendo DS. Well, Majesco has seen fit to bring us the first handheld shooter from Shin’en on the 3DS, dubbed Nano Assault, as a continuation of their Nanostray series on the DS, though the association is mostly just in concept. Nano Assault is a massive change from its predecessors and a good bit more experimental than most of the developer’s back catalog, and as such, is a good bit more interesting than their prior shooters, as it combines several different elements into one game instead of simply offering some plot on top of an overhead shooter. The end result isn’t without its missteps, of course, but it’s an interesting effort, and one that’s pretty solid all in all.

There’s a plot in Nano Assault, such as it is, though it’s very minor and mostly exists as a way to get you into the ship and shooting at things. Your team has acquired some of the Nanostray virus from the prior games, and the goal this time around is not to fight the infected organisms for the safety of the human race, but rather to decode the virus and cleanse the infected areas in hopes of defeating the virus at the cellular level. Really, the plot is incredibly bare bones, but as shooter plots go it’s not terrible per say, and while the bar has been raised for the genre in the past few years with games like Deathsmiles and such, Nano Assault‘s miniscule plot isn’t bad and gets down to the shooting fast, if nothing else. There are also a fair amount of game modes to fool around with, though at the beginning the only mode of note available is the Story Mode, which sends you through seven cell clusters full of viral annihilation. Once you’ve spent some time in Story Mode you’ll unlock Arcade Mode, which sends you through the stages unlocked in Story Mode and allows you to earn high scores and coins for completing specific challenges, and Boss Rush Mode, which sends you up against the bosses from the game one after another with one pool of lives to work with. You’ll also be able to visit the Nano Shop to spend your Nano Coins on enemy profiles and in-game songs, which can be viewed in the Nanopedia and Jukebox respectively, though you can also just cash in Play Coins (at a 1=1 ratio) to unlock these things as well if you’d rather. Shooter fans will appreciate the different modes available and the ability to challenge themselves in the Arcade Mode and Boss Rush modes, and while the modes aren’t radically different from another, they’re amusing enough to keep the game worth playing once Story Mode is cleared out.

Nano Assault looks good on a technical level, as the game features some excellent visuals overall and plays into its futuristic cellular combat theme very well. The game is also artistically interesting in some respects, as some of the bosses are interesting looking, all of the enemies you face match the theme excellently, and the color palette and special combat effects are very well implemented. The enemy designs aren’t always engaging, mind you, as sometimes a cell cluster just looks like a mushy dot, but the theme is held well, even if it doesn’t always work out in the way the developers intended. The 3D in the game is also well implemented, for the most part, as the menus pop effectively and the three dimensional environments shift and move in a convincing fashion. The behind-the-back segments in particular make great use of the 3D technology as you fly through obstacles and towards enemy viruses, though the overhead segments make somewhat less use of the 3D tech in comparison, and the bottom screen is used for tracking information, which makes the experience disorienting when you look between the screens and your eyes readjust. Aurally, Nano Assault features an electronic soundtrack that is surprisingly engaging, featuring some darker ambient tunes in some sections and upbeat driving tunes the next that work well and keep the action interesting. The only voice acting to be found comes from what seems to be your operator, more or less, and her voice work is sparse, but generally fine. The sound effects are appropriately futuristic and fit the theme well, and the larger viral monsters you face also sound imposing enough when you encounter them to be convincing.

Interestingly, Nano Assault bears little in common with its predecessors, which were vertically scrolling shooters; indeed, Nano Assault takes its queues from Smash TV and Galaxy Force more than anything else, and is a surprisingly interesting experience as a result. In both modes, the controls function more or less identically: the analog stick moves your ship around, the face buttons fire your primary gun, the right bumper fires your special weapon, and the left bumper changes the spread of your primary shot between three widths. The only differences are tailored to the mission perspective; in the Smash TV styled side-scrolling and overhead sections, the face button pressed controls the direction of your fire (in the behind the back sections it doesn’t matter), and additionally, in these sections pressing the D-Pad brings up a map that shows you collectibles and enemies if you’re looking for the last things needed to clear a stage. If you’ve played a fairly robust amount of shooters in your time you’ll instantly know exactly what you need to do with Nano Assault after a few seconds, though for those who are new to the genre the controls aren’t cumbersome or difficult to understand at all. Adjusting from one game type to the next might be a little weird at first, but by and large the mechanics are simple enough to understand and work with and the game is pretty easy to play once you get used to pressing two buttons to fire diagonally; a second stick might have alleviated that somewhat, but what’s here works fine and doesn’t detract from the game.

In the beginning you’ll have no power-ups to work with, but as you plow through the first four viral clusters you’ll encounter mid-bosses who are somewhat powerful and pay off their demise with secondary weapons you can use. You’ll unlock a total of four secondary weapons: the Seka, a homing shot that’s weak but hits multiple times and tracks targets, the Raydion, a gravity bomb that’s slower but hits hard, the Garan, a short range lightning field that hits hard but can only be used in overhead sections, and the Eyram, which makes a field of spinning energy bolts that hit enemies hard, which can also only be used in overhead sections. You’re only allowed one secondary weapon at one time, and each use of the weapon draws a specific amount from the energy bar displayed on the bottom screen, though you can refill it by collecting dropped energy charges from enemies or eating a death. Enemies will also drop the odd colored gems, depending on the mode you’re playing. In Arcade Mode they drop yellow gems that are only useful to add to your score, but in Story Mode they drop blue gems that accumulate across the stages until you hit one hundred, at which point the game gives you a permanent extra Nanite ship and resets the counter to zero. The Nanite count carries over across all other modes, making it useful to grind up the gems by repeating stages if you want more lives, though you’ll ideally want to avoid losing the lives in the first place if you want to clear out everything in the game rather than win by a war of attrition.

You can more or less clear out Story Mode in about three to four hours if you run straight through it, but clearing out the Arcade Mode and Boss Rush Mode stages will easily double that time, at a minimum, and unlocking all of the Nano Coins between the modes will take even longer. For those who enjoy setting and beating their own high scores, Arcade Mode also offers some interesting quirks, as killing enemies in chains can generate some fairly high scores once you get used to the mechanics of the mode. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t have more advanced replay value, like multiplayer modes or higher difficulties, and while Boss Rush Mode will be a challenge until you can survive the boss patterns, Nano Assault only has a limited amount of replay value. The Story Mode is of mild challenge, but decent shooter skills will get you through it with minimal difficulty, and even beyond that, grinding to earn extra lives will work where sheer skill fails, though you may not even need to. From simply picking up all of the crystals that dropped I ended the game with seven lives available without having to replay any levels, and most of the stages aren’t long enough that you can’t get through them with that amount of lives, as an example.

That, unfortunately, is the biggest issue with Nano Assault: it’s limited. The idea of the game is very interesting, to be sure, but when it comes down to it the game needs a little more than it has on board. Most of the stages are only a few minutes long, and even the boss stages can be completed in under ten minutes, so in Story Mode and Arcade Mode the stages never really have a chance to really get going. The later stages flood the area with enemies or make the enemies fire large bullet spreads, but you’ll likely make it through most stages in under three tries because they’re not all that difficult once you understand the basics. Something like a couple higher difficulty modes or some multiplayer options would have added a lot to the game, and while it’s not a full priced release, it’s really about the concept and spectacle over anything else, and lacks any sort of real longevity as an experience.

Honestly, Nano Assault will be a good fix for shooter fans, as it’s more interesting than its predecessors and has a lot of neat ideas, but for more casual genre fans, it lacks a lot of long term value as there’s only significant challenge to the post game content and some more obvious value added options are missing from the game. The plot is barely there but exists enough to be of interest, and there is a solid amount of variety to the game modes, although there’s nothing really off the wall or unique to the options. The game looks and sounds pretty good and meshes the gameplay mechanics of two types of old school games that one rarely sees put together in a fashion that’s engaging and works surprisingly well. The game does offer some solid ideas to keep the player going and offers some adequate replay options with its Arcade and Boss Rush modes, as well as some unlockables for the completionist. Unfortunately, the game lacks more basic elements, such as multiple difficulties or multiplayer options, to keep the game fresh for longer, and the game doesn’t have much challenge to offer until the post-game content or depth to speak of at all. Nano Assault is a good investment if you’re a genre fan, as it’s not a full priced release and it has some interesting ideas to show off, but the more casual shooter fan may find it to be a bit underdeveloped, unfortunately.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GOOD
FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Nano Assault is a solid expansion of the Nanostray franchise that’s going to be fun for shooter fans, though it’s hard to recommend to more casual fans as it lacks the sort of depth that would keep it interesting for the long term. The story is minute but gives enough of a backdrop to the concept to make things work and there are an acceptable amount of game modes, though there’s nothing unexpected on offer. The game has a strong visual and aural presentation and puts together Smash TV and Galaxy Force mechanics in a way that feels interesting and organic, and makes for a surprisingly interesting experience as a result. There are some strong concepts in the gameplay mechanics, and there’s content beyond the Story Mode to play with once you’re done with that, which gives the game some acceptable replay value for those who value this. However, basic concepts such as multiplayer or multiple difficulty levels are left out of the game, which limits the long term appeal of the experience, and the game doesn’t really challenge the player except in some parts of the post-game experience, leaving much of the main experience to be a bit on the easy side. If you’re a fan of shooters or just looking for a shooter that does things a little differently, Nano Assault is an interesting take on the genre that does some interesting things, but it doesn’t have the long term appeal to make it a must-have for anyone but genre diehards.

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