One of the disappointing things about the entertainment industry as a whole is how often quality releases are overlooked due to a lack of promotion. It happens quite often in the video game industry, as budget titles and their under-appreciated kin become passed over for more well-known releases. Sure, there are quite a few games in those categories which could be mentioned as being less than stellar without much of a fuss raised. However, there have also been some well-made, interesting and entertaining games that have unfortunately and unfairly failed on the retail market. A good example of this would be Singularity – a quality shooter which Activision didn’t advertise for some reason. Another is Nano Assault for the 3DS, which released as a budget title and hasn’t been talked about enough.
Before we delve deep into the $20 shoot ’em up from Shin’en Multimedia and Majesco, it’s imperative that I mention an important fact about its cartridge. Although I enjoyed a lot of my time with Nano Assault, reviewing it also became quite frustrating at one point. In fact, there was a time where it seemed like this review wouldn’t be able to go up. Why is that? Somehow a game breaking glitch made its way into the game. It can be avoided, but doing so means that you will have to overlook what is arguably one of the more important parts of this genre’s beloved experience: leaderboards. Players who venture into a secondary score-based mode’s competitive lists will be unable to continue playing on that save, because the game constantly freezes afterwards. The only way to solve the problem is to delete your progress and start over, which is what I had to do. Thankfully, I only had two hours invested into what is approximately a three hour game, or just a bit better than that.
To some, that aforementioned glitch will be a deal breaker. Honestly, it’s hard to argue with that, because games should be fully playable when they’re released. With that being said, there is still quite a bit to enjoy about this experience. The full game is available; you just can’t compare your scores against the rest of the world. Then again, that scoring system only focuses on a secondary mode, meaning that it does not factor into the supplied main campaign. Those who are willing and able to overlook what is certainly a major and unacceptable glitch, will find an under-appreciated release on this affordable game cartridge. It’s something rather different that provides an interesting experience.
Now that we’ve aired that dirty laundry, it’s time to talk about the game’s important mechanical, design and story-based details. Let’s start with the latter, which sees humanity fighting off a deadly virus known as Nanostray. To some, that name may be incredibly familiar, considering the fact that Shin’en did develop two Nintendo DS games under that moniker. While they were both Gradius style shoot ’em ups set in space, Nano Assault features a different gameplay style which carries on some aspects of its predecessors. What you’ll find here is more reminiscent of a game like Super Stardust HD, where a ship must move around a rotating mass as it destroys deadly creatures. Instead of a planet, you’re fulfilling that objective (along with one other) while piloting a small ship through unique cell clusters.
There is no real storyline to follow here. What was described above serves as the title’s basic premise, which actually works out quite well, by allowing the development team to give us some new environments to shoot our way through. Different cell clusters have their own unique, individual cells which must be purified by your piloted vessel – a tiny ship known as a nanite. Its size is so miniscule that some forms of bacteria (bosses, mainly) actually appear gigantic in comparison. Your average enemy type organisms are either close in size or a several times the ship’s size.
Moving your nanite is completed using the 3DS’ circle pad, which doesn’t have any issues performing its duty, especially when the sensitivity is turned up. Shooting, on the other hand, happens to have more complexity during most stages. Nano Assault‘s development team took the system’s lettered face buttons’ triangular design into account and mapped each one to a specific side of the ship. That allows for unique directional shots, which can be adjusted by pressing the left shoulder button. Doing so will spread your bullets out more, with around four different variations. Complementing these mechanics are several different special attacks that become available throughout the campaign. Initiated with the right shoulder button, that helpful list includes a rotating shield, bombs and a homing laser.
Over the course of each world (or cluster, if you will), gamers will find themselves interacting within one of three different stage types. The main and most common type is the aforementioned three-dimensional cell, which is covered in virus bacteria. You move around it, avoiding oncoming fire while returning adjustable bullets and special attacks of your own. That is one of two main objectives, with the other being to find three separate DNA helixes. This stage type suffers from repetition and some rather dull content in early clusters, where there aren’t many enemies to be found. It also has a frustrating issue that pops up on occasion. After finding the first two out of three pieces of DNA or destroying almost every last piece of attacking bacteria, it can be challenging to find the last one. Sometimes, the game will actually keep spawning some enemy types, which keeps adding to the listed amount in annoying fashion. Circling the cell over and over again, just to find one tiny foe can become very boring and somewhat frustrating.
Next up is a mission type that harkens back to the developer’s similar two handheld releases. Acting as precursors to boss battles that we’ll talk about later, are stages that are very reminiscent to something from a retro shoot ’em up game. The controlled nanite must be piloted forward in an attempt to make it into a specific part of a cell. Since the mechanic basically means you’re flying towards the back of the device’s top screen within enclosed spaces, these parts provide a great opportunity for excellent 3D; something this game takes advantage of. Players must shoot approaching enemies, dodge incoming fire and avoid obstacles. Usually, these parts are split up into two or three sections, full of chaotic and very entertaining action. Losing lives only counts until the boss appears, acting as a checkpoint, which is a nice touch.
Finally, we have boss battles, where the player’s craft is almost always being attacked by a powerful being which takes a few minutes (and great dodging skills) to take down. There happens to be at least one epic battle within each cluster, although some have two. For the most part, entering into one is both daunting and enjoyable, with lots of quality design variety to be found. Sure, the large-scale creatures do happen to have some rather powerful punches, but intelligent maneuvering will lead you to victory. The main key is to keep out of their line of fire because taking one hit means an explosive death. Luckily, three lives are supplied at the beginning of the campaign, with collectable gems allowing for extra ones to be added to your inaugural total. Having five or six at the end of the game makes things noticeably easier during boss battles, but that happens to be when the basic stages become much more challenging.
From start to finish, you’re looking at close to three hours of content within the main mode. There are 32 different stages, comprised of the three described types. Considering the length of similar genre fare, Nano Assault would probably fall into a category with its lengthier releases. It doesn’t feel like there’s a lack of content to be found at all. However, more variety (less rotating cell stages) would have made the experience much more frenzied, equating to an entertainment increase. As it stands, this campaign is definitely solid, but there’s potential there for even more than that. If a sequel could do away with some of the repetition, I’d be a happy pilot.
In order to provide extra content and replay value, two additional modes were added. The first one, which includes that unfortunate freezing glitch, makes you replay the campaign with a scoring system. Killing enemies adds points to your total, and doing so in rapid succession creates multipliers. Of course, the goal being to beat others’ totals. Though, you’ll have to result for besting your own high-scores. Thankfully, there are challenges to complete, such as beating a stage without dying or doing so without using a special attack. The only other issue I found with this option was the score notifiers themselves. They would constantly pop up and float towards the top of the screen (slightly) before disappearing, cluttering the screen and becoming a distraction. With that being said, it’s tough to think of another way that facet could have been implemented, in a way that it wouldn’t block enemies or their incoming fire.
Becoming available after the main campaign has been bested and all cells have been purified is Boss Rush Mode. For most, this one won’t need much explanation. It places the bosses in specific order and challenges you to battle one after another with a limited pool of lives. There are three different modifiers, referred to as A, B and C. Beating one will unlock the next one and so on. Since the game’s bosses are one of its main highlights, this mode will please most.
This is a bold statement to make, but it’s tough to argue. Nano Assault boasts some of the best visuals on the Nintendo 3DS, which also takes its 3D effects into account. It boasts an impressive colour palette, which allows quite a few different environments to be showcased. Some of those actually look like something you’d see in a film like Avatar, where fluorescent plants dot the landscape. Certain things feel like they’re coming right at you, including enemy bullets and obstacles (during the Gladius-style stages,) as well as your ship’s back end. In fact, it’s tough to complain about any part of the game’s presentation as it not only looks great, but also sounds very good. An original score made up of techno and science-fiction themed music takes advantage of the system’s boisterous simulated surround sound speakers. Impressive stuff for a budget title, which originally released at a $30 price point and has since been dropped down to a mere 20 bills.
It’s unfortunate that such a quality budget title should suffer from a terrible game breaking glitch. If it wasn’t for its noteworthy distraction, Nano Assault would be incredibly easy to recommend as a must-buy for fans of the shoot ’em up genre. However, there are some folks who will want to avoid this one because it does not provide a working challenge mode, where competition against others gamers is made easy. That fact is the unfortunate truth here, and something that acts as a black mark on an otherwise polished plate. If you’re able to overlook and avoid that widespread issue, then I recommend checking this one out. Those who do will find a beautiful, entertaining and rather different experience. After all, we don’t get to fly through (or hover over) digital cells teeming with bacteria on a regular basis.
This review is based on a copy of the game that was provided to us for review purposes.
Nano Assault shows a lot of potential, it's just unfortunate that a few major glitches keep the game from being a great experience.