In the mid to late 2000s shoot 'em ups were the new black. Thanks in part to the popularity of Geometry Wars and Super Stardust, the psychedelic shoot 'em up enjoyed a moment in the sun driven by competitive leaderboards, affordability and simple moorish mechanics (shoot stuff, collect stuff, don't die).
One studio that made their bread and butter in the shoot 'em up market was Shin'en Multimedia, releasing the fantastic Nanostray on the Nintendo DS back in 2005, followed by a sequel in 2008. While you could argue that releasing a shoot 'em up on a handheld like the DS might have been premature at the time, Geometry Wars and Super Stardust both followed suit for the DS and PSVita respectively some time later. Shin'en clearly knew something about making great shoot 'em ups for handhelds and the good news is those crazy kids are back.
Shin'en Multimedia's latest release is Nano Assault Neo, the spiritual successor to Nanostray and their second direct download release for Nintendo since Jett Rocket.
As a studio known among fans for scoring gorgeous shooters with eerie soundtracks for handhelds, it remained to be seen if the Nanostray concept could convert to a console quality game.
Nano Assault Neo borrows heavily from its older brother Nanostray in many ways, all of which are good. The ship and enemy design, power ups and even colour palettes all feel very familiar. What is different is the scale. While Nanostray took place in the depths of space, Nano Assault Neo is a lot closer to home.
Nano Assault Neo is focused on minutiae, literally. Levels take place on a molecular level as the player is tasked with eradicating an infested cell of invading antibodies. Each level has a distinct aesthetic, with a consistent ecosystem of enemies, including ravenous mites, flora, such as thickets of what appear to be hair, and complex topography of ravines players need to navigate, ever on the hunt for the next weapon pick up or point bonus.
The levels take the form of contorted cylindrical objects hanging in space, resembling a long forgotten potato in someone's pantry that has spawned life. Your ship skims the surface of the level, and as you manipulate the left thumbstick the ships moves and the level rotates. It's a similar experience to playing Super Stardust, however the fact that levels are built around a 3D space that isn't perfectly spherical provides variety to keep the player guessing.
Nano Assault Neo is also playable on the Gamepad or TV, and the game does feel very at home on the small screen and looks gorgeous.
Upon completion of a level you'll enter the Nano Shop where you can select from a range of upgrades, stat bonuses and new weapons. Levels also include specific mission objectives providing players with additional challenges such as clearing 100% of enemies, score and time based objectives.
Points are vital to success in Nano Assault Neo, most important of all are the bonus rounds. Scattered about the levels are letters spelling the word bonus (a la Tony Hawk's S.K.A.T.E). Collect these and following the completion of the level you'll be transported to the Bonus Round. Here you will have to navigate a ludicrously fast speed run through a tunnel littered with sweet sweet points and strategically placed rocks. Moving at such a frantic pace Nano Assault Neo needed a thumping soundtrack, which fortunately it has.
In their other life, Shin'en Multimedia score music for games and build audio middleware. The music for Nano Assault Neo fits the game like a glove and I can't imagine a more suitable genre to cruise the underside of a diseased cell to than 90s deep house. The pitch and pace of the music matches the frenetic speed at which Nano Assault Neo demands to be played.
Aside from a standard single player progression through each level, players will also unlock arcade mode (through which you can replay select levels). Probably the most unique feature of Nano Assault Neo is the ability to play co-operatively. The second player assumes control of a second ship and both players are located on the same level, sharing control of the camera. Players must work together as enemies do appear to scale in difficulty. Should the second player leave the first player abandoned on the other side of the level, a bubble will appear that streams the (presumably) angry face of your would-be co-op partner. Nice.
Nano Assault Neo is one of the first downloadable games for the Wii U and whether they realise it or not, Shin'en Multimedia are taking a very important first step toward sculpting future releases on this platform and the eShop service. The Wii's WiiWare showed initial signs of promise before giving way to a litany of poor ports and shovel-ware with the odd gem hidden among the rot. Nano Assault Neo deserves the attention of Wii U owners because it is a solid title at the launch of a new digital service and they need something to play on their new console they can't get anywhere else.
Shin'en Multimedia have also released a game in Nano Assault Neo that is comparable to their DS offerings at a third of the price, here's hoping that this sets the tone for future releases on the platform and that we can expect more great downloadable games for under fifteen dollars.
Nan Assault Neo successfully blends the biological with the mechanical into a twin stick shooter that just feels right.