As a 1994 arcade release from Namco, Nebulas Ray (the lack of apostrophe being an official part of the name) is a slightly odd game. For a shoot-em-up at the time, it’s actually quite standard, even a little humdrum in its gameplay, but the game’s presentation stands out among not only fellow shoot-em-up games, but Namco’s other releases of the time.
Having established themselves as one of the premier 3D arcade game developers the year before with Ridge Racer, you might expect Namco would be eager to maintain that image. And, in a way, Nebulas Ray does. The 3D influences here are undeniable; your ship, as well as every enemy and much of the environments, are rendered in 3D. But they’re not rendered in real-time; rather, they are pre-rendered and stored in the game’s ROM as sprites and tilemaps, somewhat akin to Aicom’s Viewpoint. As an aesthetic, it certainly makes the game different, but I can’t help but feel it’s the worst of both worlds: you have the blocky nature of mid-90s polygons, and since they’re pre-rendered as sprites, you don’t have the “flexibility” of real-time rendering that made 3D graphics so useful in the first place. I do have to give it up for the environments, though, which are impressive in their detail. Several of them use four-layer parallex for an almost disorienting sense of depth. (Note that this can be an occasional problem in some later stages which are so “busy” you can lose track of enemy shots.)
The gameplay doesn’t quite live up to the interesting level of the visuals. Through the game’s six stages (plus a bonus challenge stage if you’re good enough to finish), you’ll battle mostly the same enemies with just two primary weapons at your disposal, depending on what power-up you last grabbed—a powerful straight-ahead laser or a weaker spread shot. There are several special weapons you can pick up (as well as a forcefield), but they come with a built-in timer and only last about twenty seconds. The gameplay and ship handling is quite smooth and has a nice, even escalation of difficulty, but I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing as I moved through the levels, some extra thing that I would have expected a top-selling company like Namco to include in a shoot-em-up of the era. When you stack this up against the offerings coming out of new developers like Psikyo and Raizing, or even old-timers like Capcom, it just feels a little flat. A positive note here are the bosses, which are all varied from each other and provide some novel attack patterns I hadn’t personally seen elsewhere.
Should you play Nebulas Ray? If you’re a fan of shoot-em-ups, there’s no reason not to. It’s not likely to become a favorite, but it provides a new experience and does have some standout graphical and boss moments. But if you’ve never found the genre to be your thing, this isn’t the game to change that opinion.
With the PS3 port of Raiden IV releasing next month as Raiden IV Overkill I have been thinking of the series and replaying the original. Much as I love the main series I actually prefer the spin off ‘Fighters’ games. Design art here is from the awesome ‘INH’ DVD superplay series as well as the Raiden/ Raiden II soundtrack liner notes.