Steel Empire: Shooter Shootout
Our gaming tastes run the gamut here at 4cr but it’s pretty uncommon for us to have wildly varying experiences with a specific genre of games. Shooters are one area however where our history tends vary from one person to the next. In part this is probably because of the wide variety of shooters and their long history going back to the very earliest video games (Spacewar for example). Calen and I both tend to enjoy shooters more than our fellow rebellionaires, however I’ve been playing shooters for ages and Calen is a more recent convert to the genre. With that in mind, when we were offered a couple of review codes for Steel Empire we thought it would be cool to see how the remake of the classic shooter appealed to both old and new fans of the genre.
If you’re unfamiliar with the game, this comparison video of the different iterations that Steel Empire has gone through does a good job of showing how the game has evolved since its original release in the late 90s.
The Gameplay in Steel Empire is pretty standard arcade shooter fare, with a couple of neat twists. It’s not a bullet hell game, but more akin to classic arcade titles like Gradius and R-Type. It does, however, feature a button to fire forward and one to fire backward, allowing the player greater freedom in how to take down enemies, and allowing the scroll direction to occasionally switch from left-right to right-left without hindering the player.
For each level either a small, weak, quick aeroplane, or a large, slow, armoured zeppelin can be selected. The game plays quite differently depending on ship selected. Rather than standard powerups, however, the game features a levelling system, where, for each 3 “P” bubbles collected, the ship levels up once, to a maximum of level 20. Each level increases firepower, which is only lost when you “Continue”. The game also features a health guage rather than a one shot and dead system. Combined with four different difficulty modes and a training mode to practice levels the game is really friendly for new players. Being a shooter novice myself, I’m not sure how hard the game is compared to other similar games.
The presentation in Steel Empire is absolutely fantastic. Instead of the Sci-Fi trappings of most other arcade shooters, Steel Empire is steampunk. The enemies are all steam or coal powered, with a Victorian look. The remake really does justice to the aesthetics, with all the sprites redrawn at the 3DS’ native resolution, using a much richer colour palette that either previous version. The Steampunk look permeates the whole game. Even the menus and the lower screen display elements feature moving gears. It looks so good in fact, that it could almost be a new, retro-style indie game if not for the delightful translation oddities emblematic of 80s and 90s localization; excessive passive tense use and a voice over at the beginning of each level that says “good rack” while “good luck” appears on the screen.
Though completely non-essential for the game the 3D effect is also well done. There are multiple levels of depth. When shot down, enemies fall into the background. Large explosions send shrapnel toward the screen, and after death the player’s craft starts popped out and flies into the normal depth plane.
Here’s the elephant in the room, though. Steel Empire is too expensive. I believe the publisher just converted the Japanese price directly to $29.99 for North America. While these sorts of games have a history of being high priced, Steel Empire is a digital release, not some rare gem that had a limited run. Seven stages, four difficulty modes and two different playable ships isn’t bad for longevity in a shooter, but the game should have been at most $15, like Kokuga (which was also $30 in Japan). The high price tag is really unfortunate because Steel Empire has been lovingly remade for the 3DS, and is very newbie friendly. It’s doubly unfortunate because it’s the sort of game that generally has a poor chance of getting localized. The high price, combined with being published by a company not really known for anything else is likely to hurt the chances that other such games will get localized.
That being said, because of the dearth of arcade shooters on the 3DS Steel Empire is the best native 3DS shooter by a large margin. If you’re willing to drop $30 and know exactly what you’re getting, you probably won’t be disappointed, but the general population should wait for a sale or for the publisher to drop the price.
Everything Calen said about the presentation of Steel Empire is true. It is a faithful translation of the original shooter that looks great on the 3DS, but for long time fans of the genre it may be hard to discern if this is a blessing or a curse. The original Sega MegaDrive game was published 22 years ago on a system which wasn’t particularly known for shooters. While the fact that the game has been repeatedly ported to new systems over the years with any success at all is a testament to its core value as a shooter, a lot has happened since 1992 and the genre is much richer than it was then.
Bullet hell style games didn’t really come into their own until the early to mid 2000s as games like Ikaruga and Gunbird moved from arcades to home consoles on the Saturn, Dreamcast, and PS2. This was a significant pivot in shooter sensibilities and represented a shift toward more respect for the enemies projectiles than the enemies themselves. In bullet hell games, you are hyper aware of your ship’s location in relation to the enemy fire with the location of enemies playing second fiddle to new game mechanics like bullet scraping and complex scoring. If you take that approach into an older game, where there are half as many enemies and projectiles on the whole screen, the game becomes a relatively easy matter of dodging and weaving through fire while picking off enemies.
As a long-time shooter player, I started Steel Empire on normal, expecting a decent challenge. I was totally wrong. I was disappointed when I beat the game in under an hour with the use of only a single continue (mostly due to early-stage “learning the controls” woes). The hard and difficult modes do ramp up the difficulty to a more acceptable level, but even then the archaic brute force attack game design makes the harder levels less satisfying. Enemy patterns aren’t as thoughtfully implemented at those difficulties and Steel Empire doesn’t require the same finesse as modern shooters that can result in epic, artful runs. The lower difficulty levels are fine for those new to the genre, but if you’re an experienced player you’re probably going to be disappointed from a gameplay perspective, especially if you’re expecting a modern shooter. Part of the problem might be that the last “retro” game I played was Shovel Knight, which took a retro premise and utterly modernized it. Shovel Knight really raised the bar for what can be done in the retro space and I think might have ruined straight ports for me in general, especially considering that Shovel Knight is half the price.
Which brings us back to that problem of the price. Contrary to Calen’s recommendation of the game being worth the price if you know what you’re getting, I think that if you know what you’re getting the game actually represents less value. The notorious high value shooters from Treasure are high priced not because they are rare (which is more of an issue in the US, on original hardware), they are high priced because they are super good. Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga are both masterpieces, but they’re also media darlings; and their price among collectors reflects this. My personal favorite shooter studio Psykio released some amazing games as well, and with the exception of their Neo Geo releases their games are all very affordable. So for me, the idea that “shooters cost more” just doesn’t hold. A better statement in my mind would be that “rare, watershed games cost more.” Steel Empire is neither of those things.
After my first playthrough on normal difficulty I thought the $30 price tag was crazy, and even half that would be tantamount to highway robbery. After I played the game again on the hardest difficulty level my disbelief was tempered a bit and I would say that at $15 Steel Empire would be a decent purchase, even at $20 it would be okay if you were really desperate for a good retro shooter on the 3DS. In all I would say that any value that Steel Empire has is as a nostalgic look at where shooters use to be design-wise. I don’t think it stands out against the shooters available in other sections of the console market, but given the limited number of shooters on the 3DS it fills a hole in the lineup, regrettably by forcing you to stuff your wallet into the gap.