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Matters Of Import: Steel Empire Is Flying High On Nintendo 3DS

Posted by Kerry Brunskill

Chocks away!

First released on the Mega Drive over twenty years ago and then remade for the GBA in 2004, Steel Empire is a side-scrolling shoot ‘em up with a distinctive visual twist. Looking like a cross between Jules Verne’s imagination, a Hayao Miyazaki anime and World War I archive footage; Steel Empire’s biplanes, zeppelins and steam train bosses move far away from the more typical Sci-Fi or fantasy fare genre fans are used to and into steampunk-style territory that’s still underused today.

While the graphics give a well-worn genre a fresh feel, there’s still much that’ll seem pleasantly familiar to shoot ‘em up fans; the game at its heart being about blasting anything that crosses your path from the sky while picking up power ups and avoiding oncoming enemy fire. Even here, Steel Empire has a few tricks up its sleeve, with both the quick-and-small biplane as well as the large-but-powerful zeppelin able to fire both forwards and backwards at will, with many stages putting you in positions where you’re required to do so. It’s a simple but effective way to mix things up, which only makes us wonder why shoot ‘em ups don’t do it more often. The other major change to the typical formula is the addition of a health bar – helpfully placed on the bottom screen in this remake along with your score and lives remaining – rather than dying at the slightest touch from the weakest enemy bullet or the lightest scenery graze (surely a glaring design flaw in a fighter craft?). Both ships can take several hits before dying, and they can even regain health if you can collect one of the floating health pick-ups that float into view from time to time.

This may make Steel Empire sound too easy; it’s true that most shoot ‘em up fans will have little trouble clearing the standard normal difficulty setting, so it can only be a good thing to know that there’s a hard mode available by default as well as a further "very hard" mode that’s unlocked by completing the game once. These increase the challenge significantly and make victory less of a sure thing for seasoned shoot ‘em up fans, without locking interested newcomers out of a great game.

Perhaps concerned that survival and scores weren't enough to keep gamers coming back for more, the developers have added what can only be described as "achievements" to Steel Empire, although these thankfully don’t get in the way when you’re playing. Once you've completed the game or run out of lives a grid appears on the screen, and for each goal reached a panel is flipped over to reveal part of a large piece of Steel Empire art. Challenges range from simply completing a stage to scoring over a million points, and give players a gentle nudge towards using a ship they don’t normally like or trying a harder difficulty than they’d normally feel comfortable with. It’s a good way to encourage players not obsessed with high scores to continue playing, and it works well without feeling compulsory.

It's visually superior to both the Mega Drive and GBA versions of the game with some thoughtful tweaks that improve upon weaker areas in the original (the cave escape sequence in particular feels much fairer now). The beautiful parallax skies are heightened by thoughtfully designed 3D without taking anything away from the gameplay, and the style and detail that’s gone into the spritework is obvious before you even hit the title screen. The developers have lovingly crafted a tribute to a fondly remembered Mega Drive title as well as a game that can stand as an enjoyable modern shoot ‘em up in its own right. It may be priced at a premium, but this is because it is clearly a premium game and one that deserves to do well in any territory they care to sell it in. The confirmed North American summer release can't come soon enough; we hope that a European launch isn't far behind.

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User Comments (13)

Shiryu

#1

Shiryu said:

I'm quite fond of the Megadrive original, but didn't get the GBA version. I might pick it up, I need me some good shmups.

MAB

#2

MAB said:

With a high flying price to match... I will pay a premium amount if M2 would give me a 3D classic of Chakan though ;)

OorWullie

#3

OorWullie said:

This sure is getting a lot of coverage.I was never much a fan of the original,it looked great but really wasn't up to much as a shooter.Far from being 1 of the Megadrives best but still good to see it making a comeback (just not at $30) :)

DamoAdmin

#5

Damo said:

@OorWullie Steel Empire doesn't get anywhere near enough credit if you ask me, I think the lukewarm review in Mean Machines at the time of release didn't do it any favours - a lot of people assume it's not one of the console's best blasters.

However, I think it's up there with the likes of Thunder Force IV, Gynoug, Hellfire, Zero Wing and the many other top notch shooters on the Mega Drive. The visuals alone make it worth a look, but the gameplay is fantastic, too.

OorWullie

#6

OorWullie said:

@Damo Cheers for the link man,I can actually recall reading that back in the day haha.Hellfire was definitely my favourite,probably followed by Gynoug or Biohazard Battle.For some reason I could never get into Thunderforce IV either despite all the glowing reviews.

Curious,is that you doing the retrospective comments I take it?

DamoAdmin

#7

Damo said:

@OorWullie Yep, the Mean Machines Archive is the first site myself and Daz created, before we joined up with Ant on Nintendo Life! It was the site we based Virtual Console Reviews on.

Gynoug really is an amazing shooter, really stunning visuals, even by today's standards. Thunder Force IV is a funny one as it is quite hard to get into - the height of the playing area sometimes confuses me!

OorWullie

#8

OorWullie said:

@Damo That's cool to know.Mean Machines will always hold a special place in my heart as I got hit by a car crossing the road behind a bus I just got off,reading a copy haha.

I played Hellfire and Gynoug not long ago actually and they are as good today as they were back then.I also played Thunderforce IV again too but still couldn't get into it.Yeah the height can be confusing but I also find the graphics,as good as they are,made it hard to tell what was going on at times.

Mommar

#9

Mommar said:

You guys are about the only ones talking about this game. I don't really understand why. Maybe because I (and you guys here) are nostalgic for shumps and most aren't? I don't know, but I'm happy to know things like this are being produced.

unrandomsam

#10

unrandomsam said:

I think I will just get this if it comes to the UK (Even though I never really liked it). Unlike Nintendo (who has loads of money) stuff like this I think does need to be supported. (Even though I prefer stuff like M.U.S.H.A or if it has to be horizontal - Gate of Thunder / Lords of Thunder or Gynoug (The only Genesis cart I have labelled - Wings of Wor). Actually forgot UN Squadron (Arcade version).

B3ND3R

#13

B3ND3R said:

@Damo Zero Wing... I put so many hours into that one simply to see what bad translations I would see next xD but at the same time, it was a BLAST to play. It was like the Klonoa of shmups (grab and throw enemy ships). Take off every ZIG, For great Justice.

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