Burn baby, burn

Over the past few days we’ve been relentlessly tweeting, videoing and generally getting ourselves lost in playing Steel Empire in every format it’s available on.

But as enjoyable as the game is, experiencing it in its final form doesn’t give much insight into all the hard work and ideas that went into taking it from an initial concept to a finished game, so it’s a good thing Japan’s Shooting Gameside magazine took the time to interview Yoshinori Satake, co-director of the original Steel Empire, about his time developing the game. The interview isn't a new one, but it's worth looking into again now that the 3DS port is available in Japan.

The game is probably best known for its unique steampunk style, a design choice that affected every part of the game right down to the end credits crawl; but that bold decision was actually nothing more than a simple desire of the team’s boss at the time:

Hot B had originally made the shooting games Insector X and Over Horizon, so we naturally started talking about making another shooting game. I submitted plans for both a horizontal scroller and a vertical scroller, and my boss at the time, who had developed Chuuka Taisen and others, told me he wanted to do a steampunk style game. So I ended up doing the planning for it.

Of course Satake took that idea and ran with it, creating probably the only scenario in which it’s a really good idea to bring a zeppelin into battle as well as explaining why biplanes in space isn’t as ridiculous an idea as it sounds:

The image I had for the world was one of outrageous and nonsensical science. People in the past didn't understand the limitations of the steam engine at all, and they thought the steam engine could do anything. They wrote many blueprints like this, and my idea for Steel Empire was to bring those designs to life. People back then thought there was an atmosphere in space, and that the Aurora Borealis actually existed in space, too. So I tried to express that in the last stage by having an atmosphere in the background, and I told the designer how people back then drew images of space with mist. Using that as our image, we designed the graphics of the final stage to have a colorful, Aurora-like mist even though its in space. So even in space the propellers on the planes are spinning, and since there's an atmosphere, there's smoke too.

Steel Empire couples this steampunk look with a variety of memorable bosses and locations, and there’s a reason for that – the game was built around a story, rather than around a gameplay or scoring mechanic as many shoot ‘em ups are. This decision to have a reason for everything gives the game a sense of cohesion that others in the genre can sometimes lack:

The idea […] was that your enemy, the Empire, had installed long range cannons along the coast, and in order to let your allies' mothership get near, you needed to fly in at low altitude and destroy them so the invasion could be easier. I don't think many people who were making shooting games back then started their design from some story idea like this. I'm the type who can't build up a game unless I have a scene or story I've thought of behind it. For every stage it was like, 'this is happening in the story, so this has to happen.' I would then first start by thinking about what emotions that scenario should convey to the player. That's how Steel Empire was made.

That doesn't mean the gameplay was put on a back-burner – Satake has some very strong views on where he feels the shoot ‘em up genre often fails to connect with new players, specifically where difficulty is concerned. Some fans live for gut-crushing difficulty and inconvenient checkpoints that strip you of all power ups, but Satake wanted Steel Empire to feel more balanced and encouraging for newcomers:

When I started making shooting games, I was thinking 'why doesn't everyone enjoy these games?' and I studied a variety of different popular games with that in mind. For example, in RPGs, one reason people finish the game and don't give up is because there are always a variety of different quests and things to do even if you get stuck or bored, such as going around and talking to people, raising your levels, or searching for stronger weapons. Dragon Quest is very conscious of this, and drew a clear line between itself and more unforgiving Western RPGs. Anyone can play it, its easy, and you can finish it without giving up. Those kind of adjustments were a point of reference for me.

But this wasn't an attempt at "dumbing down"; the aim was to hopefully find a way to get shoot ‘em up newbies engaged and excited with one of arcade’s most iconic genres:

With shooting games, if you lower the hurdles and let even unskilled players get used to the game, before long they'll become better players, I think. If a person who can't clear even the first stage in a shooting game and isn't enjoying themselves instead manages to make it to the 3rd stage, I think they'll be better able to understand some of the appeal of these games.

This interview also gives all shoot ‘em up fans a very good reason to support the 3DS remake – Satake would very much like to make a sequel under the name Burning Steel:

I want to do it. I have an idea for a sequel titled 'Koutetsu Moyu' (something like 'Burning Steel', though its a bit of a play on words, since the 'yu' can also be read in this compound as 'oil' or 'fuel'). Steel Empire was a sepia-colored steampunk world, but this would be a dark, grey steampunk. I have an image for it like the old war movies […] I'd like to take the dark grey atmosphere of those movies and make a steampunk world out of it, using color, but with a monochrome feel from the desaturated colors and such. I think that would be an original steampunk world, and I've been drawing up plans for it to submit to Starfish.

Having played and enjoyed all three versions of Steel Empire, we hope that Satake gets to make his sequel. Are you excited about the upcoming western release of Steel Empire? Let us know by leaving a comment.

[via shmups.system11.org]