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Steel Empire (3DS eShop)

Game Review

Steel Empire Review

USA USA Version

Posted by Morgan Sleeper

The Empire strikes back

Side-scrolling shoot-‘em-ups were a force to be reckoned with in the early ’90s, gracing every arcade and home system under the sun with seemingly limitless variations on Gradius-style gameplay. Perhaps surprisingly, given the genre’s popularity, they also tended to stick rather closely to each other in terms of theme; apart from spin-offs like Star Pariodier and cute-‘em-ups like Cotton, most were cast from remarkably similar space- or military-themed molds. Enter Steel Empire, a 1992 Genesis / Mega Drive shooter that traded in those tired trappings for a gloriously different steampunk style. Later remade for the Game Boy Advance in 2004, Steel Empire now returns for a third voyage in this 3DS remake that should be on any shoot-‘em-up fan’s radar; it’s a beautiful and skilfully remastered version of an under-appreciated classic.

Steel Empire’s plot is centred around an escalating conflict between two nations — the Republic of Silverhead and the Motorhead Empire — as explained in nifty, Pathé-styled pre-flight mission briefings. While it’s not the most compelling narrative around, and it lacks any characters that aren't aircraft, the story still feels like an important part of Steel Empire, and it’s fun to watch it unfold. It also plays into the level design — some genuinely exciting set pieces are made much more meaningful by the story — and provides more than enough pretext to start you soaring into the steampunk skies, where plenty of shoot-‘em-up goodness awaits.

The main thrust of your mission — fly to the right (and occasionally in the opposite direction) and shoot everything in sight — will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a classic shoot-‘em-up, but Steel Empire throws in several fun variations on the theme. First, you can choose between two separate ships for each mission: a small, bird-shaped plane or a hefty dirigible. The smaller craft has an advantage in speed, while the airship packs more of a punch, but they’re both fun to fly — you can switch over between levels, too, so you won’t need to commit to a single style. Second, in lieu of the usual one-touch-death that turns so many shoot-‘em-up ships into airborne Achilles heels, both crafts come with an actual health bar and can take several hits before falling out of the sky. Finally, you can fire your weapons forwards or backwards at any time — the ‘A’ button shoots right and the ‘Y’ button shoots left, in an immediately intuitive, Bangai-O-style setup.

Power-ups work a bit differently here as well: there’s only one weapon — a rapid-fire gun — but collecting three ‘P’ spheres that appear throughout the stages will level up your ship, adding layers of increasingly impressive firepower to your steam-powered stream. Collecting enough power-ups can eventually take you up to level twenty, by which point you’ll be spraying a spectacular barrage of bullets. Along with the main weapon power-ups, heart spheres replenish your health, ’B’ spheres add to your count of screen-clearing lightning bombs and ‘O’ spheres call in an extremely helpful pair of orbiters which add supplementary sources of firepower above and below your craft — in a nice touch, these resemble tiny versions of the other selectable ship.

All of these elements — along with the game’s lovely steampunk stylings — give Steel Empire a unique feel that sets it apart from its peers. Being able to aim in two directions in particular makes a huge difference in the flow of the game; rather than simply taping down the ‘fire’ button and blasting away everything in front of you, you’ll have to watch the whole screen for incoming enemies, balance out your attacks to cover both sides and weave your way through intersecting patterns of bullets as they converge on the centre. The excellent level design makes full use of the mechanic as well, with fun enemy patterns playing off of your abilities and leftward-scrolling sections to keep you on your toes — including an iconic high-speed escape sequence. The bidirectional blasting feels especially liberating in the multi-part boss encounters at the end of each stage; in the grand tradition of the genre, the end-level guardians of Steel Empire’s skies are massive, dynamic and wonderfully designed, and you’ll find yourself flying all around these steam-powered titans looking for weak spots and openings.

Shoot-‘em-ups aren't exactly known for being beginner-friendly, but Steel Empire is a happy exception — it was one of the more approachable examples of the genre on the Genesis, and this modern incarnation is similarly welcoming for newcomers. It helps that you can choose between several difficulty levels, and that they’re commendably well-balanced: Easy mode is set so that anyone should be able to see it through to the end, Normal offers a decent challenge for most gamers, and Hard and the unlockable Difficult modes both serve up the sort of reflex-testing adrenaline rush that shooter fans live for — it’s no Recca, but foes and bosses still become bullet sponges, and you’ll have to manoeuvre your ship through tight-knit curtains of enemy fire. No matter which difficulty level you play on, being shot down won’t reset your ship’s level — though you will lose your orbiters — so you’ll avoid the common shoot-‘em-up peril of popping back into battle with nothing but a peashooter; here you’ll come back powered-up and ready for revenge.

Steel Empire’s seven levels might not last too long — you can breeze through to the credits in a little under an hour — but classic shooters are all about replay, and there are plenty of incentives to get you back in the pilot’s seat. First up is the local leaderboard, which keeps track of high scores and stats for each run, including difficulty level, number of deaths and continues, and ship used for each level — there aren't any online leaderboards, unfortunately, though posting scoreboard screenshots on Miiverse could serve as a reasonable replacement. You can also save any particularly impressive runs for posterity by using the replay feature — there’s a fast-forward option during playback, though curiously no way to slow things down. And if you need a bit of practice before nailing a replay-worthy round, a Training mode lets you revisit any previously played stage — pre-powered up to level twenty — to learn enemy patterns and level layouts. Finally, goal-oriented players can challenge themselves with a set of twenty achievements, which reward feats of skill and insanity — like beating the game without levelling up your ship or without dying once — by filling in sections of a larger 3D picture, and an unlockable Gallery hosts some stunning concept art.

Beyond all that, Steel Empire is simply a fun game to revisit; controls are spot on and very smooth, the multiple difficulty levels provide a sliding scale of challenge, and — most of all — dipping into its beautifully-realised steampunk world is a joy. Backgrounds take players from vibrant, Vernian cities to underground mines, starlit skies and mountain peaks, and the enemy designs are incredibly appealing — you’ll come across windmill rockets, winged cars, floating castles, propeller-powered galleons, helium-balloon battleships, cannon-toting steam trains, and all manner of Neo-Victorian, da Vinci-inspired flying machines. The atmosphere extends beyond the gameplay as well; it runs through the gilded, gear-filled HUD on the bottom screen, the sepia tone cutscenes, and the flickering, old-timey film filters on the pre-mission reports.

This aesthetic was a huge part of the appeal of the 1992 original, but it’s never looked as good as it does here — in terms of presentation, this 3DS version is a knockout. The redrawn sprites and backgrounds are crisp, clean, and detailed, capturing the feel of the original with beautiful modern art — it’s retro through rose-tinted glasses, and it looks lovely. The excellent sprite work is accompanied by a range of first-rate graphical flourishes, with steam billowing from boilers, fog flowing through the multilayered backgrounds and lots of impressive lighting effects: ships fly in and out of shadows in underground levels, brilliant blackout explosions mark the end of big bosses and enemies ‘heat up’ when shot, turning red around the edges where your bullets land as if the metal they’re made of is actually melting. The 3DS console's stereoscopic display is also put to great use: enemies fly towards you in the foreground but fall flaming into the background when shot down, and the parallax-scrolling backgrounds look so natural in 3D you’ll wonder how they managed without it in the 16-bit original.

The music has had a similar makeover, with the remastered version preserving the analogue warmth of the original's famous FM synth sound while leaving the chunky samples, rubber band bass, and tinny, tape deck quality behind. The soundtrack itself is a distinctive and catchy collection of retro tunes, and an inspiring accompaniment to the aerial action. Stage six's soaring score is a particular highlight, delivering the rousing emotion needed for a successful flight at a climactic moment in the game, but each level holds its own memorable melodies.

Steel Empire is a quality game, but that quality does come at a cost: a surprisingly steep price that, at the time of writing, is more in line with that of a major retail release than most eShop downloads. Of course, if you love classic shoot-‘em-ups, this is a major release, and you’ll definitely have enough fun to warrant the price tag. Like Yumi’s Odd Odyssey, this is a lovingly crafted title with niche appeal but lots of heart, and we’re just happy it’s here — whether it’s worth the price of entry will be down to your own gaming tastes and habits, but if it sounds like a game you’d enjoy, we think you’ll find the sticker shock will give way to a smile as soon as you take to the skies.

Conclusion

Combining classic shoot-‘em-up action with an irresistible steampunk style, Steel Empire is an old-school delight. Not only is it a fantastic example of a remake done right, with a polished presentation that feels right at home on the 3DS, it also stands as a great modern game in its own right. The two-way shooting gives the fast-paced action a unique feel, excellent level and enemy design keep things interesting, and an actually easy ‘Easy’ mode lets inexperienced players drawn in by the steampunk aesthetic see it through to the end. If the idea of a steam-powered side-scrolling shoot-‘em-up gets your motor running, get ready to party like it’s 1992 — Steel Empire is a blast.

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User Comments (67)

midnafanboy

#2

midnafanboy said:

Great review the only thing that's stopping me from buying it,is the price of this game.

Spoony_Tech

#3

Spoony_Tech said:

I have no doubt it is good. It looks really good but I can get 2-4 games for that price that look and play good. I'll wait for a reduced price and then a sale lol. Not paying more then 10$ for this.

XCWarrior

#4

XCWarrior said:

@Spoony_Tech @midnafanboy @ferrers405 Just going to echo what these 3 guys said. Glad it's good, but $30?

And here in lies the problem with mobile. Download games for $1! Yay... (few years down the road)... what, you want us to pay more than $1 for something?

Like yeah I don't know what to think, but glad it's at least a well made game if it's going to cost that much.

sinalefa

#6

sinalefa said:

Do like Yumi and lower it to $20, then we may talk. Even if the game is good, it is not really my favorite genre.

unrandomsam

#7

unrandomsam said:

I am pretty sure I will like this more than most of the Nintendo first party games I have on my 3DS. (Only question is whether I will be able to buy it).

Ralizah

#8

Ralizah said:

The price will drop like a rock in a few months. Not enough people are going to buy it at this price point to make it profitable. I look forward to buying it when it is $15 or under.

TruenoGT

#9

TruenoGT said:

Might get this down the road when I have less to play, but I hope they can find a good audience at $30 and have some success with it.

Gen0neD

#10

Gen0neD said:

9/10 huh? This game should be 9/10 dollars. 15 dollars maximum. MAXIMUM. Until such time, a heavy hearted nope.

Pod

#13

Pod said:

I don't think $30 is too much for a great game. But at that price I'd expect a physical copy. Thanks for the review!

Windy

#14

Windy said:

Let's see in a month when it has less than 30 ratings in the Eshop if they lower that price. I'm betting it has 15 to 20 ratings in a month. Look we can totally start this argument again about No box! No Instructions, No Manufacturing costs. I guess they think gamers are stupid. Now if it was a retail release which it is not we might be talking 29.99. Really insulting! What do you think this is? Mario Golf or something! Yumi's didn't sell at that price and this won't sell at that price. They should lower the price now before the game goes out of sight, out of mind. Seriously another dumb attempt to get retail pricing for digital distribution. This is a nice review which in a way is too bad. Its a good game no doubt. Good review guys.

Morph

#28

Morph said:

Definitely too high of a price, this is the issue with download only games for me. I'm never going to pay the same price for a download as I would for a retail game. I'm on the side of the fence that still likes my games to be physical copies. Realistically I can never see myself paying over £15 for a download only game. I think the most i've ever spent is on child of light and phoenix 4 and that was only when it went on offer

SOD1459

#29

SOD1459 said:

Paid the $30 and no regrets. Great game, and well worth the price. We need more polished games like this on eShop.

unrandomsam

#32

unrandomsam said:

@Philip_J_Reed If it is true that even the best shmups struggle to sell 4000 copies then I think the price is fine I want it. (And I want them to keep being made). I don't feel the same about Nintendo games I don't really want for the same price. (I would have paid the import price for Kokuga if I could have used it).

Spoony_Tech

#33

Spoony_Tech said:

@PvtOttobot With everyone complaining about the price you choose to single him alone out. I said 10$ personally. Its a remake of a game 20 plus years old. These game usually go for far less. Plus as fast as this game can end I'll feel plenty cheated at that price. We all would be complaining if Saga decided to charge 25$ for the 3d classics line and a few of those were improved as well.

I said this with devs before over pricing their games. Sure sell 5000 copies (maybe) at that price but isn't 25k at 10$ better. I'll buy almost anything but at the right price only. If people think that price is fair then more power to them but that vast majority will wait and like @Windy said you could alienate a bunch of people and never get the sale.

JarredBuzzo

#34

JarredBuzzo said:

This game is apparently good, regardless of price. I don't see why that matters so much, a 9/10 is a 9/10, no matter how much a game costs.

dustin_g

#38

dustin_g said:

i bought the actual sega genesis cart of this a few months back for 7 dollars

Za23

#39

Za23 said:

@ogo79 I'm sure those people were only complaining that Earthbound was 2 dollars more than the average SNES VC title. Whereas people here are complaining about Steel Empire costing the same amount as a retail title. I feel like there's a big difference between a niche shoot 'em up title costing $29.99, than a VC title costing $9.99.

Of course, compared to prices of other shoot 'em ups on the eShop and other platforms (Ikaruga, Kokuga, and etc), Steel Empire does come off as looking overpriced.

Ralizah

#40

Ralizah said:

@PvtOttobot
If you want to pay $30 for a remastered Genesis schmup, knock yourself out. Maybe it's worth it to you. It's not worth $30 to me, especially when full retail shooters like Kokuga are available on the eshop for half that price.

As far as I'm concerned, they've priced themselves out of the market. I will buy it when their business sense overcomes their greed and they drop the title to a less outrageous price point.

TheWPCTraveler

#41

TheWPCTraveler said:

What's with the rush of shmups lately? Is Nintendo really trying to beat the Japanese XBOne at its own game?

Well, I am a fan of the genre, so I'll happily pay full price for this. Retail release, please!

OorWullie

#43

OorWullie said:

I had the original and never thought much of it at the time.As a shooter it really was nothing special,pretty run of the mill and not even close to the Megadrives best and the reviews at the time reflected that.Most of the praise it did receive was due to the unique graphics so I can't see how it deserves a 9 in this day and age?Especially considering it's priced about the same as it was 20 years ago!

I'm not 1 to complain about review scores but between this and X-type earlier I think you both have got a bit carried away.Considering Wii mode plays host to some of the greatest shooters ever made it makes these scores even more baffling.

Za23

#44

Za23 said:

@ecco6t9 So if the physical copy of the game is rare and expensive, it's okay/fair to charge a premium for digital remake of said game?

If so, Nintendo should be charging 50 dollars for Earthbound. (The game is going for 85+ on ebay)

Dinosaurs

#45

Dinosaurs said:

I will say tho, if it was M U S H A that got this treatment I'm not sure I could be stopped from paying anything lol.

I still even have the original cart/box/manual for it.

SIM_CTC

#47

SIM_CTC said:

I'll only give it 6.5/10(MD version). With the simple levels design and power-up system... and they wants $29.99 for the game with graphic upgrade? Bring me Thunder Force Collection with graphic upgrade than I'll hand over my money with a big smile!

MAB

#50

MAB said:

@ogo79 I agree... A classic Mega Drive shmup like Steel Empire should be fetching a Digital 4 Lyfe price of $300+ nowadays ;)

Untitled

accc

#51

accc said:

I would probably pay $30 for this if it were on a cartridge, but as a download? No way.

Genesaur

#52

Genesaur said:

@SIM_CTC Oh, my. I do so very much love the Thunder Force series. A collection or re-release set on 3DS would be quite the treat.

Zodiak13

#53

Zodiak13 said:

I don't want this game, but it is not because of price. I just don't like the genre. However, price should not matter when it is a good game, within some realm of reason. I bought Yumi's Odd Odyssey, Unchained Blades, and Senran Kagura Burst for that same price. All digital only in the USA, and they were well worth it. I like physical copies too, but it is still just a bunch of data on a chip that shows up on your 3DS. To not get a game because it does not fit a materialistic need is sad, and will only hurt the industry as a whole.

Gorlokk

#55

Gorlokk said:

This game looks awesome. Just looking at the 3D screenshots on the eShop makes me wish I was playing it, but like everyone else said, $30 is just so much. I would, however, pay that much for a physical release, but not a download only.

maceng

#60

maceng said:

@Ralizah
Same here. I know taht there is a lot of replay value, but a game that can be completed under an hour is a no-no in my book, unless is priced right, like gunman clive or metal torrent.

maceng

#61

maceng said:

Even games like Nano Assault can be purchased for less than 10 (physical copy) and it offers a 2-4 hour campaign (if you are really good!).

Mommar

#62

Mommar said:

People complaining about the price are only hurting all of us. It's a good game in a niche genre. If you aren't going to buy it until it's $5 the developer is going to go out of business and move on because they can't make a return on it. It's that simple.

Za23

#63

Za23 said:

@Mommar
They felt the need to charge a premium for a niche title and customers are voting with their wallets by saying it's too much. Again, no one is asking for them to jump to the bottom of the barrel and charge $5 or less. They're asking for a more reasonable price of $9.99 or $14.99. I really doubt a more reasonable price point would even hurt them.

Also the developer isn't making their living on a niche shooter. They have other cheaper games published on the Japanese eShop that most likely bring in more money than Steel Empire.

And here's a lovely quote from the publisher of Kokuga (another 3DS shooter), "you are not able to make a living on just making shooters." (Full quote and article here: http://www.nintendolife.com/news/2013/08/kokuga_publisher_believes_the_shoot_em_lup_genre_faces_a_very_difficult_crossroads_in_japan)

Magrane

#66

Magrane said:

Sold on the trailer and review! Would like to get it when the price drops. 16-bit era shooters at their best.

tanookisuit

#67

tanookisuit said:

I got it around a month ago for the GBA (JP import) complete like new and I do not regret the about $50 shipped I put into it. I knew this was coming but I just can not stomach $30 for a digital rental I can't have a tangible copy to keep for myself. I'm glad to see this version of the game has retained all the greatness and didn't lose anything in the translation as Steel Empire is a work of gaming art.

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