Review: Steel Empire (3DS eShop)

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.