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.