In the early 1990s, when the very idea of 3D polygons was beyond most imaginations, 2D run-and-gun shooters were popular amongst dedicated and skilled gamers. Titles such as Contra on NES, Gunstar Heroes on Mega Drive and Metal Slug on the Neo Geo meant that most console owners experienced, and often loved, the genre. Commando: Steel Disaster borrows from most of these classics, and arrives on DSiWare – over three years after a retail release – in an attempt to bring this retro gameplay back.
Like many of these titles, Commando: Steel Disaster's storyline is fairly nonsensical. The basics are all that you need to know: a nasty villain is trying to take over the world and you’re the plucky, wise-cracking hero called Storm who has to stop him all by yourself. It’s all presented through static character portraits and some questionable script writing, but it shows some effort from the developers to capture the tone of the genre.
Gameplay is king, however, and this title is a distinctly mixed experience. The main positive is the intuitive and well-implemented control setup, which you’re able to customise from the start. Three buttons are used for firing the main weapon, throwing grenades and jumping, with a nifty forward roll executed with Down and jump: it’s all effective and smooth. A tap of the left shoulder button alternates between two primary weapons, varying from the default unlimited-ammo gun to limited-ammo rockets, electrical beams and more. It adds a tactical element to the basic rule of shooting everything in sight, as it’s important to preserve powerful weapons for boss encounters at the end of each stage.
The action itself varies from enjoyable to infuriating: at its best your character charges along gunning down enemies, with the action flowing nicely. At moments, however, the experience takes a nose dive due to questionable design decisions. One example is that your default weapon can’t shoot diagonally while the upgraded machine gun, for example, can do so. If you’re being attacked by an aerial enemy with your default weapon you’re forced to run directly underneath while shooting upwards: why can’t Storm shoot at an angle with all weapons? Another major issue arises in the final stage in particular, with platforming sections — it becomes difficult to distinguish between background and foreground objects, which can be frustrating while being bombarded by enemy projectiles.
There will be plenty of enemies, and their weapons, to avoid through this title’s five stages. Blasting through all stages without any deaths will take less than an hour, but the lack of content is countered by a relatively high difficulty and a cruel decision that one death means restarting the entire stage: there are no checkpoints. Skilful gamers should be able to get through the game with a handful of restarts, with replay value being restricted to attempting the ‘Hard’ setting. Unfortunately, it’s practically impossible: the screen is flooded with enemies making damage inevitable and, even worse, causes drastic drops in frame-rate. Only the most masochistic gamers will get through the first stage alone, so much of the replay value is lost.
This is typical of the flawed, unfinished nature of the title. A short campaign with a poorly balanced difficulty setting and no high-score system, achievements or any replay incentive, combined with a few design errors. The presentation follows the same trend: fairly bright pixel-based graphics are let down by repetitive music and sound, with the music completely stopping during the final boss fight. We assumed this was a glitch, or it was a strange choice from the developers. Another mysterious design decision is that the gameplay action is restricted to the bottom screen, with the top screen showing a rather pointless map: opportunities for epic dual-screen boss-fights, for example, were clearly overlooked. With these mis-steps in mind, and even with consideration that this was once a retail title, 800 Nintendo Points seems like a steep asking price.
Commando: Steel Disaster is a competent run-and-gun action title that has its bright moments. It’s unfortunate that for every fun boss-fight and well-designed sequence there are flawed levels, unreasonable difficulty and strange design choices. It’s a title worth consideration for those who love the genre and is full of the right intentions, but its problems are difficult to ignore.