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Steel Diver Review

by on May 27, 2011

Steel Diver ReviewGame: Steel Diver

Developer: Nintendo EAD, Vitei

Publisher: Nintendo

Available on: Nintendo 3DS

For all the wonderment bestowed upon the stereoscopic 3D abilities of Nintendo’s relatively new 3DS handheld, it is fair to say that the initial slew of titles have been mildly disappointing, with only a handful of decent games and a fair amount of what some would consider shovelware. Nintendo themselves have certainly been frugal in bringing out the big guns. With no Mario, Samus or Link available at the get-go, some gamers have decided to hold back on making a new hardware purchase until they can get their hands on a triple-A first party offering. But that would mean ignoring some very playable titles, such as this curious nautical jaunt, which, as it turns out, has been the best part of a decade in the making.

STORY: You would have to go all the way back to E3 in 2004 to trace the origins of Steel Diver. Those able to remember back that far will recall the first time we got to have a look at the original Nintendo DS via a series of technical demonstrations, one of which was a submarine-based creation apparently much beloved of Nintendo big kahuna Shigeru Miyamoto at the time. For reasons unbeknownst to anyone, this interesting-looking deep-sea bad boy was then shelved, presumably never to surface again.

Fast forward to E3 2010, however, and Nintendo had dragged its submarine curio up from the depths, and it was announced as a US launch title for the 3DS. With Mario godhead Miyamoto proclaiming it, somewhat bizarrely, as “almost like you have your own submarine pet in an aquarium”, Steel Diver was (re)born courtesy of Nintendo EAD/Vitei.

Storyline-wise, don’t expect a superior, claustrophobic underwater epic to rival Das Boot. In fact, the convoluted development history of the game is more interesting that the in-game plot itself, which involves a crack team of submarine pilots from around the world uniting to defeat a common enemy.

GRAPHICS: As game environments go, the sea offers almost limitless possibilities. It is a vast and varied setting, and the thought of being able to explore the dark, mysterious depths in your very own submarine is an exciting one. Sadly, Steel Diver is somewhat underwhelming in this respect. The submarines and other seafaring vehicles are well-rendered but are resolutely old school and would not look out of place in, say, Metal Slug or sub-themed retro shooter In The Hunt.

The undersea terrain is nicely rendered and you will guide your avatar through caverns and partly submerged volcanoes, encountering various flora and fauna including shoals of fish, the occasional whale, or even a giant Kraken-like squid. But there is not a huge amount of variety across the meagre amount of levels on offer, and the action never seems to take place very far from the surface, completely ignoring the fact that real-life submersibles can plummet to insane fathoms.

The 3D capabilities are rendered irrelevant by the fact that 99% of the game is spent on a 2D plane, and while the illusion of depth makes the backgrounds look pretty, you will be too busy focusing on your sub to appreciate them. That said, the inter-level Periscope Strike minigame, with its raging oceans and approaching enemy ships, does look cool in 3D. Even when frantically rotating your sub 360 degrees, the action is smooth and looks highly impressive on the little screen.

SOUND: Steel Diver sounds terrific. Whilst the little subs you control on screen are very much stylised cartoon representations of reality, the familiar, repetitive “PING” of the sonar is in full effect here along with some impressive speech, explosions, caterwauling alarm sounds when you are in danger, and some excellent music.

GAMEPLAY: It is easy to see why Nintendo picked this game to demonstrate the touch screen capabilities of its original DS, as the control scheme here is superbly implemented and arguably makes the best use of the stylus yet seen on the 3DS. Controlling the submarine is achieved with the use of two sliders on the lower screen, one each for vertical and horizontal propulsion. There are buttons to launch your arsenal of weaponry and use a handy cloaking device to avoid enemy fire and on the two larger vehicles a wheel that can be operated to alter the angle of your movement.

Initially, juggling the sliders and buttons will take some getting used to, and you will find yourself hurtling into the many underwater obstacles. But once you get use to the physics and learn that sometimes a bit of restraint is required with the precise controls, and you will be handling your sub like a pro.

The bulk of Steel Diver consists of a seven-mission campaign mode. This puts you in charge of one of three different submarines, each with different attributes, as you attempt to navigate and blast your way through each level, left to right, within a ten or fifteen minute time limit. You are able to reverse your submarine but not turn around. Although this may sound odd, it makes sense in the context of the gameplay because it would have been far too confusing if you were expected to flip your direction as well as operating the already tricky sliders and touch screen buttons.

The levels include sections of open water, caverns, tunnels and destroyable scenery that you have to blast your way through. The game features all manner of enemies such as other submarines, mines, depth charge-dropping destroyers and myriad sea beasties. If you take a hit along the way and your sub may get damaged, but luckily you are able to carry out repairs by touching the appropriate area of the lower screen that signifies a breach in the hull.

Gamers are rewarded for taking a methodical approach: attempt to whizz through a level and you will end up crashing pretty quickly. However, once you have finished a mission, Steel Diver gives you the option to play through it again in time trial mode, which removes the enemies from the playing field and pits you against a strict time limit in a battle to top your best run-through time. There is also an unlockable “expert” mode that allows you to go one on one with a ghost sub apparently representative of the developers’ best efforts at the courses.

In between the standard missions you have the aforementioned Periscope Strike mode, a fun diversion that is similar to the “Face Raiders” application bundled in with the 3DS. You rotate your “periscope” 360 degrees to target enemy ships, and use the touch screen to launch torpedoes to destroy as many of them as you can within a set time limit. This mode is tremendously entertaining and will have you eagerly seeking out a swivelling office chair so you can spin around like a nutcase.

Also included is a simplistic but welcome turn-based strategy minigame, “Steel Commander”. This is a loose approximation of Battleships, and allows you to play against the CPU or a friend using Download Play as you deploy one of three different classes of unit (submarines, supply vehicles and battleships) on a grid before attempting to destroy your foe in a scaled down version of Periscope Strike.

LONGEVITY: With just seven missions on offer in the main game (two of which are only unlocked once you have completed the preceding five using all three of the different submarine types) and two interesting yet shallow minigames to pad things out, longevity is where Steel Diver takes a torpedo to the stern. The various time trial modes offer an additional challenge but once you have conquered the main missions and memorised and played through the trial routes to maximise your best times, there is very little incentive to return to the ocean for more.

Even a casual gamer will struggle to squeeze 15 hours of aquatic shenanigans out of Steel Diver, and that is a poor show not only in terms of value but also because this quirky game is an absolute hoot and certainly left this reviewer crying out for more missions and a bit more variety to the whole oeuvre. Given the simplistic nature of the game, both aesthetically and gameplay-wise, it is staggering that there aren’t a lot more missions on show here.

VERDICT: You certainly won’t play another 3DS game quite like Steel Diver. Let’s face it – there hasn’t really been another 2D submarine navigation game recently to compare this to. The maze-traversing sections, which are based upon the velocity and inertia of your vehicle, are reminiscent of the superb, underrated Nintendo DS gem Soul Bubbles, which is no bad thing. Further to this, the use of the internal gyro for the short yet enthralling Periscope Strike hints at what the console is capable of.

This is far from a bad game, but there just isn’t enough of it and you cannot help but wonder why it wasn’t limited to a DSiWare release (as was once mooted). It is very hard to justify forking out the full retail price for something so lacking in content. That said, if you can pick the game up on the cheap, the reserved, slow-paced gameplay comes very highly recommended, particularly when weighed against some of the less original games currently populating the shelves in these early days of the 3DS.

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