Back in the 90s, shooters (or ‘shmups as cool kids like to call’em) were a dime a dozen but quickly faded into obscurity when 3D gaming became prominent. In fact, the term “shooter” is now commonly associated with FPS titles such as Call of Duty, Halo, and Battlefield. Games like Ikaruga, R-Type, and Deathsmiles still prove that these simple shoot-everything-you-see games still have a place in the modern gaming environment.
Originally released for the Sega Master System in the early 90’s and ported to the GBA in 2004, Steel Empire joins this list of 2D sprite based shooters that you probably missed the first time around but should definitely play now. With a difficulty setting welcoming to newcomers and just all around solidly entertaining gameplay, Steel Empire is quality fun but has a high price point that lacks any and all bells and whistles.
With a sepia toned steampunk plotline, the player selects between a fast but smaller bird like plane or beefier zeppelin that is a bigger target but packs more of a punch. Both crafts are balanced and simply remain a matter of choice depending on play style, a noteworthy bullet point that encourages multiple playthroughs.
This $30 3DS eShop downloadable title is not a bullet hell like so many other shmups. Instead, Steel Empire uses its main gimmick exceedingly well throughout thoughtful gameplay and level design – the ability to shoot forwards and backwards. While this might sound simple enough on paper, each stage constantly throws something new at the player and requires quick thinking but yet strategy to complete each level instead of just blindly blasting forward. Thanks to the pixel perfect and super responsive Circlepad controls, Steel Empire has one of the best control layouts I have played in a 2D shooter. The “A” button shoots right while the “Y” button shoots left. Again, this sounds simple but feels oh so right.
Steel Empire is also very accessible to newcomers as well as long time veterans thanks the lenient health bar system instead of one-hit insta-kills, power-ups, and the screen clearing bomb option. Spread throughout each stage are floating tokens that can restore lost health, increase fire power, and add floating orbs to your ship for higher offensive capabilities. The best part is, these helpful increases are optional and tied to some of the built-in unlockable achievements so you might not want to collect them depending on your personal level of challenge; it is possible to finish the game without collecting a single power-up or using the optional and limited bomb attack. There are also four different difficult settings so anyone will be able to immediately pick up and play. Each of the 7 stages are balanced in difficulty – fair but challenging without being cheap.
As great as Steel Empire is, there are a few missed opportunities with this 3DS port. First, the leaderboard and replay feature is restricted to local play only. Since shoot’em ups are built around getting a high score, it is a disappointment that online learderboards or even Miiverse screenshots are not supported. Secondly, there are no options to play with other than simple volume adjustments. Granted, this title was always designed as a single player adventure but would have been cool if some type of multiplayer mode was implemented. While it is usually hard and unfair to knock a game for what is does not have, the high retail-like price point of $30 makes the overall price of admission a little hard to swallow since no extra features were added other than including the optional stereoscopic 3D effect. The seven playable levels can collectively be finished in under an hour too.
Despite not having any extra features, Steel Empire is actually a nice looking game especially considering this title has been ported from Sega’s early console. The pixel-based graphics look great and the 3D effect actually makes gameplay more enjoyable. Particle effects, like the boss concluding explosions, are done spectacularly well and even the soundtrack hits high notes. The minimalistic presentation also works to the game’s strengths and keeps the focus right where it should be – on the top screen without the need to fumble around by tapping things on the touch screen. Overall, it is a good looking 3DS game and looks better than the scrunched screen resolution of the GBA port.
I honestly have not had this much fun with a 2D shooter in a long time. Unfortunately, I wish the high price point was a little more justified with the addition of some extra options like online leaderboards and perhaps some new multiplayer modes. Hesitating on buying this title solely based on the high price is understandable but buyers willing to take the plunge are in for a treat. But when this title goes on sale, do the right thing and help support 2D shooters.
Also Try: R-Type Dimensions
Better Than: Otomedius Excellent
Wait For It: a price drop
By: Zachary Gasiorowski, Editor in Chief myGamer.com