How many underwater submarine games have you played over the years? It would be safe to bet on 99% of readers, if not all, answer ‘none’ to that poser. Simply put, Steel Diver is one of those rare occasions where an almost completely fresh and unique idea appears on the gaming scene. At its core, the aim is to get from one side of the watery depths to the other, whilst dodging and shooting down enemies and obstacles. In that sense it lacks originality due to the resemblance to side-scrolling action romps or even shmups such as Gradius or R-Type, albeit with everything going at a far slower pace. However, it is the setting and premise itself that helps Steel Diver float to the top in terms of eminence.
Vitei and Nintendo have split Steel Diver into three distinct modes, ‘Missions,’ ‘Periscope Strike,’ and ‘Steel Commander.’ The missions are the main meat of the game, with there being a total of eight to undertake, six of which are available right from the start (including the initial training course), whilst the remaining two eventually unlock after completing the other five using all three submarines on offer. The three submarines that can be used for each stage have slightly different attributes. For instance, the more compact ND-01 Manatee, Captained by Luc Fisher, is the shortest model to choose from, with the weakest engine and smallest crew, yet is highly manoeuvrable and can fire missiles both upwards, as well as forwards. Captain Ben Triton’s mid-sized ND-03 BlueShark is a lengthier craft with more horsepower and proves to be a well-rounded submarine on the whole. Finally, the large ND-05 Serpent, captained by Dante Cruz, has a powerful 4,000HP engine and is the longest ship at 38 metres long, yet despite its strength is actually extremely limited in terms of its movement.
These differences may seem inconsequential, yet during missions the alterations in handling are stark, with the way a course is completed being changed due to the sheer amount of adjustments required in terms of handling of the varying sub-aquatic vehicles. Everything is touch-screen controlled, from the firing of missiles, to changing the angle of descent or ascent of the water-based craft, right through to the use of on-screen levers for speeding up, reversing, rising up to the surface or plummeting to the sea bed. It may seem rather an antiquated control system, yet the stylus set-up works smoothly enough to start with and becomes extremely intuitive after a couple of mission play-through sessions.
The Mission mode itself has players working through the campaign, or merely attempting each route in a time-trial fashion. The former has a small storyline to give some purpose to proceedings, with the year being 19XX when a power hungry rogue nation has invaded its neighbouring countries. This places the stability of the entire world in danger, meaning that in order to preserve the peace, something must be done. Therefore, a secret submarine fleet, chosen from the best and brightest of the world’s navies, has been formed, and this elite force are named the Steel Divers.
Each of the playable courses throws up different obstacles, with plenty of blockades to be blasted through using missiles, torrents of bombs flying around from all angles, tonnes of mines floating in the depths ready to explode, proximity explosives that detonate when anything causes them some form of disruption, planes dropping torpedoes, and even Mother Nature’s elements attempting to prevent the submarine from reaching its designated goal. The initial objective of getting from A to B in the quickest time possible may seem extraordinarily simple, and even somewhat tedious at first due to the lack of scoring system, but there will definitely be moments in later missions where only a 20%-30% completion rate of the stage will be achieved on the first play-through due to your submarine’s defences being shattered completely and a re-start being called for. The key is to quickly stem any hull breaches by holding the stylus against the area where water is pouring forth on the touch-screen, as well as making best use of areas where the submarine can surface to replenish energy levels.
When a level has successfully been navigated and the best time stored, the Nintendo 3DS gyroscope comes into play, with a quick round of ‘Periscope Strike’ commencing, where the hunt is on for enemy ships. The periscope can either be used via the slower touch-screen controls, or by physically moving the 3DS unit around (as in Face Raiders) as you attempt to swiftly locate enemy ships and blast at them from afar. Players can zoom in and out to get a better view of opponents, as well as choose to dive at the right moment to avoid incoming fire and keep a closer track of torpedoes heading towards the enemy. This mode is also available in a fully expanded section of its own for anyone wanting to skip the side-scrolling element of Steel Diver and jump straight into the whole concept of blowing away anything that moves by using the highly innovative gyroscope turning and missile shooting mechanic.
As with the other side-scrolling 3DS title out at the minute, Rabbids 3D, the 3D effects are minimal throughout, yet in the places they are strongly used, they help to add the much needed depth of scenery Steel Diver requires for that all elusive ‘submerged’ feel. Be it the layers of fish and foliage or missiles heading straight towards you in Periscope Strike and the general underwater scenery (such as devastating erupting volcanoes), Steel Diver gives off the air of an extremely well-polished end product, and one that comes with a very robust soundtrack full of rousing tunes and littered with clearly voiced snippets of speech. Oddly enough, however, despite the general polish the game takes absolutely ages to save progress. Thankfully this does not detract from the overall experience.
Whilst Steel Diver may not be the most extensively feature-filled Nintendo 3DS title released so far, rather like Pilotwings Resort, it does come with an intriguing extra mode called Steel Commander. This is basically the old pen-and-paper guessing game, Battleships, but slightly re-jigged for playing on 3DS. Players must make the best use of their fleet of Submarines (use sonar to locate other craft, fire torpedoes), Escorts (use depth charges for attacking) and Supply Ships (unable to fire and all require protecting so as to avoid losing the battle) in order to seek out and destroy the enemy squadron. Steel Commander is extremely chess-like in structure, with commanders& taking turns to move their units. The difference is that neither fleet can see the team leaders until sonar is used or two opposing ships come within close proximity of each other. Upon being discovered, battle commences with submarines using a Periscope Strike style of play to fire missiles and Escorts being given the choice of three depth levels to set off their charges.
Submarines must be moved a few tiles at a time to where it seems hostiles are most likely hiding, and when in the general vicinity of the an enemy, some question marks appear on the grid to give a small hint of where to strike next. A lot of patience is required, but if you were a fan of this type of game in the past, Steel Diver’s Steel Commander mode will undoubtedly keep entertainment levels high. Additionally, there is the option to use just one Steel Diver cartridge to share the strategic fun of Steel Commander mode, engaging a friend in a challenging game of naval combat to see who can out-smart the other. Nintendo and Vitei may have scrimped on the overall content of Steel Diver, as was the case with the Monster Games-developed Pilotwings Resort, yet what is present proves to be highly enjoyable throughout. Definitely a game worth trying out if found at a decent price point.