That “other” launch title
If, like me, you’re an experienced gamer who doesn’t get the kick you once did from fighting games (i.e. Street Fighter), the number of serious choices available at 3DS launch was really, really small. Plus Cats? Another Lego game? Seriously, don’t tempt me. Really.
In all honesty, I was pretty psyched for Steel Diver. IGN NVC (Nintendo Voice Chat) podcast had described Miyamoto’s secretive hints regarding this title (hand gestures and an inexplicable “sploooosh” sound), so, I bit into the hype. The big boss was excited enough to hype the game, and though submarines may not be everyone’s ideal concept for a launch title, I thought it sounded like an awesome, original concept. One of my very first games for my first personal computer (Apple IIGS) was a surprisingly-advanced submarine simulator, and I played the hell out of it, in spite of not understanding a thing about the controls or underlying strategy. I’ll always vote for originality and creativity in game design over familiar or tired concepts.
Steel Diver, unfortunately, does not live up to my expectations. I’ll try to be gentle.
It isn’t that Steel Diver is a bad game; but now that launch has come and gone, the truth can be stated plainly: the game is light, short on content, rushed into service–however you want to say it, Steel Diver is simply too little game for too much cash….and far too forgettable to merit the privilege of being a Nintendo-published launch title.
If I had to take a guess, it seems likely that Nintendo chose to roll out Steel Diver for one simple reason–the gyroscope/periscope missions. Like Pilotwings’ inherently 3D flight visuals, the periscope concept is simply perfect for showcasing the system’s tech and graphics. But–and this is why I’m bewildered that they went to press with it–this single feature isn’t nearly enough to sustain more than a few hours of entertainment. The basic experience is surprising, exciting, and yes–fun. If one sits in a rotating desk chair or stands in the center of a room, spinning in circles, torpedoing enemy ships that hang in 360º 3D space around your head…brilliant. Hilarious. The kind of thing you show off to your friends and allows you to grin as their jaws drop. But do I really want “look at my cool new toy” games? Wouldn’t it be better for Nintendo to release deep, entertaining games that include showy features as a part of an extended play experience?
I think Nintendo was genuinely hoping to achieve the latter with Steel Diver. The problem is, as stated above, a lack of depth (bad idea for a submarine, right?). The periscope missions are designed to serve as an item-bonus round that follows the completion of a main mission, but only last about 30 seconds (the time limit is an obvious attempt to prevent the player from realizing how shallow the concept really is). I mean, you do end up wanting to play the periscope mission again (I could have HAD that battleship if I’d had time for one more shot!!), but it feels like a cheap way to squeeze extra fun out of a good-yet-limited concept. You can play periscope missions by themselves via the main menu (in a non-campaign, time attack/score-oriented mode), but you won’t earn any of the tacked-on, mostly useless bonus items that you earn in the campaign-mode periscope. Plus, main-menu access just means you’ll just get tired of the periscope concept even faster than otherwise.
I haven’t even mentioned the main missions yet; the reason is that there isn’t a whole lot to say. I did enjoy playing them….all seven of them. If these seven levels included, say, 20-30 minutes of action, you might be able to forgive the fact that the game tries to stretch content by requiring players to complete each mission with 3 separate, largely similar submarines. Alas, almost all missions (including the final boss battle) can be finished in 10 minutes or less, and until the final board or two, I rarely died at all. It cannot be understated–forcing players to go through the exact same missions 3 times with nearly identical vehicles is not a recipe for an epic play experience. The missions themselves were light fun, mostly consisting of timed races through enemy-occupied waters, capped with the odd boss battle. But since the ticking game clock and timed-based leaderboard encourages rapid completion of each mission (mainly so you can hurry up and finish the same board again with a different submarine), the wise player ends up dodging enemies and avoiding battles at all cost, meaning that truly good players get even less entertainment than those who don’t care about high scores. There is literally no impetus to explode enemies or use your torpedoes. Fun stuff. I love games that don’t want me to blow things up.
I genuinely don’t mean to come off completely cynical toward this game; I did have fun playing it, and given how repetitious the overall structure really is, I’ve been playing it at an intentionally-measured pace over several weeks. The graphics, though not overwhelmingly “3D”, do look fairly sharp, and the control scheme is unique and engaging (almost all interface is via touchscreen levers and dials, which respond with entertainingly submarine-like clunkiness). The momentum of your ship and deep-sea physics are your primary enemies, though a skilled player can virtually master the basic concepts and controls in a few hours. Besides the periscope concept, this is probably where the game most accurately hits its intended target–even when you’re an experienced player, you still regularly overshoot your mark and accelerate right into an enemy torpedo or a jagged sea wall. These hair-raising near-miss moments are actually pretty fun, creating the impression that the player is actually in charge of an unwieldy, gigantic metal beast sailing beneath the waves.
Summary: Consumed in small bites–and with middling expectations–Steel Diver can be a worthwhile, albeit overpriced, diversion.
Given the scarcity of software for the 3DS system, I went back to Steel Diver after a couple weeks in dry dock. As your standard semi-compulsive gamer, I finished off all the remaining missions in the primary campaign–and was, I admit, pleasantly surprised to discover that the game includes an “expert” mode that is unlocked for the intrepid sea-captains among us. (I wasn’t really expecting anything more than a “Great Job!” and another repeat of the closing credits, so perhaps my excitement was a bit naive).
Having now played about halfway through the expert mode, I’m of two minds about the added content–first, it isn’t really ‘content’, per se, but simply the same 7 levels with ramped up difficulty. On the other hand, for an experienced gamer, these levels do present a significant challenge compared to the ridiculous ease of the ‘normal’ stages. Instead of sailing right past enemies and straight to the goal, you’ll be forced into strategic maneuvers and calculated risks that involve careful torpedo shots and timed avoidance of aerial bombardment and enemy torpedoes. There are a lot more enemies, and this time around, they actually seem hell-bent on sinking your sub. Suddenly the power-up decals (earned badges that let the player make minor adjustments to your submarine’s statistical deployment) actually serve a purpose–do I need more speed for my torpedoes, or heightened resistance against depth charges? In other words, the Expert mode actually edges the game toward a more mature, full-fledged gaming experience. It is regrettable that by the time the Expert mode is unlocked, most players are probably fairly tired of the game itself.