Steel Diver Review (3DS). Nintendo tackles underwater sub action

Steel Diver American box artwork for Nintendo 3DS
Steel Diver is an interesting beast. One of three launch-period games for the Nintendo 3DS, Steel Diver is by far the most “different” of the launch-period titles that Nintendo put out for its newest glasses-free stereoscopic 3D portable; the other two being the pet-simulation Nintendogs + Cats and Pilotwings Resort.

It’s been a long time since Nintendo has tried something that is so daring and so drastically different and in that sense Steel Diver is refreshing. But in the grand scheme of things you are not exactly comparing Steel Diver to other Nintendo games, but comparing Steel Diver to OTHER GAMES.

It is from that perspective that Steel Diver starts to lose some of its luster. But first lets look at what exactly Steel Diver is and how it the game works.

Steel Diver is essentially a side-scrolling “submarine” simulation-action game. Although it is much more “action” than it is “sim”, although that action isn’t really the correct word to describe the game. Neither is the word “shooter”. Steel Diver is none of those, its more like a game in which you occasionally shoot at things, while navigating different size subs through underwater tracks or “mazes”, trying to reach the end.

Here is the story summary, although the game really has no story to speak of, as it only plays a part in the the level descriptions.

An underwater sub-action sim side-scroller from Nintendo!

System: 3DS
Also Available On: None
Released: USA March 27, 2011 – EUR May 6, 2011 – AUS TBA – JPN TBA
Players: Mostly single-player. 2-Player local for “Steel Commander” strategy mode.
Supports: Download-Play (Two 3DS systems, only 1 game copy needed). Accelerometer/Gryoscope supported for looking around with Periscope (you can physically rotate your body to look around). No online support, camera, mic, StreetPass or SpotPass support. The game is entirely controlled using the Touch Screen, and supports glasses-free stereoscopic 3D graphical effects of course.
Genre: Side-Scrolling action Submarine game. With a dose of tactics and “sim” thrown in. Also includes a strategy boardgame-style multiplayer mode called Steel Commander.
Save: No save slots, only 1 “profile”. High scores are saved after each Mission or level you play (in all modes), and you can enter your initials.
Online Support? No. The game should’ve supported online leaderboards for comparing high-scores with the world or at the very least with your friends who are online. StreetPass should’ve been supported as well, but isn’t.
Developer: Nintendo EAD and Vitei
Publisher: Nintendo
Country of Origin: Japan
Rating: E10+ for Everyone Ten and Older because of “Mild Violence”. (This rating is nonsense, there is no violence whatsoever in this game).

“The year is 19XX. A power hungry rogue nation has invaded its neighboring countries, placing the stability of the entire world in danger. In or oder to preserve peace a secret submarine fleet, chosen from the best and brightest of the world’s navies, has been formed. They are known as the Steel Divers.

Message to new recruits: Welcome to the Steel Divers. Our fleet of attack submarines is stationed on the front lines to spearhead the attack against our enemy and defend our allies. As a Steel Diver, it’s no exaggeration to say that the fate of the world lies in your hands. Make us proud – Board of Directors, Steel Divers.

The “Sim” aspect of the game comes from how you control your sub. This isn’t a game where you use the D-Pad or the 3DS’ new Circle Pad analog stick to directly control you sub, instead you use two levers and buttons, all located on the top-screen, to navigate the sub on the 3DS’ top-screen.

Here is how the controls breakdown:

  • Speed Slider – Located in the bottom left, you slide the handle to the left to reverse and slide it to the right to move forward. Sliding it to the middle will bring the sub to a stop.
  • Depth Slider – Located on the right side, you move the handle up to raise the Sub and move the handle down to lower it. If you raise the handle all the way to the top, labeled “Surface”, the sub will rise to the top of the water to catch some breath and heal. If you move the handle all the way down, the sub will “Dive” and take a quick dive to the ocean’s depths.
  • Damage Meter – Your energy is displayed as a bar at the top left of the top screen. If this depletes all the way the level ends.
  • Air Gauge – A multicolored bar on the left of the bottom screen, you lose air by making use of your “Masker” button. You can only recover Air by “Surfacing” your sub to the top and catching some air.
  • Masker – Hit this button and your ship will turn invisible for a second, allowing you to avoid getting hit by homing torpedoes. However each time you use it your air gauge will deplete a bit.
  • Pitch Wheel – Depending on the sub, a wheel will appear in the middle of the touch-screen. Rotate this on either side or around to make your Sub point upward or downward. The smallest playable Sub does not have a pitch wheel at all.
  • Torpedo Launch Buttons – Next to the Pitch Wheel you’ll see red buttons (they change depending on the Sub), these allow you to fire off Torpedoes when you press the button. Use them wisely though as with each torpedo fired you’ll have to wait a couple seconds for the button to light again before you can shoot another. You have unlimited torpedoes.
  • Sea Map – Your Sea Map is the large green area that takes up the majority of the top of the Touch Screen. This shows the entire rough layout of the current level. Tap it to get a zoomed in view.
  • Speed and Depth Counters – At the bottom right are two digital counters. The left shows you the Depth you’ve dived (Zero being at Surface) and the right box shows your Speed.
  • From the outset there are three unique Subs for you to choose from, each of progressively larger size and with completely different abilities.

    The Selectable Playable Subs are:

    Manatee Compact Sub (Captain Luc Fisher) – “A highly maneuverable Sub that can fire missiles vertically”. This Sub is the smallest, slowest and weakest. But the small size also has its advantages and makes it easier to navigate through a course. One major drawback is the fact that this Sub can only fire ONE front missile at a time. However making up for that lack of firepower is the fact that this Sub is the only Sub that can fire a vertical Torpedo that shoots straight up from the top. Making this Sub ideal for taking out enemies or objects that attack from above. However another major drawback of this Sub is that it lacks a wheel for controlling pitch, the direction the Sub points, which is done automatically. The low amount of crewmembers on this Sub also mean it heals the slowest.

    BlueShark Midsize Sub (Captain Ben Triton) – “A balanced, all around Sub”. This is the “average” Sub which isn’t as strong or fast as the Goliath Serpent Sub, but not as tiny and weak as the Manatee. This Sub features a Pitch Wheel that allows you to rotate a degree up or down to point the Sub, and it can fire two straight Torpedoes. The medium sized crew means this Sub heals faster than the Manatee but slower than the Serpent.

    Serpent Large Sub (Captain Dante Cruz) – “A powerful Sub with limited maneuverability.” This Sub features a Pitch Wheel that can turn 360 degrees allowing you to quickly point the Sub in any direction. It also heals the fastest and is the most powerful Sub that is less susceptible to enemy attack. However the very large size makes this Sub an easy target. And while the top speed is fast, the Sub feels slow, cumbersome and lumbering with low acceleration. The large size also makes it tough to navigate through enclosed areas and harder to avoid hitting the sides. But the big plus to using this ship is the fact that it can fire FOUR front-missiles! Huzzah!

    During gameplay, you will navigate your Sub through various levels trying to reach the end before time runs out (which can make it extra hard sometimes), furiously moving the two sliders up and down or right and left to maneuver your ship in order to avoid obstacles, shoot down enemy subs, shoot apart environmental obstructions, try to beat the stage in the quickest time possible (which can include racing the developer Ghost, beat the Ghost’s time and you’ll earn a Medal) and avoid hitting the sides, top or bottom of the course. Touching a side, object or enemy attack (which can include torpedoes, mines, bombs, etc.) will all damage you. If you get hit with a strong strike, your sub will leak and you will need to furiously swipe the bottom Touch Screen at the location of the leak in order to plug it. When this happens your ship will lock up and start to sink and you’ll remain immobile until you plug the leak; naturally making you very susceptible to enemy attack or open to even further damage as you slam into the environments sides or bottom.

    Here is a look at Steel Diver in action.

    After each course you will play a “Periscope Strike” mini-game. Here you will be using the “scope” device that pops out of the top of the Sub and looking through its View Finder. You will get about 10 seconds to rotate and shoot ships in the distance. If you get hit then you can’t move for a bit. You can either use the stylus on the “Rotation Slider” bar at the bottom to rotate the scope around, or you can physically move yourself by pivoting in a circle (this is done best while sitting in an office chair that rotates and swirling around!). Naturally, this feature makes use of the 3DS’ built-in gyroscope and accelerometer. Also on the Periscope Strike gameplay screen, you will see two levers. The left lever, or Zoom Slider, can be pulled up or down to zoom in on a target. The right lever can be pulled to make your Sub “Dive”, this is used to avoid oncoming torpedo attacks from the enemy Subs. If a green radar or “Sonar”, appears, you can tap it to reveal the location of enemy ships relative to your position. And at the top screen in the upper corners you can see how many enemy ships are remaining and how much time you have left.

    Depending on how many enemy ships you shoot down during the “Periscope Strike” mini-games, you will earn unlockable Decals as an award. There are a total of 31 Decals that you can unlock, and each of them grant you special bonuses and come in different designs. These bonuses and decals include the likes of the following:

  • Bull: Increases Torpedo damage. (Seven Decals Required)
  • Arrow Through Heart: Halves damage taken from collisions with enemy vessels. (Five Decals Required)
  • Scorpion: Negates the effect of water currents. (Five Decals Required)
  • Snail: Reduces damage taken from all sources. (Seven Decals Required)
  • Penguin: Halves the impact of shock waves. (Seven Decals Required)
  • Sun: Increases Torpedo Speed in post-mission Periscope Strike (Ten Decals Required)
  • Sea Serpent: Increases maximum Dive/Surface speed (Seven Decals Required)

    You may be wondering what the “Seven Decals Required” et al means. As the number suggests, it means you cannot activate that Decals powers until you have collected that many of the single Decal during the Periscope Strike mini-games after completing Missions. Which is a problem, as I’ll explain later.

    You can typically only select one of the Decals that you have activated by tapping on the Decal button in the bottom-right of the screen before undertaking a Mission during the single-player Campaign. As is obvious, these can greatly enhance your chance of beating the mission.

    There are a few different Modes of Play on offer in Steel Diver, they are:

    This is the Main Single Player Mode. The main campaign takes you through 7 Missions, five core Missions and two unlockable Missions.

    Time Trails
    The Time Trail Mode challenges you with 8 different courses for you to tackle. With each course you race to reach the end by avoiding objects and enemies, with the goal being to top the best time or beat the developer’s Ghost Racer.
    Periscope Strike – “Hunt for enemy ships with your Periscope”. This is a Score Attack mode where you want to destroy as many enemy ships as fast as you can for the highest score. It works just like the Periscope Strike mini-game, except you get three modes of play: “Enemy Ships” (same as the mini-game), “Enemy Ships In A Storm” (self-explanatory, makes them harder to hit and aim because of the waves) and “Enemy Submarines”, where you can’t see far-off ships and must relie on your radar.

    Steel Commander
    This mode is completely different than the other Modes. This is a unique strategy game that plays similar to a turn-based Battleship or Stratego boardgame. In it, you must maneuver your ships on a grid, protect your Supply Ship using the other two unit types (Submarine and Escorts) and try to discover the location of the enemy ships and destroy them before they destroy you. If you target and destroy the Supply Ship of your opponent, you automatically win (much like capturing the flag in Stratego). This mode can be played with 2-Players in Local Play (but not online). It also supports Download Play so you can play the game with two people using two 3DS systems and only one Steel Diver Game Card. This unique strategy game offers a fun change of pace for those who into these types of games, and you have a total of 9 Maps with different shaped grids to play for the Single Player of Steel Commander.

    With all of that out of the way, how is the game itself you ask?

    Well, in my humble opinion, Steel Diver is the poster-child and the quintessential reason you didn’t buy a 3DS. Because this is NOT the type of game you bought a 3DS for.

    What do I mean by that? I mean quite simply this, Steel Diver feels more like it could’ve been a port of an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad game, and feels like it should’ve been saved as the introductory exclusive title for the upcoming 3DSWare eShop, the 3DS’ upcoming digital store. This is exactly the type of game you hoped wouldn’t be a launch title, as the game not only lacks longevity and real depth, but it also lacks wow-factor and has a somewhat steep learning curve. While the learning curve isn’t great, its tough enough that it makes this game the opposite of say Nintendogs + Cats, its not the type of game you hand to people to show them how cool the 3DS is. As they will quite simply run into walls or floors and die or, worse yet, find the slow pace and lever-based controls boring.

    The game is also pretty short, at most you will probably spend a few days with it and be done. There are ONLY five core courses. Not only that, but you are forced to play these courses over and over again. As you will not unlock course #6 until you have successfully beaten courses 1-5 with ALL THREE different sized ships. And then once you unlock course number 6, you will not unlock course #7 until you beat that course with all three ships. It just feels so artificially extended as far as the amount of true gameplay that is packed into the title. I feel that most people will probably not replay all of the five courses three times each successfully (it is easy to die) before shelving the title out of rudundincy.

    Additionally, while the Decals are cool and all, you need to collect WAY TOO MANY of the same Decal before you can use it. The result is that I only had FOUR usable Decals by the time I had unlocked the 7th stage. By that point, it’s kind of useless. Why use them if you’ve already completed most of the game? To go back through and get a higher score by “cheating” with Decals that give you more powers? Meh.

    I will say this though, the game WAS fun and addicting enough (even though all you are going for is high scores, essentially. Unless you count unlocking the Decals. You can also try to beat the developers Ghost to earn a medal. Which has to be a near perfect run) that I did keep playing it until I beat all of the stages in one sitting (except the last, Stage 7 is one hell of a tough cookie).

    Additionally, while the Main Missions do get repetitive, you can also try the Time Trails Mode which does offer unique courses that are enetirely different from the campaign missions. And you can also play the Periscope Strike mini-games. And then there is Steel Commander. So the game DOES actually have quite a bit of content, its more a manner of how much you want this content and how much Steel Commander you can take. I have the feeling that I am kind of done with the game, and I don’t envision myself going back to play it much more if at all. Its one of those kind of games. But hey, at least its unique! When was the last time you saw Nintendo make a Submarine “sim” anyway? Exactly.

    FUN FACTOR: 7.0

    This game is a solid 7.0. The game is far from great (8.0) yet it’s a little more than above-average, as the game is unique for what it is, and does offer a refreshing experience in particular when compared to the rest of the 3DS launch lineup. And even when compared to other games, the game is fun if you can get into it. For me, I actually kept playing it for a solid six hours. Granted, I had a review to write, but even so I WAS having fun. Even though the game can get frustrating at times, particularly when you die near the end of a mission and thus have to do it all over again. But with only 5 core Missions, there is not a ton of content and it feels like the game should’ve been a downloadable title and not a full retail game. I certainly would not recommend paying full price for it. Thankfully for those who want more, you are offered a fair amount of different Modes and even an entirely unique board-game like strategy game that you can play with a friend called “Steel Commander”. But the game lacks in 3DS functionality. While it does take advantage of the built-in gyroscope and accelerometer to physically rotate your Periscope when looking through it, it completely lacks any kind of online play or multiplayer (beyond the strategy game) and has no leaderboards. The goals in the game are almost entirely focused on earning high scores (although there are 31 Decals to unlock) so it would’ve made a lot of sense to include some kind of leaderboard system where you could compare your high scores with friends and the world. The game doesn’t make use of SpotPass either. For shame! All in all, its not to say that Steel Diver is a bad game or devoid of fun. Quite the opposite in fact, I had fun with the game. It’s not about whether the game is fun though, because it can be and was fun for me. Its about how much fun you want and expect from a 3DS game. In my humble opinion, this is more of a $10 fun game, or $20 at most. NOT a $40 fun game. But your mileage may vary, depending on how much you are into “sub” “sim-like” titles and enjoy the gameplay on offer, and whether or not you are into the Steel Commander sub-game (pun not intended).

    Graphics: 8.0

    Steel Diver is not a game that will “wow”. And it is not the accessible game you will want to whip out to wow your friends and offer them a play. In fact, the game, in my humble opinion, is a poor candidate as a showboat for the capabilities of the 3DS. The reason is that most of the graphical stereoscopic 3D effects in Steel Diver do not “pop-out” of the screen, which is what you expect to see when viewing something in stereoscopic 3D. And in that regard, the menus (specifically the one that pops up when you complete a mission) are more “THREE D” than the actual game itself. Which is kind of sad. But, for those who really pay attention and look into it (pun intended), you’ll notice that the graphics do have a depth to them that goes into the screen. The problem is that the gameplay is played on a 2D plane. While you will occasionally get hit by something coming from the background, for the most part you are only focusing on what is directly ahead of you, as half the gameplay is simply NOT RUNNING INTO THINGS. As a result, I found myself barely even paying attention to the pretty environments and depth of field going on behind me. Another problem is that many of the background environmental objects that do have a depth to them, will get confused as actual objects you can hit when instead they are simply background objects that you pass through. This is annoying. While “hittable” objects can clearly be identified as such when you can see the two together, other times you will rush to avoid what turns out to just be a background object. In short, the game looks good, solid and at times pretty, but isn’t exactly a showstopper. Although some people, particularly those who really love environmental underwater beauty, and those who really pay attention to the depth, may find the game to be quite beaitiful. Again, your mileage will vary based on your expectations of a 3DS launch title. I shouldn’t forget to add that the game also looks great with the 3D effects turned off.

    Music and Sound: 6.5

    The music in this game is forgettable, but it works. Sound effects are overall good, but the voice acting repeats. The repetitive voice acting is definitely not a deal breaker but it is not something that you expect from a “next-generation” game system, and something I noticed right off the bat. Thankfully the voice only comes in when you move the Depth Slider all the way up to Surface or all the way down to Dive, or get hit or brutally damaged, etc. So it doesn’t happen often enough to be a bother, but it is noticeable.

    Ingenuity: 7.5

    I wouldn’t exactly call Steel Diver “unique”, it’s more like “refreshing”. The game is an interesting one, what with Nintendo actually tackling a semi-realistic underwater Submarine action game with a dash of tactics thrown in with the a focus on high scores. The lever control system works pretty well actually, if you can get into it, but the game has a steep learning curve. Although I suppose it depends on how many sim-like, lever-control-based games you’ve played before. And I doubt many of those were side-scrolling in nature. The learning curve and the way your ship gets damaged when hitting the sides or can get a hole blown in it that you must fill by rubbing on the screen is both blessing and curse. While these mechanics are cool in all, it can make the game extra frustrating when you get hit and must plug the hole, as your ship controls will freeze and the Sub will sink; Causing it to slam into objects or the ocean ground where it will continually take damage until you plug the hole. And then the Sub, since it is a “ton of metal”, takes time to react to your lever-pulling, which adds insult to injury. Overall, the game is unique enough to stand out from the pack of titles available at the 3DS launch and it was an interesting and refreshing “genre” for Nintendo to tackle, so I’m glad they did. But, as I mentioned above, Steel Diver feels like a downloadable game, and that is what it should’ve been.

    Replay Value: 6.5

    Steel Diver only features 5 Core single-player Mission levels to play, with artificial length added to unlock the other two, because you are required to beat each level three times (once with each Sub), ad nauseam. The game does offer unlockable Decals to earn, but they missed a good opportunity to make the player strive for them by requiring you to gain multiples of each Decal before it becomes activated. The result is that you won’t earn many of them until long after you really needed them. But if you are talking pure replay value, then there are 31 Decals to unlock, extra levels beyond the initial 5 for those who want to play that much, and bonus mini-games where you shoot at oncoming Subs via a Periscope viewfinder. The game also has Time Trail levels to tackle, but the gameplay is the essentially the same. Bump that 6.5 up to 7.0 if you are one to enjoy a turn-based, strategy game that’s like a cross between the boardgames Battleship and Stratego, because the game contains a whole other beast known as “Steel Commander” that definitely adds a lot of replay value for those who are into it (including two-player support and 9 Single-Player Maps). But in short, the game doesn’t offer a great deal of content, certainly not for full asking price of $40. I’d pay no more than $20 for it.