Steel Diver – what a history this game has. It started out as a tech demo at E3 2004 for the original DS, and quickly became a game everyone wanted to be real. In a time when Nintendo was criticised for their apparent lack of new franchises, this game was labeled unique, old-school, complex, and refreshing all at the same time, and had hardcore gamers foaming at the mouth. “Submarine Tech Demo” was used in message board arguments around the world to illustrate what Nintendo “should” be doing.
Fast forward to 2011, and the game has finally been released as Steel Diver on 3DS, with fully fleshed out levels and modes, on a brand new console with updated graphics, and a third dimension added. Nintendo fans and the press were set to go absolutely BALLISTIC over this game, everything they wanted was finally here, and to top it off, it was a launch title for a brand new system. However, something was wrong. The game received no hype, no coverage, and nobody bought it. Was the game bad? It was covered so poorly, you probably don’t know anything about it. That’s why I’m here. I’m going to tell you ALL about Steel Diver, so sit back and enjoy another Pietriots review with your favourite beverage.
Steel Diver is a submarine simulation game that puts you in control of a slow, bulky submarine, and dares you to be fast and agile with it. Every sub in the game is slow, and the game makes no compromises or apologies for this. There’s three subs, each with their own way of shooting torpedoes and turning, and slightly different speed and weight. Controlling the subs is all done with the touch screen, and involves turning wheels and sliding levers. You control depth, angle, and speed, and can also fire torpedoes. Getting the sub going is easy: just hold the speed bar all the way ahead; the real fun begins when you start weaving your way through the levels, navigating through falling rocks, labyrinths, enemy ships, monsters, and even an underwater volcano.
The challenge in this game is based around adequate handling of the submarines. The subs have their own controls, their own feeling and reactions, and the game is designed around their weaknesses. Stopping the sub is not something you can do instantly; it has to decelerate. The same applies to changing direction – it has to finish going down before it even thinks about going up. This is a heavy machine, not a fat plumber. The visuals and action play out slowly on the screen, but your brain has to work hard to be several steps ahead of the environment while keeping things steady and avoiding a mistake. When you do make a mistake and hit something, water will start leaking into the submarine and you have to quickly plug the holes with the touch screen before you can move again. The experience itself is very engaging and fast paced.
The difficulty in this game has its ups and downs; the initial control and concept can take a few minutes to get your head around, but then the next thing you know you’ve beaten all the main levels. For paid journalists and metacritic strokers, this is where the game ends; but for me, this is where it began. Steel Diver is not an adventure game or exploration game. At its heart, it’s a high-score-based arcade game, and to me it even feels like a racing game. There’s a heavy intensity involved in barely missing a wall or torpedo, or using a geyser at the right angle to soar between rocks. The bulkiness of submarines makes the impact of impressive feats feel magnified. It’s like seeing a whale skateboard. Amazing, even though a person skateboarding is no big deal.
As I began to replay the levels, I started approaching them differently. While at first I was just trying to survive, I was now skillfully shooting down bullets, using geysers as boosts, and trying to increase my momentum in any way I could through new paths and compromises. Playing through all the levels for the first time holds a great reward: it gives you CONFIDENCE. Confidence to push through a cave without slowing down, confidence to shoot enemies down while moving, confidence to explore the limits of a stage the same way Captain Falcon drives around Mute City. I won’t spare any enthusiasm here; having your sub already angled towards the next corner while you’re exiting the previous one with enemies behind you is a fucking awesome feeling. When everything goes right, it’s like a sexy dance.
The graphics in Steel Diver don’t deserve much praise; there’s lots of simple geometry and blue and grey. What impresses me most is the 3D effect: it’s not intrusive and it gives the game a great feeling of depth and comfort. The music complements it decently, nothing captivating or catchy, but it’s unique to the theme. The story is two paragraphs long, the stability of the entire world is in danger from a power hungry rogue nation, and it’s up to a secret submarine group called the Steel Divers to stop them. This is somehow achieved by getting awesome times and traveling to the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t make much sense, but all the stuff you’d normally “rate” in a game takes a backseat to the gameplay experience here.
As far as content goes, the game isn’t as bulky as I hoped. There’s an initial 7 missions that make up the core of the game, with 3 different ways to tackle them depending on what sub you pick. After this, there’s an additional 8 levels in time trial, bringing the total to 15 (I can count, yet somehow a lot of reviewers got this wrong). There’s not as many levels as there could have been, but the replayability of them is a big factor. Not only can you challenge your own ghost time, but 3 different staff ghosts for bronze, silver, and gold medals. Heaven forbid there be a platinum medal – if there is, I haven’t gotten any yet. In fact I’ve only got one gold – it’s bloody hard. The developers of this game really know it inside-out; there’s a lot of challenges here awaiting an eager player.
There’s also a ton of decals you can stick on your sub to power it up and manipulate the environment with. These are unlocked in a separate Periscope Mode, which is played after every mission level. It’s a pretty cool first-person game where you’re surrounded by ships and have to spin around and shoot them down (using gyro controls). The torpedos take a while to reach the target depending on how far they are, so you can’t just shoot where they are, but where they’ll be. It’s not something I can play over and over, but it’s enjoyable and the graphics are good especially when it’s storming.
Steel Diver isn’t for everyone. It’s hard to wrap your head around having to adapt to a new mechanic. Being a slave to the sub, and its unique weakness and strengths, is the only way to fully appreciate the content. It sounds like an obtuse concept, but this is really just the same as every game ever made. Every game ever made has its own mechanics, every playable object in a game has a top speed, acceleration, restriction, and abilities. This one is just different; Steel Diver has no identity to attach itself to, and many people in the gaming media have avoided the “risk” of getting to know it. It’s a shame because this game has a lot to offer; it looks bad on paper, but the experience is stimulating and addictive. During development of the game (as documented in Iwata Asks), Miyamoto insisted on focusing more on making the game fun to replay again and again, rather than throwing in more levels and subs. It achieves that with refined controls that are difficult to master, but very accurate and engaging to learn. Steel Diver is a great achievement in game design, it dares to bring new mechanics to the table, and I think anyone who likes to challenge themselves should check it out.