Developed by Mebius, and published by Teyon this Japanese steam punk shmup (shoot'em up) known as "Steel Empire (originally Koutetsu Teikoku)" makes a triumphant return from it's former Sega Genesis, and Gameboy Advance glory days. Like any military based shmup you will find that 'Steel Empire' has in place groups of warring factions that each have conflicting goals. The factions this time around are grounded firmly in a science fiction world with fictitious steam punk empires that are trying to gain control of the airways. In this revamped version of the game you'll fly two different types of steam punk engineered aircraft including an eagle-like plane, and a small dirigible. Both aircraft are your empire's only saving grace. With them comes varying speeds, and attributes that will make the gameplay at hand a very different experience, and your goal an even more trying one.
Your ultimate goal, as a pilot in 'Steel Empire' is to traverse 7 side-scrolling stages filled with dangerous sci-fi terrains while blasting ships of various shapes, and sizes out of the sky. You'll have a set number of lives with which to complete the task, but 1ups, and health refills can be found to improve your odds of beating the game's campaign in a single playthrough. Along the way you'll find power-ups in the form of health refills, screen clearing electric-bombs, orbiting mini-dirigibles, and bullet hell enhancements. You'll be able to level up your aircraft of choice up to 20 times, and use that power to destroy the larger than life aircraft, and cargo carriers that aim to put an end to your mission.
In the way of replay value you'll find that your consecutive playthroughs will not only unlock a hidden puzzle picture at the end, but that the difficulty at which you play the mission based shooter comes in four different variations including 'Easy', 'Normal', 'Hard', and 'Difficult'. This in turn makes the challenges even more formidable each, and every time you choose to up the ante, and test your mettle as a tried & true shump player/pilot. Along with the standard campaign, obtainable power-up upgrades, and unlockables also comes a replay save system that will enable you to store, share (through local interactions), and watch your own playthroughs after you have completed each stage. It's a feature that's more, or less made for bragging rights, but is one that will be welcome to any shmup enthusiast should they decide to buy the game. Another feature that is unlockable as you play is the "Training" mode in which each of the 7 stages are made available for a practice run through. It's a good feature for getting familiar with the harder stages of the game. You'll also find a 'Continue' option for picking up where you left off should you need to save your progress, and take a break.
In the way of graphic design "Steel Empire" stays true to it's origin release with it's 16bit graphics, but improves upon the visuals by introducing one of the best uses of the 3DS's 3D function to date. By turning up the 3D slider on your Nintendo 3DS you'll get to see the world's and terrains of "Steel Empire' in a much grander scope. The sea will expand before your eyes like an endless ocean, and other terrestrial details that mark the landscapes will be shown at varying layered distances making the game more than just some bland 2D experience. Even the menus, and stage intros are layered in such an eye popping way that you'll be impressed with what the developer has done in regards to trying to make the game worth the asking price.
As far as controls go I found my playthrough of 'Steel Empire' to be easy enough to handle without consulting the control guide in the main menu. If you've played a 2D side-scrolling shmup in the past you will be able to easily adapt to the control setup that Mebius has applied. When it came down to moving the ship all I had to do was use the circular thumb pad. It made for more fluid movement, and enabled me to dodge bullet hell sprays, and missiles with ease. The other buttons you'll need to make note of are the face buttons on the right side of your Nintendo 3DS. The 'Y' button will allow you to shoot to the left, and the 'A' button will allow you to shoot to the right. Holding down either shoot button will keep the shots firing in a steady stream. For bomb use you will merely need to press 'B' when you have bombs in stock. With everything considered I think you'll find that controlling your aircraft of choice is not rocket science at all, but that you will have to have some skills to survive to the end of stage seven.
The Verdict ...
There's no doubt in my mind that "Steel Empire" is a good game. In fact I'd go so far as saying it is a great game. It's revamped for a new generation of gamers, it includes some truly awesome features, and it offers shmup enthusiasts a proper go to challenge. At the same time though I personally find the $29.99 asking price to be rather steep, especially since it is sold in the digital format. Had it been a physical release I could see the game being worth close to the asking price. In actuality though the game's campaign is not all that long, and the only true replay value comes with the challenges of playing through the additional difficulty settings, and with the two different types of ships/aircraft. Had Mebius added online co-op, a survival mode of some type, replay sharing, or Youtube replay upload capability I could have seen this game being worth the $29.99 price tag, easily. During my playthrough though I saw none of these options. In the economy today $29.99 is no mere chump change, especially when the product in question is a digital one.
On the flipside ... If you can spare $29.99, and love shmups as much as I do then this game is definitely a good game to own. It looks stunning, and as simplistic as it may be it is truly fun to play. It's a game that harkens back to an era of game design that was simple yet effective. In the economy today though $29.99 is still no mere chump change, especially when the product in question is a digital remake that has been tweaked with new features. It's something that you'll also have to weigh when making your decision on whether to buy the game, or not.