There is a scene in 1997’s sci-fi schlock-fest Starship Troopers in which Denise Richards, aka Captain Carmen Ibanez, attempts to reverse a gigantic spaceship out of its docking bay; in a moment of nerve-shredding tension, the craft comes within inches of the mothership, and all aboard hold their breath in expectation of the certain disaster. Luckily, Carmen manages to complete the manoeuvre, cracking a beaming smile of blinding white enamel and winning the adoration of her instructor. This, in a nutshell, is what Nintendo’s Steel Diver is like when it’s at its best…only the vast starship has been replaced with a dinky submarine and Denise Richards switched for whoever’s sweaty palms are clasping the 3DS at the time.
First demonstrated around the time the original Nintendo DS was announced, Steel Diver has taken a long time to come to fruition, and now that it’s finally here we have to admit its selection as a U.S. launch title for the 3DS comes as something of a surprise, mainly because of its subject matter. If you were being polite, you’d describe it as ‘niche’. If you were feeling a little more cantankerous, Steel Diver could be considered the Anti-Mario; there are clear reasons why the moustachioed plumber has consistently been the standard bearer at the launch of a new Nintendo system – he’s approachable, familiar, energetic, has a handful of easily recognisable catchphrases and his appeal spans generations. Steel Diver, on the other hand, has torpedoes, fish, a slightly vague setting, a selection of dials and switches and charismatically-challenged submarines. Oh…and there aren’t really any catchphrases – unless you consider the sonar ‘bong!’ to be one. It really isn’t the type of thing to shift hardware, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good.
Steel Diver is essentially a fairly standard 2D, side scrolling submarine ‘em up (if, indeed, such a thing exists), that adds a little spice with a three-dimensional flourish to the visuals and by forcing you to control your sub via a series of dials and switches placed on the touch screen. In terms of gameplay, it is the latter that harbours much of Steel Diver’s appeal, with the mastering of the submarine’s controls being a considerable challenge.
Players are presented with five main inputs consisting of two sliders with which to adjust the subs depth and speed, a couple of buttons – one to launch torpedoes and another to activate a cloaking device – and a wheel that adjusts your crafts pitch. Initially, it can all be rather confusing and there is every chance that you’ll spend a lot of time crashing into walls and enemy submarines while failing to line up accurate torpedo strikes. In short, it feels like a horrible gimmick; a game that has first and foremost been built to showcase the possibilities of the touch-screen at the expense of usability. Spend a bit of time with the game however, and what initially felt a little annoying and, indeed, unnecessary becomes really quite charming.
The controls actually dictate the pace of the game, with it never really breaking away from being a rather sedate affair, but this helps convey a sense of weight (and the inevitable sluggishness of manoeuvring massive hulks of machinery around underwater) while also adding a greater sense of drama to the onscreen events – again, we’d refer you back to that scene from Starship Troopers. Scrambling with the controls to avoid a collision is all part of the experience, and feeling your competence grow can be immensely satisfying. By the end of the game, you’ll be sneaking your sub through the narrowest of gaps, ducking past and blasting apart enemies with the greatest of ease. In short, the game implements a satisfyingly well mapped out learning curve.
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