Steel Diver

Steel Diver
Steel Diver Cover
Platforms Nintendo 3DS
Genre Touch screens and submarines
MtAMinutes to Action 2
Keep Playing? I guess so
Buy from Amazon

Any time a creator of game technology sets a new standard, they want to show it off in a way that gets potential customers dreaming about what games they might be playing with it. The Final Fantasy VII tech demo for PS3 was meant to show off the graphical leap that Sony's Spiderman-fonted grill console could muster...and, of course, hype fans up for a remake that would never exist. Peter Molyneux's Milo was a proof of concept that Kinect could, theoretically, be an interaction simulator. With the game's cancellation, it looks like that will stay a theory for the time being. And who could forget Epic's "meat cube" demo for Unreal Engine 3, newly improved for Gears of War 2? And yet, here we are in 2011 with no cubes of messy meat to play with whatsoever.

Sometimes, what starts as a tech demo eventually becomes a retail product. Such is the case with Steel Diver, possibly the only submarine video game I know of. What is now a 3DS launch title was originally meant to show off the brand new use of the touch screen as a controller...six years ago, for the original Nintendo DS. It seems Nintendo decided to take that aged tech demo, update its visuals for the new hardware, and profit.

So here we are at the 3DS launch, with three first party retail titles from Nintendo. One appears to merely be a graphical update to the Nintendo DS' second best-selling game. Another seems to be made entirely of assets from Nintendo's ridiculously successful Wii Sports series. Could Steel Diver, a tech demo that was forgotten a generation ago, prove to be a niche hit lurking in the depths, or will it continue to torpedo into obscurity?

Minute by Minute

00 - Main menu. I can choose Missions, Periscope Strike, or Steel Commander. Let's start with the Campaign. A text scroll on the top screen begins..."The year is 19XX." Ugh. The rest of the explanation is equally vague.

01 - Hmm, the first five missions (of the seven listed) and the training mode are all unlocked. Let's do training first. I can choose from three subs, and pick the mid-sized one.

02 - Mission Start! My sub is in the water, on a 2D plane. I've got sonar on the bottom screen, showing a vague map of the whole level. Also on the bottom screen: all of the controls. One slider controls sinking and surfacing, another controls forward and backward movement. A little steering wheel can be tilted to tilt my sub, and it propels in whatever direction it is facing.

03 - This is going to take a few minutes to get used to, as the sub slowly reacts to my moving the sliders around. It's kind of fun, though. A boulder is blocking the path ahead, but I can tap a button on the touch screen to fire one of my unlimited torpedoes.

Steel Diver Torpedo04 - Homing torpedo incoming! I'm instructed to use the "Masker" to throw it off my trail. Doing so releases some bubbles from my sub, and the torpedo changes direction away from me. Apparently using the Masker depletes my air supply, though, so I can't use it too much. Not if I want to breathe, at least. I can resurface to repair my sub's hull and refill oxygen.

05 - The visuals aren't especially impressive, but the 3D effect is pretty cool.

06 - There's a battleship above! I angle my sub upwards and launch a few torpedoes. Success! I sunk their battleship. I use more torpedoes to destroy some weak blocks in a dock's wall.

07 - I've cleared the undersea wall and surface at the end of the stage. Mission accomplished! Back at the mission choice screen. Let's go for the first mission. A short text mission brief explains that this is an enemy base, and I'm to find my way in so that our forces can deploy their troops. Let's try the Compact sub this time.

08 - And here we go! Wait a minute...this looks like the exact same course I just went through for training...and it is! At least there seem to be enemies this time, as I come to an enemy sub quickly.

09 - My Compact sub can only fire one torpedo at a time, unlike the mid-sized model. I can't control its pitch, either, making it tough to aim at enemies. It is a bit quicker, though, and its small size lets me squeeze through smaller spaces.

10 - These bigger attack subs would be tough to fight, so I'll just shoot past them in my smaller submersible. There are undersea mines floating about, too, and a battleship dropping depth charges.

11 - It is definitely easier to run than fight in this sub. I blow past several attackers in my way and arrive at the end of the stage. Mission accomplished!

12 - "Periscope strike. Destroy enemy ships to get decals!" Is this a bonus stage? It's in first-person from a periscope's view. I can move the view by sliding the touch screen and fire torpedoes at ships. That lasted maybe fifteen seconds or so.

13 - Let's head to the next mission, Jungle Canal. The sentence-long mission briefing doesn't really even bother explaining why I have to get through here. Whatever, I'll try the huge sub this time. It can fire four torpedoes at once, and seems to have a more sensitive pitch adjustment wheel than the mid-sized sub. Definitely built for offense.

14 - Oops, just crashed into a huge boulder! Guess I should have been paying attention, since it didn't show up on sonar. It hardly did any damage to the sub, though, which is surprising considering I rammed into it at full speed.

15 - This thing is more sluggish than the other two subs, and its length makes it tough to sink between obstacles, too.

16 - A battleship above is dropping depth charges. I can't just maneuver around them in this huge thing...luckily, a quick barrage of four torpedoes takes care of it.

17 - There's a fork in the, uh...road. Let's try the top path. It's more narrow, so naturally I assume there's something special up there. I do come to a pretty jungle waterfall, but that's about it.

18 - Jet streams in the water push my huge sub around with surprising ease. They make it even tougher to keep control of it.

19 - There's a whole field of undersea mines before the goal...I have to destroy them all with torpedoes before heading through. Mission accomplished!

Steel Diver Periscope20 - It's that Periscope Strike minigame again. The ships are faster this time, but it still just seems like a mindless distraction. Destroying ships in this mode earns decals for my subs. I'll definitely bring one to the next car show and flaunt my sick stickers.

21 - I'll try another game mode before Mission 3. Let's check out Periscope Strike's mode. I get to choose what targets to fight: enemy ships, enemy ships IN A STORM, or submarines. Let's stick with enemy ships.

22 - This is the same as the Periscope Strike bonus game from the missions, it just lasts longer. I guess I should have seen that coming.

23 - Oh hey, I can control this by turning the 3DS around! Like a real periscope! That doesn't make it any less boring, though.

24 - Oh well, let's do the third mission, Undersea Cave. I'll go back to the mid-sized sub again. Judging from the winding paths on the sonar, I can tell this mission is going to require a lot of skilled maneuvering.

25 - There's a sub in the background shooting seeker missiles. That's not fair, I can't fight back! Oh well, I'll just speed past it. Just past it is a little alcove with a pocket of air. I guess I can surface there to refill health and air supply.

26 - Incoming missiles! The masker isn't working! Damn, took several torpedoes to the hull. Still going strong, though, dipping down and maneuvering through the winding paths.

27 - I've taken more hits from mines and torpedoes. I've sprung a leak on the bottom screen! All the controls get stuck while the water seeps in. I have to hold the stylus on the leak to plug it up before I can regain control of my sub.

28 - Jet streams in the water make it even tougher to navigate the paths. There's an undersea volcano in the background...and it's erupting!

29 - Volcanic rocks are falling down through the water! A few hit the top of my hull, but it pulls through.

30 - One last enemy sub blocks my path to the goal. I take it out, maneuver through some mines, and surface. Mission accomplished!

Steel Diver Jungle

Half Hour Summary

Minutes to Action: 2

What I liked

Deep blue: First impressions of the 3DS' visuals likened the effect to "looking into an aquarium." That description applies perfectly to Steel Diver, and the added depth really bolsters the otherwise humble visuals. Surprisingly, I had no trouble maintaining the effect even while glancing back and forth between the 2D touch screen and the 3D top screen.

Dive! Fire! Full speed! I can't imagine it's easy to navigate a giant metal basement through the ocean depths. Steel Diver gets this point across through its touch screen controls, which provide all the capability and range to deftly maneuver through the undersea obstacles while being just complicated and slow enough to make every successful dive feel like an achievement of planning and execution.

What I didn't like

Repeated environments: The tutorial and the first mission are the same stage. That just seems lazy.

Claustrophobia: After poking around the menus, it doesn't seem like there's much more to do in Steel Diver. I've already finished three of the seven missions that seem to encompass the entire campaign. Eight time trial courses, some periscope bonus stages, and a multiplayer strategy game that seems like a complicated version of Battleship are all this package seems to boast.

Other thoughts

Audio: Some have complained that the constant chatter ("Surface! Fire! Reverse!") gets annoying, but it provides an instant audio cue that your actions on the touchscreen have been registered. I like this because the sub itself doesn't react immediately to your commands.

Narrative: There's almost no story going on here. I really don't mind that. What little exposition is given is very phoned-in and cheap, though.

Would I keep playing? I guess so. I tend to prefer quicker, twitcher gameplay, but even I'm having some fun with Steel Diver's plodding seafaring tubs.

In 3D? Surprisingly, yes. Despite the two-dimensional gameplay, the stereoscopic 3D really gives a sense of appropriate oceanic depth. I also like how the rocks and islands get cut off at the foreground, which reminds me of the way the dirt surrounding the tunnels of an ant farm presses cleanly against the glass. And hey, no headaches! Maybe I'm getting used to the 3D effect, but I think Steel Diver's slow pace and quiet visuals may be easier on the eyes and brain than most games.

Steel Diver Serpent

Words from beyond the first half-hour: Steel Diver is a poster child for more variable game pricing standards.

Even as someone who prefers fast-paced games, Steel Diver resonates with me. It's fairly straightforward, but not without its own learning curve. It's slow and deliberate in its pacing, but engaging and tense in its mood. And reaching the end of a mission or the finish line in a time trial feels like an accomplishment.

But I've experienced nearly the full range of what the game has to offer in just over an hour. I've completed all five of the initially-unlocked missions (though, for some reason, missions six and seven remain locked). I've completed four of the eight time trials. I've played through a number of the unspectacular periscope bonus stages. And I've even tried playing the Battleship-type strategy game that feels like an afterthought. And that's nearly all of the game. Only those who absolutely fall in love with the nuances of piloting a submarine will want to milk Steel Diver's races against the clock for more than a few short hours. And I think that even they will have a hard time justifying the full price tag.

I'd gladly pay $15 for Steel Diver as a 3DSWare downloadable. Heck, if I saw it on the shelves for $20 new, I'd still consider a purchase. But at $40? I can't help but feel relieved that I only rented the game. I'm thinking that bargain bins are going to be flooded with Steel Divers in the weeks following the 3DS launch. The game is definitely worth playing; it's just not worth owning for full price.