steel diver was one of the 3DS’s launch titles, and seemed to be among the most disappointing of the already-slim first-party offerings. i played through its little-known game boy predecessor, radar mission, last year, and although that game was slim on content it had a certain amount of charm, so i tried to keep an open mind about this game.
like radar mission, steel diver has multiple modes that have little to do with each other, other than that they feature submarines. the periscope strike mode is very similar to one of the modes in radar mission. in it you’re a submarine and you shoot down ships in a fixed 360-degree FPS view, but whereas in radar mission you simply pressed left or right to move around, in this game you actually physically move the 3DS from side to side. this is one of those cases where motion controls really does enhance the experience. you can also use the touchscreen if you want, although it’s much less gratifying. the mode is short and there’s not a lot of depth to it, but it’s an enjoyable side diversion.
steel diver also revisits radar mission‘s second mode, which was a two-player battleship-like board game. in radar mission this mode was almost exactly like battleship, but in steel diver there’s more to do, although all of it ends up being about as mindless. in steel diver you actually move your submarine around and use sonar to detect your enemy’s ships. the enemy’s ships can attack your submarine as well, but basically only have a 1/3 chance of hitting you. this mode also includes more playing fields which add more variation, but clearly it’s nowhere near as complex or satisfying as the advance wars series. still, as a single-cartridge two-player download board-game-type experience there are probably some who would find this mode to be somewhat worthwhile.
the third and easily the most substantial mode is the campaign mode, which is brand new. in this mode you choose between three different submarines (each with distinct characteristics such as size and maneuverability) and pilot it through a series of maps littered with enemy subs and ships and other hazards. the mode is an interesting mix of navigation and battling, and although it only includes seven missions and three bosses, you’re required to beat each mission with all three subs before unlocking the hard mode. there’s also a series of time trials to beat and medals to earn by beating staff ghosts. you also earn decals in timed bonus periscope strike missions after beating each campaign mission that can be “equipped” one at a time and provide a small benefit like increased torpedo speed. so in terms of content, this is all a pretty decent amount even when not including the other modes, and reviewers who have said otherwise probably didn’t play through all of the campaign mode, let alone the hard mode.
the more pressing question, though, is: is the campaign mode “fun”? and here’s where i have more-mixed feelings. it’s easy to see why miyamoto said he waited to create this game until the DS’s touchscreen controls, because the main draw of the game is pushing and pulling levers to steer your sub instead of just using a control stick or D-pad. in choosing this design steel diver joins a range of games, including defender and nintendo’s own drill dozer and donkey kong jungle beat, that wouldn’t have been distinct games without their wholly unique controls. now, in probably all of these cases the games would have been much easier to play with more-traditional controls, and in many cases the gimmick wasn’t enough to offset the otherwise-uninspired gameplay. with its fairly simplistic control panel steel diver feels like it could go either way in terms of the “awkward” controls making the game worthwhile or not, but in the end i found that, although i don’t think i ever felt like i was in any way actually piloting a submarine, the controls were well-designed and fun to use. this quote from the iwata asks article highlights miyamoto’s intentions particularly well:
- What I’d like to say is how, to put it in car terms, you have automatic cars and manual cars. Of course, driving an automatic is easier, but you can experience the joy of driving a car better with a manual transmission.
Playing Steel Diver is like driving a car with a clutch. You have to learn how to do it: “If you don’t do this, it won’t move.” “Oh?” “If you don’t do this, it won’t stop.” “Okay, I see.” It’s really fun to do several things at once that you have learned.
I don’t think it really applies to say this game has good or poor operability.
although i was engaged enough to play through the bulk of the campaign mode, i think it’s a stretch to compare the game to a racer, such as f-zero. a lot of the core fun of a racer is its sense of speed, so playing an intentionally slow and cumbersome racer is about as much fun as doing or watching olympic speed walking. water and ice levels in general are annoying, but like the first wave race game, on game boy, although on paper steel diver‘s campaign mode’s gameplay might look unbearably tedious, somehow it all combines to be worthwhile and generally enjoyable. i wouldn’t rank this higher than average and it’s definitely not worth a full $40, but for $5 it’s definitely not a dud and this was certainly one case where i enjoyed a game more than i thought i would.
descend into the not-too-shallow depths of these steel diver links:
- official site. includes info on the game modes and some videos.
- the game was discussed in two iwata asks feature. one as part of a series on the 3DS in general, and one focused on the game itself
- complete list of decals (including a certain nintendo cameo)
- FAQ at gamefaqs
- overview at nintendo.com
- review at nintendolife.com
- entry at wikipedia
- video of the credits