Steel Empire (Genesis) review
"Blimps aren't the strongest selling point in this day and age, and they weren't a strong selling point back in 1992 either. Perhaps some people might enjoy the idea of gatling-toting, supercharged WWI aircraft flying into orbit and beyond, but the whole notion of sailing a blimp through an asteroid field struck me as being quite silly (and in this game's specific case, dull)."
There are a lot of famous horizontal shoot-em-ups on the Genesis: Task Force Harrier EX, Arrow Flash, and Air Buster. Actually, no one cares about those games. It's not that they were bad; they just weren't able to compete with other, better shooters.
While designing Steel Empire, Hot-B no doubt realized the road facing them was cluttered with very stiff competition and littered with the broken plastic corpses of forgotten shmups. The question: how does one make a shooter that will stand the test of time? Or, preferably, just sell a lot of copies? It should seem obvious that the answer is either through flashy graphics or honey-sweet gameplay... neither of which are present in Steel Empire. What we've got instead is a bitter, gooey blob of motor oil.
While on the one hand my clever metaphor reveals that I know what motor oil tastes like, it also provides a clever segue into Steel Empire's industrial-era theme. Set in the mysterious year 19XX, the Motorhead Empire's massive war zeppelins are approaching your homeland and must be destroyed! But that's not enough. Once you've successfully defended your homeland, dive deep into the heart of Motorhead, seeking out and assassinating the evil dictator (and slaughtering millions of innocents)!
The apparent selling point to Steel Empire was that you pilot either a miniscule blimp or an appropriately-sized bi-plane. Unfortunately, blimps aren't the strongest selling point in this day and age, and they weren't a strong selling point back in 1992 either. Perhaps some people might enjoy the idea of gatling-toting, supercharged WWI aircraft flying into orbit and beyond, but the whole notion of sailing a blimp through an asteroid field struck me as being quite silly (and in this game's specific case, dull). Nothing was done with the story beyond "find and kill the enemy". The opening screen was ingenious, with a stock WWI footage video opening (not to mention a fanfare theme), but the rest of the game falls flat.
Obviously you wouldn't be reading this review if you didn't have some amount of respect for the Genesis. Unfortunately, this is the kind of game that "proves" the system's naysayers right. Everyone has heard about the limited and faded 64-color palette. Well, take those faded browns, greys, and greens, and splash them on the screen. Now, apply a translucent film to the TV screen to fade the colors to the point that even your Grampa's red-checkered shirt screams style by comparison. That's Steel Empire right there!
To their credit, this extremely understated palette was intentional on Hot-B's part, to help achieve that "old" World War I feeling. Unfortunately, they've gone overboard. It's so faded, and there is so little of visual interest, that the game comes across as bland rather than artistic.
Except for level five. Even though you're still shooting down the same tanks, planes, and giant flying bicycles that you've been shooting all along, the fifth level's city is really cool. You begin the stage flying past a giant, burning blimp that's being pelted by the Allied Forces' artillery. As the blimp explodes and crashes to the ground, you descend upon the Motorhead capital for a night-time raid. The music in this part is very well done, as the frantic "blimp attack" music segues into a more mysterious melody as you enter the city.
I actually noticed in the end credits that Noriyuki Iwadare (Lunar, Grandia 2) had a role in the soundtrack's composition, which might help explain the strong sense of thematic style. The opening song is a fanfare (imagine trumpets, but distorted through the Genesis sound chip). While the rest of the music takes a more traditional and "busy" shooter approach, with frantic rhythm and constant upper-register movement, the fanfare melody still springs up from time to time. This helps reinforce the WWI feeling, and it does so more effectively than the feeble graphics.
Unfortunately, I've left the worst for last.
The gameplay, for a shooter, especially a Genesis shooter, is outright abysmal. The interesting part is that you can fire left or right (depending on which button you press), similar to Section Z (Sidearms). Also, you have the standard "blow everything up in a huge ball o' mess" bombs, which isn't really interesting at all.
The bad part? Whenever something shoots at you, the game slows down. Every boss (or mid-boss) battle takes place in slow motion. Yes, there's been slowdown on other Genesis shooters, but not in every single battle! Of course, sometimes the slowdown does go away. There's nothing worse than fighting the submarine boss's waves of bullets, only to have the slowdown temporarily vanish, hurtling the bullets straight from 5 to 300 miles per hour.
Now consider this: you have 20 levels of basic shot powerup, but level 20 only appears to dispense twice as many bullets as level 1. So basically, even though your bullets become more powerful as the game progresses, they don't look any different until you reach the ridiculously high levels. But even the stronger firepower won't protect you from the high number of cheap hits. Hot-B must have decided that, since you have a vitality bar, it would be a good idea to throw in a few spots where it's impossible to avoid everything. But, with the long lifebar, it's still easy to win through pure attrition. Cheap without challenge — an unfortunate combination.
In nearly every way, the game is not only uninteresting, but worse than typical Genesis fare. Even a shooter fan who just wants to test his or her skill will breeze through this in one or two sittings. Steel Empire desperately reaches for average, but it still manages to miss that humble mark. Add one more broken body to the pile of unremarkable shooters.
If you happen to live in Japan where this game is super-rare and sells for the equivalent of $200, I instead recommend Radiant Silvergun. But hey, it's your money.
Staff review by Zigfried (March 12, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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