As much as I loved shooters growing up they did become oversaturated with releases in a very short period. The Genesis, Turbo Grafx-16 and the arcade saw an innumerable quantity of titles hit the shelves. And as bad as it was here in Japan it was even worse. It wouldn’t have been a problem if they were all great but there was an insane amount of generic crap cluttering stores. Steel Empire managed to rise above the sea of mediocrity with a fantastic setting and tight gameplay. The game is stylish as hell but has the gameplay to match and is one of the better shmups for the system.
The world of Steel Empire is a fictional take on the 19th century. Here steam technology rules and large dirigibles and massive battleships dominate the skies. In this Age of Steel the Motorhead Empire, led by General Styron has conquered nearly the entire world. All that remains is the Republic of Silverhead who plan to oppose Motorhead using their experimental lightning bombs and advanced aircraft.
Right away the game’s setting and world stand out. The story is presented as though it were coming off an old movie projector which adds to its appeal. There is a tremendous amount of backstory to the game’s world that makes me wish it were explored further in a platformer or RPG. Steam punk is still hardly ever explored in video games today let alone this genre. The only examples I can think of are Sine Mora and Jamestown. As such Steel Empire still looks unique.
The art direction is fantastic and the system’s color limitations do a great job of selling the old school look. The levels are filled with all manner of massive blimps and expertly designed trains among backdrops that have five or six layers of scrolling adding depth. The overall illusion of the 1940s is achieved through strict adherence to old aircraft models and a film grain filter applied during the mission briefings. The setting makes up for the subdued color scheme, which is heavy on the metallic grays and browns and is a bit dull. The only mark against the visuals would be the slowdown which is among the worst on the system. Something had to give considering the screen is filled with massive ships at every given moment. Some ships are so large the screen has to scroll to reveal them in sections.
Every mission offers a choice of ships, the smaller Striker or Z-01 blimp. The Striker is agile but has very little health and armor while the blimp is slow but powerful. The distinctions between the two are very important as each excels in different areas. The blimp is better at primarily air assaults while the striker is better suited to dealing with weaker ground targets. The mission briefings clue you in as to what to expect. It is possible to prevail if you make a bad choice although things will be considerably harder.
In terms of weapons Steel Empire has very few. Your main cannon is never replaced but instead is upgraded through experience up to a maximum of level 20. The difference visually and in terms of power is notable and thankfully your level persists even through death. Other upgrades include two smaller drone planes and extra stock of your lightning bombs. I’ve derided games in the past for lacking weapon selection and the lack of variety is noticeable here. However the steady increase in power does somewhat make up for it.
Steel Empire’s seven levels cover a considerable amount of ground and avoids many of the standard video game tropes. Since the game takes place in a vague European setting the locations you’ll visit are distinct. There’s a mining city, a subterranean cavern, a beautiful sky fortress, and surprisingly even the surface of the moon. The pacing is not like most games in the genre which actually works pretty well here. Most levels feature very few fodder enemies as the focus is placed on dismantling large ships and trains piece by piece. These frequent monstrosities are sometimes half of the level themselves, calling to mind the third level of R-Type. Overall it should take no more than an hour to see all of the game’s content which seems appropriate. You’ll want more just to see more of the game’s world.
I would rate the difficulty about medium overall. Thanks to your life bar you can survive a number of hits. The game is very generous with experience allowing you to increase the power of your main cannon at a steady clip. You won’t find many health power-ups unless you destroy every part of the environment so mistakes are costly. The majority of the hits sustained unfortunately come from bullets that blend into the background due to the low color palette. The biggest choking points come from the boss battles. There are some very unfair moments that leave you in cramped spaces and forced to hit small targets for far too long. The game leans on this a bit too much for my liking. However even with these issues I had no problem reaching the end in spite of the limited continues.
Steel Empire is one of my favorite shooters for the Genesis and one that I like to revisit from time to time. The combination of its unique setting and balanced gameplay make this an enjoyable ride from start to finish and one that I think anyone with even a passing interest in the genre should seek out.