When Nintendo wanders away from their heralded franchise icons, I'm always careful to tread lightly. Such was the case for Steel Diver, a launch game for the 3DS that puts the player in charge of a submarine. My last entry into the world of submarine games was with the Silent Hunter series, a simulation style game that was a decent balance of work and entertainment. With the case of Steel Diver, it's really not sure what type of game it wants to be. It has many simulation style elements in the game, but uses an arcade style countdown timer to limit your time on each level. It also feels like a tech demo that never got real direction on how the game should progress or simply be entertaining.
For starters, this isn't a story driven game. There's a thin narrative wrapped over the main campaign, only setting up the century that you are fighting in as well as a general conflict. You have the option of starting each of the eight missions in the game (including the training mission) with one of three different subs. You have to decide if maneuverability and speed are more useful than firepower and being built like a tank. Interestingly, none of the missions really put your submarine in great danger and you can manage to navigate them taking little damage no matter what sub you select. The only real danger of losing the level is playing beat the clock with an arcade timer. Boss fights help increase your stress level with completing a mission, but only because they are tedious rather than challenging.
Oddly, Nintendo avoided using the controls on the 3DS and made nearly everything controlled via the touchscreen. This created an overly complicated control scheme of constant dial / slider alterations, but it does support the concept that this is a submarine simulation. You move a vertical and horizontal slider to control depth / speed as well as mask yourself from incoming torpedoes. In another strange turn (no perhaps a lack of one), the submarine can't turn around, only go in reverse. There's also a seemingly unlimited supply of torpedoes to fire off at enemies. For the most part, you are simply trying to dodge obstacles either from enemy vessels or on the ocean floor.
If you don't own an iPhone and have only had a Nintendo DS, then you will likely find the Periscope Strike mini-game a breath of fresh air. It uses the internal 3DS gyroscope to spin the viewing angle of the scope. If you sit in a typical office chair or recliner, you can spin around in circles until you are ready to throw up. Of course, this technology has been prevalent in iPhone / iPod Touch games for quite a while now and seems more gimmicky than original. However, it's executed very well in Steel Diver and firing off a batch of deadly torpedoes is really quite satisfying when they hit the roving target. Beyond the main campaign, there's also a mini-strategy game included for multiplayer called Steel Commander. You can play against the AI or find someone else to compete with by using Download Play. I couldn't get the Download Play option to work though. The game is basically a version of Battleship with players going back and forth attempting to find enemy vessels to sink.
The color palette used in the game is somewhat bland, but the underwater landscapes are fairly detailed with sea life. The 3D portion of the visuals is certainly understated, even when cranked up with full blast. Since the game is a bit slower paced than other titles, you have a chance to soak in the 3D elements scattered throughout the landscape. This is particularly evident when in periscope mode and checking out the ships rolling along the choppy seas. But when combined with the gyroscope, I'd imagine some players will feel sick from the rapid movements.
Nintendo did a very subtle job of mixing the music and sound effects, but extremely effective. The musical score is laden with military-inspired tracks and it sets the mood for each missions. The submarine sound effects, like sonar beeps or shooting torpedoes, also do an excellent job of enveloping you of the allusion of being a submarine captain. There are even light voice overs around the commands given in the game, dutifully emulating the banter inside a tiny submarine.
In short, Steel Diver is an extremely underwhelming launch game. The eight missions can be knocked out in about 2 to 3 hours and the two player Steel Commander mode is buggy in addition to boring when playing against the AI. It doesn't make any sense to me why Nintendo would sell this at a $39.99 MSRP. I've found more content in iPhone games for 99 cents as well as 1000% more entertainment value. However, it does serve as an excellent demo of how the 3DS works. I rather enjoyed the periscope mini-game, but I wish that level of entertainment had bled over into the rest of the game. If you have a brand new 3DS and are desperate for demo material, give it a rent. Otherwise, leave it on the shelf.