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Please rate this review: Steel Diver (3DS)
HIGH: Beating a developer's ghost
LOW: Steel Commander mini game
WTF: Shooting torpedoes at a giant nautilus
Compared to Nintendo’s other 3DS launch titles, Nintendogs + Cats and Pilotwings Resort , Steel Diver most resembles a “video game” in the classic sense. Simply put, you can die in Steel Diver. You can also shoot stuff. This made it far and away the natural choice of the three for me. There’s just something about “shooting guys and not dying” that’s so… quintessential. Elemental, even. At any rate, I find it endlessly more compelling than virtual pets or a flight-simulator toy. In particular, though, “shooting guys and not dying” underwater in my own virtual, portable aquarium sounded totally fun. Oh, and it was, of course, in stereoscopic 3-D. Miyamoto put it rather brilliantly… “It’s almost like having your own submarine pet in an aquarium.” Unfortunately, if those games' Metascores are any indication (Nintendogs+Cats and Pilotwings: 71; Steel Diver: 58) most people would rather have a pet dog than a pet submarine.
The truth about Steel Diver is that it’s kind of plain. The graphics are nice, but humble. The 3-D is the kind with depth and not the kind with shit shooting out at your face. The soundtrack is totally appropriate for undersea action, meaning it’s fairly ambient and primarily consists of the metronomic bleeping of your submarine’s sonar. It’s the kind of thing that just might lull a baby to sleep. In other words, if Steel Diver were in a crowd it probably wouldn’t stand out very well. It’d be the kind of person with earbuds shoved in deep, probably typing madly away on his or her laptop. If by some chance you were to approach this person, you would discover that he or she is extremely knowledgeable in his or her field of study, exceptionally technically gifted, and also almost totally inept at expressing all of the brilliant ideas swimming around inside his or her head.
But oh, what ideas. It takes quite the mind to come up with, as Edge perfectly put it, “the slowest side-scrolling shoot ’em up you’ll ever play.” Only Nintendo. This is perhaps the strangest and most brilliant thing about Steel Diver: it looks like a shmup, it even plays like a shmup, but a shmup it is not. It’s actually closer to a racing game. Yes, a racing game. And a flight simulator. And even (just a bit of) a puzzle game. I can actually halfway sympathize with the general mixed reaction of the game since, on the surface, it is so confounding. It is so genre-defying that, in the end, despite it thoroughly looking like one, Steel Diver is hardly a game about shooting guys and not dying. And yet, in order to win in Steel Diver, one must shoot guys and not die.
Here’s the gist: submarine on the left, destination far to the right. Get to the destination and you beat the level. There are enemy submarines along the way, and all of them are actively trying to kill you… at least, as actively as they can. The thing about submarines is that they’re kind of slow. This is where Miyamoto’s influence on the game becomes clear and also where the game ceases to be a shmup at all: the usual outer space and airborne settings of the shmup genre allow for the free-moving and quick reflexes that the design of those games requires. Water is, of course, way too viscous for that, but (more importantly) Miyamoto as a designer is way too preoccupied with physics for that. This may sound surprising given his cartoonish creations, but recall that this is the guy who originally included fall damage in Donkey Kong , and it was only at the insistence of his mentor Gunpei Yokoi that he removed it in his subsequent game, Mario Bros. The driving force behind virtually all of Miyamoto’s career is the conflict between playability versus physicality. He has an utmost interest in how player input feels and how that input translates into a game’s world.
A great example of this is the underwater portions of Super Mario Bros. I wrote about this once before in a brief essay on physics and momentum in Super Mario Bros., here, but the general idea is that while the underwater stages in that game feel altogether different from anything else, the controls are the exact same. Mario controls differently because he’s underwater. So, naturally, to Miyamoto, a game that features control of a submarine—a great big metallic cigar that plunges around the ocean—should feel like just that: something cumbersome and unwieldy.
This is achieved by making the controls practically counter-intuitive. Yet another reason for the game’s lukewarm reception; Steel Diver is largely inaccessible. It has to be the least “pick-up and play” game released by Nintendo in quite a while. Not that the controls aren’t the high-level of tight responsiveness that we’ve all come to expect from the squeaky clean virginal white company—they are. The controls are, however, contrivedly indirect. Basic video game logic dictates that when moving an on-screen character on a 2-D plane, the best way to control said character’s x- and y-axial movement is, of course, with a D-pad. Steel Diver has no D-pad input. Neither does it have face button or shoulder button input. Instead it features an entirely touch screen based control system that operates by touching various sliders and buttons. There are two sliders for basic movement, each corresponding to a different axis. There’s a knob that controls the pitch angle of your submarine, and buttons for missiles and also a “masker” button that releases compressed air to deter enemy torpedoes. All of these apparatti are cramped onto the 3DS’s bottom screen, which, in this case, is fashioned to resemble a rusty old submarine control panel.
“The difficulty level is high with these simulators when we see them as video games but that difficulty is one of the greatest charms for them.” - Miyamoto, Iwata Asks
So, it’s not easy to maneuver your sub. You’re basically at any given time multitasking between at least two different control actions with one hand. The “left thumb moves” and “right thumb shoots” foundation that we’ve all been raised on doesn’t do any good here. Because of this staunch refusal to relinquish to user friendliness I can yet again see why Steel Diver was so alienating. However, I don’t think this is a fault of the game. I think it’s more of an indication of how lazy today’s gamer’s are, casual and hardcore alike. When a game doesn’t immediately begin to service a player’s expectations is when it doesn’t receive instant critical acclaim. This is why games like Uncharted 3 and Batman: Arkham City are raking in the praise right now; as far as player input in those games goes, they require nothing and reward everything. They aren’t video games so much as masterfully crafted delusions of granduer, or (to be a little nicer), interactive experiences.
Steel Diver, on the other hand, is a video game. Classically so, as mentioned before. It makes certain demands of the player. It requires that a certain skill set be mastered before rewards can be expected. Most often, the reward is nothing more than satisfaction at having succeeded. Racing a developer’s ghost data through any of Steel Diver seven courses provides an intense rush that would not be possible without the game’s “stick shift” controls and its high learning curve. The most rewarding thing about Steel Diver, and about video games (in the classic sense) in general, is this: the basic act of playing is rewarding in and of itself. The game is a playground that allows for user creativity and expression. It is NOT a direct conduit into a user’s ego that functions as a virtual orgasmatron. That’s not creativity, expression, or a game; it’s submission.
The failure of Steel Diver points to many unsettling things: The marketing blunder of making such a niche title a launch game for a new console; the fact that such a title should be labeled niche at all; the fact that such a niche only exists because of the abysmally low standards of consumers whose idea of portable gaming is Angry Birds. The most unsettling, though, is the backlash at the game for its lack of “content.” In the Steel Diver edition of Iwata Asks the development team consistently remarks at their efforts to make the game “concentrated,” with its value being in depth rather than volume. In idiot video game reviewing terms that means they wanted the game to have a lot of replay value. Quality over quantity. Miyamoto even compares the game to a ring:
“Making something concentrated requires a lot of work, like making something big and gorgeous. For example, making a single ring—even though it’s small—is as hard as making the kind of fancy dress with lots of ornamentation that you might wear to a ball.”
“Content,” though, in video game terms, more often refers to a game’s special features rather than the game itself. Steel Diver is lacking in this regard, and I think Nintendo knew it. Any self-respecting gamer would have great fun replaying the game’s finely tuned courses to total mastery, but Nintendo is wise to the frothing ritalin-addled public. Inlcuded with Steel Diver is an unsatisfying strategy game titled Steel Commander. It’s half chess, half Battleship, and is less fun than both. It’s really not even worth mentioning. I only bring it up to illustrate a point: the modern gamer expects a complete packaged “experience.” Steel Diver is not an experience. It’s not even a submarine simulator. It’s a video game. Its attempts at padding out its “content” are a little embarrassing. Perhaps more cinematic approach like that of Star Fox 64 could have worked, though that probably wouldn’t have suited Steel Diver’s slow pace and reserved personality. No, I think Steel Diver’s fate was sadly unavoidable; in a world where players aren’t too interested in mastering an instrument of expression, but would rather become the instrument themselves, a video game that’s comfortable with just being, well, a video game, is part of a dying breed.