Retro Review: Steel Empire (Sega Mega Drive)

In the Age of Steel, the evil Motorhead Empire has conquered the world with their steam-powered army! The Republic of Silverhead are the last hope as they stage a desparate counter-attack in Hot-B's Mega Drive steampunk shooter.

Developed by Hot-B and, oddly, published by Acclaim's Flying Edge label (how they got their hands on it we'll never know), Steel Empire is another example of Hot-B doing something a little different with their shmups, in that it's got nowt to do with aliens or spaceships- they developed Chuuka Taisen/Cloud Master and Insector-X for Taito, and they have spaceships either. Instead, this is full-on steampunk with ridiculous steam-powered contraptions filling the skies instead. You must pilot the Republic of Silverhead's biplane or zeppelin, with their specialised Lightning Bomb (read: smart-bomb attack), and fight against the evil Motorhead Empire and their impossible monstrous flying machines. 

Mechanics-wise, Steel Empire mostly sticks to what we know about the genre- shoot everything, don't get hit- but it does a couple of things differently enough to warrant some credit. For a start, you get a choice of two ships, selectable before each stage and whenever you continue, and while it's not exactly a matter of life or death picking the right ship for the right stage, it can help to switch between the two. The Striker biplane is fast and drops bombs onto the ground- as you power-up it'll eventually carpet-bomb the whole area below it- but has a small life-bar, wheras the Zep-01 zeppelin unit is slower and a bigger target, but throws its bombs upwards which is handy for certain boss battles, and can take more punishment with a bigger life-bar. It's nice to have a choice, even if I'm willing to bet most people will be more comfortable with the Striker because of its faster movement. The inclusion of a health meter might be off-putting to shmup purists who like their one-hit kills, but I'm guessing it was added because of the game's other big change from the norm- one button fires your ship's weapons right, the other fires left. This means you can cover more of the screen and effectively kill enemies behind you, but also means they'll come from every direction. It's not uncommon to be surrounded by enemy fighters in this game, or for bosses to move around the entire screen leaving their weakspots above, below or behind you, so the game does make decent use of this mechanic.

Our leading mine city, Rahl, is under attack.

Steel Empire sounds like a standard, well-executed shooter with some odd bells and whistles from that description, and to an extent that's true- mechanically, the game is solid and its additions to the genre- especially two-way shooting- work pretty well. If that were all there was to it, you could probably take or leave the game. Really, though, Steel Empire's strength is its style, theme and overall charm. No spaceships or aliens here, it's all nicely-detailed steam-powered contraptions, including windmills that spring to life and about fifty different kinds of blimp, so it's a refreshing change of pace for the genre. This attention to detail goes further in the boss battles, where you can destroy them piece-by-piece! It also has some little touches that give the game an odd cinematic feel. It's not just the framing in the intro and story scenes which are presented as if they're on an old projector (as cute a touch as this is, it can be a bit hard on the eyes, all that flickering) or the fact that the game's credits list duties like 'matte-painting creator'. It's things like the slow chugging you hear before the train boss arrives, the searchlight in the mine actually lighting where it's aimed, and the assault on the Silverhead mothership near the end of the game- yes, they're only small details, but they add up to make the experience something different from the standard shoot-em-up of the time. The closest comparison I have for the game is if the Data East arcade game Boogie Wings/The Great Ragtime Show was taken seriously.

Well, at least until the final stage where your ship gets launched out of a cannon onto the moon.

Then it gets a bit silly.

As for criticisms, one that'll probably hit hardcore shooter fans the most is that, on the default settings, it's a bit too easy. Not on the level of Pop'n Twinbee where you can easily one-credit the whole game on your first try, but you can certainly bust through most of the game without too much of a fuss. There are tough bits here and there, but nothing overly taxing, with only the final boss being massively tough. The bullet patterns can be fast and tricky at times, but the game slows down every now and then (not to a distracting degree, mind) giving you chance to keep up with it, and many bullets can actually be shot before they hit you. However, the easiness is mostly due to the health meter- as your power level increases, so does the amount of hits you can take. Additionally, since you don't lose power upon death (except for option bimps), contuning a stage after Game Over allows you to build your power up further so you'll be even stronger. This was intentional- an interview with Yoshinori Satake, who worked on the game, reveals the plan was to allow for 40 levels of power and infinite continues, so beginner players could 'grind' (grinding in a shoot-em-up! What a mad idea!) stages to gain power, but for the final game it was reduced to 20 power levels and limited continues. Imagine, then, that it would've been even easier had they gone ahead with that! Finally, as much as I'm clearly in love with its steam-machine style, it can look a little drab and dull in parts- lots of brown going on in these parts- and compared to some of the other, more Blue Skies-esque shooters on the system, it's not as lively. That's part of the theme, though, and it does what it can with it. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is very good- it's super-aggressive in parts, especially the boss theme, and the sound effects are suitably loud, especially the sound when you hit a boss in its weak spot. It's a sound effect that's slightly goofy, but oddly suits the game.

Gameplay Footage

The Motorhead Empire must pay for their crimes!

In the end, the Mega Drive had a lot of shoot-em-ups- just look at the Thunderforce series or the slew of Toaplan arcade ports- so to stand out on the system, you have to do something quite different. With its steam-powered theme, interesting mechanics (more shooters should have left/right firing systems!) and overall charm of the thing, it's hard to dislike it. The difficulty, or lack thereof, is probably going to be the biggest fault against the game, as if you're relatively familiar with the genre, you're hardly going to be stuck on it. It is, however, a charming, well-executed little shoot-em-up that might be more suited to an intermediate player, but even so, it's one that you really need to try so you can see a teeny-tiny biplane blow up a steam-powered train bit-by-bit.

Please note: Steel Empire was released under the ever-so-slightly different title Empire of Steel in Europe. A Game Boy Advance port, developed by Starfish, was also released, but only in Japan and Europe. It has different boss patterns due to the screen's smaller size.

Last Updated ( 01 March 2013 )  

Tepid Snake

Wait, what do I put in this box again? Oh, it's about me. I like playing weird and unusual games- the sort you're likely to forget about- and I hope you like reading about them because they're what I write about. And game trivia too. Please look forward to it!

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(Link to this comment) Megatrons_Fury 2013-03-01 23:32
A very good read.

Loved Steel Empire because of the whole steam punk art style and the fact is was a solid shooter.
+1 (Link to this comment) gamepopper 2013-03-02 23:42
Fun fact: This game was originally supposed to be a "licensed" game for the movie Laputa: Castle in the Sky, but Studio Ghibli refused to grant a merchandising license, so the game was made anyway with different artwork and a new name!
+1 (Link to this comment) Retrostage 2013-03-21 16:03
A really nice game that I found on GBA. I like the steam-punk art style a lot! Nice review!

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