Nintendo trivia buffs might recall that Steel Diver began as a tech demo for the Nintendo DS, to show off the system's unique touch screen functionality. Six years later, the game's commercial 3DS release proves that some relics are best left at the bottom of the ocean.
The legacy of the early DS becomes Steel Diver's biggest weakness. When the DS debuted, we saw a glut of games with strict touch-screen controls, before the passage of time helped developers realize that it wasn't always appropriate. As we approached the end of the DS lifespan, touch-only controls were usually reserved for adventure or puzzle titles, while other genres mixed traditional controls with a few touch features.
Welcome back to 2004. Steel Diver shoe-horns touch controls into a side-scrolling action game. You control one of three submarines by touching virtual sliders (one for up and down, another for left and right), and buttons for missile launches and cloaking. The resulting controls are clumsy and ill-equipped to handle the hectic on-screen action of later missions. I'm not sure why it doesn't at least give an option for d-pad or analog pad controls, but the game suffers for it.
Bad situations frequently get worse -- if you bumped a wall using a d-pad, you'd naturally just stop pressing in that direction, but with slider controls I'd often continue to crash, adding damage until I could plug a leak and then move the slider. The awkward controls add some playtime due to the challenge, but for all the wrong reasons.
Not that the game is particularly long anyway. The main campaign consists of 7 missions, which take 5-15 minutes each. The final two are locked until you complete the others with each of the three available submarines, which for better or worse feels like the developers trying to squeeze some extra minutes out of the campaign.
Each mission is followed by a periscope sequence that makes use of the 3DS accelerometer. You turn in a circle, in real life, to locate enemy ships and shoot them. This is a pretty fun diversion in short bursts, even if the pack-in 3DS software Face Raiders accomplishes the same goal (with better results). You earn decals to decorate and power-up your sub, and the mini-game is offered as a separate mode.
You can take part in some time trials, navigating your subs through tight corridors. These courses are distinct from the campaign, but since the controls still rely on the touch sliders, these stages also suffer the same issues.
Finally, the game offers an entirely separate "Steel Commander" mini-game, a hex-based strategy mode and the only piece with multiplayer via Download Play. Large ships escort a submarine and supply ship. The supply ship is defenseless, but the submarine can attack, and losing either will lose the game. Attacks echo the periscope sequence, and the sub gets attacked by depth charges if it occupies the same spot as an enemy ship. It's a pretty decent offering with more nuance than I expected from an extra mode.
Steel Diver makes a poor showpiece for the new system. It doesn't take advantage of the Spot Pass feature, and the periscope strikes aren't very awe-inspiring next to Face Raiders. Worse yet, the 3D effect itself is extremely subtle even on its highest settings, often looking like foreground and background planes instead of rich depth. Problems like these only accent that the game was retrofitted for the 3DS, instead of developed for it.
At best, Steel Diver is a temporary diversion. At worst, it's frustrating, short, and an extremely hard sell at the asking price of other, more fully-featured 3DS launch games.
[This Steel Diver review is based on a retail review copy of the game provided by Nintendo, played on a Nintendo 3DS.]