Hands-on with Steel Diver (3DS)

Remember the submarine tech demo that Nintendo showed off when it first announced the Nintendo DS back in 2004? Designed to show off the practical control use of a touch screen, it showed off what a appeared to be an overly complicated submarine control panel, with players using it to guide the vessel through deep water challenges.

The demo was never released as a game, but now it’s back as a Nintendo 3DS launch title which Nintendo is calling Steel Diver. It was announced at E3 last year, but I got my first stylus-on with the game earlier this week at Nintendo’s New York City 3DS press event.

First things first, the game’s hilarious “story.” It’s the year 19xx, and a power hungry rogue nation is invading countries. You’re part of a secret fleet of the world’s best submarine operators, and you’re on a classified mission to restore order. Well, at least that’s what the in-game text told me. It’s unclear if the 19xx is a typo (it’s 2011, Nintendo!), or Steel Diver is one of those “alternate takes on history” type games. It’s likely a wink and a nod to the silly stories found in so many classics, but hilarious whatever the case may be. It’s also completely immaterial, as Steel Diver offers a pretty cool gameplay experience, one you likely won’t be playing to resolve any sort of plot.

Steel Diver
is almost entirely touch-based, with all of the game’s main controls sitting on the bottom screen of the 3DS, which is designed to look like a vessel’s control panel. On the top screen is your submarine, submerged in water, and waiting for your commands, all of which are done by either sliding or taping on the touch screen. You’ll see two levers, one vertical and one horizontal. The former controls your subs up and down movement, the latter forward and reverse;  the middle indicates “stop” on both axis.

The sub reacts that way you’d expect a real submarine to respond, or at least what someone who’d never piloted one might expect. You’re not going to be stopping these things on a dime in any direction, so the key use subtle movements, anticipating the need for movement as the submarine moves through the murky waters. A map appears on the bottom screen, showing your current location and the geography, so you’ll have time (in theory) to prepare for changes in elevation as you approach caverns or obstructions.

The goal of each mission is to clear it in as little time as possible This is easier said than done, as later levels have more complicated oceanography, as well as enemy subs and even underwater mines. In the case of the earlier missions, skirting by enemy subs rather than taking them head on was to my benefit. But in later missions, I’d have to face them head on, firing a torpedo at the touch of an icon on the 3DS’ lower screen. Take too much damage and you’ll spring a leak, which will appear on the bottom screen; simply tapping it will plug the hole. You’ll still have to keep an eye on your ship’s health, which can be regenerated by surfacing, either above sea level or finding air pockets deep beneath the surface.

Each mission can be completed with one of three subs, each with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. The most basic is the Manatee, a compact vessel that can fire a vertical torpedo, taking out opposition that may be raining down bombs from above. The Blue Shark is a bit larger, and its pitch can be controlled with an additional slider founds on the bottom screen, allowing you to better direct torpedos. The Serpent is the largest and slowest of the three, its pitch controlled with a touch wheel. The game keeps track of which subs you’re using to complete levels, giving you credit for each, and offering up separate leaderboards, which should add a bit of replay value for each of the game’s missions.

“Periscope Strike” was another of the game’s modes, played from the first-person perspective. The 3DS gyroscope capabilities come into play here, and you’ll actually have to move the 3DS in all directions to aim before tapping the touch screen to fire. It’s definitely a cool effect, but a bit jarring, especially if you’re playing with the 3D capability active. Moving the screen in any direction that’s not head on will cause the 3D effect to “blur” or double; you’ll have to keep the screen directly in front of your eyes, moving your torso and entire body instead of simply shifting the system to get a better view. Standing up while playing, this shouldn’t be an issue, but I can’t imagine how one would do this sitting down; fortunately, the Circle Pad can also be used to move the camera, if you’d like.

It wasn’t playable at the event, but Steel Diver will also have a two-player strategy mode called “Steel Commander” that can be played locally with two 3DS systems. Nintendo calls it a “chess-like” game that is played from a top down perspective, which makes it sound a bit like the classic “Battleship” with a twist. Once a ship is located, you’ll enter the aforementioned periscope perspective to blast it to bits.

While 3DS game pricing hasn’t been confirmed, GameStop is listing Steel Diver for $39.99, which kind of stings. While fun, Steel Diver certainly has a “downloadable title” vibe, something that would be make a nice showpiece for the new 3DS E-Store. Still, Nintendo is pegging the game for a full retail release alongside the March 27 3DS launch.

Nick Chester