Steampunk shooter shennanigans abound as Awinnerwasyou looks back at this stylish Mega Drive title!
System-- Mega Drive
Year of release- 1992
Genre- Shoot em Up
Also known as- Steel Empire (US), Koutetsu Teikoku- Steel Empire (Japan)
If it’s one thing the Mega Drive wasn’t short of (And there were a LOT of things it wasn’t short of), it was shooters. They were everywhere on the console- ranging from the all-time classics (Thunder Force III and IV), the dreadful ones (XDR: X-Dazedly-Ray), the ones that would go on to inspire many an internet meme (Zero Wing), and the forgotten but really quite good ones (Gaiaries). With so many games of its type to choose from, standing out from the crowd was quite an undertaking. This is exactly what Empire of Steel… didn’t manage to do. With mediocre reviews and not terribly strong sales, this was one of those games that failed to set the world alight in an already saturated market. And yet, its unique steampunk style setting made it a rather interesting little game. I played this game quite a bit in my youth, and though it wasn’t the best shooter ever, it did have a certain charm to it. So, let’s take a look!
My first encounter with this game was when it was reviewed in an issue of Sega Pro (See the previous Memories of SEGA article for more about that particular magazine!). It didn’t particularly catch my eye at the time, and at 72%, the score wasn’t all that impressive either. Further reviews in Sega Power and Mean Machines did little to change the general sense of “Meh” I had about it, though Mean Machines mentioned how good the graphics were, and that it even captured the spirit of Studio Ghibli’s anime movie Castle in the Sky. It still wasn’t anything to get me hugely excited over. However, much like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist, it would be another game to be featured on the Mean Machines Sega 101 Turbo Tips video. While seeing it in action still didn’t have quite the same wow factor of some of the other games on the video, it still looked fairly nice. Not too long afterwards, I saw a copy at my local Future Zone/Electronics Boutique, and I decided to pick it up since I could just about afford it. What was the worst that could happen?
A video showing the first two stages of the game.
As well as its steampunk style visuals, Empire of Steel has a few interesting features. For starters, you have a choice of ship- A biplane or a blimp. The biplane is the weaker of the two, but it’s smaller and more mobile, and is better at targeting enemies on the ground. The Blimp on the other hand, is a lot slower, but is also more powerful, and better suited to airborne targets. To keep things interesting, you can change crafts between stages- useful, since certain craft are more useful for certain stages. Another interesting feature is that you don’t die in one hit like most shooters. Instead, you have a life gauge- the length of which depends on which craft you pick.
The weapons system is also quite different than your average shooter. Instead of collecting different weapons, you keep the same basic shot throughout the game, in addition to missiles that shoot out along with the main weapons and are used for ground based enemies. You can even fire shots both to the left and the right! Despite the lack of weapons, the main shot can be upgraded by collecting icons marked EX dropped by certain enemies. Every three of these you collect will upgrade your shot power one level, up to a maximum of twenty. You can also collect options that will give you additional firepower, as well as a limited supply of lightning bombs- basically smart bombs. Interestingly, you don’t lose any power ups when you lose a life, with the exception of your options. This ensures you’re never underpowered during the later levels.
The biplane is the weaker, but faster of the two craft available to you.
Each of the game’s seven levels are fairly big, and has plenty of things to shoot. Of course, it’s not much of a shooter if there aren’t any bosses to bring down, and Empire of Steel gives you plenty. Each stage has two bosses- a mid-boss and the obligatory end of level boss. And they’re suitably big. They range from a heavily armed train platform, to a submarine, to a huge mining machine. And yes, there’s the obligatory R-Type style massive battleship that every shooter at the time had as well. In fact, there’s two of them! The stages themselves have their own fair share of hazards to deal with as well- mostly from cramped spaces that don’t give you much room to manoeuvre, though this only causes damage as opposed to killing you outright. Stage two in particular features a section which sees you hurtling through a tight corridor at high speed. You need good reflexes to get through this unscathed- it also helps to have chosen the biplane at the start of the stage! This particular section is also quite unique in that it’s the only section of its type in the game. Sadly, no other stage offers a change of pace like this, which is a real shame as more like it could have really spiced the game up a bit.
The graphics do their job very well. Each stage is well detailed and capture the style of the game nicely, and there’s a nice amount of parallax scrolling throughout. The presentation is particularly well done, with both the intro and the cut scenes in between stages set out in a sepia colour and flickering lights, giving them the appearance of an old war film. Sadly, this effect doesn’t work very well on an LCD TV- you really need an old fashioned CRT one to really get the best out of it. Also, there’s also the occasional weak background. The first stage in particular has a brief section where the background is nothing but an empty purple sky, which isn’t great. For most part though, the game does look very nice indeed. The music is also rather good. The first stage theme is my personal favourite as it keeps to the war movie feeling of the game. The rest of the tunes are also quite good, and they’re all well suited to the situation at hand. The sound effects aren’t quite as good though. They’re not bad, but some are a bit off- especially the effect when you shoot something. It’s a strange kind of airy sounding effect, and it just doesn’t sound right when you’re blasting an enemy.
Rock slides and low visibility can also cause big problems...
In terms of gameplay, Empire of Steel is pretty standard fare. It’s playable enough, and quite fun. It can get pretty dull though, mainly due to the lack of weapons. Even though the main shot can be upgraded, it’s also all you have throughout the whole game. Additional weapons would have been nice. It doesn’t help that bosses tend to take a huge amount of firepower to bring down, which can lead to some tedious battles. Surprisingly for a shoot-em-up, it’s actually quite easy too. Most shooters on the Mega Drive pack a hefty challenge, but this one doesn’t. That wasn’t quite the case when I first played it, mind- I actually struggled with it a little back then. I finally managed to beat it thanks to a cheat that gave you 99 bombs, but looking back at it and playing through it again, I wondered how I ever failed so badly at it back then. I’d hardly call myself an expert at shooters- I’m quite bad at them, in fact. But the older me managed to get through Empire of Steel quite easily. I feel this is mostly down to the fact you have a life gauge- being able to take multiple hits per life reduces the challenge drastically.
There is one point where the challenge picks up considerably, though. The final boss is more difficult than anything else you encounter in the game. Not only does it take an ungodly amount of hits to shoot down, but it goes through several phases throughout the battle. These become increasingly hard to dodge, and your health can go down very quickly. Indeed, the last time I played through the game, I came very close to a game over at this point. How close? By the time it finally went down, I had no lives or continues left, and was only a single hit away from getting killed. How’s that for a Hollywood finale? Sadly, the ending isn’t really worth it- Just the end credits, and nothing else. On the plus side, they’re quite nicely done, playing out like the end credits to a movie- with certificate logos and everything! Again, this keeps up the old war movie style presentation, which I do like.
Lightning bombs are limited, but can get you out of many tight spots.
The whole Steampunk setting isn’t one that was done too often on the Mega Drive- the only other game I can think of being The Chaos Engine. That in itself makes Empire of Steel a unique little shooter. The (mostly) excellent graphics and presentation help out a lot as well, as does the choice of craft. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have any different weapons to use, and that it’s so easy. Having said that, the difficulty does mean it’s not a bad choice if you’re new to shooters. Empire of Steel is ultimately a pretty nice game, and I think it’s just about worth a look.
18th April, 2015 - 17:21 GMTAwinnerwasyouArticle viewed 4868 times0 Comments
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