Occasionally, there would be games I'd rent that, despite getting very little actual play time, would live on in my mind as a sort of mythical lost opportunity. Flying Edge's Steel Empire was one of those games. Though, I barely touched it when I was younger, its steampunk zeppelin and biplane became etched into my mind as classic images of what a horizontal shooter should be. So, is this 1992 Genesis game as awesome as I had made myself believe it was or is it merely rusting iron?
The story is, at its most basic, a steampunk retelling of World War 2. This time it's the Motorhead Empire that has swept across the world, conquering every nation that dared to stand against them-- except one. Only the Republic of Silverhead has the power and technology to stand against Motorhead's domination. It's a simple story, but the setting makes it feel fresher and a bit more imaginative than it would had it been just a retelling.
Graphically, the game is very attractive and the steampunk helps make it feel unique. From the flickering opening story scene reminiscent of early movies to flying battleships held in the air by propellers, the setting exudes a unique strangeness that keeps the player intrigued. The only real problem is the abundance of slowdown that appears during most of the boss fights. It's never so much that the player loses their rhythm, but it is definitely noticeable.
Steel Empire follows the same basic rule that most other shooters have adhered to over the years: if it moves, shoot it, even if it doesn't move. The game plays as one would expect. The player controls either a biplane or a zeppelin and holds down the shoot button until everything on the screen is either dead or gone. If it is needed to for the player to accomplish that objective, there is the standard screen clearing bomb that can be used by pressing the A button. However, rather than just exploding, this bomb summons bolts of lightening. It's a bit silly and impractical, but extremely charming.
Steel Empire does differentiate itself from other shooters in several key ways. One is that it allows the player to not only shoot forward but backwards as well, and it is as simple as switching from the C button to B. This gives the player a greater feeling of control over the environment.
Each aircraft also comes with a secondary shot unique to that ship. The zeppelin launches depth charges which arc up before falling, while the biplane drops bombs at a downward angle. These sub-weapons add nicely to the notion that you are flying the most hi-tech weapons ever designed while still fitting the unique style of the game.
The sub-weapons are not the only difference between the two aircraft though. The biplane, as one might expect is, fast, nimble, and small. It's able to weave through enemy fire with ease. The zeppelin, on the other hand, is slower and larger but more powerful, capable of destroying enemies much quicker. It's also more resistant to damage.
That is probably the biggest difference between Steel Empire and other shooters: neither of the two aircraft are shot down from just one hit. In fact, each plane has a life bar that can not only be refilled, but also increased over its starting value by collecting health refilling items.
Items don't drop from destroyed enemies, either. They are carried in either sacks attached to small helicopters or large, red drop ships that release a ring of them when shot down. The smaller bags will only drop one item at a time, but have the potential to drop many different types, ranging from simple money orbs (points) and bombs to extra lives, more health, or twin aircraft that fly along side you. The ring of items though, always holds a random combination of 6 item tokens that are either money or experience.
Experience as one might have guessed is used to level up the players aircraft to a possible level twenty. For the most part, it simply increases to the amount of damage that the player's weapon deals, but it will occasionally change the number of shots fired by the sub-weapon as well. So, by the end of the game, the zeppelin is launching six depth charges as opposed to one. It is important to note that unlike the players point total, levels and experience are not lost when the player gets a game over. As a result, players are able to go through levels that bested them slightly stronger.
These changes in power and weaponry can be a huge boon when battling the games many bosses. Like most shooters, the bosses are many times the size of the player's aircraft, however, unlike most shooters, they are also several times the size of the screen. The majority of these fights involve the player skirting around the edge of the boss, trying to destroy as much of it as possible, which more often than not, simply means knocking all of its many weapons off until you reveal its last set of defenses.
The music in the game varies from awesome to merely good. The soaring and beat heavy first level theme fits the high flying nature of the game perfectly, and energizes the player. While the second level's theme, on the other hand, (an underground level), fits thematically with the area the player is flying through, its muted tones and soft notes fail to leave much of an impression. The sounds effects are equally nice, with a distinct difference between when an enemy is hit and when the player takes damage. With such a need for dodging, the auditory clues are a big help.
Steel Empire is a great game. Its setting is unique and interesting, its action is frantic but not overly so, and most importantly, its fun. It has held up well over the years and validated my own preconceived notions. It has its share of flaws, such as the lack of a two player mode, but I would have no problems recommending it to anyone that loved shooters, steampunk, or a frantically good time.