Kawaii Mini Blimp takes down Mean Trains 20x it’s size! Steel Empire Review

16-Geared Greetings for a 16-bit Game! My dear Island guests for SteamPunk month we are playing a few interesting Steampunk games. I am still working my way through Dishonored, as I am not very good at sneaking games! I lack the patience and  can’t exactly tell how not to be spotted. I am MUCH better at Retro games and I fairly quickly adapt to old timey side scrolling shooters. So when I found a Steampunk one I was pretty happy!  After I played this game I still was pretty happy!  Though I may have punched my table in anger as well.

One Blimp to Rule them all!

Steel Empire came out early 1992 for Sega Genesis and has since seen several re-releases such as for Gameboy Advanced, Nintendo 3DS and even Steam. Created by Hot.B which at the time allegedly was a one man studio, and published by Flying Edge in the west, this game is a quite overlooked gem that still has a pretty loyal fanbase.  Steel Empire was published in Europe under the name Empire of Steel which from what I have seen has also a few minor colour variations when it comes to enemies.  Though that might be my imagination! This review is based on my own playthrough of Empire of Steel as well as a Let’s play of the American version of the game. I did this to get some insight in how to play this game, as I wanted to see as much content of the game as possible without having to study patterns for days on end. 

In this game you play a talented but nameless pilot of the Silverhead Empire in the age of 18XX which might tell a story about an alternate course of events… OR  is set more than 1800 years in the future where all resources have depleted. Sources are contradicting each other on that. The world is fully dependent on the power of steam.. except  for your Silverhead Empire which even has the power of coldfusion.  However you live an isolated life (Wakanda Forever) in the antarctic.  The rest of the world is dominated by the evil Sauron (yes.. that’s his official name)  who has vast armies as he marches on the Silverhead army to obtain their ultimate weapon, the Imamio Thunder.. also known as “The Lightning Bomb”. If Sauron gets his hand on this weapon he will surely dominate the world.. so you can board a tiny plane or a tiny blimp to stop him! But it will take you seven stages to do so. Now I must admit Sauron is the Japanese name of the guy.. because it kind of brought associations with them.. but let’s be honest.. I rather say I took lord Sauron down with a Blimp.. wouldn’t you?!  Plus calling him Styron in Europe and the USA is like having two Richards in the group.. so you call one of them Dick.. It’s still short for Richard.

Red Hot Action

This game, for the most part,  plays like a horizontal space shooter like Gradius, Pariodius and of course Chou Aniki (Something Something) plus like one third of the games on Action 52.  It does follow some classical genre tropes like harsh difficulty,  near bullet hell gameplay and upgrading your weapons and obtaining limited screen clearing attacks.  If you played Gradius or R-Type you know what to expect here!  Tiny ships about your size that blow up in a single hit on your way to a boss.. and then a boss that is like 1000x times your size and shoots from every of its many openings.  With spaceships this always kind of made sense to me.. you know.. there are always several classes of ships .. gradius is Just a story about an X-wing taking down dreadnoughts.  With the Steel Empire however.. everything is steampunk flavoured so we get a Blimp that is ..”regular  sprite sized”   fighting a train.. that doesn’t even fit in the screen. Not even half!   So  this is a train that is roughly three times high as a blimp.. and 40 x as long.. if not more!   That is one big train! But I kind of imagine it is just one really tiny blimp! Which is just a guy sitting in it.. and that’s all the space he has! Held afloat by some hydrogen just!. I always chuckle imagining that.

Where this game differs a bit from its peers is that you can shoot to the front and back. While Silver Surfer on NES also has this function for example this game  uses the Sega’s three button system to make it feel a lot more natural and a lot more effective.  We have one button to shoot forward, one to shoot backwards and one to release a screen clearing Lighting Bomb should we have them.  The arrows control which direction you go.. and that is all she wrote gameplay wise.. .or is it?! Steel Empire, like most other games, relies on killing enemies to drop weapon upgrades. However in this game it’s not just weapon upgrades. It’s an experience! By gathering 3  experience tokens your ship levels up, which might make weapons more powerful, it might make it a bit faster or it might give it more health. What is even cooler.. dying does not affect our weapon level (as long as you don’t play it on the GBA and for the love of all that is sacred .. do NOT play this on GBA). So as long as you have lives left.. you may be better equipped to fight the boss next time.. because you can level up.  Each of the seven stages is divided in two sections. At the end of section A you always fight a midboss and at the end of section B you fight the final boss of that stage.

Empire of Steel as I should call it has a fairly strong narrative. EAch is delivered through a flickering cutscene that looks as if you are watching one of those old war time movies. Maybe even before.. The missions you get are quite diverse and fun, with some stages more dependent on your fighting skills while others rely more on your flying skills.  As a rule use the blimp for the odd numbered stages which are more combat focussed and the plane for the even numbered stages. This isn’t a hardset rule and you can play this game as you like.. but it seems to work out the best. For example Stage 1 is a straight up clone of regular R-Type gameplay.. where you face a train at the end, while stage 2 is flying through a collapsing cave at high speeds. Stage 3 has you assault an enemy base.. while in Stage 4 you take on a flying fortress.. that means you have to maneuver in a lot of tight corners.  Stage 7 feels more like a double Boss Rush in space.. that’s right! In this game you do go into space.. and you can be a BLIMP in space! Just for that alone this game is worth playing! The action is fun and the patterns are challenging as so cheers to Hot.B

Red Hot Air

Unfortunately this game also falls in a LOT of pitfalls of the genre, which.. if you like this type of games may or may not be a problem to you. It happens in almost every single game in the genre.. so I can’t really blame it for doing the same.. but some things are quite annoying. The most obvious would be the bosses. While you face seven stages you expect to fight seven bosses.. and seven minibosses.. but in reality you face either more or less depending on how you look at this.  In stage one you fight a train as a final boss, and on stage 5 your fight another train.. sprite swapped.. with only slightly different attack patterns.. when I say slightly different attack patterns I mean it shouts either bigger pellets or faster .. or both..  In stage three and six or  you fight the same boss as well.. though one time the ship is green the other time it’s red!  To make it more annoying.. the second time you face it.. you don’t have to kill it once but you have to kill it twice.. and as such the game really feels padded out for gameplay time in places.. which isn’t needed because this game is kind of too long as it is. I would have preferred five stages with more diverse bosses. The minibosses also get repeated so in the end we only effectively fight 6 ish enemies in a grant total of 14 fights.  

However like I said that is super common, what is less common is the way boss fights work, which makes them both unique .. but also a bit weak at times.  Though this mostly applies to sub bosses. They work by having several hitboxes and you need to destroy them all. Which is fine.. it really makes utilizing the shooting back and forth function more viable and fun.  The issue however is that these bosses  most of the time don’t fit the screen and you are moved from front to back  at regular intervals.  Your aircraft can not move the edge of the screen that happens based on time… so say you are fighting a battlecruiser and have destroyed everything in the front.. you can only start moving to the back when the screen wants you too.. and if you don’t go fast enough from there it will send you back to the front again where you might not have anything left to destroy.. it basically just lowers your guard  and allows the game to sneak in a few cheap hits by killing your attention. One enemy is super frustrating because he can only be hit by your secondary weapon as you can never shoot straight down or up..so some fights can get a bit tedious.

This doesn’t really ruin the space shooty fun.. but does have a chance to ruin your fun is the continue system. You get relatively few continues and will never EVER be able to make it to the end in a single playthrough. Using all your continues gives you a game over and sends you back to the beginning. Classic arcade rules and another way to pad out time. There is however a level select code.. which unfortunately is useless.  If you need to start at stage 5, 6 or 7 again using level select codes brings your weapon power back to level 1 .. with that amount of health  and fire power there is no way to beat the game.. so the cheat code is pretty useless.. unless you also cheat in weapon upgrades.. and that requires a second genesis controller..which you won’t always have laying about playing single player games.  So cheating to skip levels.. doesn’t do anything. This is kind of annoying considering that some strategies you might not discover on your first playthrough because the game can change its own rules. For example in the final battle there are asteroids on the battlefield which just exist to hinder you.. the boss can shoot right through them.. however in his final phase he gets a huge powered solar sail and fire’s screen filling  fire eye at you.. wait how ISN”T this sauron?  The only way to stay safe is to hide behind the asteroids.. which goes against all previous rules so you will never guess it first try and will gameover here.

Solid as Steel

Like I said most of these things are gripes that come with the entire genre so I don’t think it is completely fair for me to judge the game on those.. it’s just elements of why I like  vertical space shooters a bit more.. They tend to be a tad more straightforward.  Stage 6 of this game however is super frustrating. You decent underground  dodging sky forts down in a small way. you have to blow up bridges fast enough or know   how a fort looks .. to dodge it properly.. thuus you need to have played it before.. When I game overed in this stage I nearly quit out of anger.. and I punched my table.. yet after taking a few breaths I realised I was having fun and I wanted to try again. That is where this game really shines. It is not fair, it is not easy and it is designed to make you at least fail one.. perhaps even twice. Yet that is how these things work.. it’s like a crane game where you push that Plushies closer and closer to the edge.. you can’t stop investing in it. 

So now that I decided not to weigh it’s genre errors against it .. is there anything left to critique ?  Yes there is! The music is incredibly inconsistent! Some tracks are absolute zingers and remind me of the classic Sega tracks while others are really bad and lack that Sega.. Grayish sound. With Gray sound I mean that metally.. industrial sound that Sega has compared to Nintendo.. if Nintendo makes a track for say .. F-Zero it would sound Blue.. Red and Potentially Gold.. If Sega would do it it would be Brown/Copper, Silver/Grey and Navy. That’s how it is supposed to be.. but here.. we get way to tranquil music.. almost pastel colour like at times which do not fit this game at all. There are a few very good tracks in the game that sound Sega.. but in a Steampunk game it should have been more.

Weirdly one of the biggest issues the game has.. to me kind of became a strength. This game has a lot of lag/slowdown when a lot of stuff is being shot at you. But because of the difficulty I welcomed it.. it allowed me to skillfully dodge these shots as the controller reacts perfectly in unison with the lag.. as it almost was a form of Bullet time. It wasn’t but trough this lag I could learn so many patterns.  There is a lot of stuff happening on screen.. but in a way we get at least a bit of time to analyse what is happening here!. The gameplay is simple enough and the sea of bullets is dense enough to look impressive but never as big to cause dispair.. due to the slowdown I kind of ended up feeling like a major badass perfectly steering trough.. even when the game did not lag as much those earlier moments training with it made me just so much better. This is finally a horizontal shooter I can beat, and it is one with a unique setting and nice mission structure too. 

The game has a lot of issues.. but it is also a game that keeps being fun despite of its issues and that is what makes a good game, at least in the retro department. Is it a classic? No.. but if you want a Steampunk game for an evening you can do a lot worse than this!  It’s charming to be a Zeppelin that takes down huge trains!  It has a unique and fun presentation, and the blimp is just cute! Especially in the later stages when everything is bigger than you.. but you have leveled up so much that you can decimate the screen easily. It’s super weird yet it’s also super iconic  and this retro game walks a good line between unique enough and classic enough to be fun in this day and age! A very solid game..maybe not the way Scott calls his games solid.. but 7 out of 10 solid!

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