Alright, I admit it: I was wrong on this one. In February when I came back from Nintendo's 3DS showcase in Amsterdam, I suggested that Steel Diver might be one of the better releases in the platform's early release window. Now the curious submarine outing is finally out in Europe, and it's clearly time to chow down on humble pie. Steel Diver certainly makes me think of an oblong-shaped thing that bobs up and down in a body of water… but that thing isn't a submarine.
Before I get carried away with being nasty, let's look at the game's positive points, as there are actually a few things in its favour. For starters, the basic concept is rather original. Steel Diver puts you in charge of one of three submarines and then tasks you with steering your way through a two-dimensional level, packed with mines and enemy vessels. Rather than steering your sub directly, navigation is handled via a set of sliders on the touchscreen. One of these controls your horizontal speed in either direction, a second sets the speed at which you rise or sink, and two of the subs also have a dial that allows you to pivot your ship at an angle - the latter is particularly useful for aiming torpedoes or for making subtle adjustments to your course.
Given that the game is set underwater - a popular location for games in this genre, you'll be surprised to hear - it's vital to consider inertia and momentum when plotting your movements. It takes a bit of time to build up speed, but more importantly it also takes a while for you to slow down, even if you slam the relevant sliders in the opposite direction. Timing also creeps into combat, too. You've got an infinite supply of torpedoes, but the three subs on offer have a different number of launch chambers, each of which as its own touchscreen trigger. Once a chamber has been fired there's a short pause before it reloads, and so mindless spamming isn't really an option. In addition to the forward-firing torpedoes all subs get a temporary cloaking device that hides them from incoming projectiles, and the smallest craft also has the ability to fire upward missiles.
As a result of all these timing requirements, the game starts to feel like a nautical-themed plate-spinning competition. Initially you'll clumsily steer your sub into every mine you can see, bouncing off the walls of underwater caverns and slowly drifting into enemy torpedoes, with each collision resulting in a cheesy vocal sample that yells "SHIP DAMAGED!" After a bit of practice, your handling will graduate from 'hopeless' to 'largely incompetent'. You'll still bash into as many threats as you'll avoid, but generally this will happen because you're trying to rush through the level - perhaps, if you're feeling cocky, because you're trying to beat one of the optional developer ghost times.
The levels themselves are essentially aquatic obstacle courses for your lumbering subs, but when you're facing several enemies at once it can feel as if you're playing a side-on arcade shooter with a particularly sluggish control scheme. To an extent, that is exactly what you're playing. Steel Diver is an odd test of skill and patience, but for all its originality it rarely manages to be fun. There are occasional hints that the slider setup could produce a satisfying challenge, but most of the time the action is simply aggravating - like one of those "pass the loop along the wire" games.