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Evan Norris
, posted on 29 January 2024 / 2,152 Views

The shoot-’em-up Steel Empire has been on a wild ride. It started on Sega Genesis in 1992, saw a Game Boy Advance port in 2004, earned a remake on 3DS a decade later in 2014, and received a Steam port of that remake (with upgraded graphics and controls) in 2018. Now, in 2024, it arrives on Switch essentially unchanged from its Steam version. If you somehow missed this horizontally-scrolling shooter on a myriad of platforms over the past 30 years, now is your chance to see what it’s all about.

As for this Switch version of the game, there’s good news and bad news. Let’s start with the good: the core gameplay holds up quite well more than 30 years later. A horizontally-scrolling shoot-’em-up, Steel Empire falls under the “Euroshmup” umbrella, defined by longer levels, the inclusion of a player health bar, and enemies with lots of hit points. Despite belonging to a classification often maligned by shooter aficionados, the game has a lot going for it.

For one, it benefits from an atypical steampunk aesthetic. Where a lot of shooters lean on science-fiction templates or WWII designs, Steel Empire operates in a world of locomotives, dirigibles, floating submarines, ironclads, and even steam-based windmills. For another, it includes two playable ships: a slow zeppelin with more hit points and a nimble airplane with more effective air-to-ground attacks. Each ship can fire forward and backward, and deploy a screen-clearing lightning bomb called “Imamio Thunder”.

Steel Empire also benefits from some interesting, surprising set-pieces. The mine stage is particularly memorable. First you’ll scroll diagonally downward, avoiding falling rocks from behind, and then at a climactic moment your ship will reverse course and ask you to outrun a giant fireball. There’s also an exciting bit later in the game where you ascend upward along a sheer cliff, and another where you avoid deadly blasts by hiding behind floating rocks. These unpredictable segments help offset some other stages, which suffer from flat, uneventful level layouts.

A few austere level designs aren’t the only things that keep Steel Empire shy of greatness. It also features a simple, straightforward scoring system that doesn’t encourage much experimentation. At the end of each stage, you’ll receive a score based on enemies defeated, remaining health, and bombs used. It absolutely gets the job done but it lacks the depth and versatility of other shoot-’em-up systems. Then again, this is a Euroshmup at heart, so it’s really more about adventure than score-chasing.

So, that’s the good news; Steel Empire remains an enjoyable scrolling shooter in the Euroshmup tradition, all these years later. The bad news is that this version, The Legend of Steel Empire, is essentially a direct port of the Steam release, which was only slightly modified from the 2014 3DS version. There’s nothing new or exciting here to warrant a repeat purchase. If you’ve never played the game, though, and you’re a Switch owner who loves scrolling shooters, then it might be worth the $24.99 investment. Alternatively, you could wait for the upcoming Steel Empire Chronicles , which includes this HD version of Steel Empire, along with the Genesis and GBA versions, for $39.99.

To be fair, if you haven’t experienced the game since the GBA days, there is new stuff here, carried over from 3DS and Steam. That includes remastered graphics, a larger field of view, multiple difficulty levels, achievements, a training mode, a local leaderboard, and the ability to save between levels. This latter addition is especially beneficial due to the game’s runtime. With seven lengthy stages and slow-moving gameplay, Steel Empire will take approximately 60 minutes — far longer than the average shmup.

While the developers of this Switch port retained all the bells and whistles of the modern incarnation of Steel Empire, they missed an opportunity to add to it, or at least add an extra layer of polish. The game suffers from some weird translation issues, as if the porting process over the years was a long game of telephone. The chief enemy is alternately called “Motorhead” and “Morterhead”, and the opening text warns of the “destrugtion of mankind”. The achievements seem a bit wonky as well, to the point that I suspect they are mislabeled. After finishing the game on normal, I unlocked achievements for clearing the game on very hard, but not on normal. I also unlocked the achievement for clearing stage six, but not stage three. Finally, there’s a grating sound effect that plays through the opening cinematic. It’s meant to replicate the clicking of an old-fashioned projector, but it sounds like an audio glitch. 

This Switch port might be called The Legend of Steel Empire, but there’s nothing legendary about it. It’s essentially the Steam version of the game from 2018, which was based on the 3DS remake from 2014. That said, it still ranks among the best versions of Steel Empire, thanks to its remastered assets and the inclusion of special features like training mode and a local leaderboard. It’s not quite a definitive version, but it is an easy way to play an underappreciated fourth-generation shoot-’em-up on the go.

This review is based on a digital copy of The Legend of Steel Empire for the NS, provided by the publisher.

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