Steel Diver is the latest game to come out of EAD, Nintendo's legendary internal development studio behind such amazing titles as Super Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart DS. Technically, the group behind this particular title are actually the Wii Fit team...
How to describe it... on the top screen, you see your submarine. The bottom screen is where your controls are - all of them. The buttons, sliding pad, d-pad and shoulder buttons are not used - at all. Instead, you must use your stylus to control the various sliders, wheels and buttons that control your sub.
You control one of three subs, each of which has a unique control scheme - something afforded by the screen-based mechanics that would otherwise be impossible if it used a physical, button-based control scheme.
The basic mechanic, true for all three subs, is the control of your momentum (either forward, stationary, or backward) and your vertical trajectory (either up, stationary, or down). Other controls, depending on submarine selected, let you fire different numbers of weapons in different directions or adjust your pitch.
So what do you do in this sewer pipe (that's slang for Submarine - I looked it up), now that you can swing it all about? For most of the game, your challenge is to navigate caverns or other tricky-to-traverse underwater terrain, avoiding (or shooting) mines and avoiding (or shooting) enemy craft - be they also submarines or surface-based ships. There's no story to speak of, except in the loosest possible sense, so instead you'll set about the escalating-in-difficulty missions simply to see what's next.
The variety in the mission challenges is reasonable, if not extreme, eventually adding in bosses and some complex combinations of turns, steam vents and obstacles. There's very little in the campaign (or anywhere in the game, for that matter) but what's there is pretty good fun, if you like the core mechanic by which you control your sub. It's not for everyone, but I enjoyed it - much in the same way, I expect, players of early Resident Evil games enjoyed the complexity and challenge added by the cumbersome character controls.
There's a bunch of other stuff to do, not least of which is collecting decals to enhance aspects of your sub's ability. The end-of-mission (and indeed, stand-alone mode) that sees you turning around in the real world to fire virtual torpedoes in first person at a bevy of ships or subs is, while entirely unsuitable for play on the bus, great fun if you've got the space. There's also a strategy game component but... it's not very good, so the less said about that particular mode the better. There's even a time-attack mode, with its own maps, which is a great way to practice your skills should you encounter a tricky mission in the campaign mode. You can enable the developer's "ghost" data, too, which shows you the optimum way to attack each level.
It looks okay. The 3D depth doesn't add too much but at an ambient level it's nice to have (particularly when looking at beams of light flickering around in 3D space, or waves on the surface during a storm). It's not remarkable in the audio department, either, and the chaps that yell, repeatedly, about various actions you undertake (Fire! Fire! Fire!) are reason enough to not play this one with headphones.
There's no support for any of the various Street Pass, Spot Pass, or Activity Coin features the 3DS allows for, which is a bit disappointing. You can play the strategy game shared over local download play but... you're not going to.
It's definitely not for everyone but, if you're the type that is going to enjoy the challenge of maneuvering the slow-to-react submarines through a challenging environment using screen-based controls, I'd definitely recommend you check it out. It's a unique experience, even if it doesn't last long (a few hours, tops), and it does develop some challenge - especially when you start competing on times and try to fill in your decal collection. It's an odd but welcome addition to the Nintendo stable - hopefully it goes on to bigger and better things, as a fully-realised story mode and some other enhancements could make for a spectacular sequel.