The Legend of Steel Empire brings another classic shoot-’em up to the ever-growing library of them on Nintendo Switch. Originally released for Mega Drive in 1992, Steel Empire stood out from its sci-fi contemporaries with a steampunk design, trading spaceships and aliens for zeppelins and biplanes. While it never found the same popularity as Thunder Force, it’s still a great example of a particular era of shmup design. With The Legend of Steel Empire, released on Steam last year and now on Switch, a hidden gem gets a new lease on life.
If you’ve ever played any sort of arcade shooter, Steel Empire will be immediately familiar: shoot the enemy planes/tanks/whatnot, and don’t let them shoot you. It’s a no-nonsense, mechanically simple shmup, released at a time when a lot of others were experimenting with more complex ideas. But “simple” isn’t a bad thing; a well-crafted shoot-and-dodge is timeless, and proof is in how well Steel Empire plays 30-odd since its debut.
Smooth controls and well-designed enemy formations create a flow that’s easy to connect with. Huge bosses with multiple destructive parts test your capacity for honest dodging, while tempting you to take riskier approaches for more efficient kills. A straightforward power-up system and two-directional shooting add wrinkles that are a little underutilised, but nonetheless add some additional dynamics to level design and scoring possibilities. Again, there’s nothing groundbreaking here, but an adept take on a familiar formula is just as worthy.
The Legend of Steel Empire doesn’t do much to mess with that foundation. Using the gorgeous 2014 3DS remake as a base, the newest incarnation delivers an HD rework that nonetheless channels its retro origins into a beautiful, vibrant style of pixel art—both classic and modern, all at once. The revamped UI is a little undercooked, stylistically, but it does its job of making pertinent information clearly available without cluttering up the screen. The 3DS version wasn’t an exact replica of the Mega Drive original (there are some minor differences in enemy patterns and the like) which means The Legend of Steel Empire isn’t either. But it’s an authentic remake, and certainly the best-looking and smoothest to play of Steel Empire’s handful of incarnations, so it’s a good base for the latest release.
A practice mode, end-of-level auto-saves, and built-in achievements are welcome additions. The Legend of Steel Empire isn’t as full-featured as a lot of other shmup ports, and the lack of now-common features like save states, rewinds, and art galleries is noticeable. It’d be nice to see the emulated ports of the earlier versions included to, if only for the sake of preservation and historical curiosity—they’re included in Strictly Limited Games’ Steel Empire Chronicles physical releases, but not the digital version.
At the end of the day, The Legend of Steel Empire is a classic shmup for people who like classic shmups. Steel Empire didn’t reinvent the wheel in ’92 and it doesn’t now, but it does show how timeless the formula can be. For retro gamers who like a good shoot-’em-up, here’s a chance to revisit a lesser-known but no less deserving game, in all its steampunk glory.
It's probably not going to convert the uninitiated, but The Legend of Steel Empire is a welcome addition to any shmup junkie or retro enthusiast's Switch library.