Steel Diver review: Thrown into the deep end

At first glance, Steel Diver might look like a fairly standard side-scrolling shmup. Truth be told, its an extremely challenging side-scrolling ... well, it's part shoot-'em-up, part submarine simulator and part strategy game. The sum of these parts is actually a lot more compelling than the game taken at face value.

Putting the 3DS' capabilities to thorough use, Steel Diver presents a side-view slice of the ocean that's as deep into the screen as it is from the surface to the ocean floor. It's in this miniature sea within your handheld -- complete with schools of fish, air bubbles and volcanic vents -- that you pilot three submarines, each with their own strengths and drawbacks, on increasingly difficult missions.%Gallery-114685% From the outset, it's pretty clear that this isn't a simple "move right and shoot" sort of affair. While the top screen does its very pretty 3D thing, the touchscreen houses the surprisingly complex controls. Depending on the sub you choose, there's a wheel for changing the sub's angle (dive planes), sliders for engine (forward / reverse) and depth (dive / surface), an anti-torpedo countermeasure, torpedo triggers and a zoom-able map of the sea floor.

Controlling the sub is part of the game's charm -- though surely some could find it to be a chore. Once you begin the first of several missions (the game isn't especially long, sadly) the challenge ramps up quickly. Undersea passages become trickier to navigate with the haste needed to complete each mission in time, plus there are depth charges and enemy subs to contend with. Successfully piloting your sub becomes the gaming equivalent of patting your head while rubbing your stomach and hopping on one leg. Engine, depth and angle controls must be constantly adjusted to avoid danger while lining yourself up for a kill shot on a foe.

Piloting your sub becomes the gaming equivalent of patting your head while rubbing your stomach and hopping on one leg.

Each mission becomes a sort of puzzle, really, which has to be mastered: How can you most quickly reach the "finish line" while avoiding danger and not running out of air -- which is used up by torpedo countermeasures and replenished by surfacing. It's not necessarily through trial and error, though, since it's possible to become a good enough sub captain that you can make it through on your first go. Not that this happens regularly, but it's certainly satisfying when it does. It's also fun to see the different environments, from shipwrecks to jungle rivers to underwater volcanoes.

Between missions is a periscope minigame that uses the 3DS gyroscope to make turning the handheld function as turning a real-life periscope. I'm sure it looks odd doing so, but turning my entire body to locate enemy boats and launch torpedos at them was surprisingly fun. The more you sink, the more decals you unlock for your subs.

As I'm likely the only person in my town with a 3DS at the moment, I wasn't able to try out the Download Play-based strategic minigame. But if the rest of Steel Diver is any indication, expect a surprisingly good time that's deeper than it looks.

This review is based on a retail copy of Steel Diver provided by Nintendo.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.