I threw a verbal elbow at some Nintendo people this past E3 and asked them to tell me which game I needed to play among the ones I might have easily missed. Two of them said right away: Steel Diver.
The submarine game on the 3DS? The one I messed with for 10 seconds before moving on to Star Fox 3DS or other seemingly cooler stuff?
Yeah, that one.
I first played a version of Steel Diver in 2004. It was a demo on the original, ugliest unreleased DS at E3 that year, a couple of days before the show floor opened when I think I was the first US reporter to touch Nintendo's new machine (the power of a New York Times credential!). The game was a demonstration of how the two-screened system's lower touch screen could be rendered to resemble a complicated control panel for a vessel that moved across the upper screen. I vaguely remember that demo's virtual levers and dials and have long wished Nintendo released it to the public.
Steel Diver is that game brought back to life. It's a side-scrolling sub game that now benefits from the fishtank-deep 3D display of the 3DS' upper screen. In the tutorial mission I tried, the sub has to motor undersea below an island and then up toward a ship that must be sunk with a torpedo.
The controls are all touch-based. Look at the screen and you can figure most of it out: a slider for forward and reverse movement, a dial for tilting the sub, a bunch of buttons for firing torpedoes. The "masker" button puts the sub in stealth mode, but rapidly consumes "air" as a trade-off.
It looked like the Steel Diver demo at this year's E3 included a few missions and three models of submarine. I only tried the tutorial on my second session with it at the show, so I'm still not sure how the missions unfold and what kind of complexities are added. But the basics are quite good. I was a fan of a complicated screenful of dials on the touch screen back in 2004 and still like it six years later.
The odd thing about the action in the top screen is that submarines make for much slower side-scrolling avatars than do Marios and Sonics. The action plays out more as a lightly-simulated puzzle game, requiring forethought about acceleration and angle and leaving the player distressed as they watch poor planning result in a hull smashing into undersea rock.
I'd like to see more and appreciate this being an actual brand-new game from Nintendo, brand-new via 2004, but with nary a franchise character or other old stand-by insight. Six years later, Steel Diver still feels novel. It may prove to be the world's slowest side-scroller, but with enough mission variety, it could be a sleeper success when the 3DS launches. Here's hoping I can play this game before 2016.