Review: Commando: Steel Disaster (Nintendo DS)

Commando: Steel Disaster (NDS)
Publisher: XS Games
Developer: Manasoft
Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up
Release Date: 09/02/2008

Ah, my beloved Metal Slug, how I have missed thee. Your signature graphics style, your run and gun gameplay, your SNK Boss Syndrome type difficulty, and your wonderful tongue planted firmly in your virtual cheek. I remember when I was able to rant and wax poetically about Metal Slug 3 for the Xbox in my formative years as a budding game reviewer.

Wait. What’s that you say? This ISN’T a Metal Slug game? But it looks like one! It sounds like one! It uses the same gameplay as one! Oh, it’s Commando: Steel Disaster. I guess it’s NOT a new member of the MS family, but it sure wants to be one.

Can developer Manasoft and publisher XS Games do the legacy of SNK’s 2-D shooter series proud, or is this a clone/rip-off that probably should have been left on the drawing board?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Hmm. Well, the plot is kind of a Metal Gear meets Metal Slug. You’ve got Storm, who is your Rico-esque character. Storm is called one day by his partner Jessica and is then told that the X-1, the military’s new secret weapon, seems to have come to life and is attacking their own troops. Storm is then sent into combat. The end. Yeah, that’s pretty much the plot. Sure there is an evil genius military bad guy named Rattlesnake, but you don’t learn that until later. You’re just told the X-1 is rebelling and then you’re thrown into a snowmobile race where you are shooting a ton of bad guys without any explanation. But hey, it’s a shooter, you should expect this. Each level ends with a large over the top boss that is similar to what you would find in the aforementioned Metal Gear games, but done so with the Metal Slug style of graphics.

Steel Disaster isn’t going to win any awards for the best story of the year, but unlike most run and gun shooters, it actually puts some of the story in the game instead of in the manual.

Story Rating: Decent

2. Graphics

I’m really trying not to paint the game as a straight up homage/plagiarism of Metal Slug, but it’s hard not to. The character portraits, enemies, level design, backgrounds, and settings are all cribbed straight from SNK’s second most famous franchise. This might as well be Metal Slug VII but with a new lead character and without the sense of humour.

For the most part, the game looks really good. I love the backgrounds and the attention to detail on weapon fire or some of the larger enemies and vehicles. The generic enemies are a little bland and are rather ruddy in appearance. After the 100th or so of the same enemy in a level, you begin to notice an alarming lack of detail in the cannon fodder.

I enjoy the use of the character portraits ala RPG’s for the dialogue scenes. I wish there was a little more meat to them, but the visuals used are enjoyable.

The game tends to get repetitive with the visuals about a third of the way through a level. Then when a new mission starts, everything feels fresh again… at least for that first third of the level. Repeat multiple times until the game is over.

Overall, the game is pretty, but the more you play, the more you realize that Commando is mainly about aping the MS visuals and that when they had to create something of their own style-wise, like the waves of generic enemies, there is a distinct drop in quality.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

3. Sound

The music of the game is good for what it is. None of the pieces from the game’s score will get stuck in your head, but it fits the game nicely and the tracks are neither distracting nor annoying. That being said, you really could play the game without the sound on and you would hardly notice. It’s that much of an afterthought while playing.

Sound effects again fit the game, but are nothing mind blowing, innovative, or impressive. I’m happy that each weapon you can pick up has its own sound effect, but it would have been nice to have the same thing for the enemies. Almost all the enemy weapons sound the same, regardless of whether it is a mine, a dude on a jetpack firing a rifle, some cyborg type guy, or a tank.

Really, there is so little meat to pick at in this category that all I can really say is that Steel Disaster’s noises capture the feel and tone of the game. The music and background noises could certainly be better, but they’re nothing to hate on or laugh at.

Sound Rating: Decent

4. Control and Gameplay

Gameplay is an odd duck with Steel Disaster. First of all, you can’t access options when you first play. Even though the instruction manual gives you a description of what the options are and how to use them, they are inaccessible. At first you have two choices. Start the game on Normal, or start it on Easy. It’s not until you beat the first mission that you can access the options. I think this is a bit retarded seeing as that options include button settings and saving/deleting your game.

Commando: Steel Disaster is also a very long game, or at least it feels that way. This is because the levels in this game are three to four times what one is used to for a run and gun shooter. There were several times where I would exclaim out loud about the never ending levels in this game. Of course you can’t quicksave. Nor are there continues or multiple lives. It’s a straight up, “Beat this level in one shot or play it again from the beginning. Sod off you wuss.” To say that this game is mean and unforgiving in this respect is an understatement, and will inevitably put off all but the most fanatical fans of this genre.

The actual controls of the game are quite solid. I was surprised that the game started with a Battletoads like where you had to jump over mines while shooting at flying opponents instead of beginning with a normal intro level. Thankfully the controls for both situations are the same. You have a jump button, a shoot the hell out of things button, a bomb button, and the left trigger on your DS lets you switch between the weapons you are carrying. I loved that ability to carry two special weapons at once, which was actually something I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of in this genre considering it’s been around as long as platformers and Pong.

My only one concern was in the racing bits of the game and that is that you can’t shoot straight up. You can shoot in front of you, which is useless, and you can shoot at a 45 degree angle, but you can’t shoot directly above you. Why?

One of the very unique aspects of this game is that you have a single life. When it’s gone, you are dead. As mentioned before there are no continues, so you have to make the most of this life. You can however, pick up both armour and life packs throughout the game. When your life drops to 0, you are dead. Armour supposedly is a protection against losing your health, but there were several times when I had both life and armour in the 35 range (Max is 99) and I got hit and lost life instead of armour points. Okay then. That was useless. I’m still not sure how armour works and what makes that go down instead of your life. It seems to be arbitrary, and thus badly designed. I should not hit 00 life when I still have a half suit of armour left. Boo-urns. Hmm. I guess I have TWO concerns then.

If you’re a Metal Slug fan, you’ll adapt to the controls pretty quickly. It’s the way Storm lives and dies that will throw you off.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

Once you defeat a mission, you can go back and replay it. However, unlike Metal Slug, there is really no reason to touch any of the levels again. There is no high score. There are no POW’s to save. There is no really bonus content save for these discs that you have to pick up, and it’s nigh impossible to miss any of those as all you have to do to find them is shoot at everything ont he screen (which you should be doing anyway in this type of game) and huzzah, they appear.

The lack of extras, combined with the odd way one progresses through this game means that Steel Disaster is best left as a one shot game. You play it, beat it, and trade it in or give it to a friend. There’s not enough substance of diversity in the game to make it worth playing through more than once.

Replayability Rating: Bad

6. Balance

This is probably the weakest point in Steel Disaster. The game goes out of its way to be mind numbingly hard to casual gamers. For those of us who finally learned to beat Contra without the 30 man code, you’ll do fine at this. For the rest of you, be prepared to swear and die a lot.

I think it was a huge mistake not to offer continues or quick starts from where you last died as the levels are just too long. I love this type of game and even I found myself bored stiff by the end of each level. It was like the old Monty Python, “GET ON WITH IT!” bit. I also became VERY frustrated when I would die in a boss battle and have to go all the way back to the very beginning of the level. If the levels were cut up significantly, this wouldn’t have been a problem. I love a challenge after all, but the combined cruelty and the level length is enough to put off almost any gamer who picks this up. Here’s a hint to the dev team. Metal Slug is tough but it always kept its roots as an ARCADE SHOOTER> This means continues as they simulate the pumping of quarters into a cabinet. So much is lost when you ignore that bit.

Other than that, the game commits one big cardinal mistake for this genre. Never ending enemy respawns. Enemies will respawn at certain areas of each level. So if you take a step, shoot the enemy, then take a step back because someone is attacking from behind, that original enemy will respawn again and again and again. Without those continues, you can quickly see why anyone would find that annoying.

What Steel Disaster should have done is what many vertical shooters do these days – you earn continues by the length of time you play the game. 1 hour of play time = 1 extra continue.

When it comes to balance, Steel Disaster is a very poorly thought out game.

Balance Rating: Bad

7. Originality

Bottom line – Commando: Steel Disaster is a Metal Slug knock-off in nearly every way. Granted the game does some things differently, shut as shunning the full arcade simulation experience and giving you a very different way to survive, but when a game looks, sounds, plays and feels like it is a spin-off of the SNK franchise we all love so much, you know it’s going to take a hit in this category.

I am pleased to see someone trying to revive this genre besides SNK and the occasional now 3-D Contra game from Konami, but I really wish the game had stood out more on its own instead of emulating the best known series in the genre.

I suppose imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, but considering Steel Disaster lacks a lot of what makes Metal Slug so popular and fun, I’d take it as more of an insult.

Originality Rating: Bad

8. Addictiveness

I’m going to give this a thumbs in the middle here. On one hand, I loved the crazy gunplay action and the weapon selection. On the other, I usually died because an enemy respawned right on top of me with no warning or because I got so bored with the level length that I got sloppy. It’s sad when a self-professed 2-d shooter zealot actually finds a game in this genre boring. The first time I died against a boss and had to redo a level all enjoyment of this game was sucked out of me. From that moment I was playing it because I had to review it, not because I wanted to play it. That is a kiss of death to any game, and again, had the levels not been half the insane length that they were, that could have easily been prevented.

Still, in the game’s defense, when it is on, it is spot on and a lot of fun. In the end, the game is just too insanely cruel to gamers, especially newcomers to the genre, for it to really connect with an audience.

Addictiveness Rating: Poor

9. Appeal Factor

Wow. This is tough. I’m a pretty devout Metal Slug fanatic and I just couldn’t get into this game at all. Considering gamers like myself are the tiny core audience XS and Manasoft are shooting for, I am actually at a loss for words as to who might actually enjoy this game long enough to play through all five missions. I guess if you had to ask me point blank, I’d say people who somehow get off on games that are not just hard, but downright giving the middle finger to its purchaser.

This game is for extremely experienced 2-d shooter fans ONLY. Everyone else will quick grow bored, angry, or full of rage when playing this game.

Appeal Factor: Awful

10. Miscellaneous
Although ultimately falling short of its intended goal, This is a nice little first attempt by newbie developer Manasoft. With a little more originality and a little less emulating what other dev teams have done, Manasoft has a lot of potential as an up and comer for the run and gun sub genre of the 2-D shooter. While I wouldn’t recommend this title, for MANY reasons, to anyone, that spark of awesomeness is buried deep within this game and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for their next project as it can only get better from there.

Commando: Steel Disaster is an homage to older, better, more memorable shooters. Occasionally the game breaks from the emulation to show a bit of its own style and flair, but these bits are just to rare for the game to stand on its own two legs. In the end, it is a disappointment, but a disappointment filled with promise.

Miscellaneous Rating: Below Average

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Decent
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Bad
Originality: Bad
Addictiveness: Poor
Appeal Factor: Awful
Miscellaneous: Below Average

Short Attention Span Summary

Commando: Steel Disaster is a nice attempt but an ultimately unsuccessful foray into the realm of 2-D shooting goodness. There were times I really enjoyed the game, but the level length and outright cheapness of the game eventually overshadowed the fun. There is a nice core game buried under all the bunk and I hope that Manasoft gives it a second try. If you’re a huge Metal Slug fan, you just may want to give this a try, but that’s a big maybe.



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