Steel thy zipline!
It would seem that Tribute, the studio behind such wonderful games as Panzer Paladin and Mercenary Kings, has gotten into the publishing game. They’ve partnered with developer Zenovia Interactive to produce Steel Assault, a tough-as-nails but mercifully brief action platformer. Even though it’s fun and inventive, it also toes the line between difficult and frustrating.
You play as Taro Takahashi, a soldier armed with a mean energy whip and zipline, out to defeat the evil General Magnus Pierce and his band cybernetic malcontents from taking over the world—which already appears to be in a post-apocalyptic age. Steel Assault looks and plays like an old 16-bit mascot platformer, and, personally, it reminded me of a GBA game. Tako Takahashi may not have the most complicated moveset in the world, but it gets the job done: he can double jump, slide for a few frames of invincibility, whip his energy whip in eight directions, and use a zipline (also in eight directions). The zipline really sets Steel Assault apart: Taro will often use it to bridge gaps between platforms, both horizontally and vertically. He can attack while moving across the zipline, as well.
The game moves at a very fast pace, and I found that I could beat Easy mode in less than an hour—although some of that time was repeating the final boss, who’s surprisingly tricky. Taro has a good-sized health bar, but health pickups are exceedingly rare. Thankfully, the stages are quite short, and his health refills upon entering a new area. You’ll also do a lot of melee combat, and your enemies are refreshingly diverse. However, there are times where the difficulty seems to stem not from enemies that are themselves tricky to take down, but instead because there are so many enemies on-screen at once.
Some fun Contra-like segments have Taro utilizing a gun turret to take down aerial assaults, including a pretty awesome robotic monster. The boss fights are incredibly fun and require some inventive thinking on your part to avoid attacks. That zipline will come in handy! If you die—and you often will—Taro will continue from the beginning of the last area he entered, which is usually on the boss’ doorstep. Steel Assault offers several difficulty levels, each an order of magnitude more difficult than the last.
Another big part of the game’s charm is its commitment to the 16-bit aesthetic. The game begins with a fun animated opening, and each level has its own title card. Several toggle-able options include a CRT filter, degree of CRT curvature, border art, and something called a “bilinear filter,” which gives the screen an additional layer of noise that I found exceedingly delightful. My biggest knock against the game has to do with the slide. In theory, Taro is invincible while sliding. The problem here is twofold: First, the slide is ridiculously short and there’s a brief recovery period—you can’t really chain slides together; and second, you have to press down and B to slide. In a feverish boss fight, that’s not a great combination. I would have preferred that the slide had a dedicated button, like A (which isn’t used for anything). The slide could stand to be a few frames longer, too. As is, I rarely used the slide effectively. This is a shame, because an effective slide would have made the higher difficulty levels much more tolerable.
I feel like I say this with a lot of games, but I really enjoyed Steel Assault until I didn’t anymore. Up to that point, it was really fun, and I have to commend Zenovia Interactive on their effective graphical filters, which are a big part of the appeal.