Steel Assault seems almost engineered to catch your eye the second it crosses your feed. Each pixelated scene looks at once like generic retro-gaming fodder while also bursting with vibrant colors, as if someone smashed a gumball machine and then used the pieces to craft a side-scrolling action game for the Game Boy Advance in the year 2021. I love it.
Out on PC and Switch last week, Steel Assault casts you as Taro Takahashi, who developer Zenovia Interactive describes as “a resistance soldier on a revenge mission against the dictator who lords over the ashes.” Using nothing but your classic arcade action instincts and a powerful laser whip, you battle across five chapters of hostile robots and the ambient hazards of a post-apocalyptic United States that’s drowning in the results of decades of capitalist excess.
At least that’s how I’ve chosen to read the game’s short but satisfying arc. It’s light on context and the story beats are few and far between. Washington D.C. is ablaze, factories pump out toxic waste, and the oceans have retaken New York City, where despite everything else the rent, according to one luminescent billboard, is still way too damn high. It all feels a bit The Last of Us, if you replaced the zombies with robots and the brown-scale misery-en-scene with trippy psychedelia.
Levels are short but packed with waves of enemies to satisfyingly tear through and visual details that wow you before being quickly tossed aside to make room for the next dazzling flourish. Boss fights in particular are luxurious affairs with antagonistic mechs that take up most of the screen and look so good you just want to marvel while they blow you to pieces.
Gameplay-wise youra zip-line steals the show. You can connect any two nearby points along vertical, horizontal, or diagonal axes and then climb from side to side or hop a little higher or farther before deploying a new one.
Unlike a double jump, where gravity still has the final say, hanging from the zipline brings your movement to a full stop before letting you pivot to a new direction, bestowing a whole new way to move through the world, provided you have two staple points to lock onto. Steel Assault doesn’t make the most of this mechanic, in boss fights or platforming puzzles, but it does keep the familiar side-scrolling action moving faster and feeling fresher than it otherwise might.
I could nitpick. Steel Assault auto-saves every time you enter a new screen, which is great, but every time you die you have to sit through a game over screen and any recent scripted scenes, which is a drag during any sections where you’re repeatedly dying. The boss fights, while gorgeous, aren’t particularly inventive in the combat department, and most can be brute-forced by attacking as rapidly as you can before your health, and temporary invincibility after getting hit, runs out.
But none of these things were enough to rain on my GBA nostalgia-fueled parade. In content, Steel Assault borrows from Castlevania, Mega Man, and Contra. In presentation, it channels the best pixel art of the early 2000s without feeling derivative. That could at least be in part because many of the artists that contributed to the game also worked on GBA and DS games in the past. If it was 2004 again, this would be exactly the kind of game I’d be playing in school under my desk while pretending to follow along in my outdated textbook.
Steel Assault was originally Kickstarted back in 2015, and has undergone one visual transformation after another in the years since. In 2020, it finally got picked up as a publishing side-project by retro-throwback experts Tribute Games, the studio behind Flinthook and Panzer Paladin, and which also happens to be busy at work on the beat ‘em up revival Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge.
It was a big vote of confidence then, and now that the game’s finally out, it was clearly earned. Lots of recent retro homages have done an admirable job of recreating what was so great about 8-bit and 16-bit action games on modern platforms. Steel Assault, despite running only an hour or two, deserves to be in that same conversation. The biggest compliment that I can pay it is how sad I was when the breezy trip down memory lane ended so soon. Now I’m ready for Steel Assault II. Hopefully it’s not another six years away.