Woe is me, the completionist gamer. I am one of a, quite likely, large group of gamers who despises leaving a game in an uncompleted state. At the very least, I have to see the credits roll and the plot (regardless of its questionable quality) wrapped up in some fashion. Since I suffer from this horrendous affliction, I am very careful about the games I choose to start, because it’s a commitment that I must tolerate until the bitter end. It takes a special, shall we say, quality to force me to abandon a game part way through, and recent history returns a number of titles I could count on one hand. Today, however, I am both saddened and mildly upset (but also slightly relieved) as that number increments for the first time this year. The latest addition to this hall of infamy is Nintendo’s Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. (henceforth referred to as Steam).
In a vacuum, Steam is not a terrible game, but it certainly isn’t a particularly good one either. No, it instead languishes in the pit of averageness, revelling in its mundane mediocrity, forever destined to decorate the dust-covered bargain bins of game stores the world over. It is, in a single word, boring. It is plagued by undercooked gameplay, a meaningless and clichéd world, and a plot more forgettable than last month’s breakfast of discount bran cereal. One would struggle to find any redeeming feature, aside from the soundtrack, which while excellent, is rather unfitting to the rest of the game’s theme.
But in a vacuum we are not. This is quite fortuitous, as it it gives me a reason to vent my frustration, aided with the context we so desperately long for. In my incredibly biased view, Steam should have stayed locked up inside director Paul Patrashcu’s mind, never to escape and unleash its terror on our innocent world. Steam does more than simply burden us with a terrible game: it tarnishes the strategy genre and the reputations of the creators involved.
Intelligent Systems, the group responsible for Steam, is renowned for their Fire Emblem and Paper Mario titles, but it’s the lesser known Advance Wars games that pluck at my heartstrings – they are the best turn-based strategy games I’ve ever played. Alas, while the juggernaut that is Fire Emblem continues to see new releases, the other series’ haven’t been so lucky. Paper Mario has struggled with one sub-par game after another, while Advance Wars has seemingly been abandoned entirely. It’s difficult to put into words the exact combination of my anguish and frustration at the thought of the potential effort of a new Wars game being wasted on the languid flop that is Steam, but perhaps for the emotional constitution of game developers out there, it is best left unsaid.
The turn-based world broadly encompasses two different approaches, with some games blending elements of both. The first are RPG-style games (which tend to be popular in Japan) such as Fire Emblem, Pokémon, and XCOM. This style puts an emphasis on individual characters by giving them levels, statistics, and special abilities that improve as you play. The other style instead opts for “disposable units” in which the player controls groups of characters that lack persistence in the world, seen in games such as Advance Wars or Civilization. Though each style has advantages and disadvantages, Steam masterfully embraces the disadvantages of both while offering nothing in return for its lacklustre deconstruction of established strengths in the genre.
Steam limits team selections to a mere four characters, similar to the limits in XCOM or Mario + Rabbids. However, unlike those games, Steam’s characters have only one special ability each, and one main weapon – these cannot be changed or swapped around. So if you want to choose the character with a sniper rifle (and you do), you have no choice but to also accept her borderline-useless special ability, putting you at a disadvantage. It’s a structure that inherently limits any reasonable attempts at strategy. Which, as you might be aware, is a fundamental part of a turn-based strategy game.
The levels are claustrophobic, usually offering only a single path for allies to follow while foes have multiple directions to approach from. The balance expected from a strategy game’s careful structure of enemy encounters is abandoned in favour of tedious trial-and-error combat with random and infinitely spawning foes. Enemies with scripted mid-game spawn positions will appear next to you and fire in the same turn simply because you didn’t memorise the spawn positions and triggers. There are extremely limited tactical options in terms of level design or character skills, limiting players to very repetitive, boring, and unsatisfying gameplay. One of Steam’s tactics is to use a character as bait for opponents to lure them away, and then purchasing that character’s life back at a “revive point”, which is purchased with in-game coins. While baiting is a perfectly valid tactic in games with disposable resources such as Advance Wars, it’s not particularly enjoyable when you only have 4 players on the field and is the sole tactic available to you.
Steam’s visual aesthetic is the oh-so-boring theme of Victorian-steampunk-slash-American-patriotism, which is seemingly a pathetic attempt to appeal to a western audience. They mash in as many random ‘Westernisms’ as they can possibly think of (Abraham Lincoln, Tom Sawyer, The Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, Peter Pan, HP Lovecraft, etc) and the result is a disgusting (and slightly condescending) mess of attempts to pander to an audience that the designers obviously do not understand very well. By deciding to run with this theme, they not only remove any appeal for the Japanese audience, but they also isolate their supposed target market with a mish-mash of poorly developed styles that’s more off-putting than appealing.
Nintendo already seems to have decided that Advance Wars is a series for the western market, and considering its intended audience, I just know that someone in their head office is using the failure of Steam as a sign that there is no market for strategy games in the west. Never mind that the likes of XCOM, Civilization, Valkyria Chronicles and many others are enjoying a surging spike in popularity of the strategy genre in the west. Never mind that Steam is a god-awful game that should never have been released. I can feel it in my bones. Some paper pusher, somewhere, is using Steam‘s failure as evidence that Advance Wars should die in the Nintendo vault of abandoned franchises. And because I can’t prove who that paper pusher is, my malice is driven towards Steam instead.
Steam flopped out from one of Nintendo’s unseemly orifices, one that Nintendo pretends doesn’t exist. It’s one that’s reserved for shovelware, crapware, and all the other kind of nounwares that never have a nice sounding noun attached. It’s a conglomeration of half-baked ideas, half-hearted implementation, and half-assed game design. It borrows from the greats of the genre and then proceeds to defecate all over them with poor adaptions and even poorer realisations. And if it wasn’t already clear, I don’t think it’s a very good game.