Staying the course

  • Developer: Santos
  • Publisher: Santos
  • Release Date: January 26th, 1996 (title screen says 1995, so this may need to be verified with other sources if possible)
  • Available On: Playstation / PS1
  • Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up (Vertical)

Somehow, I keep landing on the workhorse, middle of the road shoot ’em ups that secretly make for great entry points while also being games most veterans of the genre don’t care about at all. I promise it’s not on purpose! It’s not a bad thing by any means, though, since I see them as both a chance to improve my skills with the genre and as a way to give a bit of credit to games that are at least slightly better than their non-existent reputations indicate. I think working my way up the STG ladder has been a fun way to practice fundamentals while also learning what makes developers like Compile and Cave so special in comparison and I’d absolutely recommend doing what I’m doing to anyone interested in the genre. Such a practice really benefits today’s game in particular, if you ask me. If you take a look at some footage of it (or any of the screenshots below), you’ll probably see what looks like the most milquetoast shoot ’em up imaginable. Honestly, that assessment isn’t incorrect! I won’t surgercoat it – no new ground is being tread here (or, uh, airspace being flown in, I guess) and anything done here has been done better elsewhere in one way or another. That might make poor Stahlfeder here seem “pointless” to play, and its lack of innovation has indeed landed it close to “Kusoge” territory amongst diehard players, but I think that’s all too harsh. Sure, it’s not the absolute peak of its genre and sure, it did come in 1996, which was the same year that had strong competition like Battle Garegga and some of the most influential games in the entire history of the medium, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or worthless. Definitely outclassed, but not worthless! Sometimes you need to play a range of things for some perspective; if you only played the top bangers each year or the most expensive games, you’d have a very small understanding of what makes those games special in the face of their peers, to say nothing of the fact that you’d probably get bored of their polish or insistence on sticking to proven ideas only. And hey, if games like the 194X series, Strikers 1945, and Flying Shark can get away with basic planes and a lack of anything outlandish, why can’t Stahlfeder too?

This game might not have any ridiculous ship designs, unique gameplay tricks, or arcane scoring mechanics, but I find its use of German influence coming from a Japanese company to be quite interesting as a replacement for any of that. If you look up the word “Stahlfeder” in the many dictionaries available online, the definition in English that you get tends to be either “Steel Spring” or “Steel Nib” (don’t laugh at that name!). What’s a nib, you ask? Well, a nib is the pointed end of a fountain pen that distributes the ink to the surface of whatever you’re writing it on. Based on some very passionate blog posts, Reddit threads, and other write-ups I found, nib quality is apparently a pretty big deal! Though there are multiple options, steel nibs are the most cost-effective if you get German-made ones since they offer the quality of gold ones without being as expensive. That was a fun bit of research to do, but on its own… I don’t know how much it actually tells us about the game! Could be one of those things they used just because it sounded cool, could be because your airplane made out of steel springs into action with the crafted quality of a steel nib, but I like to think it’s an indication of respect for German manufacturing in general. After all, Germany does have a very strong reputation for manufacturing and engineering prowess. When you add in the “Tekkou Hiuudan” part, that translates to something like “Steel Air Wing” or “Steel Air Corps”, which makes more immediate sense and puts it all together. This is a game about a German four person corps using their beautiful, German-made steel airplanes to fight against their opposition, after all.

Your four pilots and ships are Schwalbe in the Blau stern, Krähe in the Weiβ nacht, Gras۰mücke in the Schwarz Wind (yes, that dot is there in the game), and Kranichi in the Lippenstift. Each pilot has different statistics, secondary weapons, and bomb animations on offer and each one feels equally viable. Schwalbe (I guess he’s meant to be the closest thing to a protagonist) is your classic jack of all trades, featuring a balanced stat spread and a laser weapon that deals devastating damage at the cost of intermittent firing that makes it possible for foes to slip through. That doesn’t happen very often if at all due to the game’s low difficulty, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Krähe is all about speed, so much so that even his subweapon is just a faster firing version of his regular weapon! That’s not a bad thing by any means, though, because this thing seriously shreds once it’s upgraded. Gras۰mücke, my personal choice, sacrifices a lot of speed for plenty of firepower and durability. This bad boy can take a whopping 7 hits before going down! Bet you can’t think of many shoot ’em ups that let you take this much of a beating, huh? In case that wasn’t enough, his subweapon is a flamethrower that has better range than you’d think and quickly decimates just about anything caught in it. The speed drop is noticeable, but Stahlfeder is neither fast nor challenging enough that I ever felt it got me killed or put in an unavoidable situation, so this guy may very well be the best character. Lastly, there’s Kranichi, the only woman of the team and she has something of a high risk, high reward playstyle. Her lasers become powerful and multi-pronged in a way that makes it easy to sweep the screen and she gets a bomb that can be used while shooting (she calls in bombers, so you can shoot while they do their thing), but she has the lowest health of any of the characters, which can be a bit scary in a game with no lives and limited continues. Character choice is mainly up to personal preference; there are technically unique endings, but all they amount to are a bunch of miscellaneous facts and stats about your chosen aircraft. Cute, but probably not what most people want out of an ending!

Krähe has the coolest looking bomb for sure, just look at those huge waves!

If I were to describe what playing Stahlfeder is like using broad strokes, I feel like I’d be wasting your time, frankly. If you’ve made your way to this here blog, this game has no surprises in store for you: six levels that take place over cities, in the sky, and in industrial environments, plenty of planes to shoot down, bosses that shoot bullets/missiles/lasers in specific patterns, a tale as old as time, really. Heck, there aren’t even any environmental hazards or gimmicks or anything like that! This game is as straightforward as you can get, which probably contributes to its bad reputation. As I was playing, I was almost ready to write it off and pick something else, not because I wasn’t having fun but because I wasn’t sure if there’d be anything to say! But as I kept playing, I found little details that I think are worth pointing out and appreciating, and because of those details, I started to feel the need to push back on its reputation at least a bit because I really don’t see anything offensive or “terrible” about it. Are gamers so extreme and volatile that anything that isn’t agreed upon as the absolute peak of the craft considered an affront to their oh so precious time and sensibilities? I like to think people are more curious than that (I know you are, dear reader), so I think it’s about time I started giving this game credit where it’s due.

First off, I think this game has a look that works and catches the eye of those trained to do so. The 3D used isn’t particularly exceptional on its own and the limited use of colors and environments can make for some very cluttered looking spaces that are hard to read, but I like how the game uses movement and rotation to make the battlefield feel multilayered and more complex than it really is. Certain planes will fly in and do barrel rolls and 360° maneuvers that cause them to avoid your attacks by moving above the airspace you’re occupying. Stationary cranes and turrets can sometimes rotate to aim at you no matter where you are, and said cranes can also avoid your attacks while doing it. Admittedly, it does kinda look odd because your attacks will just go through them and there’s no indication of invulnerability, but I actually really appreciated the enemies having some kind of trick up their sleeve. Your ship is very overpowered after a few power-ups and it’s not too hard to come by healing either, so they can really use the help! The effect also just helps paint a more complete and (I guess) realistic depiction of a war going on from all directions with its combatants pulling out all the stops to survive and get one up on their opponents.

I also think this game’s level design does a really good job of complementing its placement of larger enemies with small ones and forcing the player to balance the two. Larger planes and the like are frequent, oftentimes showing up in groups of 2-3, and they can take a time to destroy as they position themselves steadfastly and launch projectiles. On their own, they’re really no big deal, but they’re rarely without faster enemies charging you from the flank. Popcorn enemies like them are easy to take out, but when you’re distracted and trying to dodge the larger enemies and their attacks? Suddenly less easy! It never becomes what people would consider “bullet hell”, but it does create a constant tension that requires proper plate spinning to survive through. You need to find that perfect rhythm of defeating big enemies while avoiding smaller ones and/or cleaning out the small fry before the big ones overwhelm you with their presence, and finding that rhythm through the short, 30 minute playthrough was something that I had fun doing. Granted, it wasn’t terribly hard with Gras۰mücke’s powerful arsenal, but it kept me on my toes the whole way through and engaged even with the low difficulty. Sometimes, you don’t necessarily need your game to be hard for it to keep your attention; if you can offer something that forces the player to earnestly engage and learn your game, they can be satisfied just making sure everything proceeds according to plan. It’s fun to have to maintain something and ensure it doesn’t go out of your control!

If the idea of what I just described intimidates you, Stahlfeder is thankfully quite a flexible game. You get the typical three difficulty levels, but the game defaults to Easy, which implies that’s the “intended” level for your first time. I didn’t realize this until after I had finished the game for the first time – and here I was kinda stoked to have gotten a 1CC by accident! This might seem like an odd choice, but it really does align with the game’s approachable design and beginner friendly philosophy. A lot of people have an aversion to choosing easy modes or “cheesy strategies” out of some kind of pride or something, like they think their ~gamer credentials~ will be ruined if they do, but by setting the default to easy, I bet a lot of people would be less hesitant to roll with it because they’ll see that it’s the intention of the developers. The difficulties aren’t hugely different, but their changes are spread out in such a way that the progression between them feels natural. On easy, you get 5 continues, whereas you get 3 on normal and 1 on hard. Difficulty choice also affects the number of bombs you start, which is something that informs scoring as well. The more bombs you have at the end of a level, the more points you get, so Easy makes it easier to score whereas hard requires more finesse and time to start earning and holding onto bombs. Most importantly of all, though, is the fact that hard mode makes it so you power down whenever you get hit. The enemies might not be any different, but having such a costly penalty attached to getting hit even once really changes your outlook on the game!

Like I said, I’m really not sure why this game garners the hate it does. I know it’s far from the peak of the genre and it’s certainly not without things that would dissatisfy diehard STG players, but when you boil it down, it’s… really not doing anything particularly wrong or different from what you’d typically expect. It’s slower than the likes of, say, Ikaruga, and much easier than it too, but I think it’s really nice to have something that’s both an entry point and something you can just suck down in 30 minutes and have a good time, even if said time isn’t an exceptional one. Some people out there must agree with me because this game apparently did well enough for Santos to make a spiritual sequel of sorts called Airgrave. It’s not a direct continuation, but it looks to do a lot of similar things while being at least a slight improvement overall, so I’m looking forward to giving it a spin someday. Shoot ’em ups are an intimidating genre to a lot of people and I used to be one of those people, but going off the beaten path and playing all these obscure ones has really given me a newfound appreciation for the genre. It’s kind of counterintuitive, I admit, going for the games nobody talks about to get into the ones they are talking about, but hey, if it works, it works. If I keep it up, maybe I’ll actually be able to finish a Cave game someday…

More Screenshots


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