Retro Review: “Steel Talons” – SEGA Genesis (Attack Helicopter Week special)

Welcome to yet another review celebrating Attack Helicopter Week here at The Splintering! Today we’re picking apart another retro arcade game port, this time it’s Steel Talons for the SEGA Genesis.

Before we get going, however, I have to note that this game is ROUGH. I couldn’t play it through in a normal state, so the only solution was to get a bit tipsy by strapping in Captain J. Beam as my co-pilot to make the game playable. I’ve been drinking, bitches!

So, Steel Talons on SEGA Genesis? It’s a port of an Atari arcade game by the same name, and a very early attempt to replicate a 3D polygonal environment on a home console. Here’s the “plot” as outlined in the attract mode of the game (before you make the horrible, horrible mistake of pressing start):

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The Army has the Green Berets, the Navy has their Seals, but for chopper pilots, the pinnacle is the squadron known as STEEL TALONS.

STEEL TALONS — the name alone sends shivers up the spine of the hottest sticks (note: giggity). Only the best of the best are even considered for preliminary training into the STEEL TALONS – and only 10 percent of those make it! And you thought basic training was tough! But they won’t let any loose sticks (note: giggity) fly the 15 million dollar gunships. First you have to prove yourself in the simulator, week after week, month after month.

Are you man enough to set the standard on each of STEEL TALONS’ 12 levels?

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The gameplay area of the screen is a bit limited

Are you ready to become one the “top sticks”? Hell yes, you are. Time to jump in your flying fish-looking helicopter and soar the seven skies! And by soaring, I of course mean very slowly inching through tiny, Delaware-sized maps populated with Madonna-bra shaped mountains and destroy tanks, missiles, barracks, radars, planes and enemy helicopters using your machine gun and a limited set of missiles.

How slowly are we talking? By my very non-technical observations, the choppy skies of Steel Talons clocks in at about 4 frames per second. FOUR. You’d think it’d be nauseating, particularly with some Jim Beam in the gut, but it actually wasn’t. It’s just funny – and bad – and this is coming from someone who does get motion sickness from time to time playing games (Those games being ZombiU on Wii U, Golden Axe: Beast Rider on Xbox 360, and The Conduit on Wii). I personally think that Steel Talons moves so damn slowly, that my mind never really approximated what was happening on-screen as “movement”.

The controls are also a bit rough. Sure, you’ve got guns and missiles, but the C-button acts as your “yoke” – you hold it down while pressing up or down to change altitude. It’s pretty awkward, and it makes moving around the stages quickly more of a chore than it perhaps needs to be.

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As I mentioned above, the world around you is made up of very simple polygons. Your helicopter does indeed look like a blue fish with a rotor on top, and the enemies are difficult to discern, too, even when close up. Your missile lock-on will identify them for you, but it hardly matters at that point.

With the exception of the training stage (which features a controls-acclimating course of flying through rings), the combat stages are all pretty much look the same with a different color palette. Some stages have green madonna bras, while others feature Pyramid of Giza tan, and others are the same damn blue color as the majority of your helicopter, so you largely blend in with the background and look even more like a fish than before.

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Fly through the rings, Superman!

Other than the title screen theme and some brief chiptune versions of public domain music, there is no “soundtrack” while you’re playing the game. Only the droning fwips of the helicopters blades and the sweet, sweet sound of your exploding enemy reds. (The story did mention that the antagonists were the Soviets, right?) Honestly, there is some decent voices that introduce each stage which are slightly impressive for the SEGA Genesis hardware, “Don’t waste time on this one!”

Speaking of which, each stage does indeed have a time limit to achieve an “ace” or a “pass” rating, but you can still finish each stage and progress to the next even if you exceed that limit. However, you’ll get a bad ending if you don’t at least “pass” all 12 stages.

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On-screen arrows guide you to your targets

They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!

Perhaps the developers at Tengen should be commended for their efforts, an arcade game like Steel Talons probably has no business being on SEGA’s 16-bit Genesis hardware in the first place, at least not without some extra help under the hood like the Virtua Racing DSP chip.

I’ve not played other ports of Steel Talons, but the Super Nintendo port of the game certainly looks to run more smoothly, though the Genesis port resembles the arcade original a bit more. It looks like the SNES development team used the ol’ trick of making your helicopter a 2D sprite surrounded by a “Mode 7”-created 3D world similar to Mario Kart.  You can check out this handy comparison video below to see for yourself.

None of this is to say that the Genesis version of Steel Talons isn’t worth playing at all. It’s not a terribly expensive retro pick-up, and it probably would have been worth a rental back in the Ferg for fans of the arcade game. But if it was the only game I received under the Christmas tree? I probably would have been a pretty sad muffin.

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That’s a fish

Thanks for reading! To read more of The Splintering’s “Attack Helicopter Week” content, go here.

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