Jeff sent me an email a few days ago. Subject: Fishy. “Maybe you should consider writing a column about this awful, far-too-addictive game — if you do, my advice is to write about it without actually playing it, because if you start playing it you will never get around to writing the column.”
Fishy is a straightforward game set in the deep sea. As a small fish, you must eat smaller fish to grow while avoiding being eaten by larger fish. It sounds like a boring, boring game, now that I write it out, so I suggest you just go and play it — it’s a Shockwave game that you can play in your internet browser. It’s at www.xgenstudios.com/fishy/. I’ll wait.
For those of you who came back, I’m betting you spent more time than you expected to on it. Didn’t expect the climb up the food chain to be all-engrossing, did you? That the floaty movements of your fish would be easy to control, but hard to master? That you’d feel a little bubble of satisfaction in a tiny increment of growth, and start scanning for the fish that used to be threats and now were food?
I’d forgotten how good simple games were. For a while, I attributed the popularity of arcade emulators like MAME to be due mostly to nostalgia — but now I think it’s due in good part to the lack of well-thought-out, simple games like Fishy. Despite the popularity of games like Tetris (Elorg, 1987), the gaming industry is more invested in showcasing the cutting edge of technology to the hardcore gamers who they know will shell out the bucks. Consequently, they’re stuck trying to challenge an audience that’s comfortable simultaneously piloting a starfighter, carrying on a gunfight and giving commands to their troops for several hours straight.
This leaves non-gamers out in the cold. However, Nintendo has carved out a niche where simple games are getting their due with their GameBoy Advance SP. These neat little gadgets may look like a travel clock, but they’ve got a bit more processing power. And they’ve recently ported the 1990 classic, Super Mario 3.
It’s a side-scroller, the 2-D standard long ago passed over for today’s free-roaming 3-D games, and so the very style of the game has a nostalgic charge. The colours, the satisfying head-bonking sounds and feel of the game are the same, and as I played it, the only thing that seemed odd was that Mario was talking a lot. An awful lot. “Just what I needed!” he chirps when you get a goodie, and in case you missed the Italian accent he says, “Mamma mia!” when you die.
I checked it out and sure enough, someone who couldn’t leave well enough alone had added the voice and, it turns out, a story intro. As it was, the character of Mario already teetered on the edge between working-class hero and racist caricature: he’s an icon people project onto, not a character to develop. But misguided or not, adding these elements is gilding the lily. Or, I guess in Mario’s case, the mushroom.
Something that works is most often a simple and elegant balance of elements struck upon by design or chance. Recently, I’ve been enjoying an untampered-with version of Joust (Williams, 1982) online (www.shockwave.com/sw/content/joust). Having spent my fair share of quarters on this one as a kid, I find it today both intensely familiar and intensely bizarre: you’re mounted on an ostrich, flying high enough to knock everyone else off and get their eggs while steering clear of the giant lava-hand and pterodactyls. This was enough to give the game a dark, techno-fantasy tone: I didn’t need to hear a detailed back-story of how the English monarchy in the year 2834 took to raising ostrich mounts for their bravery and valour. I didn’t need my character to say “Take that, you bounder!” or some such twaddle every time I trounced an opponent: maybe I wasn’t the kind of kid given to crowing, and this would have pushed me away rather than made me relate to the character. Though to be honest, I don’t think it would have pushed me away for long. I’d put up with a lot to get to ride an ostrich into battle.