Ah, the freedom of the open water. We chase it in real life with boats, canoes, and all manner of watercraft, but nothing beats the feeling of the rushing tide over your scales…I mean skin. Video games have been trying to replicate the freedom of the ocean for as long as I can remember. In fact, one of my first video game experiences of any type is the first entry on this list, Odell Lake (1986).
Now, I’m not out here talking about the many entries into the super-popular fishing game genre, like the Rapala Pro Series (PS4) games where you can select lures and depths and…Okay I don’t know anything about fishing and even less about fishing games but none of this sounds intriguing. Things get slightly more interesting (to me) in the fish management subgenre of games, like Fish Farm 3 (PC/Android -2019), where you get a virtual aquarium that you can fill with coral and goldfish and, I guess, piranhas to your heart’s content. But both of these game types are simulations of activities that practically have to be more easily performed and are almost certainly more interesting when experienced in the outside world.
What I mean are games that actually let you be a fish*. Games that send you out into the open water to survive and hopefully thrive against predators and other fish-killing phenomena. It’s the openness of a huge expanse of water spread before you, where the game world is literally your oyster. Sure, some of the games on this list give you more freedom than others, but if you’re into it, the life of a fish can be just as fascinating a video game experience as that of a warrior princess, a rough-and-ready street fighter, or even a goat.
Odell Lake (PC – 1986)
When it comes to fish games, the Minnesota Educational Computing Company (MECC)’s Odell Lake was my first, and even discounting nostalgia, it’s still one of my favourites. The graphics were pretty good for a 1986 title, especially an educational one, and the ability to run through the game as one of six different fish was pretty unique. It was a welcome respite from the other boring educational titles on the now-ancient but cutting edge at the time Apple IIgs in the corner of the classroom at school, and quaintly provided the most naughtily violent content (in the form of a giant osprey swooping you out of the water for lunch) you could expect to find in a Grade 3 class.
In Odell Lake you’ll choose to experience the eponymous Minnesota body of water as one of six fish, ranging from the super-sized Mackinaw Trout to a lowly chub. You’ll encounter things like plankton and algae (the only things lower on the food chain than our friend the chub), larger fish, presumably-human fishermen, and the aforementioned ospreys. It’s also the only game I know of that positions usually-adorable otters as genuinely scary predators. Can you pet the otters? You’re welcome to try, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Now, being a game from 1986, Odell Lake doesn’t have an open-world format so much as a punishingly linear one, not unlike fellow MECC title, the classic The Oregon Trail (1975). You mostly float along, allow yourself to encounter obstacles, and make decisions about how to approach (or evade) them. That’s it, that’s the game. That said, it works as an educational title because you don’t even notice yourself learning and internalizing the food chain in the environment. No, you, a mere Whitefish, cannot stare down a Mackinaw Trout and expect to live to glub about it.
The Apple IIgs on which I played Odell Lake has long been relegated to both the dustbin of history and the literal dustbin behind my primary school, but you can still fire up that fishy fun, courtesy of the Internet Archive.
Ecco The Dolphin (Sega Genesis – 1992)
For a first-party title on the Sega Genesis, a console that carved it’s niche away from the Super Nintendo in the contentious 16-bit era of 90’s gaming with violent titles like Streets of Rage, Splatterhouse, and the uncensored version of Mortal Kombat, Ecco The Dolphin is a bit of an outlier. Not exactly the sarcastic but cutesy Sonic The Hedgehog or Bubsy franchises, Ecco presented itself as a more thoughtful and pacifistic approach to games. It was, perhaps, the game that your well-meaning family member, maybe an aunt, might buy for you as a non-offensive gift that even your parents might endorse. There’s a dolphin on the box, right? That’s got to be educational!
You play as the eponymous Ecco, a character that Sega really wanted to be a mascot for the system. Maybe not Mario-tier (that was Sonic), but prominent enough to spawn several sequels and ports to other Sega systems, including the Sega CD and the Dreamcast. At first, the game is a little like a sandbox, allowing you to frolic with your dolphin pals and learn the controls. You’ll then be taken to the game’s actual levels which are mostly about swimming around in caves doing things like moving shells around and finding other hapless dolphins to rescue. These areas can be frustrating, but in no way do they set the stage for what’s to come next.
At a key point in Ecco, you’ll be transported millions of years into the past where you’ll be plopped into a landscape full of dinosaurs, just as all dolphins do during mating season**. Towards the latter half of the game, most of your antagonists are of the many-tentacled variety, and these Cthulhi are everywhere, and in many forms. One of their favourite pastimes is giving you an electric shock, which is punctuated by Ecco’s soul-crushing squeal. Is this what we signed up for?
The game’s final boss, a nightmarish Giger-esque creature called Vortex Queen who is far more upsetting than her might-be-a-Rush-album name might imply, is scarier than nearly anything the Sega Genesis has to offer. In fact, the whole surreal second half of this game plays out like the kind of gutpunch you could never be prepared for by experiencing the serenity of the first half. It’s not like Ecco was ever marketed as a horror game, even though it very much seems to be. The experience is sort of like your Headspace app was suddenly inoculated with gruesome body horror imagery.
Is Ecco the Dolphin and his romp through prehistoric earth and a biomechanical nightmare of octopus mutants an accurate representation of the life of a cetaceous creature? No one can say for sure, as the dolphins ain’t talking, but as an enjoyable (though punishingly difficult) journey through the ocean with the occasional pants-soiling frightening scene? You can’t do much better.
Maneater (PC/PS4/Switch – 2020)
Of all the games on this list, Tripwire Interactive’s Maneater is the most successful and maybe the best-presented. The game allows you to portray a baby shark*** as it struggles to survive and grow in various environments in a fictional American South. Certainly, of the fish games here, Maneater boasts the most elaborate story, thrusting you in the role of the shark in a meta-reality show about a hunter named Scaly Pete, who poached and brutally killed your mother while she was still pregnant with you. And now you’re out for revenge. This is all amusingly and often sarcastically narrated by the in-game reality show’s host, voiced by Chris Parnell.
In it’s own way, Maneater feels like the best spiritual successor to Odell Lake. Though you don’t get the choice of fish that Odell allows ( I can’t see why anyone would willingly choose to be a stupid chub when a shark is on offer, anyway), there’s a clear food chain here that you need to abide by in order to survive. You can and will grow bigger, being able to confront and hold your own against larger creatures including dolphins, orca, and even whales, but that requires patience and a relatively slow grind as you take on turtles, grouper, muskies, and other smaller fish to start.
Maneater is a pretty intense game when it wants to be, but there’s a smoothness and intuitiveness to Maneater’s controls that make it pretty satisfying to just sail through the water. Even when a battle against an alligator gets hairy, there’s a certain gracefulness required to evade it and it’s genuinely satisfying to do so and come back later, bigger and stronger, to exact your many-toothed revenge. You really feel almost mind-melded with your fishy avatar in Maneater, and that counts for a lot.
Ace of Seafood (2016)
Onuki Masafumi’s Ace of Seafood actually came out before Maneater, but I didn’t discover it until very recently. It’s become my latest fishy obsession, supplanting the others with a concept that is absurd on it’s face (even compared to the other games I’ve discussed here) and both gameplay and an interface that feels like it was run through Google Translate and then whispered to a liar on a windy day.
Ace of Seafood’s elevator pitch is basically: what if a fish game looked and controlled like a flight simulator? Other than the fact that the airplanes are supplanted by things like sardines, crabs, and salmon, Ace of Seafood both looks and feels like one of my favourite series, the highly-dramatic fighter jet game, Ace Combat. The interface features a high-tech heads-up display that uses targeting and radar to identify other creatures in the ocean and to aid in targeting your lasers. Oh, did I mention that the fish in this game fire lasers? You know, like fish do.
As with Odell Lake, Ace of Seafood gives you a few options of fish to start with – Lobster, Mackerel, and a few others. You’ll form up a squad of fish, limited only by the species you’ve discovered, and move in formation to, as the game curiously states it, “subjugate the coral reefs.” You do this by commanding your squad, leveling them up as you go along or, horror of horrors, swapping them out if you find something better, and taking over coral reefs, which are kind of like bases. The mechanics of the game outside of the actual combat are opaque. You are given the option to “activate” coral reefs but it’s not exactly clear what this means, and Ace of Seafood isn’t particularly concerned with explaining it to you.
The whole thing is so puzzlingly presented, and not even in a bad way. The graphics are surprisingly detailed – every fin and appendage of your avatar seem to move naturally and independently, and there’s a good amount of detail on the ocean floor too. I talked about freedom and serenity a lot here, but Ace of Seafood’s main through-line is chaos. A maddeningly hectic screen full of enemies, anemones, and laser blasts is what you’re dealing with for the majority of your playtime. It doesn’t feel as cartoony as Maneater, except for the whole “firing lasers” thing, but Ace of Seafood often takes pains to give a (somewhat) credible explanation for why you, a shellfish, might be shooting things out of your face. Those aren’t lasers at all but concentrated beams of plankton? Whatever you say, Ace of Seafood!
You might not have as many options to get your virtual fish on as you do if you want to portray an underdressed fighting game character in this current video game climate, but there are options. And whether you’re playing on an ancient Apple computer or a Playstation 5, there are few better ways to free yourself of your earthly worries and spread your fins.
* sorry Ecco, I mean, fish and mammals that have fishy qualities
** excuse me while I mute several marine biologists on Twitter that seem to be implying that I’m making this last part up
*** doo doo doo doo doo doo
Sachin Hingoo is the common name for several species of ray-finned fish in the family Salmonidae. Other fish in the same family include trout, char, grayling, and whitefish.