Hey! Have you ever wanted to run your very own Aquarium? Do you think you know your Parrotfish from your Neon Tetra? I might just have the ideal game for you. Read on…
Genre: Simulation, Strategy
Developer: Twice Circled
Publisher: Twice Circled
Release Date: 13 Sep, 2018
Megaquarium follows in the footsteps of classic theme park management tycoon games and adds an aquatic spin!
Starting with just a few tanks and the most basic of livestock, you’ll grow your aquarium to a thronging metropolis filled with hundreds of guests, tens of staff, and a multitude of different aquatic lifeforms, each with their own unique care requirements.
Megaquarium features almost 100 different marine species including fish, sharks, crustaceans, corals, jellyfish, other invertebrates and even a turtle! You’ll be spoilt for choice as you design, decorate, and populate your tanks.
In order to give this review some context, I’d like to give you some background on my history with management games. Back in the day, I was all over titles like Theme Hospital, Theme Park, and of course, Roller Coaster Tycoon. I must have sunk hundreds of hours into those three games alone. Fast forward to the Steam era and I’ve have not played any of the recent big releases such as Planet Coaster, RollerCoaster Tycoon World, or Two Point Hospital. So all the mechanics/quality of life features which might have been implemented over the past year or so will be completely new to me. So the bar is set pretty low in terms of innovation. Anything that expands on the classic gameplay systems of the ye olde DOS titles will be cool beans.
Megaquarium is the creation of one man, Tim Wicksteed. Currently based in Bristol, UK. The game has been in development since spring 2016. The design philosophy for the game is to take all the things that make tycoon sim games great, laying out the parks, designing the attractions, hiring and managing staff, and then adding an almighty twist. What if the attractions were alive?
Megaquarium opens with a 10-level tutorial campaign entitled “learn the game”. I know a lot of you are going to roll your eyes already, chomping at the bit to create your own dream aquatic wonderland, but bear with me for one minute. I’ve played many a convoluted introduction sequence which over-eggs the pudding. Staying on far too long like some unwanted house guest. This tutorial is essential if you want to make a decent fist of your new career. It’s masterfully executed. Starting out small, it outlines the basic component of a well functioning fish tank. This is contexted within a small provincial aquarium called Sunnyside. You get to work on a blank slate. Building your exhibits and filling them with fish. Opening day arrives and the general public flock in. If they like what they see, they award prestige points which unlock equipment to better manage your fish tanks.
The prestige system is a cool way to set goals and achieve them. It gives the player that much-needed pat on the back, and it underlines the fact that they are going in the right direction. Ecology and Science points are gained by customer feedback when checking out your tanks. These are used to research new species and new high tech kits. Each level unlocks higher grade equipment, which in turn allows for more demanding fish to flourish in their natural environments.
Sandbox is also available at the start of the game even if you didn’t finish or even start the tutorial. This is a highly customizable game mode. The options it offers to tailor the experience to your own liking are numerous and deep. Everything from rank, fish availability side objectives, trades, and merchants can be selected. Difficulty parameters can be tweaked to make the game as causal or challenging as you wish.
The key to the game is keeping everyone happy. Both customers and fish are very demanding. This is a high-wire balancing act, juggling finances to expand and create new exhibits. It takes meticulous planning and an eye on the small details. In order to meet the next scenarios, you have to first study the situation. What staff are well suited for certain roles. What fish get along together, and basic space management. These fundamentals are the bedrock of business simulations. Badly positioned corridors can cause bottlenecks. This not only dissuades folks from viewing your prize catfish, but it also hinders your backroom staff from doing their job efficiently and in a timely manner. A well thought out floor plan can be the difference between financial success and receivership.
Megaquarium hits the sweet spot in terms of challenge and accessibility. No mission targets seem out of reach. By carefully accessing the situation I was able to finesse failing aquariums by relocating and creating new tanks. Generating a good customer flow around popular rare fish was paramount. Around these sought-after shows which have high footfall, I placed vending machines and benches to yield as much revenue as possible. This was then plowed back in the business to purchase more stock and fittings.
There are some cool quality of life features in the game and some things that are missing. I’ll first detail the positives. When the lack of space restricts your plans and designs for new attractions, you can increase the boundary of your facility with the expand button. This immediately switches the camera to an overhead plan view. This takes the pain out of doing this manually and greatly helps with positioning walls and tanks.
Once you have progressed deeper into the campaign you unlock a pump. This allows showpiece tanks which can be viewed from all sides from the general public. The water filters and heaters that are normally connected directly to the exhibit can now be placed behind closed doors, away from the crowds. This is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also allows greater viewing potential. All the pipework is auto-generated from the pump to the tank unlike in city builders such as Sim City. Its a cool quick fix to what otherwise would be a fiddly task.
I’m a nerd and I like stats. The classic Theme Park on the surface looked like a casual simulation, but if you dug into the financial menus you could get some great information from all the profit/loss spreadsheets. Sadly, Megaquarium doesn’t appear to have any of these options beyond a very basic cashflow chart. Knowing which attractions are producing the best profits would be a cool feature. Now, whether they are going to be included in a future update or not, that I don’t know. They would really enrich the game if they were present, as every good accountant knows the numbers don’t lie if you are trying to rejig a failing company. Knowledge is power.
There’s also no all-encompassing inventory for all your tanks and fish stocks. You can click on individual tanks which will show their contents, but this is a bit unwieldy and time-consuming when trying to get a general view of all your fish. A simple one-page chart with icons would do wonders for creating a better comprehensive picture of the whole aquarium.
Another little niggle is that you have to delete walls in order to place flat facing tanks and staff doors. Perhaps I’m lazy and have been spoilt by other games which automate this laborious task. To offset this, at least you have the option to pause the game and therefore there’s no time pressure in making any alteration to your floorplan or general layout.
A management game lives or dies on a clear and readable graphic user interface. The ability to quickly navigate around the menu in time pressure moments can be the difference between compelling gameplay and sheer frustration. I’m glad to report that the GUI is fast, responsive and well thought out. The blue color scheme and font choice are both pleasing to the eye and highly legible.
All the staff and customers look like they have just dropped off a classic Wii console Mii Channel. They have the same bland avatar design. It’s not unappealing or offensive, just a little bit safe. There doesn’t appear to be any variation in body shape or height. If this was added in a future patch it would be a welcome improvement on the overall aesthetic.
The stars of the show are the varieties of fish, crabs, eels, and other aquatic species. You can zoom in to get a good look at them. They swim and shoal convincingly. Megaquarium is a bright and cheery looking game. Its a nice palate cleanser from the usually muted color schemes which so many titles use to invoke a feeling of “gritty” realism.
To the casual observer, Megaquarium looks like a light and fluffy version of a SeaWorld management simulation. Its cutesy art style belies the fact that beneath this veneer lies a compelling and deep experience. Its right up there with the classics of the genre. In fact, I’m surprised that Maxis, Bullfrog, or any number of developers have not had a pop at this scenario in their lifetimes. Aquariums and business strategy go together like ham and eggs. As Todd Howard famously once said, “it just works”. There’s a timeless enjoyment to be had squeezing the maximum profit from any company venture. Arranging floorplans and creating new exhibits doesn’t get old with time. Fish have always held a fascination for me and this game allows me to indulge my passion without all the real-life traumas of keeping a healthy tank. To create your own water wonderland is a hugely enjoyable endeavor. Megaquarium is an essential purchase for any fans of the genre.