I love the ocean, so I was intrigued by Reef Aquarium, the first Mini from Biart Studio. I was expecting something, not unlike the old PlayStation 1 title, Aquanaut’s Holiday. In that, you could freely explore an underwater expanse. Look at fish, plants, reefs, even shipwrecks. Due to the smaller scope of games in the Mini format, I thought a small reef would be the more likely area and there would be just fish to see.
I was right about there just being fish to see, but I was dismayed to discover that you can’t freely move around the reef. Rather, you are on rails. You can move along a predetermined path, backward and forwards, using the d-pad. Similarly, you are constrained when it comes to moving the camera. You use the face buttons to look around, but it’s about like turning your head, maybe 30-40 degrees.
What’s worse, it’s not even a long path. Basically, one block of a reef takes less than a minute to circle around. Feels more like a fancy hotel swimming pool than an ocean.
As you move along this route, you come across a number of fish. There is not a very big variety of them, only seven types. You can feed the fish to draw them near, and once near, you can pet them. When you do either, the bar on the top left of the screen increases. As near as I can tell, this bar is meant to represent the happiness of the fishes in the reef aquarium.
However, the level of this bar seems to have no effect on the game itself. I’ve filled up the bar full, nothing happened. I’m not sure what I expected, I guess not all the fish breaking into a chorus of “Under the Sea”, but something would have been nice. Similarly, I’ve let it empty completely (it slowly goes down over time and if you pet the fish too much) and nothing happened. Here I really was expecting a “Game Over”, with perhaps a slight chance of all the fish swarming me and making me fish food.
Adding to my puzzlement is that you have the ability to save and load games. Perhaps there is actually more to this than meets the eye, but after playing it well over an hour, I cannot fathom any. The help option in the menu only explains the controls, and there is no software manual. So I’m completely lost at sea as to if there is any hidden depth to this that would require you to save and load games, as opposed to just starting over.
The graphics are quite nice, not just for a Mini, but for the PSP in general. The fish do suffer from a lack of animation, they just sort of drift from place to place. The music is nice and relaxing, somewhere between ambient and new age (closer to ambient).
Besides the game mode, you also have a screensaver mode. It simply just slowly moves you along the track, with no user interface on screen. It’s strangely addictive (thanks to the music, I think) and I would be tempted to use my PSP as a virtual fish tank, except for the backlight dimming after a while. There is also a library, which has information about each fish. Unfortunately, this suffers from some text issues, the first and last letters are often cut off, and two of the fish have the same description.
All in all, it reminds me a lot more of a ride at Epcot Center (a Disney theme park) than any sort of game. Clearly, some effort went into it, and it’s enjoyable in a low-key way, but is it worth $5? No, it needs a bigger area, free exploration (or at least a longer path), and more types of fish. Probably its best use is as a screensaver if you have a PS3.