Megaquarium is the new game from one-man Twice Circled Studio, whose other claim to fame is the excellent, yet fiendishly tough, Big Pharma (2015). This time, instead of curing the world medically, you’re helping make life just that little brighter by designing and running fishy wonderlands. A strategy game in the vein of Prison Architect, Two Point Hospital and looking back as far as Zoo Tycoon, Megaquarium is a superb piece of work with real sole.
For those new to this type of game, Megaquarium’s tutorial is frankly outstanding. The ten mission campaign mode is carefully structured to ramp up the complexity for you. You don’t, for instance, find staff levelling up until the fourth level; nor do you unlock cold water fish which require completely different tanks until several missions in. This doesn’t feel restrictive at all, and instead helps you learn the game at your own pace. Everything is extremely carefully labelled without locking you into doing things a particular way – it’s “place a tank” rather than “place a tank exactly, precisely in this one spot here, and we’re not letting you move on until it’s perfect”. Every objective has a small ‘i’ icon next to it, which you can hover over for more hints, and it meant that at no point did I feel stuck about what to do next. If they did awards for tutorials, Megaquarium would win one.
The UI is excellent and uses simple icons to communicate with the user. I wanted to move something, and knew immediately that the pincer icon would do this. The buttons that line the top of the screen are again clear about what they do – expanding your floorplan, building walls, building platforms for feeding and so forth. That said, I can’t help but feel that building staff doors, one of my most common tasks, should also be up here rather than buried in a menu as it currently is. You can easily and quickly learn what the different icons mean on the profile of the various fish, and this helps you create the perfect environments for them. You do end up with a lot of windows open, Rollercoaster Tycoon style, but there are buttons along the top which will close all windows for you. I couldn’t find a key, say escape, which would do this for me rather than requiring another mouse movement and click, which could be useful for a future update.
The game has charming graphics. An isometric style with fully rotatable camera allows you to focus in on a micro level or zoom back out and take the whole aquarium in in one go. The fish are individually modelled and it’s ridiculously soothing to sit and watch them buzz around the tanks in their various colours. Add in the various tank decorations and the way the fish move in and around the tanks and you have a very zen environment for your creatures. One fairly major knock is that people do not carry things around with them – instead objects float in front of their faces as they walk. This is particularly jarring to see as you look around, and I hope that this is a bug rather than design.
Building the environment for the fish is of course the key part of Megaquarium. You gradually unlock different types and depths of tanks, from those built into walls to freestanding lagoon tanks. You even unlock tanks which have automatic movement of the water, suitable for creatures like jellyfish. Some fish will grow, such as the eels or the Angelfish, which means that they will outgrow their tanks if you over populate. With no current ability to edit the size of tank once it’s been built, which does seem like a flaw but does also feel realistic, you do have to plan ahead for growth. You also have to be extremely careful with inter-species relationships. Some fish will eat all of your coral, or each other, and certain stroppy types will fight if they’re placed in a tank with their own species. This can be a careful juggling act and several times I’ve found myself searching the livestock menu with specific criteria in my mind such as “needs to be a warm water fish, that won’t eat coral, that won’t kill fish smaller than itself, that isn’t stressed out by the coral lighting that the other creatures in this tank need to stay alive”. Fish have different criteria – some require rocks in their tank to hide among, or plants, and will become stressed out if they don’t have these available, lowering the quality of their tanks. You need to make sure waste is filtered out and the temperature is appropriate for the fish, with guests expecting to have this equipment well-hidden out of the way in staff-only areas.
Guests will visit, paying their usual entry fee, visiting the gift shop and using vending machines. However, guests are absolutely critical for generating the ecology and science points that makes Megaquarium so much more than just a business simulation. When a guest views a tank, you are given these two sets of points depending on what is inside it. Ecology points then are used to unlock more fish, and science points unlock technology (pumps, filters etc.) and more decoration for the tank. They will also generate prestige, which in the campaign increases the rank of your aquarium and moves you on to the next levels. Guests are simple – perhaps overly so – and their pathfinding currently leaves quite a bit to be desired. Several times now I have watched guests march up and down a corridor with no destination in mind. It feels a little like they are just moving mindlessly and waiting for the game to give them their next instruction, rather than being interested, living visitors who want to see all of the exhibits.
On the face of it, the gameplay cycle of Megaquarium may look simple. Build tank, place fish, wait for people to visit it and raise ecology and science points, unlock more fish and equipment, build new tank with these things and repeat. However, it is massively engaging. The individual missions that pop into your inbox give further incentives and rewards, such as growing an eel to its full size to swap for other fish. You can also see the thoughts of the guests, both positive and negative, which immerse you further and allow you to see where to make improvements. One minor hiccup lurks within this menu: guests will refer to tanks but there is no way of telling which is Tank 2 or Tank 16 without manually clicking on each one and no apparent way of naming the tanks either. A list of tanks, similar to the list of rides in Rollercoaster Tycoon or rooms in Two Point Hospital, would definitely help.
I have been completely hooked during my time playing Megaquarium and am itching to get back to it. This is an absolute triumph which hits all of my management itches and constantly reminds me of the joy of enclosure design in Zoo Tycoon. I know that, even with this review complete, the hours count of my time spent in game will only increase further. As the 5th Dimension definitely once sung: “This is the dawning of the age of Aquariums”. You need to take the bait and buy this game.