Review: Megaquarium

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Review copy provided by developer

love aquariums. Zoos are fine, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something magical about the cool blue lighting and tanks full of alien wonders that you only get at an aquarium. In the gaming world there have been plenty of attempts at letting players manage their own fishtanks, but as far as I know never a proper aquarium builder. But you can always count on someone to fill a conspicuous gap like that eventually, and Megaquarium is just that sort of offering from the minds behind Big Pharma. The result is surprisingly robust management sim with a bit of that placement puzzling fans will remember from their last title.

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Megaquarium features ten scenarios to progress through alongside a completely open sandbox mode, but no matter which you choose you’re going to be building an aquarium for paying visitors. This entails laying out the floorplan of your building, placing tanks and staff areas to service them, filling them with fish, and looking after the needs of your visitors. As people take in the sights of your facility, you earn not just cash but ecology and research points to unlock new exhibits and tools, as well as prestige points that grant access to new tiers of fish and equipment to make the place even more impressive. There’s not much to manage on the economic side, but you’ll have plenty to worry about just keeping your fish alive and your guests from complaining.

Let’s talk for a moment about building and managing a single tank, to give you an idea of where your attentions will be directed here. Depending on where you are in the game you’ll have your choice of wall-inset, free-standing, shallow, deep, or walk-through tanks of all shapes and sizes. Once you place it you’ll need to decide what kind of fish to toss in it, each with its own feeding and habitat and behavioral needs. A basic fish needs clean, warm water so you’ll have to hook up filters and heaters to the tank, proportional to how big it is and how many fish it contains. You’ll want to keep the feeding bins nearby, along with tools for repairing the equipment if something goes haywire, and make sure your staff has access to it all.

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The upshot is that every tank is its own custom creation, from size and shape to contents to decorations to machinery. This complexity is compounded once you realize how finicky the fish themselves can be. Each specimen has basic stats like water quality and temperature required, size, feed type, and habitat needs like rocks or kelp. But then they have behavioral traits, like territorial fish attacking their own kind, or bully fish harassing wimps, or schooling fish needing X of their own tankmates, and so on. Some fish eat corals or crustaceans or fish smaller than themselves, and some fish grow over time to fill their tank. And sometimes you get a combination of the two, like the conger eel that cleaned its tank of exotic fish because it kept outgrowing them.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too, but I’ll spare you the lectures on cold-water tanks and protein straining and lighting systems. Megaquarium threatens to be an overly-technical game, but is saved from that fate by some delightfully accommodating design choices. All of this data is shown as extremely clear icons and tooltips on each fish, and if you put them in a tank where they’re not going to do well special warning bubbles detailing the problem appear over it. You can freely move fish or tanks or anything around at any time, and sell unwanted stuff for the same price you bought it at. Coupled with the ever-present pause feature and generally slow pace of the game, this alleviates any possible pressure from building the aquarium of your dreams, and taking the time to work out the details of which fish will eat who as you do it.

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The other management elements of the game compliment the tank design focus, by providing a variety of simple challenges to overcome as well. Your guests will need food, drink, rest, and relief while admiring your aquatic wonders, and fulfilling those is as simple as placing vending machines and benches. You won’t be building food courts or full bathrooms, mind you, just placing basic services and sometimes making sure they stay stocked. Your admission price is set automatically based on the quality of your aquarium and supplemented by concession and gift sales, so there’s little economic management to do and very few money concerns to anticipate. The trickiest part outside of tanks is probably cramming all the equipment and stations you need into the staff areas, since you can’t let your guests see all the gritty behind-the-scenes stuff.

It all looks pretty great in motion, and while the graphics and decor options are both limited their simple scope does feel very appropriate for the game. Coupled with the wonderfully chill soundtrack and amazingly gratifying sound effects, this one hits the perfect balance of strategy and relaxation. And really that’s about as good as building sims get, offering you a wealth of options to play with without really pressuring you to do any of it. Megaquarium demonstrates a keen understanding of the genre, giving you all the fish and tanks and tools to build the aquarium of your dreams, as well as the time and space to do it. Even if this one sounds too technical for you I urge you to give it a try, because some very smart design makes it a joy to puzzle out and watch in action.

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