2-D exploration games bear a unique place in video game culture because they are defined by the inherent limitations that come with their design. They are, on many levels, like ordering a pizza. There is a distinct pre-conception in your mind when you buy a pizza: you expect it to be flat, involve cheese and tomato sauce, and the main variable is the toppings. 2-D exploration games are founded on similar kinds of expectations: the game is flat, it’s going to be full of things that need killing, places that need exploring, and the power-ups are where most of the variation comes from. The food and the genre resemble each other because although there is some room for innovation, change the basics too much and it quits being a pizza; it quits being the game you expected, and consequently, wanted.
The food analogy is important because this is a game that very distinctly resembles its fellow 2-D exploration games, and yet I do not think it should be overly criticized for this as other reviewers have argued. Aquaria is still just a pizza, but it is also a unique one. What indie developer Bit Blot has done differently with their game is not so much change the 2-D genre (or your idea of pizza) as elevate it to a more sophisticated level by using better ingredients.
Like the Castlevania or Metroid series, you spend the game exploring a giant map, albeit this time you’re underwater. Game controls are handled well with the mouse and can be switched to the keyboard for the combat sections. The game follows the formula of collecting abilities that let you open up passageways, gather power-ups, and fight the usual smattering of bosses and creatures. Aquaria is a bit more complex in this regard than its predecessors, however. The abilities are songs that transform your character when sung, as the game shows you the various notes and requires you to pick out the right sequence. There are still glowing balls of energy for health, but technically you spend most of the game collecting ingredients and recipes. These are then cooked to make different items for healing, speed boosting, and so on. Depending on which ingredients and power-ups you prefer, you can cook whichever one works for you as much as you like.
The creatures you deal with aren’t just a batch of monsters at Seaworld, either, they’re a huge variety of benign fish, killer sharks, and every other underwater animal you can think of. Contrast this to the worlds of Castlevania or Metroid: Every critter (with a few exceptions) pretty much wants to kill you no matter what, items are dropped and equipped, health comes in potions or glowing balls, and using your abilities is usually just a matter of holding down a button. It’s not that Aquaria isn’t another pizza, it’s that they swapped the pepperoni for gourmet sausage.
Not only do you get to admire the gorgeous scenery…
The various levels of the game are a combination of underwater caves, kelp forests, coral reefs, and sunken cities. Each region is visually distinct and always gives you the impression of arriving in a new spot. This is a standard aesthetic tool since 2-D exploration game use visual cues to tell you where you are. Metroid tells you that you’re in Norfair (the lava level) because of the red haze and heat damage. Castlevania puts you in the Clock Tower by throwing flying Medusas and spinning gears at you. These get the job done as visual cues but in contrast to Aquaria, they seem a bit dull now. Aquaria really makes each section jump out at you when you visit. The kelp forest is incredibly lush and full of planets that are not seen in any other part of the game. The coral reef is full of enormous brain coral, and the shallow sea bed is covered with starfish. The narrator always takes the time to marvel for herself at what she’s seeing as well, providing a reaction of her own to each place to color in the emotional detail that a 2-D image may fall short at.
In other words, this pizza has some superb cheese on top.
All of this lush quality does not come without its problems, though. Ron Gilbert once noted that the hardest part of designing games is accounting for the fact that gamers almost never do what you want them to do. You’ll get a similar feeling in certain parts of Aquaria. The world you explore is incredibly open, and the designers leave it up to you to find your way around it. It’s so open, in fact, that after beating the first dungeon you can pretty much swim to the ‘next-to-last’ level and merrily get the shit kicked out of you. A game like Castlevania controls where you can go by having later points only be accessible after you get a certain power-up, but Aquaria designs all the levels to not only be accessible at any time, but actually beatable with enough diligence. The nice thing about not being able to open a door or get to a part of a map in these type of games is the designer is very politely telling you that you’re not going to have much fun in there without some new abilities. That’s still true in Aquaria, because you’re still going to get a beating when you enter a more advanced area. The only difference is that now they’ve decided to let you learn it firsthand.
...but you get to ride seahorses, too!
The problem comes after you’ve spent a couple of frustrating hours getting sucked down whirlpools or not being able to reach one of the sparse save points because you don’t have the right power-up. You can’t really tell if the designer wants you to try harder, go a different way, or just try a different level. I could keep up the whole, ‘This makes it more sophisticated’ argument by saying that the game demands a bit more thought from the player, but I’m not sure that’s what I’d call it. I’d call it getting the shit kicked out of you because you innocently went to an area that’s a lot more fun if you beat a different dungeon first. A few more sign posts and guides might have been nice for those not interested in such an experience. You may get a gourmet pizza, but the designers are expecting you to slice it yourself.
The other complaint could be classified as a nitpick, but it’s a notable one: you still spend a lot of this game just shooting stuff. While you might want to pause a minute and enjoy the impressive art design of the kelp forest and the beautiful flowing sea weeds, the heat-seeking fire balls and swarming piranhas tend to break the reverie. Numerous portions of the game have the courage to step away from this 2-D staple and let you just enjoy exploring, but Aquaria still seems to be confined in these moments to ingredients of a lesser quality than the others. There are a couple of bosses that break the mold and demand a bit of thought, some fun ways to interact with the monsters by eating them, but you still spend a lot of time just pressing shoot. You have to do this both to survive but also collect ingredients for health items, meaning you have to be a fairly violent member of this world whether you like it or not.
The ability to harvest ingredients and avoid violent creatures effectively would’ve let the game push the experience even farther than it already does. I guess with such amazing toppings, I just wish the sauce was a bit more exotic.
The plot is a beautiful story of trying to find companionship in a world where every community has failed to support itself. Each of the civilizations you explore meets disaster through hubris, paranoia, or simply angering deranged gods. Yet despite all of this, your character still desperately seeks community and companionship to end her solitary life. The final conflict of the game is being called on to defend the friend you have made during your travels and to ensure the safety of your bond. Despite the flaws of being around others in society, the game reminds you that the rewards of community outweigh the potential problems. For a game that doesn’t change much about the genre it exists in, having such a pleasantly sophisticated plot is perhaps the spice that cinches the deal. Mere pizza this game may be, but Aquaria is one of the best I’ve ever had.