Things really are better under the sea.
Throughout the years, we’ve seen an array of fighting games that appeal to any and all parts of our imagination. Grotesque moments of decapitation and dismemberment? Mortal Kombat. A genetically-engineered fighting kangaroo pitted against a capoeira master? Tekken. Your favorite superheroes battling against iconic 2D warriors? Marvel vs. Capcom.
Then there’s Neo Aquarium: The King Of Crustaceans, the strangest fighting game you’ll ever play. The Steam reviews say it all: “Absolute peice [sic] of garbage but fulfills my dreams of being a lobster,” writes one satisfied gamer, with another adding, “even last night i woke up in a cold sweat screaming. i was dreaming i was a hermit crab minding his own business but all of a sudden a snow crab came and starting flying around me shoot [sic] missiles at me, i got scared he killed my hermit crab family.”
“In most video games human beings shoot lasers and fly through the sky as if it’s nothing,” the game’s creator explains “But I asked myself the question: ‘What if lobsters and crabs had these kind of powers?’”
There’s a story to Neo Aquarium, but even after multiple playthroughs I still don’t understand. Honestly, I feel as if the creator doesn’t really either (there’s literally a moment at the end of the game where the narrator says, “I totally lost my train of thought”—in regards to the central narrative).
With similarities to Shaq Fu and Nanosaur (that one computer game you know you were obsessed with in elementary and middle school, because you played as a gun-toting badass dinosaur that could also fly) and countless other video games that don’t make any fucking sense but are pretty fun to play, Neo Aquarium is a balancing act of lol, troll, and strategy, making for a game that embodies the weirdness of today’s Internet culture.
It’s entertaining enough that you’ll probably play more than once—if you don’t immediately become annoyed with the game’s noticeable issues, that is.
After getting my ass kicked multiple times by a cluster of Corn Barnacles on “easy” mode, I actually read through the game’s manual to understand how the characters work, how the water quality of a stage affects the rate at which my POW gauge replenished itself, and how even water currents can affect a character’s mobility. Granted, now I’m even more confused than I was before reading the manual, but at least the creator tried.
Anyway, on to the gameplay. At first you’re only able to choose from the following crustaceans, with the ability to unlock other characters the more you play: Corn Barnacle, Frog Crab, Hermit Crab, Spiny Lobster, and Snow Crab. I suggest starting off with Frog Crab because it’s essentially Neo Aquarium’s Ryu: accessible, agile, and uses a special attack that looks like it’s erecting pearl dildos from the ground up.
Then the fighting begins. Now, aside from the many camera problems you’re sure to encounter (fortunately there’s a lock on feature so even when you’re not facing your opponent, most of your attacks will still head in its direction) and one of the worst control configurations ever, the battles are thrilling, primarily because you’re never exactly sure what the hell is happening.
Most of the time you’ll find yourself button mashing only to get an onscreen confirmation that you somehow won the battle—this happened to me on multiple occasions. But overall, there’ll be plenty of scurrying around the sea bottom aimlessly as you try to understand the game’s mechanics and not get killed by a bloodthirsty King Crab. Yes, you fight a King Crab.
The idea is that you’ll get used to the controls, which then enables you to use special moves, self-amputate and use those parts for attacks, shed your skin whenever you’ve lost too many body parts, and more. But the system is so frustrating that you can’t fully appreciate all of the nuances that are supposed to make this game distinguishable from others of its kind, which totally undermines some of the elements of strategy here, too.
There are eight levels, with each enemy getting harder and harder. Along with learning your own combos, you’ve got to ally yourself with other creatures that’ll not only defend you but give you energy for your POW and SKILLS gauges—and carefully time each decision whenever battles get really intense.
But how can you be expected to do all of this and fully immerse yourself in the game as a deadly Lobster Princess (a character you have to unlock, sorry) or Scuba Diver (same deal) when you literally can’t even face your enemy most of the time? Just because the story doesn’t make sense doesn’t mean the gameplay mechanics shouldn’t either.
Regardless, chances are you’ll find yourself coming back to get your money’s worth, and the special attacks are pretty awesome to see. Also, the soundtrack is low-key one of the best parts. Overall, though, Neo Aquarium is a game that obviously doesn’t want to be taken too seriously, which is fine. The fact that so many people—myself included—have tried this game is more a reflection on us than the creator.
But it’s hard not to get crabby when it makes itself difficult to really enjoy.
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