Growing up, I spent many a Sunday chilling in front of sim management games such as the original Zoo Tycoon and Theme Park World, building the parks up to maximum capacity and then just watching them gather a life of their own. People wandering round, staff doing their jobs; only when you knew you could leave it running for an hour had you reached a finalised state.
Megaquarium is the latest sim management game that attempts to emulate that old-school feeling, and for the most part it does a very good job. With a full series of scenarios to take on, and an open-ended sandbox with a host of modes, this feels very well-rounded in terms of content.
The campaign mode really gives you a sense of growing as an aquarium owner. You start off with a small aquarium learning the ropes, but it isn’t long before your reputation grows, and people are searching you out to change the fortunes of their aquaria. Some scenarios also feature environmental based exhibits; one mission has you attempting to restore an aquarium in a cold weather location and uses this to introduce cold climate fish and sealife.
Once you complete each series of objectives, the next scenario unlocks. But, if you are enjoying one scenario a lot, you can keep playing it after the objectives have been completed, rather than seeing it just abruptly end.
At times though, the campaign mode can feel quite slow and sluggish. For example, it isn’t until the third mission that the concept of toilets is introduced as an amenity, and only by the fourth mission are food vending machines offered as an option to you. Often, you will have your hands busy with the various tanks and specific aquatic requirements, but the speed at which other facilities are unlocked feels a bit padded out.
Sandbox mode allows you to create your own game and starting point. There are presets for all manner of playstyles: Quick Start, Limited Supply, Full Unlock and a few more specific starting options. If none of those take your fancy there is also a Custom preset to really tinker with the options to build your dream aquarium, offering lots of replayability.
Once you are in and building your aquarium, the UI can appear a bit overwhelming at first, as it covers all four sides of the screen. After only a few minutes though, it became very easy to control and for a genre that generally struggles on consoles due to controller limitations, Megaquarium on Xbox One does an excellent job of having everything you need only a few button presses away.
The Build menu is divided into several sections including walls, tanks, equipment, decorations, and the all-important livestock. You only start off with a couple of fish initially – all brightly coloured but not high maintenance – that are mapped off real-world fish, but level up and you can unlock more exotic types that require more nuanced tanks.
They could require a tank with no other fish in, or one with plenty of shelter or foliage. The individual fish requirements are well varied and it sometimes feels like a puzzle trying to fit a specific fish into the right setting; the satisfaction when it works makes it worthwhile.
You can even wander around your aquarium and take in the views as if you were a paying customer. Here though, you start to see some of the game’s structure fall apart, quite literally. That is because none of the tanks or walls around the perimeter actually stop you; you can walk straight into and through tanks, and the perimeter walls might as well not be there at all. And you can keep walking on after you have phased through the walls too, but after five minutes I got bored and wanted to return to tending my newly acquired Foxface Rabbitfish.
Annoyingly though, and a major issue in some cases, if you are zoomed out fully in the isometric view, you can’t actually see the smaller fish in the tanks. The draw distance only works on fish of a larger size, so some tanks can appear empty when zoomed out.
As you would expect, research and development is key in Megaquarium and this is split into two forms: Ecology and Science. Ecology is represented by leaves floating up from a customer and allows you to research and unlock new fish. Science meanwhile is shown by a test tube floating up and this unlocks additional equipment and tools to help keep your aquatic habitats running smoothly.
There is also a prestige level based on customer feedback and enjoyment. Advancing levels allows further research into new fish and amenities. It isn’t groundbreaking in its approach but does give a feeling of completion and progression.
There are 15 achievements in total for Megaquarium, and providing you complete every campaign mission, you shouldn’t have a difficult time unlocking all of them. There is one each for completing all missions – of which there are ten in total – and the remaining five are for completing various milestones: total number of guests, completing trades, total number of animals etc. This is not a massive completion in terms of time and doesn’t elongate the length of the game past the point of fun in order to unlock all of them.
Megaquarium on the Xbox One does an excellent job of presenting a sim management game on a home console, without dumbing down the abilities you have at your fingertips. Gameplay is fun and fair; it doesn’t offload hundreds of problems at you at once, meaning a much more casual experience. Sometimes the campaign does drip feed accessories at you a little too slowly, and there are graphical issues, but it does also feel like a throwback to the older sim games. Rather than making me want to play those again though, I am content with sticking with Megaquarium for a Sunday afternoon chill out.