There are places on earth we know very little about, and few humans have ever seen. Yet these mysterious places dominate our world. – David Attenborough, Blue Planet

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The ocean fascinates us. It is the Earth’s largest habitat, covering a full two-thirds of our planet. It’s also an environment we love to explore: Worldwide, the number of recreational scuba divers is estimated to be between three and six million. However, the cost of real diving adventures can add up quickly, especially if you’re not within driving distance of any waterfront.

Fortunately, ocean-themed games can fill that craving when real-world scuba adventures are unfeasible. (Plus, the jellyfish don’t hurt quite as much when they sting.) Limited mostly by technology, many early titles such as Lochjaw for the Atari 2600 focused on puzzle-based treasure retrieval with little concern (or room) for creatures beyond dangerous sharks.

Hoping to revitalize a generally under-represented niche and expand it considerably, Japanese developer ARIKA dove in with the limited release of Everblue in 2001 and its worldwide sequel Everblue 2 shortly after. In 2008, the studio released Endless Ocean (Forever Blue in Japan), a sort of spiritual successor to Everblue. With Endless Ocean, ARIKA moved the primary focus away from treasure retrieval (a predominant feature in the genre at the time) and let players simply enjoy the calm, peaceful ocean at their own pace. The real treasures of the deep, the game seemed to suggest, are the wildlife. From Everblue to Endless Ocean, ARIKA swiftly established itself as the dominant figure in ocean exploration games with a genre-distinctive splash.

Endless Ocean received an immediate sink-or-swim reception among Wii owners. “But what do you do?” people asked, unaware that such a question entirely missed the point of the game. Gamers can be an indecisive bunch: They may call for sandbox games that let you explore the world at your own pace, yet once a developer takes that idea to its logical conclusion, people generally don’t know what to make of it. Most critics weren’t kind to the game either, labeling it everything from “charmingly batty” to “neither a good depiction of the real thing, nor fun.”

But amid that negativity, some reviewers understood what ARIKA was aiming for, which undoubtedly helped the game from drowning in a sea of mockery. Eurogamer’s Oli Welsh observed that the title succeeded as a “videogame designed to be soothing and relaxing, to inspire a sense of oneness with nature, rather than a desire [to] shoot nature in the face.”

In my case, Endless Ocean was an accidental discovery, as I had been looking for a reason to dust off my neglected Wii. At the time, work was busy and stressful, and I just wanted to relax. I didn’t want a puzzle game to tie my head further in knots, FPS games were right out, and online PvP wasn’t working in my favor. With Endless Ocean, I discovered the deep blue and waved goodbye to an entire weekend. The music was soothing, the fish were interesting and realistic and, most importantly, it was exactly what I needed – a way to relax after a long day.

Endless Ocean wasn’t the greatest game I had ever played, but I found myself discussing it in great detail to whoever would listen. It was like having an aquarium, but without any of the slimy bits, accidental dead fish or curious cat paws to contend with. I found that Endless Ocean was what one writer deemed a veritable “puppy cam” game. Over time, my marine notebook filled up with discoveries, and my appreciation for real aquariums increased as well. But other, flashier games caught my attention, and the lure eventually faded. For a while, I simply forgot about it.

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The desires to improve the gameplay and push the technology were powerful motivators in the development of Endless Ocean‘s sequel, Blue World. In a developer interview, Nintendo Producer Hitoshi Yamagami commented, “Right after we’d finished that last game, [ARIKA Producer] Mr. Mihara began telling us, ‘If we had a little more time, we could do this and that.'” But even with those time constraints, the game did remarkably well for a game of its type. With approximately a million copies sold worldwide, Endless Ocean found great success outside Japan, selling nearly five times more copies in the North American market and taking ARIKA by surprise.

“We really didn’t expect it to sell as well as it actually did overseas,” ARIKA Producer Ichirou Mihara said. “A child in Europe sent us a letter by airmail; I couldn’t read it, so I had someone else read it for me, and it said, ‘I love Endless Ocean, and I pet the dolphin every day.'”

I found out about the sequel a couple months before its release as a side mention on a web forum I frequent. The more I read about it, the more interested I became. Blue World promised more “game-like” elements, like coin collecting, achievements, the ability to level up skills and upgrade equipment. Further sweetening the deal was the promise of more realism in both fish variety and diving locations (like the Weddell Sea, for example). And to top it all off, the graphics had improved. That was enough for me to unleash my inner fangirl and, in a moment of excitement, pre-order the game. In a sea of $60 titles with disappointing sequels, I figured even if I enjoyed Blue World only half as much as the first, it would still feel like a bargain considering the $30 price tag.

“This game has a failing, you know. The problem is that it’s hard to explain in a word just what genre it belongs to,” Yamagami remarked. He was right: While the first game was designed for explorers, it is clear Blue World was designed for achievers while simultaneously trying to appeal to the more action-oriented crowd. The developers added tools like the Pulsar Gun, simplified interaction with animals, increased the number of swimmable locations, and added an overall sense of danger with a limited airtank and animals that attack the player. It was a bold step to move from a calm ocean to a dangerous one, but compared to other games that appeared at the same time as Endless Ocean, ARIKA didn’t have much to lose in the first place in terms of an established fanbase.

Now, just over two years later, we’ve officially started shooting nature in the face. Blue World‘s Pulsar gun lets players ward off dangerous creatures or heal sick ones with a pull of the trigger. It’s also required to access more interesting locations, a process which temporarily puts you in a first-person perspective. Even before I started playing Blue World, the Pulsar gun irritated me. Someone had gotten a shooter inside my chilled-out fish game, and I wasn’t happy. But it turns out Blue World keeps the shooting to a minimum and, the Pulsar gun is strangely forgiving even when its use is required. Had this been an actual damage-based gun, I would be committing fish genocide. Instead, the game praised me for improving the ecosystem. Blue World had succeeded at the impossible: I was shooting fish and having a blast.

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Blue World‘s story was just as much of a departure from that of its predecessor. It turned the open ocean into an increasingly linear affair, with no real consequences for failure. There were also more NPCs involved in the storyline, which provided more options and side quests along with more “reminders” to tend to story missions first. I ended up liking the game, but in an entirely different way than expected, solving each puzzle so I could get to the interesting part: everything else.

Now when I’m trapped in Cocoon or annoyed in Azeroth, I return to Blue World to fill up my notebook, draw in the corners of maps, build a world-class aquarium, explore the areas I rushed through to complete the storyline and take pictures to my heart’s content. According to its developers, the game contains 200- to 300-hours’ worth of material. When a game has that much content, there’s no need for it to be “replayable.”

With higher review scores and critics praising the additional gameplay elements, Blue World is on track to perform better than its predecessor. But whether that will be enough to merit another entry in the series is still uncertain. Now that ARIKA’s clearly got the genre down, they’re in an ideal position to go somewhere with it – and they should. According to some estimates, we’ve only explored about one percent of the ocean floor. Obviously different types of ocean wrecks and more locations to explore are safe, shallow steps for a sequel. Better character customization and improved controls would be ideal, along with the incorporation of deep sea submersibles like bathyspheres.

That leaves plenty of territory for games to explore, but letting the series float aimlessly while hoping that people catch on isn’t enough to keep it going. The market is out there, and the title could do more than fill an oddball niche. Teamed up with a large media partner like the Discovery Channel or BBC, and marketed to fans of Blue Planet, Endless Ocean could live up to the fascination and wonder generated by its namesake.

Nova Barlow’s favorite virtual vacation spot these days is Nineball Island.

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