Steven Spielberg, purveyor of Serious Oscar Contenders and moving melodramas about little kids with no father, is also responsible for one of the most effective horror movies of all time. Jaws terrified a generation. Anyone old enough to remember 1975, or anyone subsequently frightened around the family VCR, still feels a little quiver in his belly when he puts a foot in the ocean. The legacy of the great white shark was tainted by a series of increasingly terrible sequels – not to mention a mediocre NES game – and disappeared into the cold, black depths as time passed and the legend faded.
But all that was made in the ’70s must return to walk the Earth once more. So, shark rises from the dead. Shark goes into game. Our shark. Majesco’s Jaws Unleashed came out as a budget title, but it proved to be a very good one. Jaws Unleashed isn’t an epic RPG about one boy’s struggle to overcome his oversized hair and mysterious past, and it isn’t an entry in the games-as-art debate. It’s precisely the game a generation of bloody-minded adolescents played in their minds when the NES’ Jaws proved to consist entirely of sailing around aimlessly before dying for no apparent reason. It’s about swimming around as a really big shark while killing people and eating them in incredibly graphic ways. Bite off a swimmer’s leg, and he screams and bleeds, maybe even clutching at a bloody stump as he struggles to swim away from the unforgiving jaws of the Great White. It’s all those sick Jaws fantasies come to life or, as I’ve called it previously, Grand Theft Auto: Great White Shark.
Appaloosa Interactive, formerly Novotrade International, is the developer behind the shark, a startling departure from their most famous series, Ecco the Dolphin. While Ecco is all about saving cute sea creatures – discounting the time-traveling alien storyline – Jaws is all about eating cute sea creatures. And boats. And people. And giant squid. And whatever else happens to be in the water. Jaws is the Bizarro Ecco, and I found that Kadocsa Tassonyi, Project Manager at Appaloosa’s offices in Hungary, was quite happy to talk about his company and how they went about capturing the spirit of a great white shark.
He describes Appaloosa as a “full-service game developer,” formed in 1983, with its headquarters in Palo Alto, California and development offices in Budapest, Hungary. “Over its 23-year history, Appaloosa established itself as a creative and reliable [developer] of video and PC games, and original character creation/development through a long line of award-winning interactive entertainment products, with a track record few can match.” He gives a figure of 120 published products, including Contra games for the PlayStation, as well as games for Sega consoles, including the MegaDrive, Genesis and Dreamcast. They also work with licenses, and “dozens of popular licensed characters” have found their way into Appaloosa’s games. As for Ecco, he says, “We worked on several Ecco titles. The last one was Ecco: Defender of the Future for PS2 and Dreamcast. Within the Jaws team, there are team members who worked on the Genesis and Mega-CD versions of Ecco games, as well. All Ecco titles were developed by Appaloosa.”
As for Jaws himself, and the Bizarro Ecco theory, Kadosca says, “Jaws is definitely different than Ecco. It bites and tears everything in its way, and we built the game around this behavior. Jaws’ enemies are not just humans trying to exterminate it, but also hostile sea creatures like hammerhead sharks, orcas and even a giant squid.” In fact, just like Ecco, “Jaws has to defend itself and react to the hostile environment,” though Jaws has to eat enough to keep from starving, and what Jaws eats is people. And it’s not all self-defense, as he’s eager to point out, saying, “Players eager for some extra destruction can also find plenty … to hunt by roaming freely through the open ocean.” That may include people, boats and other things that break or bleed.
To contrast it with the Ecco games, he says, “It was a rule in the Ecco games to not feature humans. In Jaws, eating humans is one of the most important features, so we worked a lot to make it as satisfying as possible. Because of the close interaction with the human world, from the beginning of the project, we decided to extend the game territory from underwater-only to above and below water, so the player can meet, attack and destroy different kinds of boats, machinery and buildings in a variety of ways.” Kadosca acknowledges that “it’s [something] of a guilty pleasure to play as Nature’s most feared predator. That’s most likely because people are afraid [of], yet fascinated by, sharks.
“Combine that with the uniqueness of playing as an animal in a mature videogame, and it’s easy to understand why the concept itself is so compelling.” Elaborating, he says, “We like rock bands, action movie heroes, etc. Being a ‘bad guy’ in our imagination is tempting, because of the many rules that control our life and behavior. Playing as the bad guy offers gamers a way to ‘break the rules’ in a game the way they never could in real life. During our focus tests, the players were really excited about playing as the shark for the entire game.” Indeed, among those who’ve seen or played Jaws Unleashed, the reaction is half-horror, half-starry-eyed 5-year-old-boy “Coooool.”
I asked if the team felt the need to try and make something compelling story-wise, or if they thought swimming around and eating people would be enough. “The game primarily focuses on the giant shark that eats people,” Kadosca said without a hint of irony. “But there are also many side challenges that provide ways for the player to try out the shark’s various capabilities. There is also an underlying story that plays out via Story Missions: Environplus is disturbing the ocean life around Amity Island with the vibration of its oil drilling machinery. This makes the sharks more hungry and aggressive.” Jaws is an environmental crusader, eating people to save the world. “The player faces more and more powerful enemies as he advances in the game – police, coast guard and harbor patrol show up to hunt the shark, depending on how destructive Jaws has been.”
As for designing the mechanics of the game, where Jaws can eat people in various fun and creative says, he says, “the game was created for mature gamers, so it made sense to deliver an experience that played off playing as a true predator. Victims can be torn apart, and there are special moves like ‘Surface Throw and Catch’ or the ‘Corkscrew’ move that more advanced players can earn after completing story missions and side challenges.” One of the hazards of working in a killer’s mind is that it can prove to be a little too engrossing. I wondered whether any of the developers got a little too into the design process, and he was quick to assure me that “none of us dropped by the pool to bite people’s legs. The fact that you play the game as an animal and not as a human being helped keep things in perspective.”
The game’s perspective is unique, allowing the player to explore the ocean through the “lifeless eyes” of a true predator and a perfectly evolved killing machine. For the team at Appaloosa, it was a very different experience, but one they seemed to enjoy, and now Jaws swims the oceans once more. Swimmers, boaters, oil drillers and cute bottlenose dolphins: Be on your guard.
If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.