As it often happens, I find myself in need of a phrase. In the following text, I aim to review the latest sim management game called Megaquarium. Its theme is that of a zoo, but specifically for fish. Now, as far as I know, there is simply no shorthand term to describe such a zoo. Sea World is a specific attraction in the US. And “zoo with only fish” is really all too long to really be short. So, for the purposes of this review, we will simply dub such a zoo... a fish zoo. Let it be known that my editor approved this review even after reading this first paragraph.

Megaquarium is the second game by developer Twice Circled, and the second simulation game after their debut title Big Pharma. This time around, your mission is not to produce medicine, but a veritable fish zoo, as the name indicates. See? That works rather nicely. You play in one of ten distinct levels in which you start from scratch and build and organize various aquaria in order to appease guests and win the level. There’s no sandbox mode as of now, though that is in the works for an upcoming update. Already before release, the game has had several minor updates, so rest assured that more is coming.

Starting with the very basics, you have the design and layout of each level as the floorspace is not fixed. Every level is a different location, from an abandoned theater to an old research facility and begins as an already arranged, often also decorated space. Every time, you have to revamp the place and turn it into a popular attraction filled with different kinds of sea creatures. Here already the game takes quite a different approach. It doesn’t merely suffice to knock some walls down and install your fish tanks. Instead, you get to actually mold the level to your heart’s content. You can—indeed, must—expand the space into a much larger, more streamlined space in order to appease the most guests. Having these tools at your disposal means not only a unique level design from player to player, but also added replayability since you can start over and mold the level differently each time.

To undertake this molding, Megaquarium presents its UI in two visually distinct spaces: the (upper) left corner for zoo-building and the upper right corner for more specific zoo management. In the upper left corner, then, you find the bulldoze option, the movement option, the options to add or subtract floorspace, the option to build walls, and the options related to platform building. With these options, you can manipulate the zoo’s layout absolutely to your liking, something you will always appreciate as rethinking your design is often necessary for growth. And it is sometimes the warm welcome back after realising where you went wrong hours ago and clicking on “new game.”

Besides this level of macromanagement, you have your options for micromanagement. These options sit mostly in the upper left corner and pertain to the objects you find in the zoo. Whenever you click an aquarium, for instance, a menu will pop up with information specific to that aquarium, such as the contents, the water quality and the temperature. Beyond these pop up menus, you also have the various overview toggles that allow you to see whether or not your guests see your aquariums, for example. These options are limited for your average simulation game where spreadsheets are usually the norm, but less is more in Megaquarium. Unless we’re talking numbers of aquariums, of course, in which case more is obviously more every time without fail.

While there may not be spreadsheets, the game does boast a few very useful channels of feedback. See, the game’s main objective is to go up in prestige ranks. Prestige is gained by having guests look at prestigious tanks and fish. The more prestige you want, the more you have to tinker with the design of the zoo and the tanks and fish therein. Once you level up, you gain access to more fish, tanks, decorations and general tank modalities, all of which allow you to expand even further. No spreadsheets for Megaquarium, no, siree. Instead, you get the mighty customer feedback list in which you read which fish, tank or decoration they liked (and rewarded with prestige) and which they disliked (and punished with the takething away of prestige). The second very helpful tool is the above mentioned view count. When toggled on, this allows you to see which tanks get viewed the most, if at all. Together, these two channels give you very necessary feedback on AI behavior and allow you to intelligently make changes to your zoo in order to improve it.

So how do you really get started? We covered the basics in zoo building, but how do you actually get an aquarium through the front door? Oh, that’s easy. You just select it from the UI on the left side of your screen and plonk it down on the ground. (See, you go via the roof and not the door. Works a lot better that way). The game is consistently simple in this approach, and even holds your hand through the early stages. The next step in building a viable tank would be to add both a filter and a heater to ensure good quality and good temperature water for your fish. The final step, you may be thinking, is to add the fish. While certainly a very important step, the final step is actually to hire someone to feed the fish so they stay alive. You’re free to house any fish you want, but certain fish want certain types of food of course. You’ll have to buy food dispensers accordingly.

Upon buying and housing fish, you are presented with the first apparent level of complexity. As I said, certain fish want certain types of food of course. But every single fish is also unique in more than just a visual and nominal sense. Every single fish will require different housing needs that get increasingly more complex the further into the game you get. Initially, you can get away with buying five of your most standard fish and plonk it in warm, clean water. Over time, you’ll need to pay attention to: fish size, fish nature (wimp or bully; you can imagine these different types don’t get along), water temperature, hunger, growth cycle, like or dislike of other fish or sea creatures and several other unique factors related to aquariums and other fish species. Your fish can actually lose health and eventually die, at which point the game will show you an autopsy report so you can make adjustments as needed. Some fish will even attack other fish in the same tank and murder them in hot or cold blood depending on the temperature of the water.

As your zoo grows in size and popularity, your guests will become more demanding. They will want to see bigger, more exotic, more unique fish instead of the boring same old same old. Simply reusing the same fish tank decorations, for instance, will get you complaining guests. You’ll have to appease these by changing it up and choosing different decorations. Guests also have specific needs besides not being bored. The usual applies: food, drink, resting places and toilets. Later on, the game even provides you with guide stands to your zoo and balloon receptacles. The latter empties out quickly and you then get to see a wave of balloons delightfully scurry around in your fish zoo. Both of these, however, need restocking, which is again where staff come in. Not only does it become necessary to manage and clean the zoo with more staff, but you will also need to think about hiding certain modalities such as balloon refills and even aquarium equipment. Guests will complain about seeing water filters and the like and may even steal some balloons if you neglect to hide the refill boxes.

Staff is where the game introduces yet another level of complexity. As you start the level, you’ll want one or maybe two members of staff hired: one to feed the fish and one to repair the equipment should it break down (which happens more than I would like, admittedly). Naturally, not every member of staff is created equal; all of them have their very own look and their very own stat sheet straight out of D&D: Fish Zoo. Some noteworthy stats are fitness which denotes their movement speed and precision which denotes how meticulous they are at their work. These stats come together in skills such as the self-explanatory feeding and fixing skills. Feeding some more prestigious fish takes a while longer, unless your staff has a higher feeding skill. Each member of staff can also be assigned a general area in which to work, though I usually left them on auto-pilot to do as they please. The AI did a good job of keeping up, which was nice since I never did figure out how to assign specific tasks to specific members of staff. Finally, staff level up and you get to increase one of their skills by one when they do.

Now, I know the review is getting rather lengthy, but believe me when I say I’m being terse. The last thing we’ll talk about is the mission system. As you begin in level one, the game will asks you to perform very specific tasks: build a tank with a filter and a heater; buy fish X; etc. The mission system functions nicely as a tutorial to the early stages of the game. Later on, you simply get the objective of reaching a certain amount of prestige to win the level. At that point, the game has become more complex and the mission system lets go of your hand to let you be creative. There are several side-objectives, however, that the game relates to you via its in-game message system. There you get the updates on fish health as I mentioned before, but also specific tasks, usually to successfully house specific (types of) fish for a certain amount of time. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will reward you with either money or base prestige, both helpful tools to complete the main objective, obviously.

Sadly, Megaquarium isn’t all shines and sparkles. Nearing the end of my playthrough, I was eagerly waiting on the game to take itself to the next level. I didn’t want to just make rooms by hand, I wanted to make aquariums by hand. I also started to dislike building new tanks because it invariably required more micromanagement than I was still willing to muster. Every single time, the game asks you to: choose a location; choose a fish first, but not buy it yet; choose a tank; make room for equipment in the vicinity of the tank; place the tank; place the pump and the equipment; buy and place the fish in the correct amount; and finally add decorations to the tank. Some of these elements I know simply cannot be taken out of the mix. But then others I feel can easily be discarded; the equipment, for instance, could easily come in a prepackaged form where all you need to do is click one item and have every necessary part come with it. This same idea goes for the tanks, themselves. Why not simply have premade aquarium packages that either already contain the equipment inside of the tank or come with the tank, some walls and a door so you don’t have to bother with the specifics?

This idea of what eventually becomes needless complexity extends beyond new tanks into already existing ones. I mentioned earlier that the UI is split up into two parts. Naturally, since these two modalities are kept separate, you wouldn’t expect them to interact. Yet interact they do. For example, the way to remove a fish from a tank, not just move it between tanks, is to first select the desired aquarium, then select the “bulldoze” option from the upper left corner, and then click the fish you no longer wish to have in your zoo. It goes without saying that this method of removing fish is incredibly contrived. You would instead expect there to be a “remove” option on the respective fish once you’ve selected a tank, something simple like a red X that has long ago become a staple for this sort of thing. The pop up menu already has an X to close the respective menu window and even a wrench icon that allows you to pick up and move the fish around. But alas, no easy remove option. This extends further to the objects that are in the tank, as well. Those, too, you have to manually select and manually delete in this contrived way each and every time.

There’s an overall lack of streamlining that inhibits Megaquarium from truly being a great simulation game. Already as is, the game shows great promise. Something I have up to now neglected to mention is the game’s presentation and overall feel, both of which score very high marks. The visuals are simple without being silly or dumb or cheap and the game generally feels very satisfying in interaction. The sound of placing tanks or fish, the act of hiring staff and seeing balloons run around your zoo is all very engaging. You notice that a lot of work and attention to detail has gone into making these gameplay elements respond well and give noticeable feedback. The soundtrack I found largely passable and not very memorable, but a far cry from invasive or grating. Serviceable, in a word.

Furthermore, the unicity of the fish and even some of the tanks in conjunction with the floorspace manipulation allows for some very creative fish zoo designs. Some fish, like the jellyfish, need a very specific tank to avoid getting stuck on the walls or floor of the tank and dying. Some tanks get really really big and some let guests walk through a tunnel underneath. Some fish creatures are simply starfish or crabs or corals that also have specific needs and may or may not jell with other fish. But ultimately, the less is more approach turns on its head. I wanted giant whales in enormous fish tanks that span the entirety of the south wall of my zoo. I wanted baby sharks to grow into monstrous beasts and have guests walk over the tank where they swam, sometimes nibbling at the feet of the impolite guests with heavy feet.

Instead, Megaquarium lost the plot at the end and simply provided more of the same. And while everything it provided was worth my time playing—as it undoubtedly will be yours, dear reader—I would much rather have had my mind blown with a very necessary and inspiring trip beyond what it established and executed so well. And I don’t even like fish zoos all that much, folks.

Jorge reviewed version 0.3.04 of Megaquarium on Steam with a code provided by the developer.