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NEO AQUARIUM - The King of Crustaceans (PC) artwork

NEO AQUARIUM - The King of Crustaceans (PC) review

"Crab Fighter - Turbo Edition"

Yesterday, I beat the crap out of a spiny lobster in an undersea fighting game. That sounds unusual already, and I've not yet mentioned how the lobster shot homing plasma blasts and could grow huge laser-claws to slash at me. But I was too much for it. I was everything it could not be. I was a corn barnacle.

The world should fear the corn barnacle. Sure, it canít swim around like the rest of NEO AQUARIUMís cast of crustaceans, but it can grow up to ten supporting clones that cling to any surface and smash attacking crabs from multiple angles with wave after wave of lasers. Because thatís a thing it does. Alternatively, the barnacles can group together. This limits their angles of offence but, should a foolish lobster approach to stab at them with his glowy claws of death, they can return offence by spouting wavering plasma tentacles from their gross little orifices and give it a good smashing.

This is weird, isn't it? I mean, my job essentially is to write about weird stuff, but this feels a level above that. NEO AQUARIUM - The King of Crustaceans is a 3D fighting game in the style of Virtua On, except rather than battling robots, you have missile-toting crabs and lobsters (and bad-arse barnacles!) going head-to-head in a series of dimensionally-linked aquariums becauseÖ why, yes, this game was made in Japan. How did you guess?

It would have been easy for the game to rely on its weirdness alone to shift copies, but itís surprisingly respectful of its source materialÖ and I'm only just now realising how ludicrous that statement sounds when a person is writing about a game where lobsters shoot lasers, but hear me out! The Snow Crab, for example, can only move forwards once it has turned sideways, meaning that aiming the rapid-fire projectiles that flow from its face is a bit of a nuisance at times, but nothing strafes circles around a besieged enemy better. The Hermit Crabís stolen shell can offer a fantastic shield against hordes of bullets, but itís not infinite and can be destroyed to expose his soft, fleshy hide and make him an easy target. Unless, of course, he locates another shell to inhabit is able to shrug off attacks once again.

The shell alone wonít save him, though; most of the creatures can suffer limb damage. Smashing away at their little spiny legs reduces their speed, while getting their adorable little claws sheared off decreases their offence. However! By sacrificing their ever-growing power bar, crustaceans can step out of their crusty exoskeletons, leaving a pile of discarded limbs in their wake and emerging, like a soggy phoenix, with completely healed appendages. The barnacle has no need for something as pedestrian as limbs. The barnacle will endure none of that nonsense.

The power bar also has other usesÖ. I guess? NEO AQUARIUM is, even at its best, unapologetically confusing, offering multiple features at once but never taking the time to explain what the hell they do or how to employ them. The power bar can be charged to trigger various melee attacks--the barnacleís plasma tentacles being one of them--but let it build to the heady heights of Level Two and players can tip over and fire constant bolts of face-melting disco lights into the depths. More mobile creatures extend their reach with glowing neon laser or detach their limbs altogether, linking them to their main body with burst of electricity. Itís a bizarre spectacle, even if I'm never sure how or why I've pulled something off. So much of the game remains alien to me.

That includes the aquarium itself. Itís filled with other sea life, from sloth-like sea cucumbers to massive starfish that can and will start laying into either your or your opponent with little warning and no foreseeable reason. You can even customise your own aquarium with possibly hostile wildlife (or so I'm told). I've still not quite figured that bit out. I've just had spiny legs rise from the seabed to impale me now and then, or a starfish start spinning like a sentient ninja star and plough into me if I swim too high or wildly. I donít know, maybe thatís part of the point: that nature can be chaotic. I'm more inclined, though, to think I'm missing something. Not because I canít grasp it but because itís not really there to grasp, instead hidden away somewhere beyond comprehension. Likewise, the game tracks the sea temperature and the oxygen quality. Just a cool little bonus? Not so; several times I've been warned about being over-oxidised. I donít know why; I donít know how. Does it make a difference? Can I win or lose via asphyxiation? I've no idea. Maybe?

If these elements were simpler, Iíd figure them out eventually through trial and error but here I am, several hours and several completed runs through NEO AQUARIUM and still none the wiser. At some point along the way, I've unlocked submarines and divers and out there somewhere is the promise of a kawai samurai girl, but I'm still not sure I'm playing the game right. Itís frustrating in a way I could work with while I was (*ahem*) drowning in the weirdness, but the concept starts to erode the more fights you plough through. Even if youíll still have a few jaw-droppingly odd moments. That King Crab I mentioned, for instance? Heís impossibly huge. And he fires neon strobe lights out from the leg stumps he obtains after temporarily exploding his own limbs.

Thereís a chaotic charm to NEO AQUARIUM - The King of Crustaceans, one both fueled and hampered by pseudo-intellectual comments that bookend each battle on the philosophy of underwater warfare thatís both ridiculously charming while, at the same time, trying far too hard to be random. But there needs to be a little slice of order amongst the mess, just to offer a glimmer of suggestion as to how the whole thing bloody worksÖ


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (June 19, 2015)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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