In their early years, before resolving to churn out Gundam and Macross games until the sun burns out, Japanese developers Artdink fiddled with quite a lot of bizarre simulation games. Setting the Japanese train enthusiast world ablaze with incredibly complex railroad simulator A-Train in 1985, it eventually grabbed the attention of Maxis who published the third title on western shores. Alongside that, they experimented with other games such as No One Can Stop Mr. Domino, and Tail of the Sun: one a puzzle game built around toppling anthropomorphic dominos, the other tasking the player with building a tower of mammoth tusks to reach the sun.
In 1995, Artdink released Aquanaut’s Holiday. Directed by Kazutoshi Iida (who also directed the aforementioned Tail of the Sun and would later go on to create Doshin the Giant), Aquanaut’s is something of a proto-walking sim in the same vein as LSD: Dream Simulator: you’re tasked with nothing more than controlling a submersible vehicle and exploring the ocean floor. Along the way, you’re able to ping four different sonar tones to try and coax fish up to your ship to get a better look at them. Scattered across the sea are various points of interest that you can come across: remnants of statues, ruins of long-forgotten civilizations, shipwrecks, and so on. There’s also a system in place to build a “coral reef” out of neon-colored cubes to attract more unique aquatic critters.
Having no fail states, no true objective, and no apparent interactivity beyond attempting to beckon fish nearer, the game was something of a flop upon release. Initial reactions were mixed, with Famitsu giving the title a 24 out of 40 and IGN claiming “it’s not really a game.” Other outlets found it a dull affair compared to the “technical prowess” of other titles at the time. However, the game was seen as a meditative exploration with beautiful presentation. For instance, every fish you come across is a full-fledged 3D model instead of billboarded sprites you’d see in most anything else.
Nowadays, the game seems ahead of its time. The PSX served as a platform for a wealth of so many games like this: smaller, quieter titles that ended up lambasted for their lack of “gameplay.” Nestled in with the far more well-known LSD, Aquanaut’s serves as a reminder of the beauty and oddities this system could bring out. Artdink are, surprisingly, responsible for quite a few of these unknowns, such as Carnage Heart, a mecha-battle game in which the player develops programming functionality for their robots in combat, or ToPoLo, where you can use blocks to build any sort of creature your artistic capabilities allow for, which come alive and frolic in various fields for your amusement. Aquanaut’s itself received multiple sequels, one even coming out on the PS3.
These titles are somewhat dime-a-dozen nowadays, in the best way possible. They paved the way for the modern indie environment, in which an ocean simulation such as this would be absolutely expected on the front page of itch on any given day. Even games such as the Wii’s Endless Ocean or Afrika on the PS3 harken back to Aquanaut’s. The library we’ve left gathering dust on the PSX is stuffed to the gills with endless intriguing and obscure titles, well worth exploring with modernity’s hindsight on our side, and definitely worth engaging with from the perspective of a developer, if only to see what can be done with so little.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.