The late 1990s and early 2000s were a great time for business simulators (so-called tycoon games)—in my elementary school days one of my favorites was Zoo Tycoon, particularly the Marine Mania expansion pack. Unfortunately, whoever owns the rights seems unable or unwilling to re-release it on a digital platform, and while we’ve gotten our fair share of games attempting to recreate the magic of RollerCoaster Tycoon, clones of its animal counterpart are far and few between. Megaquarium, created by Big Pharma developer Twice Circled, has taken up the mantle.
The game starts you off with a few small tanks in a single room, looking a bit like those sad-looking aquariums you see in traveling fairs. Fear not: in no time you’ll be building your new aquatic empire.
While Megaquarium is complex enough for adults, on the easiest difficulty it could even be enjoyable for older kids, especially with its bright and appealing graphics. With tasks like having to make sure the fish you’re putting together won’t rip each other apart, ensuring their water is clean and appropriately heated, and balancing your facilities’ finances, it may be too much for small children.
A campaign is included and each level is usually focused on a particular theme, such as revitalizing a run-down public aquarium. With sub-objectives along the way, these always end with leveling up your aquarium to a particular rank. It’s a nice way to work your way through all the research without feeling spoiled (or overwhelmed) by having everything available at once, though some of the levels do drag on a bit due to overly long victory conditions. There is, of course, a free-play mode with lots of variables to tweak (such as the frequency of side objectives and trade offers)—you’re free to start off small and grow your aquarium, or have everything unlocked from the get-go. Unfortunately, there’s no “infinite money” mode (a must-have in any tycoon game, in my opinion) to go nuts and build, well, a megaquarium. It’s very enjoyable to plan out an aquarium with optimal foot traffic flow and strategically placed tanks with the fish variety to keep guests entertained.
Twice Circled put a lot of thought and care into their design process. Once your aquarium “ranks up” to level three, your guests will begin to complain if they can see equipment like heaters and filters, so you’ll have to start to change the architecture, making in-wall or in-floor tanks, keeping the nitty-gritty out of sight. It makes sense. You don’t go to a aquarium like the Minnesota Zoo or Sea Life Minnesota and expect to see any ugly machinery in the open. Likewise, tank ecology matters; you can’t just build any old tank and plop in some fish. Sharks and eagle rays, for example, need to constantly move, and therefore can only be placed in rounded tanks, while other fish can’t survive under the bright lights coral needs to thrive. There are even cold-water tanks for fish from the extreme ends of the oceans, something I’d never even considered in an aquarium management game. With over 70 species (plus coral), there’s no shortage of ways to set up your displays.
As mentioned earlier, the graphics definitely pop, though some may argue they’re too simplistic, which there may be a case for—zoom out too much and things can be hard to distinguish, and some players may be turned off by the “low-poly” feel of the art style. There are some graphical issues, albeit minor, such as staff members that clip halfway through a door before it opens, or objects stuck in animation loops on the purchase menus.
It’s a bit odd that the aquarium is floating in an blue ethereal plane of existence rather than, say, in a field next to a road, and it leads to a bit of a disconnect that makes it feel a bit more “gamified,” like my aquarium isn’t actually a real place. I also feel the game is lacking in options outside of aquarium features, particularly the guest amenities. To feed your guests there are only vending machines and food carts, along with a few stands for souvenir shopping. The very first available food option is a candy bar vending machine, which I found a tad bizarre. I’d love to see full restaurants and gift shops, perhaps as part of a DLC or expansion, to make the aquarium feel more complete.
If you’ve had your fill of building amusement parks, dive into Megaquarium. I can only hope this spurs other developers to delve into zoo and aquarium builders—we’re about due for another golden age of tycoon games.
But what’s one thing Zoo Tycoon had that Megaquairum doesn’t? You can’t feed your guests to the sharks!