This Old Game: Fishing Derby

Fishing crystallized into 4-bit beauty.

I think that video games entertain through seduction. When we first play one, the whole production’s as sexy as the blonde that we fervently hope will sit at a bar beside us one day. There are zooming sound effects and loopy graphics — and most important of all, we get to control somebody with interesting abilities. We go out and buy video cards and new video game consoles specifically just so that the games will amaze us right off the bat.

What’s interesting is that the only way that most video games sustain our attention, just like any other kind of seduction, is through novelty. Super Mario Brothers 3 is probably the best example of this. After you finish the friendly, grassy first level, the designers give you a desert level, an underwater level, a level where everything’s four times as big as you, a level up in the clouds, a level full of ice, a level full of pipes, and the final level, Shigero Miyamoto‘s version of Hell, with Bowser presiding.

There are lots of other differences between the levels beside setting. But my point is that the joys of SMB 3 are in the new creatures and twists on the basic gameplay that you discover. SMB 3 is probably the best game created for the old Nintendo, but playing just one set of levels repeatedly wouldn’t be any fun. The basic game mechanic just isn’t that compelling.

There are very few video games that can sustain your attention without putting on a new dress after every level. Tetris is one, certainly — although the game becomes more challenging as you progress through the levels, you’re still solving the same basic problem in your mind.

Fishing Derby is another one, I think.

The fishing game genre has a unique place in the gaming world. First of all, it’s not aimed at the typical gamer. It mostly relies on its real-world antecedent to make things interesting, in the same way that airplane and theme park simulators do. The difference is that just about anyone can go out and go fishing in an afternoon. It’s not scary or dangerous, and though you have to get a license to do it, proving your worth to the Department of Natural Resources mostly involves money and not skill. You can’t really say the same of flying a plane or designing a theme park.

So really, the only possible audience for fishing games is a fisherman somehow trapped in front of a computer (or even more improbably, a video game console). To them, the selection of flies, lures, and other paraphernalia makes intuitive sense. But to the rest of the world, it might as well be a Martian anteater simulation. The whole point of the game — to experience some strange approximation of the experience of going fishing — is lost.

I’ve never caught a fish in my life. But somehow, this ancient Atari 2600 game makes me feel as though I’ve had a small smidgen of a taste of what fishing is all about.

Paradoxically, it accomplishes this by offering a a game that has exactly zero in common with the business of fishing. You don’t worry about choosing the right lure; somehow, I have a feeling that fishing in the real world is like this. You learn which lure to use for the fish you want to catch, and then you’re done.

Fishing Derby’s graphics possess a religious simplicity. Witness the game screen:

Two fishermen alike in dignity

There are three elements to the game. Obviously, the fishermen lazing about on the pier at the top. The fish below them waiting to be caught. And — this is the key — the shark.

Wait, you say, there aren’t any sharks in fishing! Of course not. But that’s part of the game’s charm. It drops a shark in there with the fish without apology. It makes just as much sense that the shark ignores all the fish except the one currently hooked on your line.

The actual game is very simple. You maneuver your fishing line toward a fish with the joystick. When you’ve snagged one, you hold down the button to reel it in. The lower the fish swims, the more it’s worth. The first fisherman to get 99 points wins.

There are exactly two obstacles between you and 99 points, and neither of them is the other fisherman on the screen. You can’t go over to your nemesis’ side of the screen and catch his fish. No, the first complication are all the worthless fish that swim toward the top. If you’re going to win, you’re going to have to catch the bottom dwellers.

The second obstacles is none other than Señor Tiburón. He’s a shark of very little brain; he swims back and forth across the screen, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. But after a game or two, you begin to suspect that those apparently random changes in speed are in fact designed to screw you over in the most efficient way possible.

Nonetheless, Fishing Derby is an easy game. I think I’ve lost to the computer once, and that was mostly because I wanted to see how dumb you had to be to lose. You can meddle with the 2600′s difficulty switches and make the fish a little harder for you to catch, but it’s still essentially an easy game.

At the same time, it’s immensely enjoyable. It doesn’t require a whole lot of brainpower and dexterity to play, but it does relax your mind. You’re not constantly at the brink of death, as you are in basically every game released in the past 10 years. You can easily hold a conversation with someone else or mentally make your grocery list for the week while you play.

In other words, it’s something you do to allow yourself to think about other things, talk to other people, and generally enjoy life. It’s not so much about the things you’re doing with your hands as it is the freedom you have to do everything else.

I hope that’s what real fishing is about.

Article © 2002 by Chris Klimas