This Old Game: Shark! Shark!

It’s a fish-eat-fish world.

I was born in the year 1979. This is important because, as you can probably deduce, it meant I would be spending my childhood during the developing years of video gaming. As I grew, they grew with me. The Nintendo Entertainment System was first released in 1984, which is also important — but not for this column. I did not have a Nintendo for most of my childhood years. I had my neighbor’s NES if I could weasel my way over to it, but not one of my own. (Until 1988, that is. That’s another story, though.) What I had at home was a pinnacle of late-70s video game technology: the Intellivision.

Released in 1980, the Intellivision was the product of the Mattel Corporation, best known for things like Barbie and Beach House Barbie. Despite their strong experience in the doll market, Mattel decided it was in their best interests to jump on the video game bandwagon and provide some competition for Atari. So jump they did, and the result was the world’s first 16-bit home video game system. The console itself has a very fascinating history, but what is even more fascinating about it are some of the games produced for it.

When you think of video games these days, you think of a solid presentation with perhaps a weak story, but at least some general sort of narrative flow or drive. “Doom” may have been a little soft in the plot department, but the idea of blasting zombies is pretty universally accepted as self-explanatory. And when you blast enough zombies and demons, you face a really big demon, and then you win. The game is pretty clear on that point.

But back in the Intellivision years, designers took the bold step of creating games that didn’t necessarily have an overriding goal, or, for that matter, much of a point at all. “Burger Time” had you assembling hamburgers in the face of inexplicably animated and angry pickles and eggs. There were only something along the lines of eight actual levels, but the game would just keep looping you through them, making the enemies faster and faster until eventually you would lose. “Night Stalker” just kept throwing tougher robots at you until your little freedom fighter was mowed down in a hail of fiery plasma bolts. But in my personal opinion, the pinnacle of game-as-existentialist-experience had to be “Shark! Shark!

The basic idea of “Shark! Shark!” is this: you are a fish, and you need to eat other fish. Hold on, there’s a little more depth to it than that. You must eat fish who are smaller than you, and you should try not to get eaten by the shark. The game itself takes place entirely on a blue background with a white mass at the bottom with a few nubby fronds to indicate that it is, in fact, the bottom of the ocean with plants and such. You, the player, start as a tiny yellow fish in the middle of the screen, one of the smallest denizens of the sea. From that point, it’s eat or be eaten.

There is no way to win the game. The manual itself even states, “WIN BY SCORING HIGH AND STAYING ALIVE!” So you don’t win so much as not lose. But that in itself can be an interesting experience. The game has a steadily increasing level of difficulty for the first five minutes, at which point your fish will become as big as it can, and you can eat pretty much anything else in the sea.

Except the shark. And also the jellyfish. While the game may be named after the shark, who is a constant thorn in your little fish’s side, he is not the true evil of the game. Because, beyond anything else, the shark can be defeated. He is mortal. Nip at his tail enough, and down he goes to the bottom of the sea. The jellyfish, however, are indestructible. And they come in waves of two, then three, then more and more. They are the perfect fish-killing machine, and when you finally lose your last fish, it will probably be because of them.

When I would play this game for hours on end as a child, I always held a deep hope that maybe, just maybe, if I kept eating enough fish, I might just grow that one extra size and finally be able to eat the jellyfish. But that is just human nature, I suppose: No one wants to know they have encountered a foe they cannot hope to defeat.

I must also note that “Shark! Shark!” was a graphically violent game for its time. Why, when your little fish would be eaten by something else, a little ring of red pixels would spring out from where you used to be. The manual makes specific note of this, stating that you should “watch the red-orange blood bubbles taint the ocean water.” Additionally, if you killed the shark, you were treated to the sight of his broken, defeated carcass sinking to the bottom of the ocean, presumably to become food for so many bottom feeders. And people have the nerve to complain about gore in video games now. I played it, and I grew up just fine.

Reading these descriptions, perhaps it is hard to grasp why something like this would even be remotely enjoyable. It probably sounds like an exercise in futility. In many ways, it was. And yet, even with access to my neighbor’s NES and the many strange and wonderful new games that came with it, I would still make time for “Shark! Shark!” There is a certain Zen state that one enters after playing the game for any length of time. Perhaps it is the simple colors, perhaps it is the gentle bubbling of the ocean that is the only real sound of the game; perhaps it doesn’t matter. You need to experience it to understand it, and fortunately there are ways out there that you can. So take a minute from your fancy “story-driven” games with your fancy “winning,” and spend some time at the bottom of the sea.

And if you lose, don’t feel too bad. It’s some of the happiest death music you’ll ever hear.

Article © 2004 by Joel Haddock