Posted 01/16/2009 at 3:31:00am | by Susie Ochs

screen shot of Aquaria game
Naija and her pal Li hitch a ride through the kelp fields.

With its color-splashed backgrounds and gorgeous, hand-painted 2D sprites, Aquaria might look like a kids’ game, or a casual one. But like its ocean setting, this fantasy action-adventure game is miles deeper than what you see on the surface.
Both simple to play and incredibly tough to beat, this game reminded us of entire Saturdays sacrificed to exploring 2D action-adventures like Zelda and Castlevania on the NES. Side-scrolling Aquaria uses similarly simple controls—just a mouse will do, although you can pick up a few keyboard shortcuts too—and it has a jaw-droppingly epic world to explore, making us feel eight years old again.

But this isn’t a kids’ game—for one thing, it’s hard. You play as Naija, a mermaid-like amnesiac who’s exploring the underwater caves and caverns to discover her origins and recover her memories. Sounds innocent enough, but with no missions or quests, the only direction you get is from her narrations, the ever-expanding map, and whatever items and clues you find scattered throughout the game world.

Naija’s singing voice summons “the Verse,” which is sort of like the Force. By singing certain tunes, she can cast spells, move objects, and so on. Since you learn these songs over time, you’ll often backtrack when you realize you can now bust through previously inaccessible roadblocks. You’re allowed to drop markers on the game map as “notes to self,” but even then, it’s easy to get lost—zoom out on the map with your mouse’s scrollwheel, and you’ll see how huge this world really is.

As you keep exploring, enemies attack you. You start with just a Shield song and the ability to swim away. But eventually, you learn how to take on other forms, including an Energy form that lets you shoot fireballs at enemies, a Fish form to disguise yourself, and a Sun form that illuminates dark places. Some creatures come to your aid, from friendly jellyfish to sea horses and turtles you can ride.

The recipe system is robust—Naija collects ingredients and learns how to combine them into dozens of items. The finished concoctions regenerate her health or give her temporary abilities, adding another level of strategy and complexity to the game. While hunting for clues, solving puzzles, backtracky exploring, and culinary alchemy will keep your brain’s gears turning, and the occasional boss battles are downright tough, requiring an arcade ninja’s quick reflexes. Save points are scattered throughout—make good use of them, because you’ll die a lot—but we couldn’t help wishing for more.

If the single-player epic weren’t enough on its own, the included level editor lets you plot out your own network of watery caverns, even choosing your levels’ look and music. Indie developer Bit Blot Games received the top prize at the Independent Games Festival in 2007 for Aquaria, as well as Independent Game of the Year by Game Tunnel. Thanks to Ambrosia, this Universal binary Mac version should play on most G4 and newer Macs—resolutions can go as low as 800x600 in a window to a 1440x900 full-screen view.

Stunningly well crafted with a compelling story, beautiful visuals and music, and hours upon hours of action-adventure, Aquaria provides patient gamers with an ocean of depth.

COMPANY: Ambrosia Software
CONTACT: www.ambrosiasw.com
PRICE: $30
REQUIREMENTS: 1.42GHz G4, G5, or Intel Mac; Mac OS 10.3.9 or later
Outstanding story. Easy controls. Massive area to explore. Cool graphics and music. Includes level editor. Award winning. Universal binary.
Requires patience. Tough boss battles.