Game Name:  Insaniquarium! Deluxe Edition
Developer:  Flying Bear Entertainment
Publisher:  PopCap Games
PC Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  November 30, 2014

I spent my first year out of graduate school teaching economics, and one of the most important concepts that I tried to instill in my students was the principle of opportunity cost.  Simply put, it establishes the price of any action as the value of its next best alternative.  Saving money today means it cannot be spent now, so should you do it?  That depends on if you consider those funds, and any accrued interest, more important than whatever you would have purchased.  I mention this, because Insaniquarium! Deluxe Edition is primarily about investing.  Do not let the cute fish, improbable aliens, and frantic clicking fool you.  Boil it down to its core, and a simple question is asked.  Is it better to hang onto scarce resources that are needed to complete a level, or should they be used to make even more resources at a faster clip?  Great titles would infuse this dilemma with meaning and consequence, by letting players fail at times.  Sadly, this is not one of those games.  When everyone gets to the goal line regardless, and the only difference is how quickly they get there, the whole decision-making process is undermined.

Perhaps this is fitting, since it sets the game’s strategic depth to the same level as the wacky premise and cartoony design.  Aquarium enthusiasts know what a money pit their hobby is; it is kind of like owning a boat or collecting radio controlled aircraft.  Insaniquarium! upends this paradigm by introducing gamers to fish that literally poop coins, jewels, and treasure chests.  Money may not grow on trees, but it definitely builds up in a guppy’s digestive tract.  Naturally, larger fish produce more waste, so players are encouraged to see their fingerlings live and grow over time.  For a small fee, food capsules can be released with the click of the mouse.  When hungry mouths have been fed, additional clicking will collect the riches that have sunk to the bottom of the tank.  In the earliest moments of a level, it is a foregone conclusion that these funds will be used to purchase new fish.  What immediately follows is a pleasant little balancing act, between caregiving and money collection, as the empty space in the tank fills up with new inhabitants.  However, any enjoyment is short-lived.  Players rapidly reach a tipping point where no amount of clicking is enough, and it is frustrating to see fish starve and treasure go uncollected.

It is in these frenetic moments that Insaniquarium! tosses gamers a curveball, and the title’s name begins to make sense.  Submarine warning klaxons will sound to announce the opening of an interdimensional portal, through which aliens will invade the game’s once peaceful waters.  They have but one mission in mind; purge the tank of all other life.  Players must prevent this atrocity with even more frantic clicking, because the mouse functions as a weapon when used on enemies.  While this may just sound like more of the same, the various enemy types at least keep the combat engaging.  Destructor the robot will launch heat seeking torpedoes which need to be destroyed in transit, Gus the glutton has to be led away from fish with a trail of food that will cause him to burst, and damage needs to be stopped at times on Psychosquid or he will heal himself.  As fun as these mechanics are when they are first encountered, they are ultimately trivialized by the title’s ease.  Across the 21 stages that make up the game’s campaign mode, I only had to restart once because of sloppy opening play.  Any risk quickly dissipates as an aquarium’s tiny population grows.  From there, the fights become nothing more than speed bumps on the progression path, and it is no longer a matter of if, but when, the player recovers from any battle casualties.

Without any real threat from these extraterrestrial incursions, Insaniquarium's many decision points become just a matter of preference and convenience.  Before every level, three special sea creatures can be selected, from a pool of 24, to add to a given tank’s stock selection of fish.  Each has its own unique ability and will change the gameplay in some small way for gamers.  For example, Angie the angelfish can resurrect dead sea creatures, Wadsworth the whale protects baby fish within his mouth, and Gash the shark can help fend off the aliens.  Despite all of this variety and the intriguing synergies they present, most players will see the same problem and will try to fix it the same way.  That is, too much treasure vanishes before it can be picked up so anything that can help with the collection process must be prioritized.  Stinky the snail and Clyde the jellyfish both comb the tank to pick up any missed treasure, and Seymour the turtle makes those riches drift to the bottom more slowly.  Once this trio is unlocked, people have little incentive to switch things up.  The upgrade process works the same way.  Despite the fact that gamers can upgrade weaponry, food quantity, and food quality in any order they choose, there is a defacto routine that is quickly learned and adopted to support a growing school of fish. This is not gameplay freedom, but the illusion of it.

If Insaniquarium! had been slower and more methodical, it could have been something super special.  I think of the final few levels, which ask players to delicately balance a three-tier food chain, and wonder why there was not a greater commitment to this type of gameplay.  Guppies eat fish flakes, as is standard in any of the tanks, but the piranha-like carnivores feed on them, and then the coelacanth-like ultravores feed on them.  When a handful of fish are lost at any point in the chain, there is suddenly a risk of starvation or overpopulation which the player must rapidly try to correct.  At the same time, larger predators release more loot, so there is a disincentive to flooding the tank with an ever increasing school of herbivores.  Maybe if some of the action had been a little more automated, there would have been room to focus and expand upon a novel concept like this.  Instead, players get a click-centric title with mechanics that prioritize speed and efficiency over thought.  The irony is that none of the campaign’s objectives are based on how quickly they can be accomplished, so there is no reason to mix tactics up to try something new.  Fans of the game might argue that a time trial mode is included for this very reason, but it is such a small a piece of the pie that it cannot salvage the whole experience.  Flying Bear Entertainment deserves a lot of credit for the incredibly original ideas driving this title, but they are too poorly executed to make it worth a playthrough.

Verdict:  Not Recommended