Genre : Action
Developer: Edge of Reality
Release Date : September 28, 2004
Licensing has come a long way. Currently, almost every soon-to-be major film release has a massive assault of licensed goods prepared long before a frame of the movie meets the eyes of the public, especially in the case of children’s cinema. Disney long ago realized the value of console videogame tie-ins, but only recently has the prospect of side-by-side development become the standard. Producing a film and a videogame at the same time is now a common practice, along with contracting many of the same contributors to work on both projects, from animators to producers to voice actors.
Dreamworks’ upcoming film Shark Tale has not yet graced the public with its presence outside of a few previews, yet its accompanying game has been in stores for a couple weeks now. And the children are buying. They want to get all they can before the movie premiers, so what better way to do this than by playing through the entire videogame? This way, they can aquaint themselves with the characters and setting, and brag to their friends about how much they know about the new Finding Nemo rip-off. The kids win, the developers win, and the gamers don’t, because while Shark Tale all but name drops some of the most underrated cult-classics in recent gaming history, its execution extremely poor.
Shark Tale introduces itself with a long save file opening process, which is immediately followed up by an elongated cinema filled with flaccid jokes. Then, finally, the sparse gameplay begins: Players guide Oscar, a hapless little fish with the sort of urban flare one would expect from an “I’m Lovin’ It”-era McDonald’s commercial, through a frantic rush away from a menacing great white. For some reason, the massive creature seems to stop at nothing to eat up poor Oscar, even though it could find a much better meal from, say, a sea lion, or something with a more substantial amount of edible flesh than a single, albeit sassy, little fish!
All complaints on the realism factor in a game with personified sea creatures aside, this segment really is a boring breeze. An arrow pops up on the screen telling the player where to move Oscar in order to avoid the bite of the shark. The difficulty gradient moves from “for the braindead” to “kinda tough… if you close your eyes”, which is forgivable when considering that this is the first five minutes of the game, but then again, five minutes? Of following arrows around? Not very entertaining, which is what a fifty dollar game should be trying its damndest for. So where did all of the attention go during the development of this game? This may sound surprising, but I think developer Edge of Reality (EoR) put a lot of effort into this game. The issue must be with the feedback from their testers, because while the concepts presented throughout this game are interesting, they aren’t any fun to play. This is shameful, because as soon as the gigantic great white makes his initial swoop at Oscar, it is hard not to notice how good this game looks. Incredibly smooth textures coupled with seamless animation gives the game a fantastic visual standard that the gameplay does not live up to.
The next stage introduces a new style of play, a pseudo-2D adventure mode. Here, Oscar’s controls are a direct allusion to Sonic Team’s fantastic NiGHTS: Into Dreams for the Sega Saturn. Wait, wait, hold your horses and wipe those nostalgic tears out of your eyes, Saturn fans. Shark Tale is not an adequate holdover for the time between now and the next NiGHTS game (between now and forever?). While it takes its basic controls straight from Yuji Naka’s brainchild, the design ethic put into place by EoR has nothing in common with that game.
The smooth 2D free-flight controls are not used with quick action in mind here, instead being put to use in a boring peck-and-hunt adventure setting. Oscar controls like a dream, but there is nothing fun about struggling through a cityscape filled with fish to dodge when your goals are always something very simple that has nothing to do with struggling around with pearl-guarding crabs and clams. And usually, those aforementioned goals are basically fetch quests, and the sprawling underwater city in which the game takes place is extremely irritating to navigate, never mind the hell of listening to the same voice clips over and over throughout the adventure. Each “block” has a similar look to the next, making it tough to find anything specific without spending far too much time swimming about aimlessly and being slammed into by giant fish that aren’t even on the same plane as you are. Throw the obligatory stealth stage into this mess and you have a frustrating wreck that is either too boring to too irritating to spend any time with.
The dance mode is a major diversion from the slow nature of the adventure stages, with its own obvious allusion to a Sega game: the famous retail flop, Space Channel 5, complete with a televised news setting to introduce the dancing action. The first song Oscar and company dance to is an incredible M.C.Hammer ditty that some of you older kids might remember. This mode is a mixed bag, and feels tacked on. Arrows spin around in a radial motion, and the player must press the correct arrow on beat with the music when it arrives at the bottom of the circle. This mode is a bit more ambitious with the difficulty level than the chase scenes, thankfully, but it desperately needs a bit more polish when transitioning from the easier on-beat segments to the out-of-sync arrows that show up on crazed off-beats (on these, it is often easier to turn the sound off and use the visuals to get the right motions).
Unlike most music games, the on-screen representation of the dance does not have much to do with the game, but in this case it only matters to a friend who is watching over your shoulder, since you’ll be completely focused on lining up those arrows perfectly, which is a feat in itself, since the crazy coloring and movement of the arrows sometimes makes them a headache to look at.
A racing mode is also present, with its initial appearance being somewhat akin to yet another Sega game, Crazy Taxi. Am I sensing a pattern here? This one, however, is the least like its Japanese counterpart, mostly focusing on the racing aspect of cab driving (swimming, in this case). The controls are not aptly outlined during gameplay, forcing players to – gasp! – read the manual! During this mode, the voice acting is at its worst. The quality of the soundclips is perfect, of course, but the amount of times you’ll hear phrases like “the water seems a little… warm back here” (a urinary reference?) is simply ridiculous. And, unlike the adventure mode, the controls here are a bit unwieldy. The graphics, however, are once again perfect, complimenting the film better than almost any other licensed game out there.
Shark Tale is a mediocre release. While it has impressive graphics, amazing animation, and high-quality voice acting (even if I was irritated by what they were actually saying), not to mention references to some of my all-time favorite videogames, I am having a hard time endorsing this game because it is simply not much fun to play. Soon-to-be fans of the movie might fall in love with the game’s “aw shucks!”-cum-“urban” charm, and therefore find it to be a worthwhile purchase. For them, that’s just fine, otherwise, Shark Tale is not a good enough game to warrant most people's fifty dollars.