Image: Endless Ocean
Nintendo
In this strangely hypnotic "ungame," you're a diver that must explore the ocean waters looking for as many different kinds of fish and marine critters as you can find.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/7/2008 4:21:11 PM ET 2008-02-07T21:21:11

The promotional materials for "Endless Ocean" claim that this newest title for the Wii is "more of an experience than a game." And while that may sound like the kind of puffy sloganeering dreamed up in some marketing meeting, it's actually pretty accurate.

If you're looking for the kind of challenges provided by the typical video game, you won't find them in this underwater ... er ... experience. That is, you aren't required to shoot anything or save anyone. You don't have to beat a clock. You don't die. And even though you'll be swimming in the deep blue sea surrounded by all manner of aquatic wildlife, you won't have to escape the jaws of a hungry shark or evade the tentacles of giant boat-sinking squid. "Endless Ocean" won't even ask you to you reel in an award winning catch a la "Fishing Master" or "Big Bass Fishing."

Instead, this … let's just call it an ungame ...  puts players in the flippers of an expert diver assigned to the good ship Gabbiano. As the ship's resident dive pro, your primary job is to explore the ocean waters looking for as many different kinds of fish and marine critters as you can find.

As you find these creatures flitting about a coral reef or soaring across the dark blue of an abyss, you'll be encouraged to interact with them — touch them, pet them, feed them. The more you mingle with a specific type of fish, the more information you'll be given about it — that is, a dialog box will pop up telling you that the Pelagic Thresher, for example, "have spindle-shaped bodies with short conical mouths."

Relax. Watch the scenery
Beyond that, you'll hunt for various treasures and items scattered throughout your corner of the sea (a necklace, a pirate's compass, a pocket watch) and be asked to do the occasional job — like take clients on diving excursions or shoot a photograph of a specific fish for a magazine. All of this you can do at your own pace, unpressured by the countdown of a clock or the need to accumulate points or reach some finish line in the distance. In fact, you'll be encouraged to relax and sit on the ship's deck chair, staring out at the tropical scenery around you.

Developed by Arika, the studio responsible for PlayStation 2 diving games "Everblue" and "Everblue 2," "Endless Ocean" seems, at first, to be one of the most boring experiences ever invented. Where's the challenge? Where's the adrenaline rush? Where's a freakin' man-eating shark when you need one? But then, slowly, this game sinks its hooks into you.

Each fish and animal you cavort with gets logged in a marine biology encyclopedia that you're tasked with helping your nutty, water-fearing shipmate put together. And so, as you come across each new creature, your encyclopedia pages begin to fill up. And the more fish you find, the more fish you want to find. But finding the 230-plus creatures swimming in these waters isn't always easy. Some only show up in certain places at certain times of the day or during certain seasons of the year.

Logging critters is ... surprisingly addictive
And just like that, you realize that there is a challenge here — and the challenge that comes with locating and logging all of these creatures is surprisingly addictive. By the time I came across a giant Humpback Whale soaring like a silent zeppelin across a watery canyon, I was positively thrilled by my discovery. The game even allowed me to grab hold of the beast and go for a ride.

Meanwhile, the developers have implemented some uncomplicated and intuitive controls. Using the Wii Remote as a pointer, you point to where you want your diver to swim and then press the B trigger to get those fins swishing. Shake the remote and your diver executes rolls and tight turns. All in all, "Endless Ocean" does a nice job simulating the look and feel of flying through water (I say this as someone who has done some diving).

Make no mistake though; this is not a diving simulation. As any real diver knows, petting, poking, prodding and riding innocent sea creatures is usually taboo (and you probably wouldn't want to pet a Hammerhead Shark anyway). Never mind the fact that "Endless Ocean" doesn't require you to worry about buoyancy, equalizing or avoiding a nasty case of the bends. And though the time you can spend underwater is loosely limited, there's no chance of drowning when your tank runs dry.

But that's okay by me. Who wants to muck about with such mundane details when you can simply float about, frolicking with fish and enjoying the scenery?

Some serious graphical glitches
That said, "Endless Ocean" does go a bit belly up in places. While the underwater visuals are about as beautiful as they come for a Wii game, there were some serious graphical glitches here and there. For example, at one point a stingray floated right through my diver's midsection as if it were a ghost passing through a wall. I have never so longed for the little Wii to have the gigantic graphical horsepower of, say, the PlayStation 3 as I did when playing this game.

Meanwhile, the action that takes place on the deck of the ship leaves something to be desired. Not only does your character move about dry land with all the stiffness of a fish out of water, there's a dolphin training minigame accessed from the boat's back end that's positively tedious.

The music and sound design is a bit of a mixed bag as well. The underwater, Vader-esque sounds of your diver inhaling air from a Scuba tank are nicely hypnotic, but the sounds of your diver's feet walking across the boat deck sound like horsey clip-clops. And the music! Welcome to the damp embrace of new age hell, my friends. Fortunately, the game allows you to import and listen to your own MP3s, which you will certainly do unless you're a fan of the likes of Enya, Yanni, and company.

Still, there's a lot of good stuff going on here — exploring shipwrecks, swimming with dolphins, populating a giant tank with the wildlife you've discovered and joining up with friends online to do some deep sea exploration together. It seems these tranquil waters are teeming with life.

Yes, players who thrive on the adrenaline rush of the more typical gaming challenges will likely find "Endless Ocean" ridiculously sedate for their tastes. Still it is a lovely departure from the same old same old. Give this game/experience/whatever-you-want-to-call-it a chance, and you might be surprised at how its serene charms grows on you.  Much like the slow-growing coral reefs, it simply takes time.

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