Salmon "The Big Catch"
Most wouldn't think of fishing video games being an established sports sub-genre until after the Sega Dreamcast, with Sega Bass Fishing and its optional fishing reel controller. However there were quite a few fishing games before Sega Bass Fishing made them relatively mainstream. Video game developer HOT-B actually introduced the concept of a fishing simulation video game with The Black Bass in 1986, originally released on the Japanese MSX home computer. The Black Bass was eventually ported to the Nintendo Famicom and its sequel, The Black Bass II, would be renamed simply "The Black Bass" and released in the USA on the Nintendo Entertainment System. 8 bit fishing would then hit its peak with another HOT-B title, The Blue Marlin, before fishing games became established on the next generation of hardware. Many of those games were developed by HOT-B as well. When HOT-B went out of business in 1993, the company's assets were purchased by former staff and it was reestablished as a new developer, Star-Fish. Amazingly, Star-Fish continues to release fishing games to this day, including new entries in The Black Bass series on current hardware such as the Nintendo 3DS. One could say that HOT-B, either as the original company or currently as Star-Fish, are the masters of the fishing video game genre. After all, they flat out invented the now standard and expected mechanics of a fishing game. While bass fishing was proven to be HOT-B's bread and butter, (or is that bait and tackle) they followed up the excellent diversion of The Blue Marlin with another specialized type of fishing: salmon. King Salmon was released less than a year after The Blue Marlin and utilized a lot of what that game had to offer, combined with the smaller catches of the earlier Black Bass games.
Description: King Salmon plays a lot like a combination of Hot-B's earlier bass and marlin titles, meaning proper skippering of your boat has as much to do with hooking a fish as as bait selection and reeling technique. The game consists of four competitions in four areas, with each featuring both a "big" and "small" map to navigate. The C Button throttles your ship forward on either map, with the objective on the big map to find areas where salmon are running. Pressing the A Button while cruising around will move to the small map if there are salmon in the vicinity. If the area is bad for fishing you will be told so and nothing will happen, so continue searching around for a better spot. Although the idea of grafting the larger area wide maps of The Black Bass onto the trolling action of The Blue Marlin sounds like a good idea on paper, more often than not you'll simply mash the A Button while driving around until you find a good spot. Now if the spot is good then you are taken to the smaller map - a zoomed in view of the area you are fishing in.
The small map takes a page right out of The Blue Marlin as your boat now drags a lure behind. Shadows will appear in the water from time to time, representing herring in the open sea competitions and salmon in the river areas. Salmon follow the herring so the idea during the open sea competitions is to keep your lure on them in an attempt to hook the prized catch. Speaking of lures, there are multiple bait types but they tend to be competition specific, removing much of the customization and strategy of the previous Hot-B fishing games. Five line lengths are also available however they have absolutely no difference on your ability to hook fish. On the other hand, line depth is far more important as fish reside at different depths based on the weather conditions presented at the beginning of each day. Additionally when fishing the rivers, good areas can often be found around rapid currents. When the lure begins to flash then you're on the fish and the bite window may appear.
Once you have a bite, a window with a fisherman in it will be displayed. His rod will bob up and down, occasionally taking a more pronounced dip down. When this happens press Up on the directional pad. If done at the right time, you will enter a battle. Although this all sounds pretty simple, it is very inconsistent and frustrating. You will spend many hours mashing the Up direction in hopes of getting a hit. No matter how much I played the game, no matter how proficient I got at getting the bite window to appear, no matter how well I knew the fishing areas, never once did the seemingly simple process of pressing Up at the right time feel or correct or consistent. Even worse is if the game thinks you're not pulling up at the right time, then the bite window will simply go away. As each day of the competition has a time limit, beginning at 7:00am and ending at 4:00pm, wasted time is a huge issue. It's like boiling the whole process of casting and reeling to entice a fish in The Black Bass down to a haphazard and random feeling button press.
If the planets align on the night of a full moon and you are somehow able to get a hit, you will be taken to the battle screen. Here the C Button reels the line in. If the line goes out beyond 700 feet then it will run out and you will lose the battle. During the fight you can attempt to recover stamina by pressing the A Button to flex your hand but this tends to let the fish run out the line at a moment's notice. Pressing Right on the directional pad will thumb the reel, slowing down the fish while keeping pressure on the line low. Pressing Left will pull up the rod and halt a fish from running but it also prevents reeling and puts stress on the line. The key is a series of quick pull and reel combos, known as pumping. Additionally once or more during a battle an event may occur. These are problems with multiple choice responses that in turn lead to further multiple outcomes. These outcomes can vary, even when asked the same question under the same conditions of an earlier time. While this adds some unpredictability, and there by a tiny bit of realism, the randomness usually feels unfair.
As you fight fish through the four fishing areas you will build levels as you catch salmon. These build in three categories: strength, stamina, and technique. The "strength" level represents your reeling power with higher levels allowing you to reel in larger catches. Higher "stamina" ratings allow longer battle duration before your fisherman will become fatigued. "Technique" on the other hand, is increased when you successfully navigate through the random multiple choice events and will increase your "luck" in subsequent events. In other words the technique statistic is self perpetuating and serves no real purpose in the game. Gaining levels is determined by the weight of the fish caught and is only awarded for pulling in salmon. While this sounds fine and levels were a big part of The Blue Marlin, the work / reward system here is completely out of whack. As an example, I had to work all my statistics up to level 91 before being able to pull in a fish weighing over one hundred pounds, the objective of the final challenge of the game. In other words the objective of the game is to fail day after day, continue your game, spend hour after boring hour building your levels, just so you can reach the threshold where the game says "okay, this number is high enough" and awards you the last catch. Doesn't really sound all that entertaining when you get down to it, does it?
Graphics: Although there are four types of fish that can be caught in the game, they all look the same during battle. Well, that is except for sharks or as the game calls them, "dogfish." However even the sharks are unidentifiable until pulled almost all the way to the surface. Unlike in The Blue Marlin where pulling in a catch other than swords would still help to build your statistics, sharks in King Salmon award no such increase. This wouldn't be an issue but it can take a long time, with a long and hard fought battle, just to realize that your catch is a shark with no benefit - only a waste of time. Also since all salmon look the same until they are in the boat, most battles are a total waste anyway since only king salmon count toward tournament results. Overall the graphics are simply uninspired. The overhead views during the boat navigation phases look like bad RPG map screens with low detail and flat colors. In fact most waterways look like water graphics from a low budget RPG, overhead action game, or vertical shooter. Considering how little is going on during these parts of the game, the least the developers could have done is given us something nice to look at. I should stop making the comparison but remember all the details like cars driving around, flashing signs, airport traffic, and trains speeding along bridges in The Blue Marlin? None of that here.
Fish renderings are drab, undetailed and all the same with the only variance being in their size. The graphics that show the scenario during a special event popup aren't bad but are still small and low in detail for a Genesis game. Graphics on the battle screen have to be some of the most uninspired renderings to ever grace a video game console and are even worse than the fish. The water looks like a bad sweater pattern that slowly scrolls by and comes across as both lazy and cheap at the same time, while the graphic of your fisherman's reeling status is reused from the bite window and is equivalently small and undetailed. The weigh-in screen also uses the same fish graphic, scaled for size, for all three salmon varieties. This is probably why sharks reward no statistic increases as the developers were too lazy to make a graphic showing them being weighed, even though they show up in catch records.
Sound: Audio is unappealing from the moment power is switched on, opening with what has to be one of the worst title screen themes of all time. It in no way matches the atmosphere or mood of the game you're about to play and sounds more like something from a low budget pachinko game. While other Hot-B fishing games, at the very least, had music that was unobtrusive the same cannot be said for King Salmon. None of the in-game music is catchy and is comprised of the most generic guitar riffs, the sound effect of your boat driving around gets annoying fast, and the sound effects during battle are completely throw away. That last one is the biggest deal breaker for me as sound is often how these early fishing games alert the player to changing conditions during battle. I suppose it only further shows that King Salmon is a game where the player really has very little control over the outcome. I'm shocked the sound is so poor as anyone who has played Hot-B's other fishing games will remember the downbeat and classic sounding music of The Black Bass and the bright yet somehow incredibly moody and atmospheric music of The Blue Marlin as a high point in either game.
Play Control: A standard Genesis control pad as three action buttons: A, B, and C. The C Button is used for ship throttle throughout the game, as has been discussed. During a battle the A Button is used to attempt to replenish your stamina by flexing your reeling hand. Now what button would you assume is used to bring up lure and line settings? No, no, it can't be the B Button, that would make too much sense. The Start Button is used to change lure and line settings. Actually the B Button is never used at any point in the entire game other than to cancel in menus. I think this betrays the development background of this game. I would bet even money that at one point King Salmon was to be a second spin-off of The Black Bass on NES / Famicom. That would also explain a lot about the uninspired gameplay, unbalanced challenge, and rushed graphics.
It isn't simply strange input choices that cripple the play control of King Salmon however. This is a fishing game that lays out how to catch fish, which in all honesty isn't that complex, and then makes it nearly impossible to do consistently. Keeping your lure on the salmon in the river areas is a complete pain in the ass made even more frustrating by the aforementioned issues with getting your fisherman to pull the rod up at the right time to get a hit. The game also likes to mess with you as it will often bring up the bite window right on the edge of the map where it is impossible to get a pull before the edge of the game world. Why even make these inaccessible areas a hotbed for salmon strikes? Navigating around is pretty easy but there are always rival fishing boats which must be avoided as ten collisions on a single day will end your tournament. Sometimes on the narrower rivers it is nearly impossible to avoid collisions, especially considering how easy it is to get hung up on the terrain. Control in this game is simply a nightmare, pain and simple. For example, while fishing in close quarters you have to tap the C Button to throttle the boat forward and keep your line on the fish, tap left and right to steer the boat as you move with the fish to avoid rival fisherman and terrain, keep an eye on the bite window so you can futilely tap the Up button when the rod bows down in an attempt to get a strike, and on top of this your boat speed and control tend to speed up and slow down unpredictably. It's just not the speed of the action on screen but the input rate also feels influenced by what can only be described as slowdown. Yes, slowdown in a Sega Genesis fishing game. All these little quirks pile up one after another to make this an extremely frustrating game to play.
Replay: Next to a solid and rewarding fish battle system, replay value is the most important thing in a fishing game. Fishing Derby on the Atari 2600, the first fishing video game, is extremely simple but is a ton of fun because of how rewarding it is to pull in fish. That feeling of skill leading to reward in Fishing Derby makes it infinitely replayable. King Salmon on the other hand piles on so much frustration from the start that you simply want to switch it off and play something else. Although statistic building is important to the game, heck it's all that really matters in this game, it's never dangled out in front of you like a worm on a hook as it should be. This game is a slog, right from the first cast. Your fisherman never feels in control or up to the task of pulling in the fish needed to complete each tournament. Never does it feel like you are right on the edge of pulling in a big catch and succeed because of your skill and strategy in playing the game. King Salmon doesn't operate like that; you either have a high enough level to pull in a catch or you don't. Everything else is just ugly window dressing to occupy your time. In fact since weather conditions have such an effect on bite rate and catch size, if conditions are bad the best course of action is to end the day and use your password to start another. Sure the argument could be made that the varying weather conditions mix up the challenge and add much needed variety to the game but the fishing engine just isn't robust enough to support such claims. Same goes for line depth in regards to weather conditions, which in theory should provide some deep seek and find strategy but ultimately just further cripples a game that was never on solid ground to begin with.
Final Verdict: I really like fishing games and for whatever reason I always have. However if this was my first encounter with the genre I would have been soured on them from the start. What you see on screen and what is actually going on in King Salmon seem to be fundamentally disconnected. A great example is during the special event sequences. Upon making successful choices a comment such as, "The fish looks tired" will be displayed, yet have no bearing on the actual battle. Additionally icons over the fish have no relation to reality, especially if you're familiar with the iconography from earlier Hot-B fishing games. For example a "sweating" or "dead" fish icon over a fish should mean the fish is tired or completely exhausted but often the fish can still run out over two hundred feet. Alternatively a fish displaying a "strong" icon can sometimes be easily pulled in with no effort what so ever. The fisherman's "Too easy!" comment never relates to the actual situation either. At first I assumed that the icon status was swapped with what it should be but no, the display icons and indicators don't follow any pattern of reason.
The cheapness and flawed design doesn't stop there however. The "hook not being properly set" event simply imposes a hidden time limit on the battle. Additionally the line tension randomly comes into play from one battle to another. An audible "ting - ting - ting" alerts you when this is happening. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done in this instance as nothing eases tension on the line. Essentially this is a randomly occurring quick time limit, a "screw you" more or less. While these events were present in The Blue Marlin, there was almost always a way out of them using proper technique and your skill as a player (and a little luck), but the same can't be said for King Salmon. This game is simply a terrible mess and I am completely dumfounded that it generally holds a favorable reputation with classic gaming fishing fans. It's like some strange aborted sequel to The Blue Marlin.
The game is artificially lengthened by
requiring you to be at the highest of levels before you are able to pull
up the world record salmon and close out the game's fourth and final tournament.
This is also apparent in how after a battle, win or lose, that area of
the small map becomes "dead" for awhile, forcing you to move to another
location. Maybe the fish realize what a crappy game they're in and
don't want to be embarrassed. The worst part about all this is after
hours upon hours of senseless grinding, looking at the same ugly sweater
pattern moving back and forth, the game suddenly allows you to pull up
the mythical world record setting salmon and the credits roll...
Only to use the box art of the Japanese release as the ending screen.
Did I mention cheap and lazy? Go play The Blue Marlin instead, and
thank me at 3am when you finally put the controller down.
Written on 01-12-2014 by David, firstname.lastname@example.org
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