Seaman: A Sega Dreamcast Classic Game Review
It's SeaMAN darn it! Stop laughing!
Ever played the hotel-managing game Yoot's Tower on the PC? I haven't, but I've been informed by a certain Vivarium, Inc. that its creator, Yoot Saito, had wished to follow it up with quite an ambitious concept: To "experience the growth of a living being". Before you start arguing that such an endeavor is absolutely preposterous, allow me to elaborate on the completion of his project: The game Seaman available exclusively for the Sega Dreamcast (in the US, at least).
Seaman is, for lack of a better explanation, a console-based Tamogatchi. For those of you who have never played with one of those virtual pets, a Tamogatchi is a digital pet simulator in which you cater to his/her desires by means of feeding, playing, and so on. Supposedly, your actions contribute to his/her growth: Fail to love your little parasite, and you'll weep in grief at his/her passing (I hope this is not a representation of my character, but I actually wept in relief!) Needless to say, Tamogatchis and their offspring have left their mark on the world (and may deserve the blame for the rise of Pokémon).
Yoot Saito apparently decided that virtual pets are a commodity that can only be improved upon. "After five years in development", Vivarium, Inc. had finally decided to trump all previous efforts with its flagship title, Seaman. Why is Seaman such a remarkable achievement? Because, for the first time ever, the object of your mistreatment can bite back! To the literary-impaired: That means that your virtual pet, your Seaman, can talk trash when the going gets tough.
A talking fish? How novel
Before I get into what a Seaman is, let me get some of the expected formalities out of the way. First of all, no -- Seaman is not a traditional game. As referenced in the manual, "do not expect an experience similar to any other games, in which clearly defined events happen each time you play". In layman's terms, Seaman is not going to satisfy your twitch-happy fix. In fact, you might actually fall asleep while playing with your virtual fish if you play this game for too long. You've been warned, so do not buy Seaman expecting instant gratification (or, in my case, several days' worth of gratification).
Worse yet, the considerable graphical and audio capabilities of the Dreamcast are not at all utilized in Seaman's gameplay. For starters, there is no music … period. Instead, you get "soothing environmental sound design" (as stated by the back of the jewel case), which really means that you get to hear endless variations on "blub blub blub blub blub". The tank interior is spartan, with just a few rocks and aquatic flora to keep you company. Other than the movement of your Seamen and some air bubbles, there is very little onscreen action. Strangely, slowdown runs rampant. I'd imagine this is more of a programming deficiency than lack of hardware horsepower.
This doesn't sound so promising afterall
Truly, the only impressive facets of Seaman lie in the water-breathing nuisances themselves. Following their evolution from small guppy-like "gillmen" to land-dwelling "Seamen", the visual design remains consistently lifelike and nearly believable. Your basic Seaman is just like any other fish, except that he has a human head in place of a traditional one. The face is sculpted in such a way that the many facial expressions appear natural and, more importantly, remarkable. It is obvious that Saito and his team spent long periods of time observing the motion of fish, because Seaman maintains an illusion of life very well.
More amazing, however, is their form of communication. Please bear with me while I first explain the progression of the gameplay. When you first power up your Dreamcast, you are informed that you must have a VMU (Virtual Memory Unit) installed and that you will need to create a habitat for your Seaman. Please note that, without a VMU, you can not play Seaman! The back of the game case does state this, so you have no one to blame but yourself if you do not heed this warning! Afterwards, you are greeted by none other than Leonard Nimoy. Spock informs you about the basics of raising a Seaman, and will appear to update you on their progress during continued gameplay sessions. Once you agree with his terms and press the start button, you're ready to begin.
A basic game of Seaman goes something like the following: 1) you check that the temperature and oxygen values are within sufficient range for life, 2) you turn on the light switch if it is currently off, 3) you feed your Seamen assuming that they are hungry, and 4) you talk smack with your saltwater-loving pets! That is it: No running, no jumping, no shooting, and no winning. Sure, you can also flick your buddies and pick them up to observe more closely, but there are no defined objectives (such as a method for beating the game). In all honesty, Seaman is actually very boring.
What? That's it?
I apologize, what I meant was that Seaman is boring until your buddies utter their very first words of ENGLISH! Yep, you heard me right: Seamen can learn the English language and eventually mature to the point where you can hold a conversation with them. With the assistance of a microphone that comes packaged with each copy of Seaman, you can aid in their verbal finesse. In their early stages, your Seamen will only spew a mixture of gibberish. After sufficient care, you'll actually be greeted by your virtual friends and asked how you are doing! Be cautious, though: Seamen are quite mischievous and have no qualms about verbally abusing you. I can only imagine how many broken human spirits have resulted from a lost quarrel with a Seaman…
This communication is the heart and soul of Seaman. Without it, the game would be nothing more than a glorified Tamogatchi. The satisfaction that results from teaching your Seamen how to speak must be experienced in order to believe. Through this manner of communication, you can eventually help your Seamen complete their transformation from a lowly egg to an air-breathing amphibian. I can nearly guarantee that you've never played a game like this before.
Unfortunately, there are some significant flaws with Seaman's design. For beginners, you will not want to play this game for extended periods of time. Instead, you will need to boot it up for several short lengths of time in order to check the environmental settings. Time passes even if you are not playing, so your fish will die if you do not keep an eye on them. For this reason, you may eventually decide that raising these guys is more of a nuisance than a blessing.
The most glaring fault, though, is that the replay value is, contrary to popular belief, just about zilch. Why is that, you might ask? Once you've progressed through the various stages of your Seamen's evolution, you will notice that you are not actually teaching them new words. Instead, you are unlocking phrases from the game's internal database. Once you've unlocked all of them, your Seamen will not say anything new -- bummer.
Is Seaman worth digging out the old Dreamcast?
I'd still recommend trying out Seaman, even with its flaws. Nothing can replace the real experience of raising your fish. If you own a Dreamcast, it might be worth searching eBay or Amazon for a used copy. I wouldn't pay too much, though, as you will unlikely invest more than a few weeks into Seaman before experiencing everything it has to offer.