Gameplay is simple — keep your energy up by eating things, keep your health up (for smaller fish) by encountering cleaner fish, and keep alive by not being eaten. It's far more addictive than it sounds.
There are four modes:
- Tournament: You play every fish in the game one by one, from the puny Silver Sprat to the nigh-unstoppable Great White Shark. You advance when you earn enough points, either by eating enough or surviving long enough.
- Challenge: Like the above, but with only four fish.
- Create-A-Fish: Exactly What It Says on the Tin. You allocate skill points to fish features like speed, agility and endurance or special abilities like ink blasts or electric shocks. Pick a color not found in nature, and then send your creation out into the wild!
- Practice: Pick a fish. Survive as long as you can.
Many people know the game from the limited demo that came with at least one Oregon Trail II disc, in which only Practice mode is available, limited to ten fish (to be fair, it's a decent variety of fish).
This game provides examples of:
- Always a Bigger Fish: No matter what you are, there's always something that can eat you. Even the great white shark can be eaten...by another great white.
- Animals Not to Scale: The sizes of the marine creatures' sprites are completely off-kilter. Nothing is properly to scale with anything else. Justified by the graphics of the Windows 3.1 where the game was made.
- One of the most jarring examples is the rainbow runner, which is supposed to be almost four feet long and yet is the exact same size as the foot-long small spotted pompano.
- Meanwhile, the six-inch threadfin butterflyfish is almost as large as several fish which are supposed to be double its length.
- Finally, the twenty-foot long great white is only slightly bigger than the 6-foot long humphead wrasse (which itself is barely larger than the football trout which is supposed to be half its size).
- Character Customization: Create-A-Fish.
- Informed Ability: The special abilities don't seem to do anything, so those points are better spent on improving the main stats.
- Artistic License Biology: For absolutely no explained reason, sponges are considered food for great white sharks.
- Chest Monster: The cleaner mimic blenny, much like in Real Life. They mimic bluestreak cleaner wrasses and take a bite of lured fish instead. Unfortunately, due to Artificial Stupidity, usually AI cleaner mimics sit in one place while several AI-controlled fish are stuck in one place being lured by them. In practice it's fairly easy to tell them from regular bluestreak cleaners, especially considering you can press escape to identify any fish in the game.
- The Dreaded: Most, if not all, fish created in Create-a-Fish seem to be this. Almost every fish in the sea, even sharks, will turn tail and flee from your harmless little bright pink/blue/green algae-eater.
- Edutainment Game
- Endless Game: Practice Mode.
- Everything's Even Worse with Sharks: Great White Sharks are completely unstoppable. Averted with the black-tip shark, available from the start but is fated to die sooner or later.
- Game-Breaking Bug:
- For some reason, the Longsnout Flathead's attack animation causes it to dash far off in another direction, which often causes it to change screens. This can make it extremely difficult to feed when playing at this fish.
- The Flashlightfish has a strange bug that causes it to immediately turn around when entering a screen with another Flashlightfish, catching it in a permanent loop of leaving and entering the screen.
- The attack animation for the electric ray, cuttlefish and stingray takes so long that it's very possible to starve to death while eating something.
- Instant 180-Degree Turn: Averted. Some fish turn quickly, some slowly — and if you make a fish with anything less than full agility in Create-A-Fish, it'll turn painfully slowly.
- Misplaced Wildlife: Despite being set in the Australian Great Barrier Reef, the electric ray species (the marbled torpedo ray) is native only to the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.
- One-Hit Point Wonder: There's no fighting or struggle; when you get eaten, that's it.
- Rising Up The Food Chain Game: One of the first games of this type.
- Shown Their Work: You can look up highly detailed biological information on any of the fish, animals, plants, coral, basically anything in the game.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: The music for Practice Mode is very, very peaceful, which fits very nicely with the gameplay until it's been a few minutes and all the sharks start moving at lightning speed.
- Totally Radical: Some of the bizarre exclamations in the pop-up info boxes ("Bogus! You got eaten by a Great White Shark!") lean towards this.
- Unwinnable by Mistake: Sometimes you end up with fish that can only eat plankton and no plankton spawn, meaning a slow, agonizing death by starvation. Or being eaten by almost anything, because plankton-eaters are usually the smallest fish in the game. This frequently happens with the silver sprat, the first fish you play as in Tournament mode, meaning a lot of the time you have to skip to the next fish.
- Useless Useful Skill: None of the special abilities of any of the fish (the electric ray's shock, the cuttlefish's ink cloud, the puffer fish's inflation, the stingray's stinger, etc) actually seem to have any effect on any of the predators in the game.
- Video Game Cruelty Potential: If you look at it a certain way, the game is all about killing living animals. A lot of them.
- The cleaner mimic blenny. Luring unsuspecting fish close to you who are expecting a cleaning and biting them before dashing away can be satisfying for some players.
- Wizard Needs Food Badly: If you don't die from being eaten, you die from this.
- Wrap Around: The game has nine screens, and you can move around the edges this way.