|When Seaman first showed up at E3 1999, I could tell it would
really shake up the world of gaming. At first it was in doubt whether Sega would bring the
game to America or not, but after record-breaking Japanese sales and a huge US buzz
Seamans fate was predetermined. The worlds most unfortunately named game would
eventually make it to American shores, but it took a long time. Seaman has now made his
debut over here, and one thing is for sure the face of gaming has been changed
In Japan, Seaman was marketed similarly to the Blair Witch Project in the US. Displays of Seaman skeletons and fossils were set up in museums and stores, a book, The Journal of Jean-Paul Gasse, was published, and websites were set up to further propagate the story. Seamans creator, and the fellow whos face graces the fishy little man, Yoot Saito insists that there are still people in Japan who believe Seaman is real. The "game" is billed as a simulation of the experiments of Jean-Paul Gasse, the first human to discover Seaman early in the 20th Century. That, combined with the ground-breaking voice recognition system the game uses, has created a popular mythology in Japan that wasnt duplicated in the US. Maybe Sega figured wed had enough of the dupe-advertising with the Blair Witch Project, but its still unfortunate that we didnt get a chance to revel in the illusion. The narrator in the American version is Leonard Nimoy, which lends a very "In Search Of " quality to the game that could have been played up with a deceptive ad campaign.
Still, Seaman is a phenomenally cool title, incredibly innovative, and a lot of fun. Rather than a game you play, Seaman is a game you hang out with. The Seaman package, which sells for an astonishingly low $50 at most retail outlets, includes the disc and a microphone you use to communicate with the Seaman. When the game starts you have access to two screens: a Matrix, where you store various supplies, and the aquarium, where your Seaman lives. Initially you have a ten-day food supply and an egg in your Matrix. The aquarium is decked out with a few rocks, a heater, an air supply, and a nautilus (you know, the marine invertebrate that lives in shells).
Once you get the temperature and oxygen supply in the tank to acceptable levels you drop the egg in. The egg eventually bursts forth with several mushroomers, little floating eyeballs with air tubes, which will become baby Seamen. At the risk of spoiling things, Ill describe the first session with Seaman. I had heard this description before beginning my own aquarium, and it didnt make the events any less thrilling, but if youre already considering a purchase and you dont want any little bit ruined, it would be best to skip this review and go buy it. For the rest of you, lets enter the twisted world of Seaman.
Once your mushroomers hatch, you lead them to the nautilus by tapping on the glass with your hand icon. Using your hand icon you can get Seamans attention by tapping on the glass, tickle him, pick him up, and move objects around. Once the mushroomers are within reach of the nautilus, it will eat them. You might think this is bad, but it isnt. After a few moments, the nautilus begins to convulse, shoot black ink, and eventually spew blood into the water. Soon, it comes out of its shell and the baby Seamen gleefully shoot from its body, now transformed into little critters that look a lot like baby fish with a human face. Its creepy, for sure, but its also a bit humorous. The nautilus, of course, isnt amused and dies because of the ordeal.
Your baby Seamen, which have some shocking habits in their own right that I wont spoil for you, begin to make baby-like noises almost immediately. For the first few days, raising Seaman is like taking care of a nursery of surly tykes. They develop quickly, and quicker if you talk to them and tickle them a whole lot, and will begin recognizing and saying words in a day or two. Its so cute the first time they say, "Stop tickling me or Ill fart!" Despite the fact that you know youre not really dealing with living creatures, something about Seaman forces you to suspend your disbelief and get into it.
Seaman develops much more past this point, and even past the "gillman" or fish phase of his life. These developments are best left to be surprises, but they include new forms of feeding, restructuring of his environment, and deep interrogation. Seaman wants to know everything about you, and he remembers things like birthdays and relationships well. He also seems to be something of an aficionado of the Zodiac, so he can tell you all about relationships and personality. Whats surprising is that he does all of this in a really convincing way.
The nuts and bolts of the game are pretty simple. The DC controller works well to navigate between different screens, or areas of your lab, work your hand icon, and move the camera. The graphics are very nice, although some of the environmental graphics seem like they could have been a little better. Of course, its only possible to see so much of the game at the time of review, and things have the potential to change a whole lot.
Much of the game relies on you actually talking to Seaman via the microphone, which plugs into the second VMU slot on the DC controller. Seamans voice recognition is very good, although it has its definite ups and downs. When Seaman asks you a question the voice recognition works wonderfully. Its amazing how he can tell the difference between "the thirteenth" and "the thirtieth" for example. However, when Seaman is just hanging out his voice recognition is pretty spotty. I would estimate that he really understands about 40-50% of what you say to him, and keep in mind that these are words he should know. For example, oftentimes if you spontaneously say "Yes" to him he confuses it with "Kiss" and comes back with something like, "Put this tongue in that mouth? Not in a million years." "Friend" is often confused, and he may answer, "Seaman is a SuperFreak." While most of the screw-ups are very humorous, they can occasionally be a little bothersome, and your conversations sometimes end up sounding like a round of Mad Libs.
Still, what Seaman can do is fascinating. He asked what my job was, and I told him I am a writer. What amazed me is that he knows what a writer is. He said, "Oh, so I could read your stuff in books, magazines, maybe on bathroom walls?" As I said before, its amazing what he knows, and his quips are hilarious, especially coming out of a fish-man-thing that sounds a lot like George Takai. Much of the humor I attribute to Jellyvision, the folks who did the cultural localization for the US version, and makers of the incredibly amusing You Dont Know Jack games.
While Seaman is a great time, and Ive thoroughly enjoyed it, it isnt for everyone. Most people, myself included, are used to getting a game and playing it for hours on end. I often try to get as far as I can on the first day we receive a game here at GF! But Seaman dont play that, to quote the fish. As I said before, you dont really play Seaman, you hang out with it, and you dont have to invest a whole lot of time each day. Youll be pretty diehard if you spend more than an hour or two with it on the first day, and youll spend a lot of time watching little fishies swim around. The game plays like a diary it requires a small amount of dedication over a long period of time. Reports say that Seaman doesnt really get to know you until after about a month, and then hell truly knock your socks off. Well, nobodys going to wait a month for me to review this game, but I plan on sticking with it, so Ill let you know.
Some of my friends have wanted to try Seaman and have been compelled to just yell obscenities at him. Seaman doesnt like that kind of talk, so it just pisses him off. And trust me, its easy enough to piss Seaman off without cursing at him. In a way, youll need to approach Seaman like any other digital pet. But where I was bored with Tamagotchi and Pocket Pikachu after a few hours, I still wake up every morning, eager to check in on the aquarium. Seaman is definitely more interactive and less of a pain in the ass than standard digital pets.
The final downside of Seaman is that he takes up half of a VMU. Thats a lot of space to devote to one game, but once you start answering his questions it becomes apparent that hes storing your answers in that space. In addition, theres a VMU program that allows you to access your Matrix and trade items with other Seaman owners, so you might be able to convince yourself that some of that space is being taken up by a mini-game of sorts.
Wow, looking back at this review, which is already pretty long, it occurs to me that I havent mentioned so many things about Seaman. You can name him, and he will respond to it, theres the insect cage, and how he flings his poop at the side of the aquarium. Theres just too much to cover in one review. And I suppose it would be more fun to discover all of this on your own. If youre the kind of person who will like Seaman, you will love it with all of your heart. If it sounds like a pain, then it just isnt for you. Either way, critics and fans will have to agree that it is truly an innovative title, and I for one am grateful that Sega brought him to America.