When it comes to adventure games -- and we mean pure adventures, not the platform-dodging antics that only pretend to belong to the same genre -- consoles generally don't fare too well. Lacking a mouse, gamers have to contend with a joypad-based system that lacks the accuracy of its PC counterparts, and while some games pull this off, others just prove to be a frustrating experience. Thankfully, The Fish Files is an adventure created specifically for the Game Boy Color, so it's simple to play and there isn't an action sequence in sight!
As you may have gathered from the title, something very fishy is going on around the high school where our adventure is set. Goldfish belonging to the hapless residents are mysteriously disappearing from their bowls across the campus. After the fishnapping of his own Ramanda, Dante embarks on a quest to discover just what happened to his beloved pet. It is only while chatting with the other students and a couple of almost-familiar FBI Agents that he realizes a global conspiracy is at large, involving the government, aliens, and bizarrely enough, goldfish.
Taking control of the main character Dante, a high school geek who suffers from a notoriously low IQ, it is your role to figure out what has happened to the kidnapped goldfish and return them to their rightful owners before the aliens eliminate the fish entirely. Along the way, you'll meet some very surreal characters who will either help or hinder you in your quest, as well as travel through time to bring an end to the evil plot. As storylines go, this is pretty much all there is to it, and it's somewhat clichéd. You won't find any amazing twists or depth here, but there is enough happening within the game to hold your interest to the end despite the plot's simplicity.
The D-Pad is used to move Dante and other characters under your charge around the various locations, while the A button picks up objects and enables you to chat with the locals. Items and characters that you can interact with are highlighted with a little arrow displayed on screen. The B button gives a description of the designated item, while pressing the Select button brings up the menu where your save options and inventory are located. In the inventory, choosing the spanner icon will use the item on whatever character/item is highlighted in the main game, while the screwdriver icon will combine items. The game interface may sound a little complicated on paper, but it's very easy to pick up and works very well for the controls of the handheld. Thankfully, it is possible to save your progress at any point in the game, which makes it an ideal game to play in short bursts and plays to the strengths of a mobile adventure. Unfortunately, only one slot is available for saving, which does prevent multiple saving for those who want to revisit different sections of the game.
You'll be in control of Dante for the majority of the game, but there are a few occasions when you'll get to grips with a couple of his motley mates. Fabropolus is a cross-dressing wannabe wizard, while Fritz is a macho German drinker. During your journey, you'll encounter some other strange characters, including the eccentric pole-man (who is attached in more ways than one to his beloved lamp post). In a parody of the X-Files, you'll also meet three hackers who bear more than a passing resemblance to The Lone Gunmen, along with FBI Agents Smolder and Smelly. The eagled-eyed among you will also spot hidden references to such things as The Lord of the Rings. It's a game that fails to take itself seriously, with the enjoyably witty dialogue between characters proving to be a main motivation to see what happens next.
Due to the comical nature of the game, the graphics are animated in a 2D cartoon style which is generally very clean, fresh, and pleasing to the eye. The visuals don't push any boundaries, but are colourful and portray the comical aspects of the characters well. However, due to the limitations of such a small screen, some areas come across as too busy, with the developers obviously trying to cram in as much detail as possible. For the most part this isn't an issue, but some items are very small, making them incredibly difficult to spot, as the visibility hotspot arrow can be obscured by the main character. It is not uncommon to be wandering aimlessly, unaware where to go next, only to realise that you are stuck simply because you missed an item. This happened to me a couple of times, and it was only while painstakingly looking around each screen that I was able to find the items.
Much like LucasArts adventure games, each character's speech is in a different colour so it is easy to tell who is talking, despite being on such a small screen. Due to the limitations of the hardware, all the dialogue is text without voice acting, although the odd sound effect occurs during certain events. The music itself is quite honestly irritating and apart from a well-composed re-mixed X-Files theme, the rest of the pieces are put on loop and only vary between locations, so they grate VERY quickly.
Puzzles mostly consist of collecting items to give to the resident inventor Beppo, although as the items he requires often don't exist, a bit of ingenuity on your part is necessary. Finding alternatives can often be a case of simply picking up something lying around, combining items within your inventory, or trading items with someone else. Other puzzles involve dialogue, where you have to select lines in a certain order to be given a required item. The latter can prove to be frustrating as it is not always clear which conversations are puzzles, so it's easy to miss the correct response in order to progress. Thankfully, it is possible to re-do these should it be necessary, but this doesn't make the set-up any less irritating. You'll also find that some items can only be combined in a certain way. For example, you can use a mop with some ink to dye it, but try the ink with the mop and the puzzle won't work. This doesn't happen very often, but when it does you can be stuck for longer than necessary. On the plus side, it is impossible to die and while it might be easy to be jammed in one area, there aren't any bugs that prevent completion of the game.
As far as difficulty goes, Fish Files is pretty well balanced, as the puzzles are nicely designed and there are plenty of subtle hints within the descriptions and dialogue to give you some inkling of what to do next. In comparison to PC adventures, the game does appear to be quite short, however. Although I got stuck in several places for a while, it still only took eight hours to finish, which you can halve again once you know what you are doing. This isn't really a huge negative, as there is plenty of gameplay to be had here, but it is worth bearing in mind.
Ultimately, like many things, it's a question of taste. Those who like science fiction will appreciate the various X-Files themes and humorous references to films throughout the game, but the wacky humor won't appeal to everyone. While the plot is entertaining, its lack of depth doesn't do the game any favours and the sheer obscurity of some puzzles can be off-putting. The diabolical music (with the exception of one piece) does little to endear you to the game for all of its charm. Despite these flaws, however, I did enjoy playing through to the end, so if you can overlook its downfalls, there's plenty of fun to be had here. The Fish Files was only ever released in Europe, so it's getting harder to track down these days, but should you come across a copy fairly cheaply, it's definitely worth picking up. The truth really is out there.....