There are places on earth we know very little about, and few humans have ever seen. Yet these mysterious places dominate our world. - David Attenborough, Blue Planet
The ocean fascinates us. It is the Earth's largest habitat, covering a full two-thirds of our planet. It's also an environment we love to explore: Worldwide, the number of recreational scuba divers is estimated to be between three and six million. However, the cost of real diving adventures can add up quickly, especially if you're not within driving distance of any waterfront.
Fortunately, ocean-themed games can fill that craving when real-world scuba adventures are unfeasible. (Plus, the jellyfish don't hurt quite as much when they sting.) Limited mostly by technology, many early titles such as Lochjaw for the Atari 2600 focused on puzzle-based treasure retrieval with little concern (or room) for creatures beyond dangerous sharks.
Hoping to revitalize a generally under-represented niche and expand it considerably, Japanese developer ARIKA dove in with the limited release of Everblue in 2001 and its worldwide sequel Everblue 2 shortly after. In 2008, the studio released Endless Ocean (Forever Blue in Japan), a sort of spiritual successor to Everblue. With Endless Ocean, ARIKA moved the primary focus away from treasure retrieval (a predominant feature in the genre at the time) and let players simply enjoy the calm, peaceful ocean at their own pace. The real treasures of the deep, the game seemed to suggest, are the wildlife. From Everblue to Endless Ocean, ARIKA swiftly established itself as the dominant figure in ocean exploration games with a genre-distinctive splash.
Endless Ocean received an immediate sink-or-swim reception among Wii owners. "But what do you do?" people asked, unaware that such a question entirely missed the point of the game. Gamers can be an indecisive bunch: They may call for sandbox games that let you explore the world at your own pace, yet once a developer takes that idea to its logical conclusion, people generally don't know what to make of it. Most critics weren't kind to the game either, labeling it everything from "charmingly batty" to "neither a good depiction of the real thing, nor fun."
But amid that negativity, some reviewers understood what ARIKA was aiming for, which undoubtedly helped the game from drowning in a sea of mockery. Eurogamer's Oli Welsh observed that the title succeeded as a "videogame designed to be soothing and relaxing, to inspire a sense of oneness with nature, rather than a desire [to] shoot nature in the face."
In my case, Endless Ocean was an accidental discovery, as I had been looking for a reason to dust off my neglected Wii. At the time, work was busy and stressful, and I just wanted to relax. I didn't want a puzzle game to tie my head further in knots, FPS games were right out, and online PvP wasn't working in my favor. With Endless Ocean, I discovered the deep blue and waved goodbye to an entire weekend. The music was soothing, the fish were interesting and realistic and, most importantly, it was exactly what I needed - a way to relax after a long day.