Some time ago, I finally upgraded my ancient flip phone to a big-boy smartphone. It was a whole new world. And by “whole new world” I mean when my wife calls me, The Who’s “My Wife” now announces her. That’s life poetry, people. I also now potentially had something better to do than play a one minute previews of Tetris or Pac-Man on my phone while waiting in public for whatever reason. A whole world of addictively simplistic free touch-screen games was spread out before me. Poultry that has a beef with pork, undead-repelling vegetation, and other pastimes of filthy casuals were now mine to play wherever I wanted. But I quickly tired of them. There must be more… something for me.
Here’s a little Verboon fact for you all: if there is a shark in it, I will watch it/play it/read it, no questions asked. Why? Because sharks. They’re awesome, right? So scrolling through the free games list, I came across the title Hungry Shark by Future Games of London and all relevant information was in the title; there is a shark, it is hungry, and presumably it will get the opportunity get to satiate that hunger, possibly by consuming living creatures. I almost broke my touchscreen mashing “download and install”.
Playable sharks in videogames are a spectacularly underutilized concept. I remember playing Jaws for the NES, back in the day. A terrible game by most standards, but I played it for days and days in spite of the fact that you didn’t even play as the shark. Really, who makes a Jaws game and forces the player to play as the humans?
Whee! Look at all the stuff I can’t eat! I’m going to go collect the hell out of some conch shells.
When “Jaws Unleashed” finally came out, appearing to be the game I’d been dreaming of for so very long, I was pretty excited. But not excited enough to buy a whole new Xbox after the death of mine coincided perfectly with the game’s release. I watched the backwards compatibility games list for the Xbox 360 for years, waiting for it to be added. It never was. But this Hungry Shark game; this could be it! I could BE the shark. I could eat stuff (maybe even people!).
So with Macklemorian glee, I started the game up. This was f***ing awesoooome. The game recommended I use “tilt” controls rather than the touch screen, and I took their advice. First mistake. Controlling a hungry-ass shark by tilting a screen is not as great as you’d think. Not only was it imprecise to an old-schooler like myself, but I have no doubt it makes me look even stupider than when my DS used to ask me to shout at it or blow into it to activate special attacks. So touch screen it is.
Now, playing as a hungry shark, life is simple. You find stuff and then you eat it. This is everything I’ve ever wanted out of life. You continue to eat until you can’t find enough to eat and you die or are killed, typically less than 10 minutes if you don’t play it safe like a wuss. This is about the amount of time it takes my hands to cramp up beyond comfort, preventing me from wasting my entire day and/or burning myself out on the game; a perfect long-term portable pastime. The controls are intuitive, the variety of edible sea life is impressive, there’s a lot to explore and find, there are plenty of suicidal people who offer themselves up to your toothy embrace, and I’ve even become a bit of a collector of sunken treasures. I found the Shark of the Covenant. That makes me the Indiana Jones of sharks. God, I love this game.
There are also coins to collect in edible golden sea life form. Once you level up your shark to its maximum size, you can buy a better species. This is a time-consuming process, but so worth it. The game offers you the ability to buy in-game currency for its unlockables, but paying real money for fake money you can earn by playing is for noobs. After upgrading from a meager reef shark to a sleek, badass mako, I notice the quality of food changes as well, as does the level of challenge. Now the fun begins.
I can totally do this now.
Seeing the possibilities of shark-leveling and realizing that there could be so much more to this game than I initially thought, I become determined to play Hungry Shark forever. Bigger and better prey; perhaps eventually seals….or even dolphins. Should I encounter a dolphin in this game, I will pretend it is Flipper. Faster than lightning, my ass. My mind abuzz with possibilities, the shark begins to influence my thoughts and feelings. All obstacles must be conquered, preferably by eating them. An upgrade renames the game by adding the surtitle “Evolution”, either to piss off religious conservatives, or to appeal to you inner Pokemon fanatic. Either one is fine by me.
It turns out a more powerful shark means a more powerful challenge. The longer I survive and the farther I travel, the nastier the game gets. My shark may be awesome at chasing down tuna and barracuda or grabbing a fisherman right off of his own boat while his friends give a collective zero shits about it, but if I go too long, Mother Ocean throws bigger sharks at me or worse. When a goddamn great white is filling my screen or a freakin’ submarine starts blasting torpedoes at me as I weave between explosive mines, it’s probably time to accept defeat.
But some part of me rages at this injustice. I’m just a hungry shark trying to survive in this crazy ocean. My life expectancy is measured in a single digit number of minutes. How is it fair that mere existence keeps getting harder and harder? And then it hit me. We are all the shark. The shark was us the whole time! We’re all just trying to get something to eat and get by in this cruel world until we earn enough coins to get something better, and the world is just going to get worse and worse until we all die. Futility of life: confirmed.
Seriously, who deploys naval mines and torpedo subs to kill a fish?
After taking a few days off from the game to chew on this epiphany, I receive a 3 AM text message on my phone.
“Your shark is hungry, come and feed him!”
I think to myself, “What kind of stupid game would wake me up in the wee hours of the morning to demand I play it? That practically begs me to uninstall it so I can get some damn uninterrupted sleep. Is the game really that concerned with my virtual shark’s nighttime cravings?” Then the notion dawns on me that perhaps the shark himself sent me the message. As if to confirm this, the message is accompanied by a picture of a shark about to chow down on a hapless human. Is this a threat of some sort? I make an effort to dismiss the idea as ridiculous, but still spend the rest of the night lying awake with the covers pulled up to my nose. “Can’t sleep, shark will eat me…”
In the harsh light of day, I resume playing, knowing that my shark has spared me and will likely continue to do so. With a newfound respect for the life lessons of Hungry Shark, I begin to look down upon people playing sharkless touchscreen games. I have to fight the urge to accost children in Angry Birds shirts in Target and tell them that that game was (possibly) created by Nazis, that the pigs are supposed to represent the Jewish people hiding from them, and that the cutscenes are all just propaganda to get you on the Nazi birds’ side. Glaring at these flaming little anti-Semites in the making, I begin to pity them, for they know not of the simple joys of spending a brief and violent existence decimating a marine ecosystem.
My wife is sitting across from me on our living room couch playing “Candy Crush”, its deceptively epic music belying its underwhelming goals of crushing candy. Hungry Shark does not need epic musical accompaniment aside from the terse strains of the title screen, the symphony of marine creatures’ bones crunching, and the shrieks of humans as they are devoured to get one in the mood to kill. Hungry Shark is epicness itself. The entire ocean is my buffet. That’s, like, seventy percent of the world, man. Think about it. I glare over my screen at the usually appealing woman playing her fruity puzzle game and think to myself, “You wouldn’t last long in my ocean, lady. Not long at all.”
Having finally unlocked the hammerhead, I realize how many damn coins it takes to buy a new shark in this game. Every time I start a game, it tempts me with all kinds of ways to dress my shark up…for a price. But why waste my hard-earned v-cash on something other than a better shark when that amount of gold is so hard to come by in-game? Then I get the image of a shark with a monocle and a top hat in my head. “No”, I think to myself, “the top hat is too obvious. A sombrero would be way cooler.” God damn it. I have to make this happen, in spite of the fact that a monocle isn’t even available to buy in the game yet. I’m keeping faith in FGOL that they will update the game to include one; hopefully by the time I unlock the final shark. Then I shall smash through all things that dare bar my shark’s path, and finally be able to afford to look fabulously ridiculous doing it.
This image pretty much represents everything I’ve ever wanted out of life.
Being a hammerhead is an important step for me. As a child, it was my favorite shark. Then I got older and more cynical and began to believe that killing power is even more important than looking insane. That realization makes me feel like I lost something very important on the path to adulthood. But now I can finally eat those stupid, stuck-up lionfish that have been stinging my sharks for so long. Not so tough now, eh? Also important is that for the first time I can eat sharks that are physically bigger than me. That’s empowerment, baby.
So I swim through my digital ocean and continue attempting to satiate the endless appetite of the beast inside my phone. No matter what the ocean throws at me, I swim on, striving to unlock bigger, badder sharks in order to eat bigger and badder prey, turning the table on my past oppressors only to find even nastier ones waiting in the wings. As my shark goes belly-up once again after having only lived for maybe thirty seconds after the game dropped me into a massive cluster of jellyfish and mines right off the bat, the message “Life’s a Beach” (then presumably, I die) pops up onscreen to remind me that fairness has never been a part of life’s equation. You take the cards you are dealt, and then you eat them. Or something.