Deep within the vast, mysterious waters of our blue planet, the endless-runner genre is surprisingly still alive and well. As the name might suggest, Ocean Runner combines mobile friendly arcade gameplay with a nautical theme, perhaps creating the eShop's first endless swimmer title in the process, but is there enough here to keep our interest afloat?
You play as the clownfish Gilbert, who's taken to looking for love instead of finding lost sons who may or may not be called Nemo. This underwater Lothario quickly spots a lovely lady fish through a telescope, and sets off on a quest to retrieve enough pearls to win her over. It's a cheesy, simple romance which loosely ties everything together with a light story, told through comics and still images that are gradually unlocked as you progress. It's hardly enough to motivate you into playing, but it's nice to see some form of framing device at play.
The game itself is exceedingly simple - a vertical runner that has you move Gilbert left or right to avoid obstacles and collect as many shells as possible. Both screens are used to provide a top-down view of the ocean, although there's no end in sight unless you get caught by an enemy or crash into the scenery. The environment changes slightly every 100 meters or so, but there aren't any levels or worlds to speak of. You swim upwards, lasting as long as you can until you die and have to start over again.
There are three control schemes to choose from, each making good use of the hardware and offering plenty of choice. The touchscreen acts as the default, and sliding the stylus from left to right feels nice and natural as you cut through the water. The circle pad is also a solid option, but we found the gyroscope to be our least favourite due to some slightly delayed movements at times. Whatever your preference, the L or R buttons act as a quick dash attack to defeat enemies, and that's the only other input required.
Power ups are found regularly, ranging from fireballs that grant extra speed to magnets that automatically collect nearby shells. Said shells are a form of currency, allowing you to purchase upgrades for these power ups or indulge in some fancy new skins for Gilbert himself. Enemies include electric eels, jellyfish, crabs and puffer fish, all rendered in a fittingly goofy style. They rarely pose a threat, with only the jellyfish able to launch surprise attacks from off screen, but there's a decent amount of visual variety between them.
There are lifebelts and headstart items as well, which can be earned in-game or purchased with shells. The former act as lives, while headstarts allow you to zoom forward and skip the slower beginning of a new run. Ever-important pearls, as it turns out, are earned by completing the kind of micro missions that are pretty commonly found in runner games like this. Some are milestones, reaching a certain distance or collecting enough shells for example, while others are a bit more specific and ask you to defeat certain enemies or use a power up effectively. Gather enough pearls and you'll get another chunk of story.
It's a genre that works well on portable devices, given that you can just pick up and play for a few minutes instead of settling in for much longer sessions. Ocean Runner is best experienced in small bursts, where there's always a top score to beat or a few new missions to unlock. Missions will take longer to complete as you work through them, but it never really elaborates on its straightforward premise - swim, dodge, and try to improve on last time by upgrading items and sharpening skills.
The visuals are cartoony, chunky, and bright, enemies have friendly designs, and the whole aesthetic is as decent as it is derivative - so Ocean Runner is a family game through and through. Just make sure you listen out for the classic "we used punk rock because why not" soundtrack during runs. Very 2000's. Our only real complaint in this department is that it's often difficult to tell what's part of the background and what's an obstacle during more cluttered areas.
Your enjoyment will likely depend on prior experience with other endless runners. Gilbert's adventure doesn't bring anything new to the table, even though it's a wholly competent game none the less. If fatigue has set in even slightly then we'd recommend giving this title a miss, but children and temporarily bored adults alike will find some decent fun here at a fairly budget price.
This quest for fishy love might not introduce anything noteworthy, but it's still a good bit of fun that just about earns a recommendation for kids and curious adults. You'll have seen everything there is to the game within twenty minutes, but upgrading items and completing challenges helps to add some momentum. As it turns out, endless swimmers are a lot like endless runners...