Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 157 / OCTOBER 1993 / PAGE 114


Maxis had us playing with bugs in SimAnt and stirring the primordial soup in SimLife. Now the king of eccentric simulations invites us to take a dive with El-Fish, a software toy bound to make your head swim. The world's first interactive electronic aquarium lets you catch, breed, and evolve fish, and then watch them frolic in your specially designed tanks.

Stocking and managing your aquariums are remarkably easy. To catch new fish, simply cast your line onto the ocean map and reel them in. Keep the ones you like and toss the rest back in. Your final selections can be used as they are, or you can breed them with other fish to spawn new varieties. You can even speed up the machinery of life and evolve your species to a dazzling new order or strange mutation. The program uses a complex algorithm to simulate genotype-to-phenotype conversion—in other words, artificial life. The final results of this chaotic progression are both beautiful and unpredictable, but always intriguing and surprising.

The ultimate step to aquatic glory is to animate the fish, using a 3-D imaging process that generates up to 256 frames of ultrarealistic movement. Unfortunately, this stage requires intense computation, pushing your system's power to its limits. For example, animating a normal-sized fish on a 25-MHz 386DX machine takes from three to four hours. Add a math coprocessor chip—a highly recommended move—and this time is reduced to 25-35 minutes. On a 33-MHz 486DX, complete animation takes less than 10 minutes. The stunning, lifelike results are well worth the wait. Fish can be rendered in standard 256-color VGA or high-resolution VESA Super VGA.

Creating a fish tank, on the other hand, offers instant gratification. Among your design tools are 48 sets of bottom gravel, 60 different backgrounds, 42 species of plants, a variety of background music scores, and dozens of often-humorous scanned foreground objects (both stationary and animated). You can even create your own artwork or MIDI soundtrack and import it directly into the program. Finally, the program can produce genetically coded fish eggs, called roe, to exchange among fellow enthusiasts. Services such as CompuServe and GEnie contain a gallery of user-created roe. Serious ichthyologists, beware: The program's depiction of its various fish species is purely a fantasy. In fact, beneath the surface, there's surprisingly little substance to this software toy. The fish exhibit no personality or distinguishing traits, and they fail to react to their surroundings and other fish. Likewise, fish owners can do little more than tap food into the tank and stare as they slowly nibble. The designers should have programmed real-life characteristics such as aggression, sickness, and spontaneous, erratic behavior. Although these electronic fish never die, they don't appear to do much living, either.

El-Fish succeeds in capturing only a limited aspect of the aquarium experience. It's a fascinating concept, but under close inspection, it just doesn't hold water.



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