Jaws – A Clever Game of Steady Tension & Weaponizing Boats
Jaws on the NES seems like such a light, cheery game at a glance. For most of your time playing it, you’ll be guiding your boat from shore to shore selling seashells. You idly float about the sea between ports, occasionally diving beneath the waves if something catches your eye. You do a little spear fishing, and collect little starfish and crabs. And by the end of it, you’ll be fleeing a colossal shark and trying to stab it to death with an entire boat. Like the famous, ever-building music that has accompanied the bloodthirsty beast over the years, it’s a game of increasing anxiety and escalation when you don’t expect it.
Now, you know you’re out to face the huge shark at the game’s outset. That’s why we picked it up, after all. We weren’t buying Sunshine Seashell Saviors or something. We came here to have underwater horrors scare the heck out of us. However, while you may know the score going into it, the game seems pretty innocent at first. As said earlier, you take your boat on trips between two ports on opposite sides of a sea map. While sailing, you sometimes “hit something” and hop off your boat for a little spear fishing. Largely, you shoot jellyfish and stingrays. Doing so nets you seashells, and if you get enough, you get power upgrades and vital items.
These initial foes don’t do much in Jaws. They kind of float around the ocean. Stingrays tend to go straight across. Jellyfish rise up, sometimes going straight, while other times dancing back and forth. It’s not terribly hard to avoid them in deep water, so it feels a bit like you’re just out on some expensive trip to sea. Just doing a little spear fishing for yourself under the bright blue waves. Sure, you’ll die if one of these things touches you, but it’s not hard to avoid them at first. You just have to swim around and shoot a few spears at them to clear all your dangers away.
But then you “hit something” when you’re near a rocky shore. When you find creatures on the open ocean, you can swim underwater in a sea that covers the whole screen. You have lots of room to maneuver. However, if you find something near shore, you end up in the shallows, which only gives you half of the screen to swim through. Here, you have far less room. It’s much easier for enemies to land the single hit they need to kill you. Things feel a bit more dangerous, but not terribly.
However, as you make your jaunts to the shores and grow in power, things starts to get a bit more dangerous. Enemies start appearing in greater numbers at once (or at least it feels that way). Going to the ocean floor to grab a falling seashell puts you at greater and greater risk of dying from running into a jellyfish as it enters the screen. Small sharks are introduced that track the player as well, dogging them. Juggling these makes Jaws start to feel a bit more stressful. It’s a slow build, but you start to feel less like you’re on a vacation at sea and more like you’re struggling to survive.
The ocean encounters also run on an invisible time limit, increasing tension. After a set amount of time fighting ocean life, you’re returned to your boat. So, if you’re fighting off three little sharks that are following your every move, all while dodging between stingrays and jellyfish, it starts to add a bit of pressure. You have no idea how long you will have to do it. You just know that you have to hold on as long as you can. What was once a cute spear fishing game starts to feel a bit more harrowing.
Jaws, of course, also throws its title character in. As you’re sailing around, you might spot a shark fin pop out of the ocean. If you’ve bought the Receiver (and you have to, as you can’t gain power levels until you buy it), you get a radar blip when the shark is near. If the shark makes contact with your boat, you’ll have to fight it right there. You can try to avoid it, but Jaws also joins in on any ocean encounter that happens near it. And you can’t tell when you’re going to start an event on the sea. It just happens randomly as you sail around. So, when that fin appears, you’re likely in big trouble. Worse if you accidentally start a battle in the shallows.
The beast is massive on the screen, and is just as persistent as the tinier sharks. It takes a ton of shots to put down, so fighting it can be quite difficult early in the game. However, enemies get a lot more persistent and plentiful as you drag the game out. You might be able to increase your power level by collecting and trading seashells over time, but you make it far more likely that some sea creature will kill you. Fighting the huge shark, several small ones, and other little things all at once makes it pretty easy to die. And dying costs you a power level, so the costs will quickly outweigh the benefits.
This creates an internal struggle as you work through Jaws. You can technically face him pretty soon after you start the game. It just takes a ton of hits to completely drain his life bar. So, you have to decide if you want to push for more sea encounters to get the items you need to get stronger. But how long should you do it for? You never know when a surprise encounter in the shallows will devour all your lives. And Jaws is an ever-looming threat pretty quick after the start. One that applies more and more pressure with every minute that passes.
Whether you push for it early or fight to hang in there, the final showdown with the shark is an impressive one. Here, you get a kind of first-person view, the prow of your boat facing the sea. A single fin sticks from the water, charging toward you. It swims erratically, moving back and forth. Here, you need to stab Jaws with the front of the boat. You can only do this after you’ve used a strobe to get the beast to rise up out of the water. Probably sounding familiar if you’ve seen Jaws: The Revenge. You only get three shots with your strobe, though.
Now, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the shark won’t really do much besides swim around. He can’t actually hurt you in this sequence. He just leaves when your strobes run out. To the developers’ credit, it took me years to pick up on that. I was too panicked from seeing that fin rushing my boat to notice. Also, you have to be very careful with when you use the strobe, as the shark has to rise up at exactly the right spot to be able to hit it with your boat. So, you have to be incredibly precise. With limited shots. All while a killer shark is rushing toward your boat. It was a tense, terrifying encounter, as I always assumed it would eventually kill me. Even now, knowing it won’t, I still get caught up in the intensity of the showdown.
Jaws isn’t a long game, but it craftily builds up tension over the course of its increased enemy encounters. It keeps a looming pressure on the player as they decide on whether to get stronger or tackle the last boss head-on. It also feels even more intense to have that capability to head to the finale at any time, as you feel like the shark is always right on top of you, ready to fight. And that finale is an exercise in precision and tension as the shark hurtles toward you. Jaws may be a concise horror game, but it builds a great, uneasy atmosphere over its short play time. Another neat experience in fear from LJN.