Fear of the ocean and what could possibly be hiding within its dark blue water is reasonable, and this specific fear is known as thalassophobia. However, it’s quite embarrassing when this rational fear carries over to video games with aquatic levels, especially when some of those games are meant for children like Animal Crossing and Super Mario 64.
Water levels are generally hailed as the worst levels in any video game. This is because of the way they are designed and rarely because of their sinister nature. In 3D games, exploring aquatic settings can be difficult due to how underwater movement is translated into gameplay. In 2D games, water levels introduce frustrating mechanics like floaty controls or a breath meter. For games like Subnautica, players adapt to these environments because of how much they are exposed to them. But in games like Super Mario or The Legend of Zelda that offer more diverse environments, these levels are seen as momentary setbacks.
However, these momentary setbacks turn into roadblocks for those who suffer from thalassophobia. Even in controlled environments where players can know everything about a level, there’s still an overwhelming feeling of anxiety when coming face to face with a Cheep Cheep. Here’s how thalassophobia has the power to turn children’s games like Animal Crossing and Super Mario 64 into horror titles.
The biggest issue when playing video games with thalassophobia is always thinking there is some giant creature in the water coming to get the players. It’s worse when that giant creature is real, and players are forced to interact with them to complete a level. This occurs multiple times in different Super Mario titles, but it’s especially frightening in Super Mario 64, specifically the level Jolly Roger Bay. One of the level’s stars is attached to the tail of an enormous deadly eel that inhabits a sunken ship that it no doubt played a role in sinking. This is a frightening experience for any player as the eel lunges from the ship to reveal its massive body, but for those with thalassophobia, it’s an absolute nightmare. This level would serve as a roadblock if Super Mario 64 didn’t allow players to skip Jolly Roger Bay in its entirety, but thankfully players don’t have to dip Mario’s toes in any puddles to complete the game.
Similar levels appear in almost every 3D Super Mario title, which makes players with thalassophobia have to go into every level with caution. Super Mario Sunshine’s Noki Bay level is the worst offender by far, as its boss mission requires players to clean the teeth of Grouper, a giant eel that lives at the bottom of the lake. Some Shines in this level can be collected by platforming above the bay itself allowing players to never have to touch the water, but even still there is an immense fear that they may slip and plummet into the water below. Even titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Odyssey attempt to put a beachier feel on its water levels, but it doesn’t relieve the stress they can cause.
For normal players, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is anything but scary. Despite Animal Crossing’s fanmade horror costumes and insidious tarantulas, the slice-of-life vacation simulator is as cute as a video game can get. Yet, thalassophobia turns the game’s unassuming shorelines into ominous edges of the abyss, not to mention the terrifying shadows of creatures lurking along the shore. While players who are brave enough to cast their rods will likely pull up a sea bass, there is no denying that some of the creatures are frightening. The Oarfish is one of the worst creatures players can encounter, and it’s found swimming just a few feet from players.
Now, Nintendo is allowing players to press their luck even more by letting them swim in the ocean. Instead of shadowy figures lurking a few feet away, they can now form right underneath the player. The Spider Crab takes the crown for the scariest creature in Animal Crossing, and it’s also one that players have to dive underwater to collect. This means that players are willingly swimming with Spider Crabs, and every other hideous creature in Animal Crossing, every time they jump in the ocean.
Yes, this fear of deep waters is ridiculous when applied to video games, but nevertheless, it’s real. These pixels may not leap off the screen and inflict physical pain on the players, but they do induce a lot of stress and anxiety. Even in games like Animal Crossing where none of the aquatic creatures can even hurt the player-character, thalassophobia still finds a way to turn these kid-friendly experiences into horror settings.