There has been virtual fishing nearly as long as there have been video games. This, of course, is a testament to the real-world activity’s popularity as well as game developers’ enthusiasm for making a game out of even the most uneventful, everyday hobbies. William Engle’s “Gone Fishing,” released in 1977, is generally considered the first, a crude text-adventure take on the sport in which you maneuvered yourself about an abstract body of water by pressing N, S, E, W, F, and B on a keyboard (compass directions and forward/backward). Three years later, Activision’s “Fishing Derby” gave the nascent genre its first graphics.
Since then, virtual fishing has only grown in variety, from the cartoon thrills of 1997’s “Sega Bass Fishing” (which could be played with a bizarre rod controller on the Dreamcast console) to more serious-minded experiences such as “Call of the Wild: Angler.” In 2020’s “Spiritfarer,” a “cozy management game” set aboard a ship containing the souls of the dying, you cast your line and sit back until a bite catches. With the horizon in the background, the sun or moon moving slowly through it, the game deftly conveys the gentle passing of time that is key to the appeal of real-life fishing.
So too has the fishing minigame grown steadily in popularity, seen everywhere from “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” to “Red Dead Redemption 2.” Dog petting aside, it’s as close to a meme mechanic as you’re likely to find.
In video games, fishing falls into what “Spiritfarer’s” creative director Nicolas Guérin calls a “nice chore,” activities that he says alleviate the “burden” of thinking and solving challenges. Farming and life simulators, two closely related genres that include “Stardew Valley” and the Animal Crossing games, as well as “Spiritfarer,” are full of such chores. On a video call, Guérin traces the history of these titles’ fishing minigames (distinct, it should be stressed, from games which are entirely focused on fishing) back to Japan, an island nation with a rich fishing heritage.
“It’s a staple of many Japanese video games,” he said, before referencing what’s generally considered the daddy of angling minigames, the Legend of Zelda franchise.
The very first Zelda game to let players catch fish was “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening,” released for the original Game Boy in 1993. The minigame was devised by Kazuaki Morita, an avid fisher, who would also work on 1998’s “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” a game that ushered in a new level of quality for fishing minigames. In a secluded lagoon, Link is able to paddle out on his canoe and cast out using the Z-targeting system, a mechanic for locking onto enemies that Morita transposed to fish. As Links casts his float, the camera swoops overhead before diving below the water as the fish takes the bait. Link’s rod bends under the strain of the fish, the camera zooming out to the regular third-person perspective until the fish is eventually caught. Closing with a celebratory musical motif, it remains a remarkably dynamic action sequence — more so than many modern fishing minigames.
According to Iwata Asks, a Nintendo-endorsed interview series about its most popular games, the fishing mechanic in “Ocarina of Time” was devised by Morita as a means of giving himself a “breather” from working on a boss fight for the game. When Eiji Aonuma, the game’s director, came over to see how work on the boss was progressing, Morita hid his work on the fishing mechanic.
“Aonuma-san came over and I thought, ‘Uh-oh!’ and immediately closed the screen,” Morita told Iwata and Aonuma, also present in the interview.
The group laughed. “Well, you were supposed to be making a boss!” Aonuma replied.
Upon realizing the mechanic’s potential, Aonuma instructed Morita and a small team to work his prototype (an animation of Link swinging his sword was a stand-in for casting) into a fully-featured minigame. From this moment onward, virtual fishing became synonymous with Zelda.
While the activity was dropped from “Ocarina of Time’s” follow-up, 2000’s “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” it was later included in the 2015 remake. In Gabe Durham’s view, author of a book on the original “Majora’s Mask,” the addition resonated thematically with a game whose world is condemned to a 72-hour loop of apocalyptic destruction.
“ ‘Majora’s Mask’ finds heroics in the mundane. Yes, you’re saving the world, but you’re also solving people’s little problems,” Durham said. “I think it’s telling that when Aonouma had the option to add whatever he wanted, he added a fishing game. Fishing is quiet, meditative, and mundane, but it’s one of the many, tiny human moments that ‘Majora’ exists to honor.”
Often, though, the inclusion of fishing minigames stems from a less poetic well of inspiration. According to Guérin, as the trope has grown in popularity over the years, it’s assumed a place of stature among developers.
“I think all devs like to do a simple mechanism — our own take on something that everyone’s tried,” Guérin said. “It’s like when you see cooking shows, and you have that chef who always wants to make a very simple cake that everyone knows and everyone loves. It feels like a measuring tool you compare yourself to others with. It’s become a staple.”
For players, Guérin believes virtual fishing is compelling because it tends to rely on the Pavlovian reward system of pressing a button to get a prize. Often the code of these games randomly determines what you will catch.
“It’s a very simple psychological tool, the same idea behind blind boosters when you buy some collectibles, or slot machines and gacha,” Guérin said. “You know you’re gonna get something each time but you don’t know what. It could be terrible junk. It could be something nice. It could be the tenth version of something you already have. Or it could be that thing that is extremely incredibly rare. It’s the most powerful reward system.”
However, not every virtual catch is the product of random numbers. In “Call of the Wild: The Angler,” an open world fishing game, the chance that defines so many fishing minigames makes way for a more robust simulation. Certain fish are more likely to be found in specific types of water — deep ponds or lake shores, for example — with each species programmed to have its own unique bait preferences. You’re more likely to snag a northern pike if redworm, leeches, or minnow are on the end of your line.
At one stage of development, explained the game’s technical designer Nathan van der Berg, the team saw a content creator seeking out a specific fish in its vast homage to Yellowstone National Park.
“He could tell by the amount of tension on the line, where he was, and what kind of gear he was using, what fish he was going to catch, and its weight, before it even surfaced,” Van der Berg said. “He said, ‘This is going to be a silver lake trout.’ A couple of minutes later, he pulled it out of the water.”
Furthermore, the developers of “Call of the Wild: The Angler,” have even imitated fish behavior in a bid to further make the game “understandable and masterful” — just like the real thing.
“Fish are living, sentient beings. They have a complex range of behaviors and personalities,” said Paul Rustchynsky, the game’s director. “We’re not going to simulate that in complete detail so what we did was boil down behaviors and actions they perform into traits.” As a result, there are fish that thrash and those that deep dive; some are more active at night and others that are easily spooked by human presence. Each trait changes the dynamics of a catch.
The catch aside (these are often stressful tugs of war with your scaled foe), “Call of the Wild: The Angler” otherwise leans into a sense of stillness that is often missing from twitchy fishing minigames. For van der Berg, this is true to real life.
“What really stands out is the peace and quiet,” he says, reflecting on his own fishing trips in Sweden. “Just being there with your thoughts and the water, wind, sun, and rain. That’s what defines the experience for me.”
Lewis Gordon is a video game and culture writer. His work has appeared in outlets such as VICE, The Verge, The Nation and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter @lewis_gordon.