In most media, including other games, this would be the setup for a grim, violent story. But Derrick the Deathfin somehow takes the murderous revenge story with environmental themes ... and makes it adorable. Part of it is the writing. Even while he's swearing revenge, the game uses cute self-referential jokes to make sure you know not to get too serious. Loading screens give you hilarious "tips" like EATING MAKES YOU LESS HUNGRY.
The look also contributes. Absolutely everything you see is derived from paper models that were cut and glued in real life and then reassembled in 3D. The resulting look is part origami, part South Park, and it's always used to brilliant effect. I'm particularly fond of the droopy little sea turtles.
The main reason I never got bogged down by the storyline, however, is that I was preoccupied with swimming through the stages as quickly and efficiently as possible. Being a shark, Derrick has to eat fish constantly, and his hunger drives the player forward through perilous side-scrolling stages. The idea is to swim as quickly as possible through each course, making sure to jump out of the water and through mysterious giant tires, and to collect the required number of gems to unlock future stages. Think less Ecco the Dolphin and more a swimming Sonic the Hedgehog. Maybe there's a bit of NiGHTS in there as well. It's important to classify things precisely according to which Sega games they most closely resemble.
The early stages are fairly open waterways full of colorful, often boxy paper fish, but Derrick the Deathfin soon replaces those with diabolical race courses, complete with narrow, winding paths, moving obstacles, and above-ground loops that you propel yourself through by eating conveniently placed chili peppers.
The design encourages replaying: not only will you want to practice each stage to make a perfect run, you'll have to in order to collect the number of gems and tire jumps you need in each set of levels. Besides, there's so much odd visual detail to take in, like the construction of take-out container reefs and the realization that some of the tiny creatures you dash and eat are actually divers, or pyramid-shaped stacks of rabbits.
The main gameplay is broken up by some levels that replace the food mechanic with a more literal racing countdown, forcing you to swim at top speed through a course under the threat of a rapidly diminishing timer. Other stages are simple puzzles in which you use curiously explosive blowfish to destroy offshore drilling and other facilities. Finally, boss battles ask you to dash into the soft underbelly of a big, threatening creature; these are especially frustrating because missing your target by even a little results in Derrick taking damage – instead of ramming the enemy like you intended to, you just deliver yourself to it. There are usually enough fish around to replenish your health, however.
Derrick the Deathfin represents a remarkable feat of artistry. The sleek level design and speed-focused mechanics are contrasted and complemented by the DIY aesthetic. In other words, it feels both charmingly handmade and precisely tuned.
This article is based on a download of Derrick the Deathfin, provided by Different Tuna. Derrick the Deathfin is available on PS3 now for $7.99. It is currently on sale for PlayStation Plus members for $5.54.