Or, Having Sex with Fish for Relaxation and Prosperity
Zen Koi is a meditative game in which the soft plink of water droplets and the tock of bamboo chimes blends with the chords of piscine orgasm to relax the mind and soothe the soul.
The main focus of the game is drifting about the pond eating a variety of delicate and amusing little creatures against a backdrop of meditative music and truly beautiful sound effects. Once you have enough of each type of prey, you can craft them into jewels (koi have Norse dwarf ancestry, apparently) which you use to expand the pond. Lather, rinse, repeat through a series of symbols representing the eight chakra points, until your little koi ascends the heights of carp-dom and becomes a dragon.
At the midpoint of each level is a moment of tantra, which lets you indulge in the deeper levels of the game: breeding koi. There are four common colors and four rare colors, which combine in several dozen marking patterns to create an endless rainbow of beautiful little fish to collect and make have sex with strangers in order to create more fish for your collection.
Unlike many breeding games, in Zen Koi you have to participate in the breeding. Fortunately, koi are dignified lovers who descend to no mammalian excesses of tangled limbs and knocked-over nightstands, so the experience of mating is itself rather meditative. But I’ve been playing this game for over a week and my inner 13-year-old thinks the fish sex is hilarious, so today you get a guide to the first two pond expansions, a sort of piscine Ars Amatoria.
The First Pond: Welcome to the World
Here we are in the first pond, tiny eating machines whose ferocity is hampered only by the fact that our speed is stuck in first gear and we corner like dump trucks. Tiny, wet dump trucks.
There are two types of prey in the first pond:
Green tiddlers are adorable wee green dumplings of fishy goodness, twiddling their teeny fins as they putt across the pool. They have zero survival instinct, and will be your main food in the first pond.
Minnows are zippy little bastards that can outrun you for at least the first few levels, even if you put all your points into speed. (It takes a speed of about 6 to catch them when they’re going all out.) Don’t bother chasing them. They’re as dumb as, well, minnows. If you chase them they’ll run, but if you swim along after other fish, they’ll swim right into your mouth.
(I should warn you: I made the prey names up. The game never refers to them by name, so you get the names I use to refer to them in my head.)
Prey in the first pond is superabundant. You can swim back and forth, chasing green tiddlers while minnows zip into your face like they win a prize for getting stuck in your back teeth. You have to eat only six green tiddlers and three minnows to expand the pond, but I recommend waiting until just after you reach the fourth level. It’s so easy to catch prey in the first pond that you can gain levels almost effortlessly.
At level two you get a little bigger…
Then a little bigger…
At the fourth level the magical moment arrives: fish puberty.
Expand to the second pond immediately after you reach the fourth level. DO NOT STAY IN THE FIRST POND. Your first potential mate is on the way, and trying to breed in the first pond is like having sex in the front seat of a car. It’s too tiny, and you, well, you still corner like a wet dump truck.
The Second Pond: The Meaning of Life
There are two new prey in the second pond: Jellyfish, which are slow, dense, and delicious when cooked by a skilled Asian chef, and amoebas, which like to cling to things. If they cling to other prey they slow them down, which is great if you’re chasing minnows, because the prey density is no longer so high that minnows are guaranteed to swim at you. If they cling to you they slow you down, which is less great. To get them off, either swim through green leaves to scrape them off, or stop for a moment and let them get bored and detach.
But amoebas aren’t what we’re here to get off.
When your experience points are halfway to the next level, your mate appears.
Stay as close as you can to them. Physical contact is what raises the mating bar–not just the tantalizing brush of fin against fin, but the press of cool, sleek scales, muscles rippling in tandem…
…until the bar fills, and…
You and your mate do a dance of fishy bliss around your newly laid egg…
…and then your mate faffs off, leaving you feeling fulfilled, yet hollow.
And you’re off to eat your way to the next half-level.
You get no choice of mate. This isn’t Tinder for fish. You get one potential mate per level, and if you don’t like them, well, there’s always the next level.
Following your mate can be tricky, especially when you’re just learning. In Zen Koi, as in real life, the secret isn’t speed, but dexterity. Your mate’s speed will match your own. Their agility, however, may be higher. If they corner like an eel and you corner like a cargo tanker, you’ll lose distance on them each time they turn. You can catch up by anticipating their path when they start to turn again, but that helps only so much, especially when patches of pink leaves come into play. (Pink leaves are thorned like holly leaves, so your koi shuts its eyes as it swims through, and its speed drops by half.)
Your mate can wander on paths so circuitous and bizarre that the person who taught me to play Zen Koi theorized that they were other players’ paths or your paths from previous games. I think it’s mostly random, but random with rules. One of the rules is: Mates turn in a random direction when they encounter pink leaves or the edge of the pond.
Apart from that? I have noooo idea.
Given the number of lotuses I’ve opened on mating chases, I think mates may be attracted to unopened lotuses. I’ve gathered an unusual number of pearls on mating chases, which may mean mates are subtly drawn to lotuses with pearls or may mean my koi needs to be less of a pond potato.
In the early stages of the game losing track of your mate isn’t such a big deal. The first few ponds are small enough that you and your mate will find one another again. As the pond keeps expanding, though, it becomes more and more of a pain in the caudal fin to find them. So the ideal balance of stats for great koi sex? In the first two or three ponds, put at least two-thirds of your points into speed so you can catch faster prey and cross the pond more easily, and take advantage of the pond’s small size to catch your mates when you corner too slowly to follow them. As the pond size increases, put at least two-thirds of your points into agility so you can bend your supple self in knots and twists that will keep up with the most challenging mate. Don’t bother putting any points into rarity, the third stat on your list, until both speed and agility are maxed out. Rarity increases the likelihood of your passing on rare colors to your offspring, which isn’t going to happen unless you have offspring.
If you do lose track of your mate later in the game, don’t worry too much–mates will usually stick around the pond until you level up.
I lost track of one mate when I was close to ascending to the next level, and my mate decided they’d had enough of my fishy shit and left. I don’t know whether it was because I was close to ascending, or whether I lost track of them for too long, or I didn’t wind them up enough before losing track of them, or it was obvious that I couldn’t find their papilla with both fins and a map and they were sick of dating losers. ANYWAY. It happened to me and it could happen to you. So choose your stats well, learn where the papilla is, and stay on target until the heavenly chords sound, or you too will ever mourn The One Who Got Away.
(It was a pretty one, too. Yellow. Gleaming golden yellow.)
Sometimes your mate will follow you, which is… awkward. You’d think it would be easier because you only have to swim along and let them follow, but at any moment they can decide to switch to leader and take off across the pond without notice. Also, when they’re following they don’t get as close to you as you can get to them when you follow, so it takes longer to breed, and if you slow down to let them get closer, they usually decide to lead anyway. And if you don’t realize you’re leading and you try to follow them, you and they can get trapped in a cycle of spinning in place, until they realize you’re hopeless and take the reins. It’s easier to just lag behind any following mate until it switches to being the leader.
When the mating is done and you’re alone in your pool again, you can move on to the next important element in any truly satisfying game: genetics. Later this week, Zen Koi Part 2: The joys of parenthood, or How to use Punnett squares to decide which children to abandon.