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The player takes on the role of a fish who in turn must eat, stay clean and avoid being eaten by predators to survive. There are several modes of gameplay. In Tournament mode, the player plays every fish in the game, starting as the tiny silver sprat and eventually reaching the great white shark. A shorter Challenge mode picks four random fish (from smallest to largest) instead. The player can choose to play any fish in Practice Mode. Finally, in Create-A-Fish the player creates their own species based on various parameters such as size and agility, which also affect the appearance of the fish. The color, special ability, and nocturnal or diurnal habits are also selected. Special moves, also present for some 'real' fish, include the stingray's sting and the cuttlefish's ink squirt.
Each fish has different preferences for food, as described in the educational summary before the game starts. The game consists of nine screens, arranged in three levels from the sandy bottom to the reef's top, that various fish, including the player, move through looking for food. To survive, or to gain enough points to reach the next fish, your fish has to find enough edible food (which can include plants, crustaceans or coral as well as fish) to prevent its constantly decreasing energy bar from reaching 0 and death. The other main concern, besides avoiding predators, is health, which can only be repaired by finding a bluestreak cleaner wrasse or certain mullusks and moving next to it (dangerous mimics take a bite from you instead). Health takes a serious drop if the fish eats something poisonous to it, often a sea slug.