Growing up, I was firmly on Team Nintendo in the Great SNES Vs. Genesis Debate. I did acquire a Genesis one Christmas near the end of its lifespan. While this meant I never got to play some Genesis classics–Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Phantasy Star II and IV–until after the fact, the SNES had plenty of games to keep me entertained without feeling deprived at what I missed. Playing today’s Game I Beat In 2014, one of the alleged Genesis classics, only further convinced me that I made the right choice.
Released in 1993 by Novotrade, Ecco the Dolphin stars the titular dolphin. At the start of the game, Ecco and his pod are engaging in some Finny Fun For Everyone, holding a contest to see which dolphin can jump the highest. Ecco goes to perform his jump…and the rest of the Pod, along with the rest of the life in Ecco’s area of the sea, gets swept up in a giant waterspout and carried off to parts unknown. Ecco then traverses numerous locales to try and solve the mystery of the waterspout and rescue his pod.
Ecco has a few moves besides “being a dolphin” he can use to help him in his quest. He can use Sonar to communicate with various creatures, as well as to bring up a minimap. You can also perform a charging attack to dispatch smaller creatures. Finally, you can accelerate to move faster and, where necessary, jump higher. You’ll need to use all of these to rescue your dolphin companions. Also, you’re a dolphin, which means you’ll need to grab oxygen every now and again, either by jumping out of the water, or by finding air pockets scattered through the sea.
Ecco the Dolphin was a critical darling when it was released. The issue with this is that “reviews” of the day were more like “first impressions”. This is important to know when taking reviews of the game into account. Admittedly, the game makes an awesome first impression. First, the concept is original. There still aren’t many games where you play as a dolphin. Secondly, the story as you go through the game takes some unexpected twists and turns, as a simple quest to rescue your dolphin pals turns into something much larger. Third, the game looks and sounds beautiful.The music, in particular, lends an atmosphere to the game that you don’t typically see, without just being ambient noise a la Metroid II.
The more you play it, though, the more the cracks in the game’s presentation begin to show. The game doesn’t have a lives counter per se. Indeed, structurally, the game brings to mind games like Prince of Persia or Out of this World. In both of those games (Albeit with a time limit in the case of the former), you get unlimited tries at, and a password for, each level. The catch is that the levels have no checkpoints, so one death and it’s back to start of the entire level.
This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but the issue is that you will die, a lot, and you will swear that some of the deaths weren’t your fault. The controls are one of my biggest problems with the game. Put bluntly, it demands a degree of precision that the controls do not allow you to attain. This makes itself most obvious when trying to squeeze through tight spaces. If you aren’t perfectly lined up with the gap, you’re just as likely to bounce back and forth on either side of it as you are to get through. Ecco also has a tendency to get stuck on walls and corners. Finally, Ecco has momentum, meaning it takes time to stop and turn around. This gets aggravating when you either get attacked by a fast enemy, or are a tiny bit off in attacking a larger one. In the former case, you wind up screaming as you take damage again and again while Ecco takes his leisurely time getting away from a foe, while in the latter instance, you’ll take damage you can’t afford as you go to turn away from the enemy, with no way to avoid it.
This all reaches a head in the final level, Welcome to the Machine. Like the other levels, it has no checkpoints. Unlike most of the other levels, it’s an autoscroller, with frequently changing directions designed to trap you and kill you. There are plenty of tight spaces, which will kill you, and it won’t be your fault. And if you manage to survive the level? When you die to the boss afterward, guess what? You get to re-do Welcome to the Machine. Which is 5 minutes long.
At this point, I wish to make a confession: The first time I finished the game, I had to use the save feature found in the Sega Genesis Collection to save right before the final boss. After that, knowing how to fight the final boss, I went back and completed the Welcome to the Machine/The Last Fight gauntlet legitimately.
Even before that brutality, though, the game isn’t easy. It took me in the neighborhood of 16 hours to beat the first time, roughly 7 of which was spent on the last level and final boss fight. After that, I spent another 60-90 minutes trying to get through Welcome to the Machine/The Last Fight “legit”, so to speak. With roughly 20 levels, Ecco isn’t a short game, although it’s possible to get through it in under an hour if you like the game enough to play through it repeatedly and learn it.
Ecco the Dolphin is a game that is superficially amazing. But it’s also a game that highlights the problem with first impression reviews. I can’t ignore the controls and how they work against you as much as with you. And I can’t ignore the design decision that was “A Five Minute Autoscroller, Plus a Stupidly Unfair Final Boss, With No Checkpoints Between the Two” that puts this game in the “falls apart at the end” category, joining Golden Sun, Shatterhand, and Blaster Master.
Besides the Genesis original and the Sega Genesis Collection version I played, Ecco the Dolphin was re-released numerous times, including a PC version, and a 3DS version. It’s worth noting that some of these re-releases deign to give you a proper checkpoint before The Last Fight, and the 3DS version includes a Super Dolphin mode that makes you invincible to everything but crush deaths.