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Dolphin (Atari 2600) artwork

Dolphin (Atari 2600) review

"Not quite dolphin safe"

Dolphin (Atari 2600) image

Now and then I crave an Atari 2600 title I haven't played that isn't a shooter or platformer. You know, a unique game with its own vibe and funny little rule systems. I don't often act on these impulses, though, because I find that I'm asking for trouble when I do...

Repeated leaps down that rabbit hole inevitably lead to one of Activision's long forgotten action games: Dolphin. You don't shoot at anything in this adventure, because an animal firing projectiles would be Deadly Duck ridiculous. Instead, you play a hapless cetacean attempting to give a massive, hungry squid the slip. You can achieve this by navigating Ol' Flipper into an ocean current, represented by an arrow. Now don't go thinking Poseidon is chummy with you, because now and then you'll run afoul of arrows heading in the opposite direction, which serve only to slow you down and allow the eight-armed one to get his filthy suckers on you.

Since this is a 2600 product, it would only make sense that it's also a score-attacker. Every few seconds, a barrier of stymieing seahorses appears and tries to knock your velocity down a titch. If you're lucky, you might be able to maneuver yourself through a break in their school for some points. Of course, any seasoned vet will tell you to listen to the irritating noises the game produces because they actually serve a purpose for once. According to Dolphin's manual, these sound effects are actually your brethren communicating with you. A higher pitched tone is their way of telling you to aim closer to the water surface, while lower beeps are Dolphinese for "go deep." Thankfully, if you fail to understand their language and can't manage to hit enough good ocean currents, you can always turn around and swim the opposite direction, thereby increasing your score and putting a gap between you and the antagonist.

...or placing you right in its grasp. Sometimes you might attempt to reverse the flow of action, but the game isn't having any of it. That's wen the hunter suddenly veers in your direction and subtracts one of your lives.

Dolphin (Atari 2600) image

There technically aren't any stages in Dolphin. Rather, there are climbs in challenge factor, which you can attain by snagging a seagull when it flaps by. After munching the bird, your dolphin transforms into a cephalopod-gobbling beast. For a limited time, you can turn the tables on the squid and chase him around the screen until he's stewing in your guts.

Right now you're probably thinking that nothing about this game sounds particularly offensive. Honestly, I don't have any gripes about its conventions. Just the same, playing Dolphin is a charmless affair, partly because the game is repetitive and uneventful. Yeah, I know, Atari 2600 titles are like that, but the climb in difficulty rating after devouring a squid is so minute that it's unnoticeable. You end up engaging a familiar routine and going through the same movements time and again. The only difference is that the squid approaches at a faster rate each time. Unfortunately, the difficulty boost isn't enough to mask the game's chorelike setup.

Part of the problem is that 2600 games grow tiresome the longer you play them. They're great for palate cleansing, but these days I struggle to play a game from that library for more than a few minutes. Dolphin, however, is all about endurance. The game intends to keep you playing for as long as possible by forcing you to overcome minor adversities It places impediments in your way to reduce your chances of survival so you can live long enough to become the predator. It's a wonderful concept and probably played excellently in the '80s, but the industry and medium both have moved on. I find it difficult to recommend Dolphin because I have a hard time getting through a whole session without collapsing in a torpor.

Dolphin is an original game with a neat concept, but it hasn't aged well. Having to endure its simplicity for so long grows wearisome. I have to wonder if perhaps the game wouldn't have been a superior piece if you commanded a dolphin who belches torpedoes. Granted, Atari 2600 has been down that road many times, but there's a reason so many developers rehashed that genre: because it bloody well worked.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (September 14, 2015)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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