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Ecco the Dolphin (Sega Master System) artwork

Ecco the Dolphin (Sega Master System) review

"'Eeeee ee Eeeee eee ee eee EEEEE!' "

'Eeeee ee Eeeee eee ee eee EEEEE!'

That's Dolphin talk for, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe what a WONDERFUL surprise this game turned out to be when I finally experienced it for the first time via emulation.'

(Note -- Previous line may not contain any factual information)

Ecco was one of those games I'd always been aware of but never played. In this case it was potentially a weird situation to be in for a Sega admirer, doubly so since the character of Ecco has maintained enough sleeper power over the years to revisit us on the Dreamcast. And also in this case it was the biggest revelation I've had when I finally did get to play a game! I'd read all these reviews that revolved around words like 'beautiful', 'artistic', 'poetic' etc... I believe that most people respond to certain kinds of beauty that we have in this world in the same way, and I think that Ecco is a prime example of this. So I'm now going to have to conjure up all of those afore-mentioned words myself PLUS others like 'lovely' to try and evoke the spirit of this game.

Only killjoys and seal-clubbing knuckle-draggers would deny the appeal of dolphins. The latest news on these graceful mammals of the sea is that they can recognise themselves in mirrors. Ecco is a bright-eyed young lad of a dolphin whose pod disappeared along with a great proportion of the sea's denizens after an amazing storm shook the oceans. Now Ecco is on his own and must survive the ocean's perils and solve the mystery of the storm. Presented from a gorgeous 2D perspective which scrolls rapidly in all directions, Ecco mixes together myriad genres and ideas for a total lyrical experience which goes far beyond being just the best game about dolphins we ever had.

There are hazard-filled underwater mazes to be navigated at dizzying speed, undoubtedly inspired by Sonic. There are platformer-style key and door puzzles. There are logic puzzles involving the manipulation of objects: Nudge crates to bulldoze poisonous coral from your path, block off a troublesome air vent or seal an aggressive fish in its cave. There are even RPG elements in that you can talk to other dolphins, fish and whales via sonar to unlock more of the mystery or receive helpful clues regarding your quest. And where the plot could have turned totally cheesy or ludicrous in the wrong hands - with the introduction of aliens and time travel! - in this game it just seems to move off onto a higher plane. This will ultimately lead you to the oceans of another planet known as Vortex, bizarre encounters with R-Typeish aliens and rigorous combat and navigation inside an alien machine (that is one VERY hard level).

Control requires a lot of practice and finesse in Ecco, but there's a really cool organic feel about it because the physical actions required by the player mirror the actions of your dolphin. For instance to kick your tail to build up speed you have to start hitting the button and keep hitting it. Hold it down then hit the other button to break into an aggressive charge. And you really have to roll through the directions to pull off turns. The powerful inertia of being underwater also takes a lot of getting used to and you'll almost never come to a complete halt. The other button pings with your dolphin's sonar ability which can be used to communicate, to interact with objects or to destroy certain enemies. PING! It sounds great, and the concentric sonar arcs look great too.

Ecco is a beautiful creature onscreen who ripples through the water and handles just like a real dolphin. (OK, I've never piloted a dolphin but I have seen a lot of them up close over the years, and fed some by hand on Moreton Island!) It's one of the best total graphical illusions I've experienced. You can see every flex of his body, the bubbles rippling up from his blow-hole, the explosion of foam when he charges fish. You can leap out of the water and spin and tumble through the air before bolting back downwards with a great splash. And like a real dolphin you must surface for air periodically. You have both a health meter and an oxygen meter. There are many great designs testing your ability to solve a puzzle or navigate a maze quickly enough to find the next path to the surface, or to nose out an underwater cave where you can catch another lungful of precious air. Your health can be replenished by catching and eating small fish, a skill which requires some practice.

Your main nemeses throughout the game are the mine-like stinging jellyfish who are trying to float to the surface, blissfully unaware that they're causing you any trouble. You can destroy the jellyfish and most other enemies by charging them. There are also blowfish rolling back and forth in tunnels, aggressive sharks, stingrays and giant crabs. The charming thing about this game is that there are basically no vindictive bad guys (except for some aliens right at the end). It's like a marine biosphere: all of the lifeforms are just getting on with what they need to do to survive, and if you happen to get in their way or vice versa, that's when you take damage. So if you do die for one reason or another, you don't feel much anger or frustration even if you must restart a very long level. The game also constantly supplies passwords for the levels and you have an infinite number of lives.

Natural phenomena are used in extremely clever ways. At one point you'll find yourself shepherding starfish via your sonar to eat through a wall that's blocking your progress. On another level you must guide a marble down into the bowels of a cave, nudging it through tiny crevasses where the dolphin can't go and then taking a detour to meet it below. The puzzles have a few glitches in that if you 'stick' certain puzzle elements (mostly crates) in some position from which they can't be moved again, like against a wall, you may have to reset the whole puzzle by swimming out of the area and returning. And some of the puzzles take a lot of work, so this can get on your nerves. Still, it's a small price to pay for many of the wonderful related effects. To get between lakes which are separated by rocky outcrops, you can make majestic 'Free Willy' leaps over the top! You can even slide on your belly across icefields and then drop down into another pool on the far side. There's a very rare sense of wonder about exploring and mastering the environment throughout the whole of Ecco.

Your adventures are accompanied by a beautiful and crystalline musical score. Small but intricate melodies play in the high range, often with a tranquil or wistful feel. A few particularly nice moments include the atonal rush which sounds a lot like a submarine sonar going haywire, and which may prompt you to unconsciously whack the 'speed up' button, and the contrast you get late in the game when you suddenly hit some boppy battle music for the aliens. The theme here would have done the Ninja Turtles proud.

It's definitely one of the best-looking environments on this console too. There are fantastically detailed rock formations, glowing corals and anemones, waves and foam and bubbles, and water which retains its clarity even when you're scrolling through it at top speed. There is a feeling of awe as you move around some creatures which fill up most of the screen, like a giant seahorse or an octopus, or which fill several screens, like the giant blue whale. The alien planet has a darker colour scheme and familiar but not-so-familiar variations on marine life, while an underwater city features brighter aqua-coloured water, white stonework, submerged temples and statues. And there's a shock for all concerned when you enter grimy 'R-Type' land near the end of the game.

The alien level called The Tube is a small-scale vertical shoot-em-up which looks great, but it's also possibly the most atypical and poorly considered level in Ecco. Aliens and mines descend from above while you roll around in the tunnel dodging barriers and killing things with sonar. It's kind of boring and too easy in spite of a terrible control scheme which makes it nigh on impossible to stay below the halfway point of the screen. The dirge-like effect of the level can make you drowsy... then suddenly you will catch on a barrier and be dragged off the bottom of the screen for an instant death. Back to the start of the tube.

Fortunately there's nothing dirge-like about the following level. In The Machine you scoot about the constantly scrolling innards of a dark alien structure whilst warding off attacks from those R-Type aliens. This is very savage due both to the aliens and to the nasty movement of the screen. Each direction change is completely unheralded so if you picked the wrong path to nose into you will quickly be cordoned off then slain as you are dragged off the screen. It's definitely a potent gaming challenge but it's way out of kilter with the rest of Ecco.

Alien assaults aside, your interaction with the other sea creatures throughout Ecco would have to be its most touching feature and also the source of most of its poetry. When you sonar a friendly animal, your wave bounces back and brings with it a reply. It's amazing how just a handful of lines about dolphin songs or history, or the blue ocean or the stars in the sky can seem really profound! I don't know why similar things I've heard from RPG bubbleheads in numerous other games have not affected me half as much. Perhaps it's the context and the whole mystical quality of this game, which somehow weaves together dolphins, the fate of the world, Atlantis, dreams, whalesongs and alien planets... I know I keep dragging up the film 2001 in my reviews but it's the only way I can explain these things! The triad of 2001, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Kurt Vonnegut Jr novels can possibly hint at the greater untouchable meanings of a game like Ecco the Dolphin. It is really saying something about life on this planet and you will be much richer for the experience.

You'll find a dolphin trapped in a cave and reunite it with its friend, enjoying the way it swims with you and matches your every move for the duration of the journey. You'll see that awesome octopus resting peacefully in a chasm and out of a sense of respect you'll drift by slowly so as not to anger it. In short, Ecco makes you feel an intense wonder and respect for life. This must be its crowning achievement. Combined with graceful swimming, racing and puzzling action, who says you can't have it all?

I have to admit that the game feels a little on the short side, and studying a FAQ post-game revealed that many levels were axed from the Megadrive version in order to create this one. But I imagine it was already a major technical feat to cram as much as they did into this MasterSystem version back in 1993 - this is the kind of thing you can forget about when you're experiencing a game via emulation. Emotionally I could give Ecco a 10, as playing it elicits some truly surprising feelings of a kind you rarely get from a videogame, and the game achieves this with a sense of earnestness, wonder and mystery rather than through any lame sentiment or artificial cuteness. But there's imbalance and a few slip-ups with the alien levels, a few annoying features in the puzzles which can force you to have to repeat them, and it could probably have used a fraction more challenge overall.

Ecco is a deeply original action-exploration game, and a dazzling love poem to the marine world and to life generally. Between rounds with my latest toy for the Playstation at this time of writing, Time Crisis: Project Titan, I'd forgotten that a %70 non-violent and %100 G-rated game could be this affecting in so many ways I had also forgotten about.

Beautiful! Artistic! Poetic! Lovely!

-- Ecco the Dolphin -- 9/10 --

bloomer's avatar
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)

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