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Ecco The Dolphin (Genesis) artwork

Ecco The Dolphin (Genesis) review

"Dolphins don't make for ideal heroes, it seems."

We all know what it's like to cherish certain adventures from our childhood. Whether it's a simple NES title or an epic RPG, we've all held these old favourites above all others only to find, upon trudging through them years later, that they arenít as special as we remember.

For an awful long time I was in awe of Ecco the Dolphin. Introduced to Ecco and his fellow dolphins as they dive through the ocean, chasing each other through the deep blue waters, it's hard to not to feel that this is going to be an adventure worth treasuring. Shoals of fish drift about the soft pastel-coloured coral that lines the dark sea bed, while innocuous white clouds gather on the horizon. "How high can you go?" questions a dolphin. Ecco's response is to swim down into the depths, before turning towards the surface and surging high above the waves into the calm skyÖ only to be caught in a maelstrom! Mysterious forces leave the ocean barren, sucking all life from the water and leaving only Ecco, as well as a foreboding, bass-driven lament.

This is how I remember Ecco the Dolphin, its solemn melodies providing the haunting accompaniment to a harsh and beautiful ocean world. You can't deny the subtle, imaginative charm of this adventure, nor can you resist the mood of intrigue and despair that Ecco's lonely hunt for his lost pals evokes. It was only much later, when I forced myself to brave its long, arduous labyrinths, that I came to see this game for what it really is.

Ecco the Dolphin is a deeply frustrating experience. The enigmatic atmosphere is constantly undermined by unruly control and repetitive tasks. I never delved beneath the surface of this mammoth adventure because moving Ecco becomes too much of hassle. Dolphins don't make for ideal heroes, it seems. This one has a tendency to kick his tail fin out into spikes or sea creatures, such as jellyfish and trilobites who lurk behind the coral and move ever so slowly through the water. Small, precise changes of direction are required to evade them and then reposition Ecco so that he can attack. When you also have to contend with powerful underwater currents and crushing ice cubes, this soon becomes tiresome.

The oceans are inhabited by fierce creatures that pounce upon the indecision caused by Ecco's erratic movement. The problem that faced Sega was simple: how is a dolphin, hardly the most bloodthirsty of creatures, supposed to kill a Great White Shark? Your only real form of defence is a dash, where Ecco rears back before thrusting himself, nose first, into whatever happens to lie in front of him. You need space to perform this with any success, and space is hard to find in narrow caverns and confined mazes. Most sea creatures don't die with one hit, either. Dashing at them tends to hurt Ecco, as he stops dead when hitting them, allowing aggressive species such as sea spiders and tiger sharks every opportunity to retaliate.

When you aren't moving in fear of the terrors lurking behind every rock, you're shoving boulders down chasms so you can follow behind against the underwater currents. These chasms lead into networks of interlinking caves, rifts and channels. The scale of these labyrinths is daunting, yet searching for glyphs is far from adventurous. These crystals lie at the end of the deepest tunnels, imbuing you with the magical power to move another glyph that is usually blocking yet another glyph. This repetition grows more and more infuriating every time you die, which happens a lot because fresh air and fish are scarce.

In order to alleviate the strain placed on you by these demanding puzzles, you must continually backtrack through the ocean to find fish and air. This is the only way to survive, because Ecco has a meagre supply of health and oxygen and most situations take an age to overcome. As early as the second level you're asked to push a magic rock-vaporising shell off of a ledge into a column of rocks that are blocking the entrance to a cavern. To do this you need to move the shell out over the edge, with your nose, and then catch up with it as it falls and try to direct it into the rocks. With your nose. When death due to the stilted movement undoes all your hard work it's hard to appreciate the artistic, colourful surroundings or the sombre music. This is why I was caught in Ecco the Dolphin's grasp -- I find it hard to remember that now.

Ecco the Dolphin is always asking an awful lot of you. In the tropical waters of Deep City, the ruined underwater remains of an ancient civilisation, you'll flail around for a little bit before realising what you have to do, or attempt rather. The burnt, dusty hue of the mountains that line the horizon is evocative, as are the scarlet-tinged clouds that hint at the humid climate, but there's no time to get caught up in this. You must leap over a wall that towers above the waves. It will feel impossible, just as the duel with a giant sea-horse will. This brute blocks your way, staring at you with his beady little eyes. Strike him, though, and he'll unleash six smaller sea-horses that drift slowly through the water. How can you avoid them when Ecco moves at such a laboured pace?

I held Ecco the Dolphin in such high regard for so long because I was overwhelmed by its atmosphere, drawn in by the solemn yet majestic environments without ever delving far beyond the surface. Only now I have. Now I can understand how aggravating it is to die when Ecco gets trapped between jellyfish and rocks. I can see how it repeats puzzles and labyrinths to the extent that you actually have to do the City of Forever twice. I still admire the look of this oceanic world, yet Ecco the Dolphin is sadly just an old favourite -- nothing more.

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Featured community review by JANUS2 (August 07, 2010)

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