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Ecco the Dolphin Bits

Ecco the Dolphin ended up becoming a mini-franchise for Sega, but the titular catacean’s first appearance — and probably the most memorable one — was originally on the Genesis.

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Ecco and his playful pod.

EtD is a side-scrolling adventure game that’s quite difficult and possesses some clunky mechanics, but it’s still a very interesting and enjoyable experience. The notable bits:


  • A minimalist HUD and menu system — all the rage these days — is a big part of EtD. In fact, there are no menus to speak of. The game simply starts with Ecco in an underwater cavern. Swimming right begins the game, while swimming left takes the player to the password-entry system. The only traces of an in-game HUD are two bars, each one segmented into five parts. One bar represents Ecco’s health, while the other his air supply. An interesting side note here is that the bars are vertically drawn when the game is paused, mimicking the ubiquitous pause symbol.

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    Ecco using a stone block to get past a strong current.

  • Ecco’s acceleration move — in conjunction with his dash — allow him to build up speed in order to leap out of the water and over obstacles. The dash is also used to attack enemies, break through obstructions, and eat health-recharging fish. Ecco’s main tool, though, is his ability to sing. The sonic wave it creats quickly travels the screen’s length and is used to talk to various entities, push and destroy certain objects, and interact with the environment, e.g., knock aside gate-crystals (once their corresponding key was obtained), activate invincibility statues, open up clams to get air bubbles, etc.
  • Holding the A button after singing sends out an echoing sonar that eventually bounced back to Ecco. This displays a minimap of the area Ecco was facing when the sonar was released. The minimaps are vital to planning exploration routes on account of Ecco’s limited air supply (although there are numerous ways of recharging it).

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    The very useful minimap.

  • Instead of using standard text-boxes, all of the game’s text is displayed on top of a full screen image showing a shimmering water-surface that changes in hue to reflect the current setting. The text itself floats up to the center of the screen, and the large font also uses a gradient that’s fairly evocative of sunlight hitting water.
  • Great care was taken to avoid current-day vernacular in EtD. All the entities that Ecco can speak to respond in an almost poetic translation of concepts rather than in clear, everyday speech.
  • The game starts off with Ecco and his pod frolicking around in their home bay. Singing to one of the other dolphins presents Ecco with a challenge to jump out of the water as high as he can — this is the event that initiates a massive waterspout that sucks out the majority of the ocean life. This gives the game a lonely and dreary atmosphere, further accentuated by the remaining lifeforms that often lament about their sadness and confusion.

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    A surprisingly helpful pterodactyl.

  • Despite the console’s limited palette, EtD is visually quite varied. It employs numerous tones of blues, purples and teals, and frequently uses dithered gradients to compensate for hardware limitations.
  • The difficulty of the game is somewhat offset by the fact that each of the game’s levels is introduced with a password, and that the player is granted unlimited continues. The level introductions also do a good job of dropping gameplay hints and setting the atmosphere.
  • Various forms of sea-life travel in schools, displaying simple but effective flocking behaviour. In addition, the nature of these creatures is somewhat mysterious as the player can never be sure what he’ll encounter under the waters and how it will react to his presence, e.g., the billions-of-years-old Asterite.
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The wondrous sea-life.
  • A couple “open ocean” levels present a break in the game as they’re strictly horizontal and devoid of any puzzles. The only life forms in these areas are sharks, but the player can fairly easily blast past them while while performing various acrobatics.
  • Although the levels are completely linear, the game has a bit of a Metroid vibe. Most levels begin with Ecco at the top of the map, and take him deep under the water’s surface, conveying a sense of danger and isolation. Ecco can also upgrade his singing at various points in the game, with some upgrades being optional while others mandatory, e.g., learning the pterodactyl-summoning son is required to finish a couple of levels.
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The various zones of Ecco the Dolphin.
  • EtD uses an old trick of simulating darkness by tinting the tilemap when Ecco swims away from the map’s top portion. This works particularly well because it’s only applied to the backgrounds, keeping the interactive foregrounds in clear focus.
  • Two of the game’s level’s include side missions where Ecco can reunite three dolphins of a single pod. These are completely optional and reward the player with offensive sonar upgrades (one that can stun sharks, and another that does extra damage when Ecco sings while dashing).
  • The crystals are present in all areas and ages, but their nature is never explained. Sometimes they recognize Ecco and speak as if they were living beings, but at other times they’re simply recordings. An interesting side note is that the game is peppered with optional — sometimes completely hidden — crystals that drop hints about the game’s story.
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    The mysterious crystals.
  • Humans are never mentioned in the game, and their only trace is the ruined city of Atlantis (and the various sunken ships in the Sega CD version). This is another contributing factor to the EtD’s rather desolate atmosphere.
  • The audio is very good, with the music consisting of mostly ambient, mood-setting tracks that are well complemented by the unique sounds effects.
  • The player eventually learns that the force behind the abducted sea-life is an alien species. In a macabre twist, it’s revealed that these aliens, aptly named the Vortex, have lost their ability to manufacture food and now visit earth every five hundred years to “restock.” In order to stop them, Ecco travels back in time to the beginning of the game and gets sucked into the waterspout to confront the “unseen” enemy.
  • The first Vortex level is an auto-scrolling vertical map filled with floating objects and mounted cannons that fire electricity. The whole design is very harsh and industrial, evocative of an alien slaughtering line.
  • The second Vortex level is auto scrolling as well, but the direction constantly changes. In this level, Ecco finally meets the aliens that have a very definite H. R. Giger look. What’s most disturbing about them is that using the sonar bursts their bodies, but the individual parts still pursue and attack the player.
  • The final boss is a giant head straight from the movie Alien. In a rather brutal fight, Ecco must first gouge out its eyes (easiest by using the sonar), then tear away its lower jaw by repeatedly dashing into it. Once the crippled Vortex queen is left defenseless, a final dash will finish it off, spilling out the various sea-life she had consumed.
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The ending.
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