Wading the Waters: How Ecco the Dolphin mastered the test of time
It’s funny how time quickly passes us by, isn’t it? 20 years ago, gamers turned to their Sega Genesis for entertainment, playing such games as Sonic the Hedgehog and Ghouls n’ Ghosts. However, if you owned one and were looking for diversity at the time, you didn’t have to look any further than Ecco the Dolphin, a game that’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.
The game released on July 29, 1992, as a bold new experiment from Sega. Ecco the Dolphin differed from any other game on the market at the time. Instead of playing through a cute platformer with a cartoony superhero, you played as an actual dolphin, swimming his way through the waters while some mysterious alien force had separated you from your family, forcing you to speak to others through sonar and occasionally battle alien enemies using a charge attack. The game wasn’t your typical action affair, and actually required a bit of thought in order to get through it all.
Designed by Ed Annunziata and his team at Novotrade International, Ecco the Dolphin set the pace for originality in games when it first released on the Genesis. Not everyone got into the gameplay (we’ve seen some YouTube videos where some frustrated players tried to grasp onto the difficult controls), but those who “got it” were rewarded with a worthwhile adventure, one that had them jumping out of the water and exploring the inner depths, eventually leading to a final showdown with the Vector Queen.
Perhaps what makes Ecco stand out the most is its realism. Ecco doesn’t have any tricks that make him similar to cartoon-based platforming heroes, though he does have the ability to “speak” with others, receiving messages from fellow sea life that’s friendly to him. The physics pose an interesting challenge with his character, as sometimes you’ll need to speed up just to break into a new area. Like I stated, not everyone could grasp this, but those who took the time to understand and embrace Ecco’s tactics were happily rewarded.
Then there’s Spencer Nilsen, a composer who had worked on a number of soundtracks for Sega over the years, including The Amazing Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin, Jurassic Park and the Sega CD adaptation of Batman Returns. His soundtrack to Ecco the Dolphin was – and continues to be – exquisite, a soothing mix of sea-going tunes that really makes you feel like you’re one with the sea. The music for the Sega CD version was even better, and to appease fans, Sega released a special CD soundtrack alongside the game, so players could enjoy listening to the new age tunes at any time. It’s still very much worth a listen today, and it should be easy to find MP3’s online.
Though the series wasn’t as popular as, say, the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, Ecco the Dolphin did see a couple more adventures following the release of his original one. In 1994, Sega released Ecco: The Tides of Time, a worthy follow-up that fans immediately got into. A year later, Sega tried to be kid-friendly with the release of Ecco Jr., a game that was a hit with the younger crowd, but not so much the fans that were looking for something more challenging. Finally, when the year 2000 kicked off, Appaloosa Interactive took Ecco into the third dimension on the Sega Dreamcast with Defender of the Future, a captivatingly beautiful 3D adventure where Ecco once again battled the odds against aquatic evil. (The game was also ported to the PlayStation 2 a couple of years later, following Sega’s announcement about going third-party.)
It’s been quite a journey for this little dolphin, and the best part is you can still experience it in many ways today. The game is available on Steam, Wii Virtual Console, App Store and Xbox Live Arcade, and both the first game and Tides of Time are playable in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. So put down that can of tuna and enjoy one of the more original games you’re likely to find out there.