The gorgeous Boris Vallejo cover art of Ecco the Dolphin seems to imply an undersea world of magic, adventure, and fun, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
In reality, Ecco the Dolphin throws its plucky hero into immediate, inescapable doom roughly two minutes in, tasking players with navigating confusing underwater mazes while keeping a careful eye on their ever-depleting oxygen meter and the swarms of murderous (and regenerating) predators surrounding them. If the life of a dolphin involves nothing but abject panic and confusion, then Ecco captures the life of underwater mammals perfectly -- and now I kind of feel bad for those little guys.
With these 3D remakes, you have to draw a careful balance between reviewing the original game and evaluating its improvements; so, in full disclosure, I never really liked Ecco the Dolphin. And getting to sit down with it for this review made me really think about why this often-lauded game rubs me the wrong way. In short, Ecco takes a fine idea and doesn't really move it in the right direction. For a game featuring a zippy dolphin protagonist, Ecco demands an unusual amount of meticulousness and precision from the player. Everything from smashing into enemies to lining up jumps requires Ecco to be positioned just right, which, tragically enough, is tough to do because he's so fast. The result is a game that feels incredibly constraining, and one that requires you to poke along inch-by-inch for fear you'll bump Ecco's sensitive skin into hidden spikes or other dangers.
And you will, because they're everywhere.
While the mechanics haven't aged particularly well, Ecco still looks fantastic, just as it did 20 years ago, when Sega used it to prove their little box could pump out graphics just as impressive as the Super Nintendo's. As expected, the retro gaming devotees over at M2 have preserved the beauty of Ecco perfectly, adding optional 3D modes that -- similar to their remake of Sonic the Hedgehog -- produce an effect much more convincing (and far less painful) than most other developers' efforts. This port also includes a "classic" visual mode that places a blurry, convex, CRT filter over the game, which really isn't the best choice if you'd like to take in Ecco's beautiful spritework.
Along with the standard save/load feature, choice between Genesis 1 and 2 emulation, and the ability to select the International or Japanese version of the game -- all basic M2 additions at this point -- 3D Ecco also contains a tacit admission of the game's frustrating nature with something called "Super Dolphin Mode." When turned on, this mode basically acts as an invincibility code, rendering Ecco invulnerable to enemies and without any need to refill his oxygen meter. A smart addition, but playing as an indestructible Ecco feels kind of empty, even if the core game rarely shows mercy. It'd be nice to have some middle ground, but as it stands, 3D Ecco leaves you with two options: easy-as-cake or tough-as-nails.
Ecco was always meant to be a visual showpiece above all else, and even 20 years later, it still does an amazing job at looking good. But the game itself hasn't aged incredibly well, and the fact that its uglier peers outpaced Ecco in gameplay decades ago is all the more apparent with this re-release. It may sound obvious, but if you didn't like Ecco before, 3D Ecco the Dolphin isn't going to change your mind.
- Visuals: The 2D art of Ecco is preserved perfectly, with 3D modes that add subtle depth and texture to the underwater environments.
- Sound: The noodly, meandering soundtrack tries its best, but it's often at odds with the game's frantic nature.
- Interface: As expected from M2, the options of Ecco the Dolphin are presented in clean, well-organized menu. Again, though, they could do a better job of explaining the significance behind some of them.
- Lasting Appeal: Ecco's confusing, underwater caverns offer a complex environment to explore -- but only if you have the patience.