For anyone unfamiliar with the Ecco games let me explain the premise, you take on the role of a dolphin and you have to defeat an evil alien race by solving a series of puzzles, working together with your aquatic pals and charging and head butting enemies. It was every bit as weird as it sounds but thanks to some great game-play mechanics and huge levels it was also great fun and provided a refreshing and environmentally friendly alternative to blowing away bad guys with big guns.
The insanely difficult original was released for the Sega Mega Drive in 1992 and was developed by a company called Novotrade International. It was a side scrolling action adventure in which you had to save your ocean dwelling chums from an alien race called the Vortex.
The game-play was excellent with a great deal of depth but it had one hell of a learning curve. Players could build speed by tapping a button and enemies were despatched by charging them and butting them with your nose. You could also jump out of the water and perform a series of dramatic spins. In addition another button allowed you to sing which could be used to communicate with marine buddies or interact with objects and by holding it down you could utilise your echolocation to reveal parts of the map. You also had a health meter and a breath meter and you had to return to the surface periodically to suck in air through your blowhole. If you were touched by any of the wide range of enemies you sustained damage and if you didn’t keep your air topped up the breath meter would run down and then begin to affect your health. You could also be healed by magical shells or by eating fish.
It played out like an underwater platform game and there’s no doubt the developers were not big fans of hand-holding because it often proved difficult to work out how to progress. Generally the route forward could only be discovered through trial and error and they challenged you to pull off some tricky manoeuvres if you wanted to be successful. Probably the biggest criticism you could level at Ecco is the lack of balance as challenges ranged from ridiculously easy to mind-bendingly difficult.
Ecco gets parted from his pod right at the start of the game and they are sucked away into a whirlpool leaving him behind to figure out the mystery of what is happening in the ocean. Through talking to friendly sea creatures, mostly other dolphins and whales, you learn about the evil alien race known as the Vortex who came to earth to scoop up marine life for their dinner. Ecco would have to use an Atlantean time machine to travel back in time and defeat the Vortex queen.
There were a wide range of enemies to defeat including basic grunts like jellyfish and poisonous shellfish as well as bigger foes like sharks and octopuses or octopi. Ecco gained further abilities as his adventure unfolded so he could breathe underwater for longer and use his echolocation as a weapon to freeze enemies before charging them.
There were twenty five levels in the game and each of them was massive so it provided hours and hours of game-play. It also featured some extremely difficult puzzles and working your way through the maze of levels all the way to the exciting conclusion was an epic struggle
Graphically the game looked gorgeous; the various underwater settings were teeming with life and movement and a range of visual effects brought the action to life. The music and sound effects were also very good and helped create the illusion of a mysterious underwater world.
Ecco was a truly unique game which spawned a number of sequels. It proved one of the most popular titles on the Mega Drive and deservedly so. It actually holds up pretty well to the passage of time and still makes for a different game-play experience although modern gamers may be shocked and dismayed by the difficulty level in places.
Casting the player in the role of a dolphin was a genius idea and this game was positively dripping with creativity and instead of forcing you along it allowed the player to progress at their own pace which is a real rarity in gaming. Sega were always looking to compete with Nintendo and they were open to new ideas as they attempted to keep up hence games like this. It’s hard to imagine a developer being allowed to realise such a bizarre concept in the current climate and that’s a shame because Ecco was a beauty of a game.