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Retro Replay: Ecco the Dolphin (1992) Remains a Challenge for All Time

A look back at this classic adventure proves both fun and frustrating.

Ecco The Dolphin is a 1992 action-adventure game, which introduced Sega’s most unlikely hero, a bottle-nosed dolphin called Ecco who has to travel across the oceans and time to rescue his pod from their alien captors.

The chances are high that if you owned a Mega Drive you will have played this game, which back in 1992 was released to both critical and player acclaim. Perhaps it was down to the fact that you were playing as a friendly dolphin rather than some muscle bound commando or that on the surface it seemed like a less violent game than the majority of other popular games of the time and hence why parents were so happy to buy it.

Despite the family-friendly surface, the roots of Echo are surprisingly grounded in much more psychedelic fare as developer Ed Annunziata found inspiration for his creations name in the work of John C. Lilly who experimented with psychoactive drugs alongside extensive work with dolphins for his book The Mind of the Dolphin with the name Echo being drawn from the cosmic entities he claimed to have met and dubbed Earth Coincidence Control Office (E.C.C.O.). The trippy vibes are further added to by Annunziata playing for the team handling the soundtrack, Pink Floyd tracks to get the right kind of mood he wanted for the atmosphere.

Ecco the Dolphin
Ecco the Dolphin, 1992 © Sega

Playing the game now with modern gaming expectations, it can be nothing short of a brutal experience, as right from the start you’re dropped into Ecco’s world were you can swim around, talk to your dolphin friends, eat fish and you know, generally have a good time messing around. Of course none of this gets you especially far in the game until you figure out that, oh,  you have to do a high-jump out of the water, triggering the aliens to show up and kidnap your pod. It’s from here you begin your journey to rescue them, but of course there’s no instructions to trigger this event and chances are you’ll only know to do this if you played the game back when it was released or just through general messing around.

Playing the game now with dual shock controls is a far easier experience than the original D-Pad controls with Ecco’s movements being highly realistic, making just swimming around the levels a lot of fun, though making Ecco jump over the islands can at times be more than a little frustrating, especially when you often find yourself hitting the cliff more times than you jump it unless you precisely time it right. Of course if this wasn’t enough, you also have to constantly find air pockets or swim to the surface to stop Ecco from drowning, which is certainly a unique aspect while no doubt the one which will have you throwing the controller most at the screen.

Ecco the Dolphin
Ecco the Dolphin, 1992 © Sega

For some reason, everything in the ocean seems to have a grudge with Ecco, which is really the only reason I can think for everything trying to kill him on sight, from sharks and puffer fish, right down to kamikaze crabs. Worse still, all the enemies you face have a much greater maneuverability than you so its almost inevitable that your going to leave most confrontations with more than a few hits. Of course Ecco has a few defences as he can ram enemies while his sonar while mainly used to communicate with other friendly animals can also be upgraded over the course of the game so that it can be used as a ranged weapon as well as being used to freeze sharks.

The main meat of the game mainly involves exploring each level for the exit to the next level while solving puzzles to clear paths such as using a shell to clear rocks or collecting songs to clear crystals which frequently block your access. Other levels require you to find objects or rescue trapped dolphins before you can progress, which help to mix things up. The downside of course comes from the constant need to find oxygen for Ecco before he drowns, which really takes away from the exploration aspect when you’re constantly having to turn around to get more oxygen, while in turn this metre puts more pressure on you to solve problems quicker, which really is not what you need when dealing with another fiddly shell. Thankfully, playing any of the remastered versions of the game allows you to save the game at any point and in turn saving you the frustration of being sent back to the start of the level … okay, yes this is kind of cheating but unless your trying to impress someone with your old school gaming skills, this feature will really save you a lot of frustration.

Ecco the Dolphin
Ecco the Dolphin, 1992 © Sega

The levels are really mixed as while. You start off at the coast and over the course of the game, you work your way through oceans and caverns as well as more unique locations, such as the Arctic and Atlantis. You even get to travel through time and swim in the Jurassic Oceans, which really gives a lot more variety than you’d first expect when starting the game and its the desire to see these later levels which really carries you through those moments when your facing trying to get past the same section for the umpteenth time that session.

Ecco the Dolphin
Ecco the Dolphin, 1992 © Sega

Ecco would go on to spawn several sequels with this game being followed up two years later with Ecco 2: The Tides of Time as well as the more random Ecco Jr., which attempted to draw in younger gamers. An attempt in 2000 to reboot the series on Playstation 2 and Dreamcast was made with Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future as well as a cancelled follow up Sentinals of the Universe though outside of Ecco reappearing via the various remastered collections there has hardly been a huge call for his return and after revisiting this first entry I was hardly left with the urge to leap into the next entry if only for the sake of not snapping my controller as despite the cute exterior this game belongs in that special circle of video game hell alongside the likes of Dark Souls and Battletoads. This remains a frustrating challenge which will compel most gamers to quit it long before it’s over while for others a retro challenge of the most teeth-grinding kind.

Retro Replay: Ecco the Dolphin (1992) Remains a Challenge for All Time

Game description: Ecco The Dolphin is a 1992 action-adventure game, which introduced Sega’s most unlikely hero, a bottle-nosed dolphin called Ecco who has to travel across the oceans and time to rescue his pod from their alien captors.

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