Ecco the Dolphin has always been something of an oddity. At the time of release, the Mega Drive / Genesis platform was defined by its solid arcade ports and action-packed titles such as Golden Axe and Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, so when a dolphin-based adventure came along it was a totally original concept for players to take on board. It still stands out today in a market continually dominated by shooters and action games, and this recent 3DS release may prompt a whole new audience to take the bait. The title has been praised for its emphasis on atmosphere, its rich art style and unique gameplay, but make no mistake; it isn't all smooth sailing.
You play as Ecco, the titular hero on a magical adventure to make some new friends — or at least you'd be forgiven for assuming that based off the gorgeously colourful box-art by Boris Vallejo. The game's opening does indeed match up to this idyllic vision as you swim around with other dolphins, leaping out of the water to take in the sights above the surface, but it doesn't last. Things take a sharp turn early on, setting a surprisingly gloomy tone with the arrival of a catastrophic whirlwind that tears through the ocean, causing absolute chaos for all within. You may think you're in for a joyous, carefree adventure, but Ecco is actually far from it. Take that literal whirlwind as a metaphorical one as well; your preconceived notions will be quickly whisked away for a harsh awakening. The quest to rescue your 'pod' — which as it turns out is another name for a group of dolphins — will not be an easy one.
Your journey takes you down into the depths of the ocean, through ancient ruins and labyrinthine caves that will have you swimming in circles. Imagine a platformer that takes place entirely underwater, and it's somewhat close to the experience Ecco provides. There's an emphasis on exploration, and you won't really be receiving much guidance other than the occasional obscure hint from a passing dolphin. Puzzles require a bit of thinking, but usually boil down to either matching key glyphs or manoeuvring through harsh currents and surviving enemy encounters. There are a lot of enemy encounters. Nearly every other creature you come across will be out for dolphin blood, and Ecco quickly seems very vulnerable indeed. With only a charge attack to defend yourself with initially, death will come fast and often, not least because it's actually quite difficult to move around properly. Dodging flying crabs and squeezing through ridiculously tight passages lined with spikes is far more challenging than it has to be due to the demand for absolute precision from the player. Ecco is fast, but needs to be lined up exactly right to make certain moves. The sense of speed is lost when you're forced into ambling along at a snail's pace just to avoid the many hazards.
Creator Ed Annunziata himself stated on Twitter that the game's difficulty was a preventative method to stop kids beating it over a weekend, though it may have prevented the majority of them from ever beating it at all. It's a stressful experience, made all the more potent by the ever-present oxygen meter. Being a mammal, Ecco can't stay down there for more than a minute without needing a breath of air, so every puzzle in the game is held down by a sort of time limit. You'll spend a lot of time darting back and forth from air-pockets and obstacles, adding to that sense of pressure. The mechanics haven't held up too well, and the core game is in need of some tweaking.
Luckily this recent 3DS release brings significant changes, making it stand out among many other previous versions. It definitely benefits from M2's input, though it isn't a complete solution. 'Super Dolphin Mode' is arguably the biggest overall change to the gameplay experience, and serves as M2's answer to complaints about the difficulty. When this option is toggled, Ecco is completely invulnerable and his air gauge will never drop, making things substantially less taxing on the player. The idea is that the puzzles go unaltered, and 'Super Dolphin Mode' will allow players to solve them at their own pace. On paper this sounds like a welcome alternative, but in practice it blurs the lines between actively playing the game and just going through the repetitive motions of each stage with no struggle at all. It's a nice idea, but leaves a lot to be desired when it removes all semblance of challenge. Ecco is either a little too tough or a little too easy. There's unfortunately no real middle ground.
On the visual end of things, it's a much happier story. Ecco was a visual marvel at the time of release, and recent ports haven't quite done that justice. It looks fantastic in 3D though, and there's enough graphical variation in the stages to keep up the appeal. The pop-out effect adds the feel of a diorama or — quite suitably — an aquarium to the game, and what was impressive sprite-work at the time has been polished to a near-gleam here. This, alongside the fantastic soundtrack, makes playing through the title a lot more enjoyable. The 'classic' visual mode is an odd addition that simulates playing the game on an old CRT television when toggled, adding a blurry filter which only takes away from the colourful scenery. The option to play the Japanese version has also been included which carries a few minor adjustments of its own, as well as a save feature that removes the punishing lack of checkpoints but can feel a little cheap at times. A combination of the Japanese version and save points can tone the title's difficulty down, but never to a wholly satisfying result which really affects the overall adventure.
Ecco the Dolphin is a flawed but brave venture by Sega that still deserves recognition as a title that was unafraid to try something completely different. It's still possible to recommend to anyone who knows what they're in for and this 3DS release is the best version of the title to date, with multiple options and tweaks to play around with to refine the experience. Some might relish the challenge, so if you've been waiting for the right chance to take the plunge, this is it.