Damn tricky concept art

Ecco The Dolphin Review

May 7, 2009

Ecco is the perfect blend of Flipper and McGuyver – he’s smart, determined, selfless, and no one messes with his family without retribution (… at least that was the sales pitch the developers gave to the production company). Unfortunately our friendly aquatic mammal suffers from poor controls, a lack of direction, annoying side missions, and boundless squeals of death.

Damn tricky concept art

Damn Deceptive Concept Art

Where Ecco succeeds is in creating an immersive experience that truly makes the player feel as though they are moving through a living underwater world. Amidst a sea of linear platformers, this heroic dolphin stands {*swims} out from the competition, his world offering 16-bits of tangibility.

Keep

Level Design
The maze like structure of this oceanic world is thoughtful and perfectly balanced between being too simple and overly complicated.  Navigating the tides is aided by the use of Ecco’s echolocation which pulls up a map that shows the area surrounding the player, thus giving them a glimpse of an area they cannot yet reach.  As the levels progress the maze evolves into concealed passageways reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda.  The backdrops and environments integrate seamlessly with the world, and create the vision that it is alive and evolving.

Music
The musical score is a well composed assortment of MIDI tracks that sets the tone for the entire game.  If the level design is responsible for the atmosphere, then the music complements with the mood.  Alternating from subdued to dramatic, the music in Ecco is both unobtrusive yet impactful.  Although it may repeat a bit more than desired, that repetition creates a quick familiarity that engages the player’s emotions and has the power to make them feel comfort or anxiety.

Cheat Codes
Games of yesteryear were not complete without some type of cheat code.  Ecco makes this process exceptionally easy by giving the player two options: go right for a new game, go left to enter a code.  Rather than saving your progress, you are given a code when beginning a new level.  The process of physically writing a code into a notepad creates an attachment and a sense of accomplishment.  Today, the internet spoils all of that by giving us immediate access to codes, maps, walkthroughs, etc., seducing us with instant gratification.

Change

 

Don't Mess with His Pod

Controls
Enough of the heavy-handed, let’s face it – Ecco could have been great were it not for the pitiable controls.  The developers should be applauded for creating a game with such a great range of motion and opening up the possibility of non-linear level progression, but to do so and not spend enough time perfecting the controls is like giving a kid the key to a toystore, but deadbolting it on the inside.  The timing and responsiveness of the controls make this game frustrating.

To add to that frustration, the puzzles force you to push and follow various objects (rocks, shells, stones, etc.) throughout the game to unlock new areas.  Just FYI – a dolphin’s nose isn’t the most dexterous appendage out there.  Dropping a stone or losing a shell for the hundredth time is perfect cause for throwing a controller into your television – not something developers should be provoking.

Attacks
Ecco is equipped with a strong nose and often fatal sonar – and that’s it.  Even Mario has more modes of attack than that and he is 10 years Ecco’s predecessor.  With such variety of enemies, it would have been nice if they had included a few more ways to evaporate enemies into a circle of stars.

Escort Service
How many games have unsuccessfully attempted to integrate escorting ‘survivors’?  All we care about is rescuing our pod – not whimsically swimming of to find some dumb porpoise who doesn’t know which way is up.  And… a little aside, wouldn’t they have drowned just floating around all day?  Not only could we care less to rescue the stranded dolphins, but it’s not even necessary to advance the game – which is good because half the time the separated dolphins won’t follow you.  Spare us the mundane tasks and give us some more meat on the bones.

Cut

Painful Sound Effects
Want to know what it sounds like when you punch a dolphin in the face?  Apparently it sounds like this: {sound byte coming soon {for now imagine the sound of Jim Carey from Dumb and Dumber mixed with Fran Drescher from The Nanny} } I think this one sound effect simultaneously ruined my speakers and my childhood nostalgia for this game.  If you are going to create a sound effect that plays every single time your character is hurt, either mix it up with several different sound bytes or make it something a little less annoying.

I Doubt That Pterodactyl Would Be So Gentle

Gimmicks
Ok, ok – check it out… dolphins & pterodactyls – what could be more rad?  Skip this ridiculous manuever and utilize something that actually makes some sense.  If we need Ecco to be moved through the air, how about he jumps into a hurricane or something?

Bottom Line

Ecco is a game that, for all its merits, is overshadowed by its faults.  The unique story, thought-provoking level design and puzzles, and the excellent score are completely shrouded by poor controls, repetitive attacks, and speaker-blown sound effects.  My childhood fondness for this game was what compelled me to revisit it, however, it’s best if it be left in the attic box labeled SEGA.

Verdict: Avoid

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