There aren’t very many video games about the beauty of nature. Considering that Ecco the Dolphin culminates in a climactic boss battle with a screen-filling, Giger-esque alien, as so many of its contemporaries did, one could make an argument that any natural or artistic appreciation about the oceans and marine life may have fallen to the wayside somewhere during the development of the game. Still, there would be something to be said about how they don’t make games like Ecco anymore if it weren’t for the fact that even then they didn’t make many games like Ecco. Despite a narrative thrust that walks a very thin line between silly and somber, simply by placing you in the fins of a cetacean hero and allowing you to traverse vast stretches of ocean in a variety of locations, Ecco the Dolphin manages to create something incredible unique.
You could probably spend a good twenty minutes in the first screen of Ecco without getting too impatient for the game proper to begin. Almost immediately, Ecco sets you loose amongst a few other dolphins in a wide open lagoon. You’re free to play around here with your ability to accelerate your swimming, reflect your echolocation off of walls to get a map of your surroundings, or simply see if you can perform flips while cresting the surface of the water. There’s an obvious exit, but no way through it. Eventually, playing around in the lagoon, you’ll probably see how high you can jump out of the water (as one of the other dolphins will suggest), at which point all of the marine life is sucked into the sky and whisked away. This begins a tale of intergalactic fish-harvesting that will take Ecco back in time, to the depths of Atlantis, and eventually to confront the aforementioned aliens—odd, but a yarn woven in an exceedingly straightforward fashion.
That commitment to taking its material seriously gives Ecco a lot of its weight, as does the gameplay itself. Ecco himself can’t do anything more than an average dolphin would be able to (for the most part), even if he’s finding ancient crystals to open new pathways deeper into twisting underwater mazes. He has to breathe, so you’re constantly on the lookout for pockets of air, a game-long stress for anyone who panics at the thought of being trapped underwater. Eating fish replenishes your health, and speaking with other sea creatures has them calling one another things like “singers” or “eight legs” as opposed to any human-given names. The game is tough as nails and suffers from awkward hitboxes, but by throwing itself so completely into showing respect for an aquatic ecosystem and displaying it with absolutely gorgeous sprite work and haunting music, Ecco manages to be beautiful and terrifying in all the ways that the ocean can be despite the inherent absurdity of a game hinged on the premise of dolphins versus aliens.
Article by Marc Host
GameSpite Journal 12: Ecco the Dolphin