The Legacy of Ecco The Dolphin:
Before it’s untimely death (hardware wise) at the hands of its competitors (and some admittedly bad decisions), Sega was responsible of the creation of one of the most infamous game series ever created. As lame as a game series called “Ecco The Dolphin” might sound to modern-game hardcore gamers, there are few series that can match the beauty (both with music and, in more recent installments, graphics), and mind-numbing difficulty of Ecco. Don’t believe me? Remember those side-scrolling levels from the SNES and Genesis era? The final level of the original Ecco The Dolphin featured a seven minute side-scroller entitled The Machine that was full of enemies that split into more enemies and sudden screen fake-outs.This level takes you to a boss that will kill you. And it will kill you dozens of times. And every time you die, you must replay The Machine. Enough said. However, the most well-known games in the series are the Genesis versions: Ecco The Dolphin, Ecco The Dolphin: Tides Of Time, and Ecco Jr (yes, Ecco was so hard that a special easier version was made specifically for children). It may come as a surprise to some fans that in 2000, a final Ecco game, Ecco The Dolphin: Defender of the Future, was released for the Sega Dreamcast, then re-released again in 2002 for the PlayStation2.
Now, normally I’d hold off on the story, but this game’s plot is such an acid trip (as Ecco veterans would expect), that I feel like I almost have to give a summary before I do anything else. The game is split into four parts, all with a different plot. (SPOILERS FOLLOW. SKIP TO GAMEPLAY TO AVOID THEM.)
- Overview: The basic plot is this: humans and dolphins, who are creatures of equal respect and intelligence, have went into space together. While they’re gone, some dolphins remain behind to protect the earth from The Foe, a race of aliens who are mortal enemies with humans and dolphins. The dolphins are protected by The Guardian, a crystal that shields the plant from the Foe’s attacks. Ecco is destined to save the earth.
- Part One: Isle of Tranquility: The Foe destroy the Guardian, so Ecco must travel to Atlantis in order to fix it.
- Part Two: Man’s Nightmare: Ecco is too late to repair the Guardian. The Foe travel back in time and steal noble traits form the dolphins to alter their past, turning them into mentally inferior creatures that humans exploit.
- Part Three: Dolphin’s Nightmare: Ecco returns some of the dolphin’s traits, but history is altered again without all of them. The dolphins are now the aggressors and exile humans from the seas of the world.
- Part Four: Domain of the Enemy: Without the final trait returned to the dolphins, they are unprepared for the Foe and earth falls to them. Ecco must defeat them
So, what do I think about the story? Normally, I’d give such a complicated, random, and just plain bizarre plot a very low rating. However, this is almost expected from an Ecco game – the original featured aliens and space exploration, and Tides of Time had time travel. Therefore, I can’t judge this game for being ‘weird’. It’s odd, but very unique.
Defender of the Future’s gameplay is much like the original Genesis games. You are dropped off in the middle of an underwater map with next to no clues on what you have to do, you have to solve obscure puzzles, there are next to no loading screens, and you have to use your sonar to interact with the dolphins, whales and fragments of the Guardian around you. They also carried over the charge move, your only means of self-defense against sharks. You continue to eat fish to restore heath, and jellyfish are still little bastards. While still keeping true to to the Genesis games, it does a beautiful job of converting Ecco to 3D. There are several mechanics that are added, some more practical than others. For instance, there are powers with temporary effects (e.g. The Power of Air that extends underwater time for a few minutes), and well as things that are just in it for the hell of it. You can tailwalk on the surface. You can attack turtles and put them back in their shells. You can do some awesome jumping tricks. You can even chirp like a dolphin by using your sonar while out of the water. What purpose does this serve? None whatsoever. But you feel so cool doing it, like you’re in a wide-open SeaWorld.
If you aren’t a somewhat seasoned gamer and have trouble using anything more than basic controls, this game will relentlessly kick you in the ass time and time again. Ecco is moved forward by repeatedly tapping the A or X button until you have the speed you want, then holding said button in. They are many instances where you will harm your fingers playing this, one case in particular being when a gigantic moray eel chases you through a tunnel. The only strategy for that particular chase is as follows: Swim. Swim as fast as you can. If you haven’t mastered the controls, you will die. Repeatedly. And this boss is scary as hell. Defender of the Future harshly punishes people that mix buttons up, seeing as most situations require perfect timing and no screw-ups.
Now we get into the single best element of this game (maybe besides music). The graphics in Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future are nothing short of breathtaking, and can contend with damn near anything the PlayStation2 or Xbox have ever come out with. The style varies with the part you’re in; the game is bright and vibrant when it needs to be, and when it needs to scare the shit out of you (which it does quite frequently) the water will be so dark and murky that you feel like you’re playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Amnesia with sharks. Words really cannot praise how beautiful this game is. It needs to be experienced yourself.
The music in Defender of the Future is some of the best in any game. Whoever wrote these songs was a genius, because every single piece of music, from the opening title to the final boss, is a masterful piece of art. Every second of the soundtrack fits their respective levels perfectly. For example, in the second level, Perils of the Coral Reef, lurks the most horrifying enemy in any videogame. It is a shark that makes Jaws look like Flounder from The Little Mermaid. This bastard will swallow you whole, and it is a one-hit KO. Now, if getting swallowed by a shark five times your size in a murky pool filled with cloudy water doesn’t scare you, I question your sanity. What does this have to do with music? Well, the music in this particular area is in itself enough to make most people who play this game cringe. It really has to be experienced firsthand to get the full effect, as do all the songs in this game. Even the title music is so beautiful that you don’t want to start the game and interrupt it. Apart from music, the game features a number of realistic ambient sounds from dolphins, whales, machinery, and even the Foe when you get deeper in the plot.
Every game has one thing that isn’t as great as everything else, and unfortunately, Defender of Future has very limited replay value. By the time you’ve collected all the heath-increasing Vitalits, cleared the game and played the three unlockable levels, you’re unlikely to ever touch this game again. Why? Well, the difficulty is insane (the three levels in particular I’m looking at are Perpetual Fluidity, Transfiguration, and Hanging Waters). Hanging Waters is so big and so difficult that it was split into three parts with three boss fights. The unlockables are two 3D side-scrollers where all you do is collect Vitalits, and a very sloppily made soccer minigame that has no sound effects or music. By the time you’re done, you will throw down your controller in triumph and say, “I. Am. Never. Touching. That. Game. Again.” One thing that’s worth noting is that Defender of the Future is filled with glitches where you can force your way out of the map. Some people like to explore that, but unless you want to goof off (which is surprisingly entertaining), you aren’t likely to ever play this game again after you complete it.
Story: 9/10 – It is weird and hard to grasp, but not out of place in the Ecco universe.
Gameplay: 10/10 – It is a beautifully smooth conversion from 2D to 3D with mechanics that are just plain fun.
Controls: 8/10 – Somewhat hard to master, but very smooth.
Graphics: 10/10 – By far the most beautiful game to come from the Dreamcast, and it even contends with modern-day consoles.
Soundtrack:10/10 – The music is beautiful and invokes strong emotions in the player.
Replay Value: 6/10 – Unless you like goofing off, you will probably not play through the game more than once.
Overall Score: 8.3/10