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You can imagine the pitch meeting when Novotrade International rocked up at SEGA HQ in the early 1990s. "Right, we've got this new game, you play a dolphin who has to fight evil aliens under the sea in a time-travelling, mystical adventure." Cue silence, and then SEGA's response: "Get out."
Miraculously, though, the studio's Ecco the Dolphin not only convinced the money-men at SEGA, but also proved a surprise hit on the Mega Drive and Genesis consoles after its release in 1992, spawning an entire franchise. Score one for marine mammals!
So, the intrepid porpoise sets off on an epic adventure to beat the Vortex and save his family. In this, he travels to the Arctic, the lost city of Atlantis, and 55 million years back into Earth's past; culminating in an epic battle against the evil Vortex Queen with everything at stake. Beats balancing a ball on your nose, I guess...
There have been many odd games released over the years, but Ecco the Dolphin certainly ranks among the more unusual. Playing it all those years ago on consoles, you got the feeling that this was something really different. After all, not many games have levels set to songs by Pink Floyd (Penultimate stage, Welcome to the Machine). There was also a really strong environmental message to the title amidst all the colourful weirdness.
Chief among the culprits was the game's crescendo, the aforementioned Welcome to the Machine stage. After getting through this immensely frustrating, labyrinthine sequence, you had to take on an incredibly tough final boss. Die at this stage and you were thrown back to the start of the machine. And the controller no doubt thrown at the wall.
But alongside the frustrations, there were some real moments of magic in Ecco the Dolphin. In an age of jumping Italian plumbers and dashing hedgehogs, the different pace of the game really shone. You zoomed around the water as Ecco, speeding up for ram attacks against enemies ranging from seahorses to sharks.
As Ecco is a sea mammal, you had to periodically breathe air, either by leaping out of the water or finding an air vent. But there were advantages to being a dolphin, such as echolocation for scoping maps of an area, as well as singing to speak with other dolphins and sea creatures, offering vital tips in cutesy floating text.
Originally released in 1992 for the SEGA MegaDrive/Genesis, Ecco the Dolphin was later made available on Windows, Game Gear and Master System, including additional levels. The game spawned various sequels, including 1994's Ecco: The Tides of Time, Ecco Jr in 1995 and Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future, released on 2000 on the SEGA Dreamcast.
Despite its frustrations, Ecco the Dolphin's tripped out ambient music, happy presentation and rich undersea world made it a hugely enjoyable place to be. It would be nice to believe that the game in some way got people thinking about marine conservation, but at the very least it offered an unusual gaming experience that still lingers in the memory.
Do you have any fond memories of Ecco the Dolphin? Write a comment in the space below!