Way back in the 16-bit days, Ecco the Dolphin amazed many Genesis owners with its gorgeous graphics, blissful new age music, and simple yet (literally) deep gameplay. A sequel, Ecco: Tides of Time improved on the graphics and music a bit more, and there were also Game Gear and Sega CD versions of both games released. The series took a slight dip in quality with the kid-friendly Ecco Jr., and I think there was also an Ecco game for Sega's failed Pico computer system. Unlike most videogames, the focus in the Ecco series was more on the exploration and adventure found in their vast undersea worlds rather than killing swarms of bloodthirsty enemies, saving distressed damsels, or racking up a super high score. Ecco vanished soon after (I think he subbed for Charlie the Tuna for a bit, then got that Seaquest DSV gig), and when I first heard that a Dreamcast update was planned, I was a bit skeptical- but that was about two years ago, and a lot has changed.
If at this point, you're still a non-believer in Sega's comeback (at least here in the States), Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of Time will make you think twice about not picking up a Dreamcast. Appaloosa has created one of the best looking and playing games for the system to date, and one worthy of an immediate purchase. Even if you're one of those folks who plays nothing but games where stuff is always blowing up and girls are half dressed, this game will make your eyes pop out when you first see it in motion. Yes, the game is about a dolphin, swimming in the ocean, and, yes, it's probably not for everyone's tastes- but this is the most exciting "dull" game I've ever seen or played, and its sheer beauty cannot go unnoticed.
The game is actually a science-fiction adventure well written by SF author David Brin (The Postman), and as you're playing the game, you really appreciate the hard work that went into creating the games' story, and the fantastic undersea worlds you'll visit as Ecco. The plot is pretty straightforward: In the future, men and dolphins have joined together to successfully stop an alien invasion, but the aliens, here called The Foe, are not about to give up so easily. If you're not into hard SF, the opening movie is good for a chuckle or two when you see the alien ships get smashed against a planet-covering shield created by the humans and dolphins. Other than that, there is no real humor in the game.
The gameplay mechanics are quite simple to pick up, but this isn't a child's game at all. For all the sense of wonder, the game requires loads of thought as to what to do next, and who to seek out for information. In fact, you can swim around for hours, taking in the beautiful sights and sounds alone without regard to the plot. But as you make your way about the expansive, realistic ocean environments (and later, some pretty surreal ones), you'll meet up with a few other dolphins that will clue you in on what to do next. Occasionally, you run into one who asks you to get an item or find a friend for them- in return, they'll teach you a new skill. You'll also discover some decidedly un-dolphinlike powers, such as stealth, a tractor beam, and the ability to create a sonic map of your immediate surroundings. It's quite easy to get lost, if you're not paying attention, or get too caught up in wandering around. There's a LOT to see here- think Soul Reaver, without the gore, scares and super disappointing cliffhanger ending.
I could go on for weeks about the graphics, but this review would be far too long, no? The sound design and music in Ecco are simply brilliant, and this is one game that everything blends perfectly into a near seamless experience. The funny thing is, Appaloosa is known mostly for its two less than impressive Contra games on the Playstation and the canceled Castlevania Resurrection on the Dreamcast, so this makes the game even more amazing. My guess is that this is the game that they really wanted to do all along and the other games were just work for hire jobs that they really didn't have their hearts into. You can really feel the scope of what they've accomplished here (especially if you have a Jump Pak in your controller), and it'll be interesting to see what Sony comes up with as a response.
Of course the game isn't perfect- as usual in any 3D adventure, the camera can get a little goofy from time to time, especially when you getting used to the controls in the beginning of the game. You'll probably get a little dizzy from all the motion at first, but you can manually adjust the camera somewhat in order to make things easier to see. Some of the viewpoints are simply there for cinematic effect only, and they seem just about useless except to show off the game to your non-Ecco loving friends. I can also see just a small percentage of gamers out there just not being able to grasp the whole concept of the game, but trying something new once in a while can be quite a revelation, especially if it's something this spectacular.
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