It’s time to face my fears!
I tend to think of Ecco the Dolphin as not merely some old and difficult game but full-on nightmare fuel; lurking under that adorable splashy dolphin exterior, all cute cetacean chirps and wise blue whales, lies a game that is all about slowly suffocating to death while trying to stop alien space monsters from eating you alive.
And crabs. SO MANY CRABS.
The funny thing is I’d genuinely forgotten about the crabs. Sharks? Ugh, those guys. Vortex Queen? Terrifying. Crabs wouldn’t have been my go-to answer if someone had said “What’s the most annoying thing about Ecco, Kimimi?”, not by a long shot. Fun fact: The game’s crawling with them. Crabs hiding in the walls. Crabs hiding in the floors. Crabs hiding in the ceilings. Atlantean crabs. Prehistoric trilobites-as-crabs. No alien crabs though – I guess even ecosystem-destroying alien fiends have standards.
Anyway: The first night I set this up I had a quick poke around the options, checked it was all working properly with a quick splash around the enemy-free opening Home Bay area, turned it off, and went to bed.
I had a vivid dream that night. I was on holiday, casually swimming around a mostly empty Venice-like city by myself. Oh look, a tour guide!
“What kind of things can I see around here?” I ask.
“You’ve got to watch out for the crabs.” he replies “They’re everywhere.”
On cue, a giant crab shoved itself into my face before disappearing under the water again.
“Don’t worry,” I say “I’ve got a flamethrower!”
To deal with the crabs. In the water. A flamethrower. While I’m swimming. Thanks a lot, me.
So I may not have recalled the crabs myself, but they’ve clearly left a permanent and probably very interesting scar on my subconscious mind.
To get try and get back on track: This was the first time in years that I’ve properly sat down with Ecco for a start-to-finish play through, the first time in… far too long…(?) that I’ve played it in Japanese, and almost definitely my first time ever with the PC version of the game. If you’re not already familiar with Sega’s underwater hero:
- You’ve probably got one of those Mega Drive collection discs they’ve been putting out since forever, it’ll be on there – go play!
- It’s a puzzle-action-adventure kind of game.
- Basically you play as a special dolphin that has his pod stolen by aliens so he uses Atlantean technology to time travel to the past to get a thing so he can time travel to the future (the present) and then time travel back to the past (the present past) but all powered up with dolphin laser beams so he can take out the aliens and save the day.
There, all caught up!
The most striking thing about this PC port is that instead of being a quick ROM on a CD the way some of these things are (for better or worse – sometimes access to an official ROM is all you’re really hoping for) it’s a high-quality remake with redrawn high resolution graphics, optional new control schemes (Want to use a mouse to play? Now you can!), and a proper multi-slot save system replacing the passwords of old.
And those new sprites really are beautiful; not lazily doubled Mega Drive art that’s been shoved back in or pixels that’ve been given a quick re-spray and some finer gradients but truly redone from the ground up, and they look so much better for it. You can find an excellent spritesheet of PC Ecco here, and for comparison the originals are here. They’re not better for simply being bigger and having more colours on them, they’re better because they improve on what was already there: Everything’s still perfectly recognisable and feels authentically Ecco-like, the only difference is now it looks more in line with the incredible pixel art found in the later Ecco: The Tides of Time, if not better.
The numerous FMV sequences found in the Mega CD version haven’t been re-done as such but they are of a much higher quality than their console counterparts, lacking the excessive dithering that plagues the originals. I’ve included comparison screenshots below so you can see for yourself:
The only issue with these FMV sequences is that they don’t really fit in anywhere, which is almost forgiveable considering that the game was always designed to be a complete experience without them. But oddly enough it’s not the repetitiveness that’s the most puzzling part – seeing a sequence play out in-game and then being made to watch an appropriate FMV would at least make some sense – it’s the way these movies show you major plot points before they happen, before you’ve even got anywhere near the place they’re showing. Not that spoilers for Ecco is ever a game-ruining problem, but why on earth would anyone make players sit through an FMV that covers the final few stages of the game, including the last boss and the post-boss victory sequence, before they’ve even set foot (or more correctly, flipper) in The Tube?
The PC version is also much… I was going to say “easier”, but in truth the word I’m after is “fairer”, than the English originals – normal mode (hard and easy difficulties are also available without cheats or codes) feels just about right; it’s a bit tough and it does punish mistakes or lazy tactics but it never feels punitive or unfair. The most significant change here is the checkpoint system, first seen in the Japanese Mega Drive release: Every cleared barrier glyph (the ones that gently push you back unless you sing a “key” song at them) now doubles a checkpoint, allowing you to restart from your most recently passed glyph with full health and air if something happens to Ecco (and let’s be honest – something will happen to Ecco) between that point and the next checkpoint or the exit. So you still have to make sure he doesn’t drown, you still have to avoid the bloody crabs, and you still have to solve all of the puzzles just as you normally would but now if Ecco’s sleek body gets suddenly crushed or you can’t quite work out a tricky puzzle before he runs out of oxygen you’ve usually only got a short segment to re-do instead of the whole damned level. It’s a perfectly balanced compromise between the unforgiving feel of the original and the outright stripping of all challenge that comes from the old invincibility cheat or the 3DS version’s “Super Dolphin Mode”.
Unfortunately some flaws run too deep even for this highly polished remake to fix: A string of rocks or similar objects blocking your route may require a special shell to make them disappear. Or another rock. Or a ring of “stone eaters”. Or for you to sing to a specific glyph. Or for Ecco to just smash them with his bottle nose. Which method works this time is left entirely up to the whims of the level designer over and above any sort of internal consistency, and there will be many times when you’ll see a barrier and wonder what you need to go hunting for.
Then there’s the shipwreck themed zone, originally a Mega CD exclusive that’s been carried over to the PC release. It’s not bad by any means but it’s all a bit “So what?”; an unconnected batch of levels the exist purely for the sake of being “more” and not because they add anything of substance to the experience. If you skipped these with a password in the Mega CD version (that’s one bad thing about the PC’s save system – you can’t go back to a specific level unless you’ve got a save at that point) you wouldn’t have felt that anything was missing.
But these issues feel minor when weighed against everything Ecco, and especially Ecco PC, does right: This old Windows 95 remake, released to no fanfare so very long ago, is so impressive it’s made me completely re-evaluate my thoughts on the game: On PC it’s transformed from a cruel fail-a-thon into a gripping adventure, all mysterious seas filled with dangerous wildlife and intriguing puzzles. It’s sad to think that in all the time since Ecco’s 1992 debut the only thing that’s really been anything like it are the other Ecco games, and sadder still to realise that the very best version of the game is the one that’s never had its myriad of improvements pilfered for use in a more modern port.