(Dolphins and Hitchhiker’s – it’s all I know)
A lot of very successful 16-bit games didn’t even dare try to make the leap from older cart-based hardware to fancy turn of the millennium 3D consoles, and those that braved the most extreme forced makeover in all of gaming did so to varying degrees of success. Some were simply awful, others changed so much nobody could tell they had ever been related to anything else, then there were those that went the opposite way and changed so little they ended up as crude angular versions of fondly remembered classics, and a rare few effectively used this new technology to raise old favourites up to new heights.
Ecco the Dolphin had the built-in benefit of an entire existence founded on doing whatever the heck it wanted to, free of all standard genre pigeonholing and expected game-y behaviour, so the only thing an update had to do was re-bottle that naturalistic-fantasy-sci-fi-aquatic-horror lightning and not worry ab-
Hang on a sec – that’s not an easy task at all.
But in spite of this unique challenge sitting on top of the already very real problem of having to successfully transmute several famous games worth of pixels into recognisable polygons Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future still ended up as arguably the best 3D update of a 2D series outside of the likes of Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy‘s Nintendo-spurning move from the relatively humble SNES cart to triple Sony CD-ROM storytelling, accurately capturing all of the deceptively serene underwater horror that had given people expecting cute splashy dolphins terrible nightmares since 1992. You know everything’s working exactly as it should be in Defender of the Future the first time you hear Ecco’s distressed squeak as he comes close to suffocation while completely lost in a pitch black cavern, or hear him cry out in pain when he comes into contact with another one of the game’s selection of sharks, giant sharks, alien sharks, spikes or giant evil dolphins armed with spikes from alternative futures (crabs are conspicuous by their absence, although far from missed). It’s not all porpoise-y pain and death though, and there are times when you come across something that’s just, well, nice: Jellyfish gently bob around in the background on the menu screen (and when encountered in-game they’re not even half the threat they used to be), there’s an opportunity to take part in a friendly race through gently swaying strands of seaweed against other dolphins or relax to the peaceful sound of blue whales as pretty lens flare breaks out overhead – you can even sing to turtles if the mood takes you. It’s all – pleasant and painful details alike – a very familiar experience to anyone who’s already dabbled in Sega’s oceanic adventures and there’s a real sense that for all that appears to have changed Defender of the Future really understands what makes Ecco Ecco: A physically (for Ecco) and mentally (for you) challenging-but-beautiful sci-fi adventure that starts off surprisingly tough and only gets even more difficult the further you go. Ecco 2’s well-meant but poorly-implemented difficulty options are gone (that game’s “easy” mode skipped or truncated certain levels and left others inexplicably half-empty – not with the nastier bits blocked off, but empty) which means that while you don’t get the chance to make life any easier for yourself there’s some solace to be had in knowing you’re getting as much of the full experience as you can survive through and that when the game is hard it’s hard in a way that’s designed for everyone, without the artificially extended irritations that frequently dragged down the previous game’s “complete” experience. It’s hostile and unforgiving – and it’s unforgettable too.
It’s also heart stoppingly beautiful as standard, with some locations going above and beyond even that and really taking your breath away. Honestly, it’s absolutely gorgeous in more than a few places – Ecco always had that irresistible fantasy twist to its artwork, a world that was similar to but never quite matched our own. Our Dreamcast dolphin’s adventures carry on this fine tradition, using believably naturalistic yet imagined forms that blur the line between the real and the unreal, somehow taking a dolphin on a journey through peaceful ruins, dark futures, and outer space without it ever feeling like anything less than a purely logical chain of events. From the quiet melancholy of The Shrine of Controversy’s crumbling pollution to The Hanging Water’s gorgeous skyscape these things are somehow all stunningly next-gen as well as unquestionably Ecco as anything that came before them. The series’ staples are all present and feel like they’ve never been any other way: The glyphs, the brightly coloured shoals of health-restoring fish, the bubbling ocean plants on sandy ocean floors… everything looks – and behaves – the same as it always did. If you’ve played either of the previous games in the series you’ll instantly feel at home here, hunting for crystal shards, leaping over rocks into otherwise inaccessible areas, pushing through strong water currents in tight tunnels – there’s nothing to explain because these fundamental building blocks are all things you’ve seen and done a hundred times before.
Having so many familiar puzzle elements doesn’t mean Ecco’s a game stuck in the past: Defender of the Future feels like it’s been designed in 3D from the very earliest stages, and bar a couple of deliberately nostalgic (and optional) side viewed bonus levels you’d never know it had ever been anything else. These things haven’t been blindly copied for the sake of ticking things off a fan’s waterlogged wishlist, and it’s not just the addition of depth that keeps them feeling new and interesting but the way they’ve been thoughtfully incorporated into their surroundings. The game’s levels may contain plenty of the old but they’re always sensitively fused with the new: alien Foe machinery, delicate Atlantean architecture, natural formations of rocks and caverns that simply weren’t possible on the Mega Drive – it’s the mixture of the two that keeps Ecco on the right side of that fine line between showing respect to the past without becoming a slave to it. And then there’s the fact that some things simply work better when they’re viewed in three dimensions: The claustrophobia of a confined space feels far more real when you aren’t able to see a cross section of all of the surrounding tunnels and airways as if you’re staring through the side wall of a flooded ant farm, and as ambitious as some of Ecco 2’s new ideas were (remember the into the screen travelling sections?) those “Skyway” tubes always looked better when viewed through some heavily rose-tinted glasses – revisiting them today shows them to be little more than darkened lines zigzagging across the screen with little rhyme or reason behind them, forced scrolling levels that should be remembered for being a pain in the arse more than anything else. Defender of the Future is the game that finally does the concept justice, not only giving them a starring role in one of the game’s most beautiful levels but also making them something that can be navigated with skill over tedious trial and error.
As if things couldn’t get any better, the game’s time travelling plot is narrated by the most perfect, perfect, man for the job – Tom Baker. Yes, that guy. The Doctor. Only Tom Baker isn’t just “The Doctor”, he’s The The Doctor. If anyone throughout all of human history was born to narrate a tale of dolphins and humans in the future versus evil space aliens then it’d have to be him, wouldn’t it? If you’re unaware of the UK’s TARDIS-stealing hero or for some strange reason don’t care that the Dreamcast has a time travelling story told by the closest thing humanity has to an actual real life time traveller (it must be real, I saw him do it on TV and everything), his velvet tones “just” suit the game brilliantly – even the Japanese version chooses to subtitle his fabulous voice rather than replaces it – the man transcends all language barriers as well as the laws of time and space.
For all these vast tins of certified dolphin-friendly praise I have to acknowledge that the game still has some significant flaws that do have a direct impact on how much fun anyone – newcomer or old hand alike – is likely to have with the game. As reasonable as it is for Defender of the Future to continue the series’ tradition of being through-the-roof difficult there are instances where Ecco can die within seconds (or if the game’s feeling particularly generous, in less than a minute) of starting a level – it’d almost be funny if you hadn’t just frisbee’d the disc out of the window in a fit of pique. The lack of clarity surrounding checkpoints only adds to this frustration, as when you die you’re never quite sure which bits you’ll have to do all over again and you never get the relief or satisfaction of tagging some sort of obvious visual marker and thinking “OK this is tough but I can see I’m making real progress!”. If you manage not to die long enough to engage with the game’s assortment of puzzles another complication comes into play: There are several places, including the final boss fight of all sodding things, that rely on you accurately manipulating and/or avoiding objects in three dimensional space under pain of death (same as everything else, to be fair). On its own this would be unpleasant enough but when these targets can move around even without Ecco’s influence, you can approach them from almost any angle, and “the right way up” isn’t always as obvious as some bipedal landlubbers would like it to be, it can easily go too far beyond fun and into the realms of plain old misery. The game is thankfully aware of this and the irritating box/shell shoving conundrums of old are mostly absent, but there are still a few occasions where you have to be a bit more precise with your pushing than the game really gives you the tools to be.
But even with these gripes you can’t help but applaud the way Defender of the Future sets about pursuing its desire to be a true 3D Ecco with laser-like focus – however you feel about it there’s no arguing that this is a game that always wants to be true to itself, updated and reinvigorated without ever compromising what it wanted to be. Part of this refusal to play nice with accepted modern standards of both difficulty and design mean that Ecco is not and never will be everyone’s cup of tea – but it will never not be Ecco. Faithful yet progressive, familiar but still filled with the unknown, for fans of the series’ inimitable style all of the good and the bad in here are just proof that Defender of the Future is as thoroughly Ecco as any other game in the series. We may be forever waiting on a sequel to this 2000 Dreamcast game, but if the series is going to lie dormant then this is as good a send off as any could hope for.