Ecco the Dolphin is a classic exploration game where we meet a pod of dolphins who are innocently swimming around. Suddenly, great winds pick up and sweep everyone away. With their whereabouts unknown, Ecco embarks on a journey to find them.
The first stage in Ecco the Dolphin is in Ecco's quiet bay home where Ecco can swim about, free of any danger. We can use Ecco's boost to move around faster, sonar to talk to nearby dolphins, and hold the sonar button to look at a map of the nearby area. You can also jump out of the water as dolphins like to do and it's great fun; I enjoy stages where you can move around with no danger. At the end, the great storm that makes Ecco's family go missing occurs so Ecco then goes on a journey across the ocean to try to find them.
The next level is the Bay of Medusa, a simple level where you have to find caves and explore them until you find a whale and a crystal. The whale tells Ecco to find the Big Blue, a giant whale who knows much about the ocean and might know where to find Ecco's pod. This stage is also home to jellyfish that can deal damage to Ecco but you can heal by eating small fish. Also, you have to keep an eye on Ecco's oxygen meter while exploring the caves because as a dolphin, you have to breathe air periodically or you'll start taking damage. Ecco's sonar is extremely useful when exploring as you can use it to look at the nearby area but you can't see far so you have to use it frequently. You'll also have to learn to use your memory while traversing Ecco the Dolphin's complicated stages.
Next up is the Undercaves which are no place for a dolphin and the place is extremely dangerous. If you perish, you'll be sent back to the start of the level. The place is filled with hazards like an octopus and some annoying brown fish that constantly attack you. This stage took me a very long time to complete and it's only the third level of the game! It definitely wasn't a good sign of things to come.
Believe it or not, the fourth level is even more difficult. Currents coming from the ocean floor prevent you from swimming down and in order to move down, you have to move rocks and follow them as they slowly sink to the ocean floor. Then, you have to navigate the caverns below while slowly rescuing the three dolphins and memorising the level without running out of health or oxygen.
I still think the fifth level is one of the hardest in the entire game. It has a gimmick where there are stars that you can push with your sonar to break stones. They require quite a bit of skill with Ecco's sonar if you want to move them successfully. Once again, you have to find three dolphins and return them to the dolphin at the surface. Then, you have to navigate the caverns deep below the level which are filled with many extremely annoying crabs that want you dead. This level was a miserable experience. However, it got easier for me from this point forward, partly because I was just better at the game and partly because there were no more dolphins to save.
Throughout the course of the campaign, you'll find many different locales such as the open ocean which features shark-infested waters. Then, you'll find cold waters that are home to more dangerous creatures and there are blocks of slippery ice which can crush you if you're not careful. Make it far enough after that and you'll find the Atlantis stages set in the mythical city and after that, the Jurassic stages which are 65 million years in the past! How did Ecco travel so far into the past? Each of these zones have different backdrops, enemies, and gameplay mechanics and it's great fun to see what gameplay these stages have to offer.
Anyway, Ecco the Dolphin is one of the most challenging games that I've ever played. It's so different from retro platformers that it has an extra layer of challenge. I had to learn how to make it through its complicated levels effectively and I actually made it to the penultimate level (Welcome to the Machine); you can see my attempts at beating that abomination in the gameplay video below.
I enjoy challenging games as long as they feel fair. Ecco the Dolphin has a password system that lets you return to any level in the game which is a great convenience for games in 1992. By modern standards, Ecco the Dolphin is a bit too hard and the way forward in many stages is too cryptic. Some levels require you to perform a super jump where Ecco can jump higher than normal and it's not easy to perform. Anyway, people playing it nowadays will definitely benefit from walkthroughs that players have written over the years.
Ecco the Dolphin is great fun as long as you're patient, don't try to rush through levels too quickly, and you can remember the many complicated level layouts that this Genesis classic has to offer.