Ecco the Dolphin (referred to on the title screen as simply "Ecco") is an action-adventure video game released in 1992 for the Sega Genesis. The central character, Ecco, is a Bottlenose Dolphin controlled by the player through a progression of side-scrolling aquatic levels. The game was designed by Ed Annunziata and developed by Novotrade International, and spawned a series of sequels. Ecco is known for its high difficulty level. It has recently been released for Nintendo's Virtual Console and Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade.
The gameplay is essentially side-scrolling, with horizontal, diagonal and vertical movement. Attacking enemies is accomplished by making Ecco ram into them at high speeds. Swimming could be made progressively faster by tapping a certain button, and the speed could be maintained by holding it down. Players can perform a purely aesthetic spin in the air when jumping out of the water. Two features of the game played on actual dolphin habits; one button causes Ecco to sing, allowing him to speak with other cetaceans and interact with certain objects. The same button is used for echolocation; holding it down would cause the song to return, generating a map of the area. Additionally, Ecco, being a mammal, has to surface periodically for air, or else find an air vent. Ecco would drown if his "air meter" ran out. His health was measured by a separate meter; it was depleted by enemies or when his air meter had run out, and it is recharged by eating fish, "singing" to clams, or, later in the game, singing to special statues or crystals called "Glyphs". Ecco's song could be optionally "upgraded" at two points in the game; one upgrade allowed Ecco's song to be used in combination with a charge as a long-range weapon, and the other temporarily disoriented sharks and made minor enemies freeze temporarily. Touching any enemy by any means other than an attack causes Ecco to sustain damage. The enemies range from seahorses to giant octopodes.
Several levels contain enormous crystals called "Glyphs", which would respond in different ways if Ecco touches or sings to them. Some blocked paths, and a "Key-Glyph" had to be found in such cases to pass. Others gave information, and a few in later levels would replenish health/air and give Ecco temporary invulnerability.
The game begins with Ecco as he and his pod are swimming in their home bay. One podmate challenges him to see how high into the air he can jump. When he is in the air, a waterspout storm forms and sucks up all marine life in the bay except Ecco, leaving him alone in the bay. Upon leaving the bay to search for his pod, he contacts several dolphins from other pods, who tell him the entire sea is in chaos, and that all marine creatures had felt the storm. After talking to an orca, Ecco travels to the Arctic to find a blue whale named The Big Blue. The Big Blue tells him such storms had been occurring every 500 years and directs him to the Asterite, the oldest creature on Earth. He leaves the Arctic and travels to a deep cavern where he finds the Asterite. Although it has the power to aid him, one of its globes is missing, and needs it returned. However, this can only be achieved by traveling back in time using a machine built by the ancient Atlanteans.
Ecco travels to the sunken city of Atlantis, where he discovers the time machine and an ancient library. He learns the cause of the storm; it was a harvest of Earth's waters that was conducted every 500 years by an alien species known as the Vortex. The Vortex had lost their ability to make their own food, and so every 500 years, they would harvest from the waters of Earth. Learning this, he activates the time machine and traveled 55 million years into Earth's past. Ecco locates the Asterite in the past but is immediately attacked by it. Forced into battle, he manages to dislodge a globe from it. This opens a time portal and he is sent back into the present. After receiving the globe, the Asterite grants him the power to turn his sonar into a deadly weapon against the Vortex, as well as the abilities to breathe underwater and to slowly regenerate lost health. The Asterite instructs him to use the time machine to travel back in time to the hour of the harvest. This time he manages to be sucked into the waterspout with his pod. Once inside the waterspout, Ecco makes his way towards the Vortex Queen, the leader of the Vortex race. Eventually the Vortex Queen is destroyed and Ecco rescues his pod.
Ed Annunziata has cited works such as The Sounding by Hank Searls, Phantoms by Dean Koonz, and Center of the Cyclone by John C. Lilly as inspirations for the Ecco story. The Terminator movies and various episodes of the Star Trek series were also cited as heavy influences. In addition to influences from literature, Annunziata has cited the band Pink Floyd as having been influential to the soundtrack, particularly the main theme which is heavily based on Shine On You Crazy Diamond. (The game also contains a specific reference to Welcome to the Machine)
The game was originally released in 1992 for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. An enhanced Sega Mega-CD version that features new and redesigned levels and an alternate Red Book audio soundtrack, composed by Spencer Nilsen, was also released, and later ported to Windows. Game Gear and Master System versions were also released; they featured different levels to the other versions and a special intro featuring a whale song, and dolphin noises for the title screen.
An Ecco title for the Sega 32X was rumored and mentioned in some magazines throughout 1994 and 1995. These stories would eventually be applied to a rumored Sega Saturn Ecco title. Very little information regarding these unreleased titles exists, however. A short video allegedly intended for the Sega Saturn Ecco title was demonstrated at the 1994 Consumer Electronics Show and showed a pod of 3D rendered dolphins swimming in the ocean, as well as a short video running on 32x hardware. Annunziata has since stated that development of the Ecco 32X and Saturn versions never began; that the footage was meant to 'sell' the idea of a new Ecco game to Sega. Due to the poor sales of both systems neither game was developed.
The Game Gear version had some notable features in the intro that were removed for the Genesis version. These included a dolphin crying "SEGA" on the SEGA screen and dolphins laughing on the title screen.
In 2002, Sega's first attempt to enter the downloadable retail game content business occurred on RealOne Arcade.
Ecco the Dolphin was released in Europe and Australia for the Virtual Console on Nintendo's Wii console on December 8, 2006 for 800 Wii Points. It was released in North America on November 28, 2006 for 800 Wii Points, and in Japan on December 2, 2006 for 600 Wii Points.