The second volume in Sega's Vintage Collection for Xbox Live Arcade is Ecco the Dolphin, a game that made a splash on the Sega Genesis back in 1993, giving players the chance to patrol the seas as a dolphin. For better or worse, this rendition of Ecco's first adventure is a barebones emulation of the original cartridge. However, a couple of minor upgrades have been implemented, which make it just a bit easier to enjoy the tropical atmosphere and splashy gameplay.
In the game, you play a bottlenose dolphin named Ecco that's looking for his missing pod mates. The search spans 25 levels and takes you to various underwater locations around the world. Even though the game is technically a 2D side-scroller, you don't run or jump. Instead, you use the controller to guide Ecco's swimming, make him perform a ram attack, or use his sonar. In the beginning, you'll rely on the ram to get rid of sharks or puffer fish because the sonar is mainly used to talk to other dolphins. But eventually, you'll collect an upgrade that will turn Ecco's sonar into a deadly weapon. The basic design of each level involves navigating mazelike passages where other dolphins point you in the direction of fish or glyphs. While you're going through a level, you'll also need to take care to replenish Ecco's health and air stores by eating fish and surfacing into air pockets.
Making Ecco swim around, perform aerial backflips, and consume fish is exhilarating, but this definitely isn't a game for guppies. The level layouts are tricky, as well as full of spike traps and respawning enemies. It's also easy to become disoriented traveling inside the look-alike tunnels because the clues the other dolphins provide don't always point you in the right direction. On top of all that, Ecco doesn't turn very fast, and his hit box is larger than his visible body dimensions. As a result, Ecco's momentum will occasionally pull you into sharks or jellyfish. Or you may find yourself taking damage from obstacles that Ecco is close to but isn't actually touching. For the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, a save-state feature has been implemented, which allows you to instantly save and restore your spot at any time. Because of that, the intense difficulty and sketchy flaws aren't as frustrating to deal with as they were in the original Sega Genesis version. However, you'll still need to work very hard to beat the game.
A simple leaderboard lets you compare your game completion times with those of other Xbox Live members. Of course, the game also offers 12 different achievements that can net you 200 gamerscore points. But they're not easy to get; in fact, some of them are a downright sadistic. Going through the game without picking up the sonar upgrade is quite a challenge, as is beating the game without dying more than three times. There are a few Xbox Live Arcade games with tougher achievements than this--but not many.
Apart from the addition of a leaderboard, achievements, and a save feature, this Live Arcade rendition of Ecco the Dolphin is a direct emulation of the original Sega Genesis cartridge. The level designs, gameplay, and graphics haven't been changed. Backbone Entertainment did clean up some aspects of the audio emulation, most notably it took the hiss out of the sound effects and improved the richness of the music. While the 2D backgrounds and character sprites definitely could have benefited from some sprucing up, the cute dolphins, colorful schools of fish, and tropical color schemes still dole out plenty of aesthetic pleasure. The graphics look a little soft because they're stretched to three times their original size, but the softness is nowhere near as heinous as we've seen from some of the other classics that have been brought to XBLA. All in all, Sega and Backbone Entertainment did a decent job of bringing the game to Xbox Live Arcade, but it would have been nice to get a few more extras.
There is no doubt that Ecco the Dolphin shows its age, but it's still one of the most unique games out there. Watching Ecco leap out of the water and navigate the murky depths is still a lot of fun. You'll probably want to pass on this rendition of Ecco's adventure if you've played it on other systems because the improvements don't enhance the gameplay experience all that much. However, if you haven't played Ecco the Dolphin before and think you'd enjoy working through a challenging side-scroller as a bottlenose dolphin, you'll be able to squeeze enough play time and enjoyment out of this download to justify spending 400 points ($5) on it.