Review – “Ecco: the Tides of Time” (SEGA Week Special)

I have a very special treat to kick off SEGA Week here at The Splintering. Yes, with me today, I have the very unique opportunity to interview the one and only, Ecco the Dolphin himself.

The Splintering (TS): Hi, Ecco. Thanks so much taking some time out to hang with us here at The Splintering.

Ecco: Kee-kee! Kack-kak-kak!

TS: That’s very gracious, Mr. the Dolphin. Now let’s get started. The game I’m reviewing here today is your second game, The Tides of Time, for the SEGA CD. In this game, you transform into other sea creatures like seagulls and even entire schools of fish. What was that like? I mean, did it hurt?

Ecco: Kee! Kack-kak! Kee! Kee!

TS: Oh wow, yeah, I think we all know what that feels like. Hm, very interesting answer, there. So when you change into these other creatures, do you ever change into a girl? You know, that entire school of fish couldn’t have been all male, right? And if you did change into a girl, did you ever, uh, look at yourself and, you know, play with your, uh, you know what I’m saying. This is a fan-submitted question, by the way…

Ecco: Kack-kak-kak-kak! Kee! Kack-kak!

TS: Holy geez, that sounds awesome!… I mean, uh, another very interesting answer there. Since we’re on the topic, gender issues are getting a lot of buzz in the video game world these days. I’ve even seen Internet speculation that you yourself could be a female character despite the fact that the prologue in The Tides of Time clearly identifies you as male. As an outsider to human society, what are your thoughts on this controversial issue?

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It looks like somebody has “Alien” Syndrome.

Ecco: Kick-kack-kik! Kee! Kee! Kack-kak! Kee! Kack-kik-kak! 

TS: Wow… I’m stunned. That’s such a unique but nuanced and reasonable perspective. I think we’re all very fortunate to have heard your insight on this.

Ecco: Kack-kak! Kee! Kack-kik-kik!

TS: Hah! I know, they’re morons, right? Well, I know your time is short, and we need to cut off our interview there. Any last words for your fan base out there on the ‘net?

Ecco: Kack-kak!

TS: Oh, wow. Thanks, Ecco. You’re too kind. You’re totally a sexy beast, yourself. And let me just say, if I ever found myself turned into a girl dolphin, I would totally spit-shine your flukes to a mirror-like finish, if you know what I’m sayin’…

Ecco: Keeeeeeee!

TS: Yeah, you know what I’m sayin’….

retrospective_the splintering_Ecco_the_tides_of_time_titlescreen

Swimming on…

I know we’re all hot and bothered now (I’m personally harder than the PS2 version of Shinobi!), but let’s try to move on with the rest of our review.

Ecco: The Tides of Time is the sequel to the original Ecco the Dolphin, both of which were developed by Novotrade and produced by Ed Annunziata. The SEGA CD version of The Tides of Time was released in 1994, and it essentially takes the Genesis game and adds some enhancements and extra features that only CD technology could provide at the time, such as an upgraded soundtrack and hidden CG sequences that retell key moments from the first Ecco game.

retrospective_the splintering_Ecco_the_tides_of_time_cinematic

Fun fact: the cinematic sequences were created by Angel Studios, which would later become Rockstar San Diego. Ecco/GTA shared universe confirmed!?!

You control Ecco, the sleek, smooth… sexy… (*sigh!*) dolphin, as he tries to restore balance to his world after the fallout from his first adventure. Ecco’s task is to defeat the evil Vortex, which has returned to threaten to all life on Earth, and he must once again reach out to the mysterious Asterite to guide him on this journey. The core gameplay is best described as a side-scrolling adventure game, although hybrid terms like action-adventure, puzzle-adventure or puzz-act-enture are apt descriptions, as Ecco veterans would likely tell you that the games are very unique experiences that defy clear-cut categorization.

Like his first adventure, Ecco must solve puzzles, dash to defeat enemies, and use his sonar as a map system and to speak to other sea creatures. And, just like the first game, you’ll find that the entire ocean is trying to kill you: sharks, jellyfish, Vortex drones, crabs, spiked coral formations and even large shells falling from the top of the screen. Ecco definitely has his work cut out for him. At least there are still the helpful glyphs scattered about the ocean to guide Ecco on his way, too, and there always seemed to be plentiful pockets of air to refill your air meter and schools of fish hovering about to do the same for your heath meter.

The Tides of Time does, however, toss in quite a few welcome changes to the formula established by the first game. There are certain areas in which Ecco can transform into other creatures of the sea, such as sharks, seagulls and even the Vortex drones themselves. Each creature has its own advantages and disadvantages, as well as some very interesting unique mechanics. For instance, you must keep water moving through your gills as the shark (that means keep moving) or you will suffocate. Very clever. And since 3D had just been born into gaming, there are also some infantile 3D stages that Ecco must navigate to get from one side-scrolling area to another, but I will address those a bit more below.

Environmentally Sound

When laying out praise for The Tides of Time, one cannot help but gush over its aesthetics. This is a stunningly gorgeous game. The credits in the actual game’s manual list a fellow by the name of Zsolt Balogh as being responsible for “Fantastic Art” (that is his actual job description). I’m not sure what that job entails, exactly, but Balogh and all of his fellow designers and animators responsible for the look of this game were clearly masters of their craft in 1994.

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The manual has a helpful resource to learn more about our fine, dolphin friends. I love Ed Annunziata’s game manuals!

The Tides of Time has to push the graphical boundaries of the Genesis to their absolute limit, it has to. Nowhere in my experience with it did I ever think that the game might look better if it only had more onscreen colors or better warping effects. It is truly a sight to behold.

Through approximately 30 stages, you will venture through the ocean depths, to valleys of sunken ships, to lost underwater civilizations to floating ponds in the future populated by highly evolved, flying, telepathic dolphins. Yes. Flying. Telepathic. Dolphins. These environments are remarkably well detailed, with very few obvious examples of reusing assets to build them. This gives the game a very immersive and organic feel, one where each fish, shell or boulder is so strikingly well crafted that you just want to press your tongue against the TV screen and lick ‘em.

retrospective_the splintering_Ecco_the_tides_of_time_flying_dolphin

So Ecco and his flying dolphin friend are enjoying- HOLY $#!+ A FLYING DOLPHIN!

The characters and their animations are just as impressive. The team at Novotrade probably could have been forgiven had they simply reused the character models from the first game, but they instead chose to completely overhaul many of them this time around.

Ecco himself appears and animates brilliantly. I can only describe how majestic he is, bottlenose to the sky, tapping “C”, watching him pulsate through the water ever faster to finally break through the seal of the ocean’s surface, leaping into the air, his glorious silhouette shimmering in the sunlight… (Dammit! Sorry) Anyway, the same goes for most of the other you creatures that you will come across in your journey through The Tides of Time, although there are a few (the crabs come to mind) that have only very rudimentary movements.

Sing to me

Now, damn, if you thought I was waxing pornographic describing the way this game looks, Goddamn just wait until I describe the way it sounds. The soundtrack for the SEGA CD version of the game was composed by Spencer Nilsen (Of Batman Returns fame and Sonic CD infamy), who was also responsible for the soundtrack to the CD version of the first game. Having played both games nearly exclusively on the SEGA CD, it is nigh impossible for me to go back and play the Genesis versions of the games in which Nilsen’s music is absent. In each and every track, he somehow manages to capture the expansiveness, mystery and solitude of the ocean and yet, at the same time, maintain a sense of urgency to drive you, as a player, forward.

If forced to make a choice, I would have to say that the melodies from the first game sound just ever so slightly more unique and inspired than those in The Tides of Time, but that really takes nothing away from Nilsen’s remarkable accomplishment in the second game. So I think it’s pretty safe to say, Mr. Nilsen, if we ever wake up one day and discover that one of us has been transformed into a female dolphin…(*A-hem!*)

retrospective_the splintering_Ecco_the_tides_of_time_cd_cover

Listen to this soundtrack unless you hate your ears.

The sound effects from the game are lifted straight from the SEGA Genesis version, so while there are no CD-quality dolphin whistles, what are heard are still very realistic and evocative of the natural creatures. I do have to say that the sonar sound effect grated on me when I had to use it frequently, but that was due at least in part to that the sonar sound was a bit loud for my taste.

Hey, you did that on porpoise!

So, you, esteemed reader, may be wondering, given how amazing the game looks and sounds, if we have a perfect game on our hands? Are the stages differentiated enough? Oh certainly. Do Ecco’s swim controls work well? Smooth as the skin of a bottlenose’s belly.

Well, that should do it! A perfect 10, right? Five out of five!

Wrong with a capital  H-E-L-L   N-O.

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I would like to introduce you to Medusa. You are likely to become highly agitated and self-destructive now. You two have fun!

While I would say that the majority of the game is well done and a joy to play, there are simply too many awkward design choices that prevent this game from reaching its full potential. Let me begin with what I like to call “dolphin platforming.”

“What does dolphin platforming mean?” You may ask. “I thought you played the game by swimming through the ocean.” You may also ignorantly blurt out.

Ladies and gentlemen, “dolphin platforming” is when a dolphin like Ecco is asked to do things in his game that are much better suited for the more standard platformer. Ecco must perform certain tasks, such as accurately dashing between awkwardly placed bodies of water, using his sonar to carefully bounce off of airborne bubbles to higher platforms, or flip-flop-flip around on slippery triangular slopes, literally like a fish out of water, and belly-flop to the next sloped platform above you.

If it sounds awkward, that’s because it unquestionably is. The mechanics for these sequences just aren’t well refined, and often they require such a high level of absolute precision that you are more likely to succeed by dumb luck than by actually mastering the skill (I’m holding my hand high).

retrospective_the splintering_ecco_the_tides_of_time_3d

Hey Superman, fly through these rin-, uh, I mean, Ecco, swim through these rings! (It was an easy slip because it’s not fun in either case)

I found using Ecco’s sonar to bounce between the air bubbles particularly frustrating, in which you must launch Ecco into the air, and while he’s arching back down to the water, mid-spin, you have to hit a group of bubbles with his sonar which will then bounce him to the next area. The problem is that Ecco has to be lined up with them perfectly, and if he’s not in the absolute exact right position during his spin when he uses his sonar, the bubbles will send him flying in the wrong direction. You are eventually required to use this technique to navigate from bubble cluster to bubble cluster to bubble cluster, all while mid-air, never getting a chance to catch your breath, and your repeated failure will quickly become frustrating.

Another gripe is with the addition of the new 3D segments of the game. While they do help to break up the side scrolling segments, there isn’t anything all that interesting in these 3D sections. Ecco is propelled forward automatically like a Space Harrier-style shooter, and has to swim through oncoming hoops, all the while avoiding enemies.

Each of these stages has only one enemy type until the final one, which combines them all, so there is not much internal variation within them. The movement of the approaching obstacles is very choppy, and while you can use Ecco’s sonar to attack the enemies that threaten him, hitting a hoop with the sonar destroys it and it counts against you. Fail to swim through too many hoops, whether by missing a jump or hitting it with Ecco’s sonar, and you are thrown back out to the two-dimensional plane from whence you came. By that, I mean you are sent back to the beginning of the level you just previously played, and you have to traverse all the way back to the portal again. If that sounds bad, there are plenty of times throughout the game where death or failure will result in you being sent back one, sometimes two stages!

There are just more than a few moments where you, as a player, will feel as though the tools you have to work with are somehow broken, like pounding a square dolphin through a round portal, and even in success you will often feel more annoyed than satisfied.

I’m not complaining that The Tides of Time is in any way too difficult. It really isn’t. Actually, there is a no fail state in the game in that you have infinite lives and a password system to mark your progress, but that is also a bit annoying, if you ask me. Sure, including a password feature in the Genesis version makes sense to avoid the cost of battery backup, but the SEGA CD has its own internal memory built-in. Why not have a save file to record your progress, return to previous stages or watch the cinematic sequences you have unlocked so far?

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It appears that Ecco and I both have something in common: we both have a huge problem with crabs.

A final gripe is that the game’s mechanics in the smoother areas of the game give you a strong desire to jump and dash around a bit, and enjoy the quick traversal through the environments and the high acrobatic leaps over the ocean’s surface, but you never really get to do much of any of that. The stages are just cramped enough to keep you from building much momentum on a continual basis, not to mention the fact that the enemies you kill respawn immediately upon going off screen, so it isn’t as though you can clear a path for yourself and explore the depths freely uninhibited.

#SaveEcco …?

I realize that I just dropped a giant Negatron-bomb in the above few paragraphs, but there is still plenty to love about this game. It is precisely because there really are so many amazing ideas in The Tides of Time, and the game’s presentation is tantamount to a 16-bit miracle, that the missteps made on the design side were so intensely frustrating.

It would have been great to see some of these issues worked out had The Tides of Time follows its predecessor onto the 3DS as part of the SEGA 3D Classics line. Not only would it benefit from the improved performance of the circle pad and a 3D effect on actual 3D designed levels, but SEGA could also have included the SEGA CD soundtrack, which was absent in the 3D Classics version of the original Ecco the Dolphin.

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Damn, that’s a bit harsh, SEGA. Don’t you think? (Note: not an actual screenshot)

Ecco: The Tides of Time has all of the gilded polishing of perfection, and beneath all of that is a functional, and, at times, very enjoyable game. However, it is hampered by occasional awkward mechanics and design decisions, and it therefore never quite reaches the standard of excellence.

Fans of the first game will definitely still enjoy this one, and despite its flaws, I do recommend it. It’s unfortunate that the game’s cliffhanger ending was never resolved in a third game (The Dreamcast’s Defender of the Future was not developed by Novotrade and did not follow the events of The Tides of Time). Much like The Tides of Time game itself, Ecco’s place in the SEGA library stands incomplete like a dream deferred – a target just missed – or the one that got away.

And yes, I could have been slightly more dramatic with that last line.

*Note: The banner image “Trellia’s Bay” was provided by Cronoan. You can check out more of Cronoan’s sweet artwork here.

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