Ecco the Dolphin – Review

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes in video games. Muscle-bound barbarians, ace spaceship pilots, martial arts experts, and yes, even Italian plumbers, to name a few. In 1992, Sega took a chance on a new hero. This one couldn’t wield swords or axes, or pilot machinery, or cast magic spells. It didn’t know kung-fu and certainly didn’t grow larger having eaten mushrooms. No, this hero lived in the ocean but needed air to breathe. He was agile, could swim at great speeds and leap from the water to soar above he waves like an albatross. This hero was a dolphin!

Titlescreen (Screenshot taken by the author)

Ecco the Dolphin is an action-adventure developed by Novotrade International and published by Sega. It was released on the Mega Drive in 1992, with versions also being released on the Master System, Game Gear, and Sega CD. Versions were later released for the Wii Virtual Console (2006), Xbox Live Arcade (2007), as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (2009) for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Nintendo 3DS (2013), and Sega Genesis Mini (2019).

Ecco is a dolphin. There is nothing particularly special about him other than the unique star pattern on his forehead. One day, whilst swimming with his pod, he leaps high into the air and at that exact moment, a vortex opens and sucks up his pod (as well as other ocean dwelling sealife). Ecco needs to find out what happened to his pod from creatures much older and wiser than himself. He embarks on a long journey into cold and unfamiliar waters, where strange and deadly creatures live.

Ecco can use his sonar to stun or to talk to other creatures (Screenshot taken by the author)

First, let me just say that the graphics of this game show the Mega Drive at its pomp. Bright and colourful, with incredibly detailed backgrounds and sprites. From the multi-coloured shoals of fish, to the array of seas sponges and plants on the sea bed, there is so much that draws the eye. An accurate and nice touch is where the deeper you go, the darker the background becomes, emphasising that light doesn’t penetrate that deep into the ocean.

I remember when a childhood friend of mine bought this game. We were stunned! Not only did the concept of controlling a dolphin seem unique (to us at least), but the attention to detail was at such a level that I think we firmly believed that gaming had reached its apex…how young and naïve we were.

The music is very understated in this game, but it works so well. Some of the music is very relaxing and calming, which is surprising because for most part, you are not very relaxed at all. In fact, the game will give even the most seasoned gamers anxiety.

Rather than have time limits for the levels, Sega offer us two energy bars. One is health and the other is oxygen. To replenish your oxygen bar, you need to find an area where you can breach the surface of the water or find where oxygen bubbles are rising from cracks in the seabed. This becomes challenging when you are deep under sea in a labyrinth of caves. To recover health, Ecco must dash into the shoals of smaller fish to gobble them up. If you die, you simply go back to the beginning of the level. You have infinte lives in this game and believe me, you’ll need the am all!

Eating the smaller fish helps Ecco restore lost health (Screenshot taken by the author)

The basics of the game are simple. When pressing a direction, Ecco will swim in that direction. When you stop swimming, Ecco will drift, adding some realism to the gave, since the sea is always moving with the tides. To increase speed, press the ‘C’ button, and Ecco will speed up, handy for when you’re almost out of oxygen or when you need to leap out of the water and over obstacles. The ‘B’ button makes Ecco dash. This is mainly used to attack the many dangerous and deadly creatures he encounters, as well as, breaking down shelled walls. The enemies include sharks, jellyfish, pufferfish, and crabs….those crabs can fucking do one! They come out of nowhere and make a ‘B’ line for you. I admit, I dropped the ‘C’ bomb several times during my playthrough due to those little wankers. Frustratingly, the enemies also respawn which pisses me off even more and makes the game even harder.

The ‘A’ button is Ecco’s sonar ability and can be used in several ways:

  • Press and hold ‘A’ until the sonar bounces back. This opens a map segment, again very handy for when you are lost in caves.
  • Communicate with other friendly sea creatures such as other dolphins and killer whales. These friends can offer advice and hints to you.
  • Move starfish circles that will eat rock and open previously blocked pathways for you.
  • Large glyphs are found dotted around the levels that offer tips or give Ecco a password so that when he comes across one that blocks his path, he can use his sonar to clear the way.
  • After the first few levels, Ecco gains the ability to use his sonar to stun enemy creatures.

This game may look cutsie, but it is fucking hard! Rage quitting is standard for this game, especially when you are near the end of a level and those fucking crabs come out of nowhere and kill you. I doubt you will finish this in one sitting, if at all. Thankfully, you receive a password after every level.

Another aspect of this game that is irksome about this game, is when you have to navigate through narrow caves and sometimes you need to manoeuvre through even narrower gaps past sharp coral. There are points where you cannot do this without injuring yourself, not matter how hard your try to avoid them.

The game only has one difficulty setting and so offer little in the way of replay value other than simply showing the awesomeness of the graphics to a friend.

Did I complete the game?

Nope, and I have never met anyone who has either.

What the critics said:

Mean Machines Sega: “A Megadrive classic without doubt, and a strong contender for best game ever! A unique underwater experience for those tired of unoriginal pop. Overall 97%.[1]

MegaTech: “Original concept combined with wonderful graphics and amazingly engrossing gameplay make this a classic. Overall 94%.[2]

My Verdict:

“This is by far, one of the most original and best-looking games the Mega Drive has to offer. Incredible graphics and atmospheric music offer a unique gaming experience. The difficulty of the game is the only this that lets it down.”

Rating:

What are your memories of Ecco the Dolphin? I would love to hear your thoughts, and don’t for get to follow and subscribe so that you don’t miss my latest reviews! You can also find me on Instagram: @nicklovestogame.


[1] ‘Ecco the Dolphin – Review’. Mean Machines Sega. (December 1992). Issue 3:24-8 (https://archive.org/details/mean-machines-sega-magazine-03/page/n27/mode/2up Accessed 29th June 2021).

[2] ‘Game Index – Ecco the Dolphin’. MegaTech. (October 1993). Issue 22:99. (https://archive.org/details/mt-22_202005/page/98/mode/2up Accessed 29th June 2021).

Comix Zone – Review

By 1995, the lives of the 16-bit consoles such as the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were coming to an end. However, Sega still had a few tricks up their sleeve before ceasing production of Mega Drive games.

Title screen (Screenshot taken by the author)

Comix Zone is a single-player beat ‘em up developed and published by Sega. It was released for the Mega Drive and PC (North America) in 1995, and for the PC (Europe) in 1996. Later releases include:

Game Boy Advance (2002)

PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable as part of the Sega Mega Drive Collection (2007)

Wii Virtual Console (2009)

Xbox Live Arcade (2009)

PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as part of Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (2009)

iOS as part of the Sega Forever collection (2017)

Android as part of the Sega Forever collection (2017)

The manual contains a black and white comic strip offering a more in-depth backstory the game:

General Alissa Cyan and Topol are fighting an army of monsters abs in dire need of rescuing. Sadly, Topol is killed before they can be rescued. Later, back in HQ, Cyan is arguing with the emperor, urging him to provide her with back-up to help take down the evil Mortus and his renegade army. As the emperor explains his reluctance to agree to her request, messengers inform them that another army of mutants is attacking Tibet City and that a “Doomsday Device” has been located near New Zealand. General Cyan decides that enough is enough. They need a “special operative” to help them defeat Mortus.

Sketch Turner is a comic strip artist (and freelance rock musician) who lives in New York City with his pet rat, Roadkill. One evening, whilst working hard at his desk, he is drawn into his comic strip where General Cyan explains that if they cannot stop Mortus, his form will become real, and he will be able to conquer the Earth.

Speech bubbles appear regularly throughout the game (Screenshot taken by the author)

The array of attacks and movements you can perform is quite impressive for a Mega Drive beat ‘em up. However, even though there are multiple punches, kicks, jump attacks and even throws, there is very little finesse to the fighting. It quickly becomes a button masher.

Along the way, you are joined by your pet rat, Roadkill who can help attack the baddies, assist in solving puzzles (I use this term very lightly), and can even sniff out power-ups.

One nice innovation is that there are occasions in the game where you need to decide which direction to go next. Once you decide, you cannot backtrack. One of the paths is more difficult than the other and can offer better power-ups.

However, one gripe I have with this game is how easy it is to lose energy. Punching crates, doors etc. that you need to break for power-ups or to progress makes you lose energy, which I think is a bit dumb considering the lack of ways there are to regain your health.

Tip:

Don’t be afraid to use your power-ups because when you finish the level, you will lose them anyway.

I use the term “puzzle” lightly, but there are occasions when you need to use your loaf (Screenshot taken by the author)

The levels are designed in a the style of a comic strip which I thought was ingenious when it was released. The graphics are fantastic, and the game blew me away when I first saw it all those years ago. The sprites and backgrounds are very detailed and colourful, and sprite animations look fab. I love how the baddies are drawn by and artists hand rather than just appear on the screen, adding to the authenticity that you are in a comic strip.

Throughout the game, there is a running commentary. Either General Cyan gives you instructions, or speech bubbles appear as your character and the baddies engage in repartee. When engaging in fighting, “wacks” and “pows” appear again adding to the comic strip feel. Another nice touch, comes when there are times that you can kick you enemies through the comic border into the next scene. It look quite dramatic!

The music lets this game down. I found it dull and easily forgettable.

The above mentioned ‘choose your path’ feature and the fact that there are two endings, adds some replay value to the game. Sadly, there is only one difficulty setting.

Did I Complete the Game?

No, I could not get past the boss at the end of Episode 2. This game is very hard!

What the critics said:

Electronic Gaming Monthly: “This is a very original game. Sure, it’s basically a side-scroller, but the comic look and frame concept works very well. Also, the graphics are very colorfuI, especially for the Genesis. There isn’t any exceptional fighting, but the look of the game carries it. The only drawback is the fact that you can get hit a lot, so you die a bit too often. Still, it has a fresh look to it, with a very original way of traversing to the next level. Comix Zone is a definite must-try. Overall 7.875/10.[1]

Next Generation: “A very cool idea for a game that wasn’t executed properly, Comix Zone is better than most. Overall 3/5.”[2]

My Verdict: “A fun concept for a game that still looks very cool today. Let down by the music and the repetitive nature of the fighting, this game just falls short of what could have potentially been a legendary game. It is also incredibly difficult.”

My Rating:

What are your memories of Comix Zone? I would love to hear your thoughts, and don’t for get to follow and subscribe so that you don’t miss my latest reviews! You can also find me on Instagram: @nicklovestogame.


[1] ‘Review Crew – Comix Zone’. Electronic Gaming Monthly. (August 1995). Issue 73:35. (https://archive.org/details/Electronic_Gaming_Monthly_073_August_1995_U/page/n33/mode/2up Accessed 15th April 2021).

[2] ‘Rating Genesis – Comix Zone’. Next Generation. (August 1995). Issue 8:75. (https://archive.org/details/nextgen-issue-008/page/n75/mode/2up Accessed 15th April 2021).

Alien Storm – Review

By the early 90s, multiplayer beat ‘em ups/hack and slash games such as Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Final Fight were growing increasingly popular. The increasing array of characters and fighting moves kept gamers playing these games time and again, using all characters in a bid to master them. The multiplayer modes meant that you could play with friends and spend countless rainy afternoons and cold winter evenings in imaginary worlds saving the planet, defeating crime bosses or rescuing royalty.

Title screen (Screenshot taken by author)

Alien Storm is a beat ‘em up/shooter hybrid developed and published by Sega for the arcade in 1990, and ported to the Mega Drive and Master System in 1991. It was later released in the Wii Virtual Console in 2007, and as part of the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For this review, I chose to play the original Sega Mega Drive version.

Earth is being invaded by an army of incredibly ugly and aggressive aliens. A team of crack special force operatives known as the “Alien Busters”, comprising of the flame-thrower wielding Karen; the hunky Garth (Gordon in some versions) with his electric rifle, and Scooter (Slammer in PAL version) the robot, are sent to repel the invasion. Eight missions sees them battle through cities and towns, laboratories, electronic goods stores and eventually a UFO.

Oddly, the main character looks like Elvis Presley in his profile picture (Screenshot taken by author)

The game is mostly a linear beat ‘em up which sees the players fight from left to right. There are sections of the levels where the game changes to a shooter style game which adds a nice bit of variety to the action. Each character can attack, run, and perform a running attack. There are two bars: life and energy to keep an eye on too. When using your weapon, the energy bar begins to deplete. If you use your special attack, the energy bar depletes more quickly. Along the way, you can pick up medicine and batteries to replenish your life and energy levels. There are a few end of level bosses in the game which take a long time to deafeat if you don’t have special attacks, so I recommend not using them until the boss fights. The controls are very easy to learn, and the game quickly turns into a button masher with little strategy required.

Alien Storm incorporated elements of the rail-shooter genre (Screenshot taken by author)

The graphics are great! The levels contain detailed backgrounds and the sprites are bright, colourful and well designed with clear outlines. As the game progresses the increased difficulty of the aliens is noted by a colour palette change.

Each character has an individual move set and special attack but there doesn’t seem to be a difference in strength, agility etc. Interestingly, if you look at the profile picture of Gordon in the bottom left corner of the screen, to me, he looks unmistakably like Elvis Presley.

Watch out for the alien marsupials!!! (Screenshot taken by author)

Before beginning the game, you can choose between three difficulty settings: easy, normal or hard. To add an extra element of difficulty, you can also set your energy bar levels to either easy, normal or hard. When you complete the game, after the end of game scenes and credits, you get a score and a rating. As far as I know, your score makes no difference to the game ending. This adds to the replay value of the game as it encourages additional run throughs.

As with these types of games, two-player co-op modes only add to the fun. To further increase the replay value of the game, the Mega Drive version also contained a Duel mode and a Player v Player mode. In the Duel mode, you select a player and must compete in fights with differing numbers and strengths of aliens. The more rounds you win, the higher your overall score at the end. I received a score of 82 and the title “Champion”. During these battles there is no way to regain your energy so use your weapons sparingly. In the Player v Player mode, you and your opponent select one of the three main protagonists each to fight in a one on one battle. The first player to win two rounds, wins the fight. Sadly, this is a bit naff due to the fact that you only have a limited move set. There is not enough variation in attack combinations to make these battles interesting.

Did I complete the game?

Yes, I have completed this game many times over the years in both one and two-player modes, but only in easy mode.

What the critics said:

Mean Machines:An absolutely outstanding conversion from the coin-op, with great graphics and highly enjoyable one or two-player action. The big problem is that it’s just too easy. For some unknown reason, the import version was harder, but even then, it’s not that difficult to finish. Those new to the Mega Drive scene will really enjoy the action – experts, though, are warned that they might just find themselves finishing this prematurely. Overall 78%.[1]

Sega Pro: “A space age Golden Axe. One or two players can choose from three characters and then walk through eight levels packed with superbly animated and intricately detailed aliens. Great fun as each of the players has a special weapon and executes them in an amusing way. For instance, the robot takes off his (head) and self-destructs as he walks off screen. Way too easy, though. Overall 79%.[2]

Sega Power: “The game is, if anything, pitched a little too easy, and although the sound effects, music (especially the dance tunes) and graphics are excellent, there is little left to grab you after you’ve heard and seen them all. But as an original theme for a blast-‘em up, it’s got a lot of guts (urgh!). Easily a worthy of addition to your Sega collection. Overall 83%.[3]

Sega Power: “Horizontal scrolling blast-‘em up in the vein of high-tech Golden Axe.Great 3D shooting sections and ultra-high-speed scroll, but crippled by easy gameplay. Overall 3/5.[4]

My verdict:

“I have great memories playing this game with my sister and brother. Its looks great, plays great, and the mix of beat ‘em up and shooter adds some nice variety. The replay value is there too, and I think this is an underrated game from the Mega Drive catalogue. However, it must be said that titles such as Golden Axe and Streets of Rage are still superior in every aspect: Story, graphics, music…the lot.”

Rating:

What are your memories of Alien Storm? I would love to hear your thoughts, and don’t for get to follow and subscribe so that you don’t miss my latest reviews! You can also find me on Instagram: @nicklovestogame.


[1] ‘Review: Mega Drive – Alien Storm’. Mean Machines. (October 1992). Issue 1:137. (https://archive.org/details/mean-machines-sega-magazine-01/page/n135/mode/2up Accessed 16th February 2020).

[2] ‘Sega Showdown – Alien Storm’. Sega Pro. (November 1991). Issue 1:19. (https://retrocdn.net/images/7/75/SegaPro_UK_01.pdf Accessed 15th June 2020).

[3] ‘Reviews – Alien Storm’. Sega Power. (April 1991). Issue 23:40. (https://retrocdn.net/images/8/89/SegaPower_UK_23.pdf Accessed 29th July 2020).

[4] Jarrett, S., ‘The Hard Line – Alien Storm’. Sega Power. (April 1991). Issue 23:52. (https://retrocdn.net/images/8/89/SegaPower_UK_23.pdf Accessed 29th July 2020).