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Hands-On: Ecco the Dolphin PC: Fixed & Enhanced Edition

Genre:  Action Developer: Korama and Klaimen from Caverns of Hope Publisher: Korama and Klaimen from Caverns of Hope Players:  1 Released:  2014

In 1995, Sega ported Ecco the Dolphin onto Windows, but it was much more than just a port! Ecco PC was actually the best, most enhanced version of the original title, using the extra hardware capabilities of a personal computer! It was actually a 32-bit version of Ecco the Dolphin, so everyone who has wondered what that canceled Ecco game on 32x would have been like. Well, it could have been just like this! Ecco the Dolphin was completely recreated and redrawn for Windows ’95, in high definition and high color. The beautiful soundtrack plays from Ecco on Sega CDAnd since it was made after the whole 16-bit series, Ecco PC also contains the Full-motion video clips from Tides of Time.      

As the years passed, Ecco PC started having problems running on each newer version of Windows that came out. Eventually, it just became unplayable on newer operating systems. 2014 saw the release of Ecco PC: Fixed and Enhanced Edition, a nonprofit project from a couple devoted fans, Korama and Klaimen from Caverns of Hope, who wanted to make Ecco PC playable and accessible on modern computers again.

hands-on-ecco-the-dolphin-enhanced-edition-10Fixed and Enhanced Edition can be downloaded for free, exclusively from the website Caverns of Hope. It downloaded and extracted easily for me in Windows 10, so that my copy was actually all-set, before I realized it. In addition to making Ecco PC playable on today’s operating systems, Fixed and Enhanced Edition adds several features, like the full range of sound effects that were missing in the Windows ’95 release. It also adds the choice of playing the Genesis soundtrack as well as the Sega CD soundtrack, so this is actually the first version of Ecco to offer the choice of both soundtracks. These enhancements come from collaboration with the 16bit Audiophile Project, who ripped the audio perfectly from the Genesis.

Caverns of Hope offers two versions of the complete package to download: “Standard Edition” with a smaller file size (328 MB), or the larger “FLAC Edition” (562 MB) with lossless CD-quality music, which I definitely wanted, as the whole point is to enjoy the best version possible. Plus, the file size doesn’t matter to me, as my hard drive has plenty of free space, and in this day and age, I can barely imagine those file sizes making a difference to anyone.

The title screen is silent, with the demo and game itself chosen in the top-left corner drop-menu. The game starts by choosing “go” and since there is no password system, Ecco starts in Home Bay. Progress is saved automatically onto the computer, so one can later choose “continue.” Like on Sega CD, crystal Glyphs serve as save-points (to restart from after dying), and this nicely balances out the difficulty, which was already tamed down for the Win ’95 release. There is also a built-in system of save states which are not automatic. A file can be saved for each stage that is reached, so basically, a stage-select is earned for every stage reached.

Visual Arousal

Home Bay shows off all the improvements right away. Everything is saturated with colors that blend together nicely. The water’s surface shows the new ripple effect with superior palette-cycling, which also smooths out the palette-changes when diving down into the depths of the ocean. Everything looks sharp, colorful, and smooth, and it goes great with Spencer Nilsen’s Sega CD soundtrack.

Using a nice computer game pad, the controls feel almost exactly the same as on Genesis/Sega CD, but the controls are actually slightly better! Ecco seems faster than ever, and his movements seem more fluid – I know this impression partly comes from his new smoothly-animated sprite, but his movements really are more fluid too. He is better at leaping out of the water and maneuvering through the air, so he has a much easier time making those impossible jumps in Atlantis, and the ice stages.

Full-motion video clips are activated from certain crystals that are found scattered around the ocean, and these video Glyphs seem to be everywhere. The original Ecco the Dolphin was never loaded with FMV like this! Tides of Time was, however, loaded with these same exact FMV clips, and seeing the same FMV now packed into the original Ecco title is awesome, but also feels slightly out-of-place, compared to what I’m used to seeing. The video quality is also much better than it was on Sega CD, so the clips of computer-generated imagery show much better clarity and color depth. Funny enough, the FMV is still not crystal-clear, but it probably was considered crystal-clear in 1995. Since the FMV clips are from Tides of Time, it makes me wonder how that title might have been ported onto Windows, which never happened, and which makes Ecco PC all the more special, as the only enhanced Ecco game for Windows.

Aural Stimulation

The silent title screen lacks the song that plays for the Sega CD demo and title screen. Sega had to cut that song, plus the FMVs from the Sega CD version of Ecco, in order to squeeze in the FMVs from Tides of Time. Instead, the demo sequence plays the song from Home Bay, and otherwise, the soundtrack and stages match up with Sega CD. The one big exception is that Fixed and Enhanced Edition adds time travel music, which has never happened in a CD version of Ecco, before this release in 2014. The song clip is short but sounds so moving that it makes my eyes tear up. It’s actually a clip of a live performance, which sounds similar to the Genesis cartridge time travel music. (The String Arcade gave permission for use of their song “Echos of Ecco,” which is a medley of Ecco songs played by a string quartet.) Fixed and Enhanced Edition is actually what makes Ecco PC playable with audio files, which is more convenient and reliable than if it had to read the music from CD-ROM, like the ’95 release. There is also easy personal customization of the soundtrack, if desired, though I’m perfectly content with both soundtracks, as they are.

The addition of the optional Genesis soundtrack created the interesting problem of having more stages than songs, since a few stages come from Sega CD, and never appeared on Genesis. Korama and Klaimen decided to throw in the unused songs that appear in the sound test of Genesis Ecco, plus they threw in a nice track from Genesis Tides of Time. I hadn’t even known that there were unused songs, and this makes it a unique aural experience.

Change Positions

My one small criticism for probably the whole game, is that the default splash sound effects are from the Genesis version of Ecco. The Sega CD version seems to have real splash recordings that make a big difference, to keep hearing real water. Still, this is not a full complaint, because the user modification is so easy. I decided to find the splashing effects in the folder of sound effects, and see if I could somehow replace them. The very first sound effects in the folder actually turned out to be the alternative splash effects from PC and Sega CD, along with the default effects. They are practically calling out to be personally modified, so I gave it a shot.

Interview- Boris Vallejo 3For the first splash sound effect, SFX_00, I changed the name of that default audio file, which prevents it from being used (since the game will only use whatever is called SFX_00). Then, of the alternative PC or Sega CD effects available, I chose the better Sega CD effect, copy-pasted it, and renamed it as the new SFX_00. I did the same intuitive process for SFX_01, and Ecco PC now plays great with the real splashing sounds from Sega CD! I’m impressed how easy and intuitive it is to make such changes.

I also always disliked that screeching sound Ecco makes every time he takes damage in the original title. So, I found his damage sound effect, SFX_08, and deleted it, so the game plays perfectly, with no damage sound at all. It later occurred to me to replace the empty sound effect with one of those Sega CD splashes I was so excited about, so I did, and now I hear splashing whenever he gets hit. It actually sounds great among the rest of the nature sounds and New Age music.

I had no idea why, but at one point, Sonic The Hedgehog’s famous drowning music and sound effects kept happening, whenever Ecco was running out of air. I wanted to delete these Sonic audio files, and I looked for them, but didn’t see them in the folders of music or sound effects. I emailed Caverns of Hope to ask about this, and also, to ask if there are any codes for this game. Thankfully Sonic’s sound effects never came up again afterward, and I assumed they were put there by Korama and Klaimen, as a joke. To my surprise, I heard back from them quite soon! Sonic’s sound effects were confirmed as an Easter Egg, which is unlikely to happen, but which does happen every so often. I was also given the scoop about codes, which was nice because I was stuck in the Volcanic Reef, trying to push that rock upwards, at the end. When Korama’s new user-friendly launcher is opened, use the keyboard to press ABCBCBACBA, and extra options appear for invincibility. As an attachment to the email, I was also kindly given a full save file with all stages unlocked, to replace my own save file, and this was like being given a full stage select. Their responsiveness and kindness was very much appreciated, and their passion for Ecco really shines.

After-Glow

Beyond the beautiful game itself, are some nice extra benefits, There are multiple languages to choose from, which were packed into the Windows ’95 release. This can serve as a wonderful way to study and practice Spanish, French, German, or Japanese.

The music can also be enjoyed, completely separately from playing the game. Songs in the music folders can be clicked on and played directly just like any other audio files on the hard drive, but the way I like to do it is to actually run the game, and just choose whichever stage has music that I’d like to listen to. The invincibility code means that Ecco can just linger on any stage, without risk of drowning, so he can just float there as long as I want to listen to a song. This is the same way I usually listen to the soundtracks on Genesis and Sega CD. It’s nice because then the game can be resumed at any moment, and it can be enjoyable to watch the stages themselves, with all their animated details of nature simulation.

The Ecco games also always had a couple more ways to listen to their music. The message-screens can be lingered on indefinitely, to enjoy the music, just like on Genesis and Sega CD. There was also always the option to pause, and then play the music while the game is still paused. This method is absent from Fixed and Enhanced Edition, but this is no loss, with all the other ways to listen to the music.

Fixed and Enhanced Edition runs in full-screen, or it can run in a window, half the size of the screen. This window option probably sounds pointless at first, but it’s actually awesome, as it lets the music play continuously, while using the computer for other things. For example, someone might want to read online articles and surf the web, while enjoying that New Age music humming along! The gameplay pauses automatically when a different window is being used, and the music continues on.

The music can even be enjoyed with the window of the game minimized out-of-sight completely, as a tab on the task bar. I really love this option because in effect, the computer is just playing beautiful music all by itself, without any visible source. It makes for excellent background music in one’s office or apartment, and personally, I love playing one of the songs softly while trying to sleep. It’s also worth mentioning that Fixed and Enhanced Edition runs perfectly, no matter how many other windows, tabs, and programs might be running at the same time. The music is never affected, always continuing unimpeded. And the game itself has never glitched out for me at all, which is more than I can say for practically any other program I’ve ever run on a computer.

Bonus items are also included in the download package, including a full-color PDF manual, unique for Fixed and Enhanced Edition. There are also scans of the original Ecco PC boxes, manuals, and discs, for all regions. There is the original Genesis Time Travel song, which can be swapped with the live string-quartet version that was added to Fixed and Enhanced Edition. Alternative sprites can be swapped for use in the game, including the original Genesis/Sega CD sprites. There is even a choice to play not as Ecco, but as Tara the Orca, from Ecco Jr.

Got Everything?

Fixed and Enhanced Edition has a few small quirks that come from Novotrade and Sega apparently having trouble recreating certain things on the more-powerful computer hardware, in 1995. Most noticeably, the full-screen rippling effects are gone from the screens showing messages and the titles of each stage. It’s a small piece missing, but it was always a nice effect on Genesis/Sega CD, especially when the music was sweet, and one just wanted to wait and listen to it. There is also no parallax scrolling for different layers of backgrounds and foregrounds, but this is far outweighed by everything appearing in beautiful high detail and high color! Plus, it can be switched to low-detail mode for the original Genesis/Sega CD graphics, which retain the parallax scrolling that we all love. The last missing thing I noticed is when Ecco meets Big Blue, his giant whale mentor. The big guy is missing his deep vocalizations that we always enjoyed on Genesis and Sega CD, as the Windows ’95 release was extremely short on sound effects.

These very minor details do not detract from the beautiful experience of Fixed and Enhanced Edition. Rather, these details help keep the Genesis and Sega CD titles as still relevant, and worthy of being revisited!

DO IT

Ecco PC: Fixed and Enhanced Edition belongs on anyone’s computer who loves the classic series, and wants to experience Ecco the Dolphin in its very best version ever made.

My gratitude goes out to Caverns of Hope for hosting this download link exclusively, and for everyone and everything that has led up to Fixed and Enhanced Edition, including:

  • Ed Annunziata as Ecco’s creator back in the ’90s;
  • Novotrade and Sega for the 16-bit series and then Ecco PC;
  • Artist Zsolt Balogh for the original artwork on Genesis/Sega CD, plus the new high detail artwork for Ecco PC
  • Spencer Nilsen for the fantastic CD soundtrack, plus the composers of the cool Genesis FM synth soundtrack: Nilsen plus two other composers, Magyari András and Brian Coburn
  • Modern day fans Korama and Klaimen from Caverns of Hope, who gave new life to Ecco PC with this Fixed and Enhanced Edition, with contributions from the 16bit Audiophile Project, and the String Arcade!

I wish to also send out a personal song of thanks for my good friend “Ramon” who kindly gave me an awesome new computer recently, which made all the difference, and gave me the ability to check out Ecco PC:  Fixed and Enhanced Edition. 

You are great…  Your song will echo throughout the vast ocean…  We will sing of you forever!

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Rating (out of five):  Sonic EmblemSonic EmblemSonic EmblemSonic EmblemSonic Emblem

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