Nature documentaries and H.R. Giger paintings seem like unlikely bedfellows but both served as inspiration for the look of ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. Stylised realism was the intention, with large sprites and plentiful animation. There’s a constant movement on screen giving a sense that the world around Ecco is living. The environment ripples and warps but, while stylish, such creativity was actually the result of a mistake. "[The] background effect is the result of a bug, i.e., it’s a glitch!” Ed Aunnunziata once confessed on Twitter. “It looks so beautiful [so] we kept it". So impressive were the graphics that the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau was even willing to endorse the game. “’Ecco the Dolphin’ is not just a game it is an adventure” he declares in one of Sega’s lavish promotional adverts. “The graphics are so real [my crew] won’t want to go in the sea anymore. Simply brilliant”.
For Annunziata though, splendid graphics were not enough to fully engage a player. He believed an immersive game needs to sound as good as it looks. "Music is not just an accompaniment to the visuals and gameplay, but is at the heart of the experience" the designer once said.
Annunziata worked with Csaba Gigor and Gábor Foltán, on the soundtrack, playing them songs by Pink Floyds to illustrate the feeling he was aiming for. The game has a sombre tone, which seemed a world away from the bouncy melodies that were so typical of Nintendo consoles. However, real critical adulation came when Spencer Nilsen reworked the soundtrack for the Sega CD version of ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. It is this score that’s often heralded as one of the greatest gaming soundtracks of all time. Sweeping droning synch tracks blend seamlessly with underground electro. The wails and groans of the audio mirror both the beautifully dangerous environments and Ecco’s own melancholy. Nilsen’s score didn't just find critical appreciation though; he is also applauded by his peers and contemporaries. "Spencer Nilsen's groundbreaking videogame scores [have] changed the industry" argues Emmy award winning composer Bear McCreary. "His scores were years ahead of their time and their influence can be heard in all the most popular videogame scores of today."
Any signposting in the game is vague and obscure. As a result you shouldn't be excessively punished if you can't figure out a route through a level, but this isn't the case. Enemies respawn but there are few ways to restore health. Traveling aimlessly in circles only leads to inevitable death. The years have clearly proven that the original game was too difficult. This explains why the most recent port on the Nintendo 3DS includes "Super Dolphin Mode" which decreases the difficulty by giving players invincibility and unlimited oxygen. Ultimately this allows a player to explore the rich beautiful environments. It allows them to venture into the unknown without the constant fear that one step (or rather flap) in the wrong direction will lead to an undesirable game over screen. Annunziata has since admitted that vague objectives and directionless gameplay was perhaps a mistake. "Often playing underwater games it is easy to get lost, or not know what to do next. [In future projects] we will have to be very careful to construct the game so that this doesn't happen. The game has to fun and satisfying."