ECCO THE DOLPHIN / Sega / Genesis
Ecco was a really interesting idea from Hungarian developer Novatrade (now Appaloosa), and tapped into what I suspect is a rather common fantasy - the ability to become a dolphin and swim through the seas with grace and speed. They absolutely nailed the physics engine, which makes it all the more of a shame that the terrible structure and level design of the game more or less kills it before it even gets out of the gate.
At game's outset, you're in the ocean with a dolphin pal who challenges you to jump as high as you can out of the water. You're just starting to get your flippers wet, playing with the smooth motion, dashing around, finally going down to the bottom and gathering speed for a mighty leap - and no sooner are you in the air then some weird vortex strikes and sucks up all the creatures in the vicinity, save Ecco. Upon landing, it's jellyfish everywhere, keeping you from dashing and jumping the way you really want to. Aside from his dash, Ecco also has a sonar ability with which to "speak" with friendly creatures. You can eliminate certain foes by charging them, but it's a bit finicky about your positioning and the distance, and Ecco's field of contact appears to be bigger than his actual sprite so you often take damage when you think you're squeaking by.
The first and second levels illustrate how the game mishandles what it has - instead of building levels and challenges around speed and jumping, which is what everyone wants to do, you're navigating this series of confusing lookalike tunnels while your oxygen gradually runs out with no ready source of resupply. As you try to figure out what obscure thing you are supposed to be doing, you die over and over from oxygen deprivation and have to keep re-starting the level.
The dolphin physics are great, the colorful undersea backdrops are nice and the ambient music was fairly effective, but the game itself ends up being too tedious and frustrating to be enjoyable. Shame to waste both such a workable non-violent theme and excellent gameplay this way.
* Gameplay Video