When I started creating this Best Games series, I really just wanted to advocate for good things. I wanted to celebrate joy and the hard work people put into creating these strange digital toys. So, with that in mind, here is another Best Game. A small break from whatever stuff you are thinking about today.
Best Games - Dolphin
First the boring description.
In Dolphin created by Matthew Hubbard for the Atari 2600. In case you hadn’t guessed you play as a dolphin. The entire game is nothing more than a single, unending, chase. You swim as fast as you can to escape a giant octopus that is trying to catch you. Currents can either speed you up or slow you down. There are walls of seahorses spaced at regular intervals that extend all the way from the ocean floor to the surface of the water. Each wall will have a gap located somewhere just large enough for your dolphin to swim though. Using the tone of your sonar you can tell where that hole will be before the wall arrives on screen. When the game picks up, and your dolphin is break necking away from that octopus, you will often have to be in position to pass through that gap before you can actually see it.
You can jump out of the water to catch a seagull that powers you up for some reason. A powered up dolphin can beat an octopus. Obviously.
Games were pretty weird in the 80’s.
Play Dolphin, and you will notice some pretty interesting things. First off, it’s an endless runner. This is the distant ancestor of some pretty popular mobile games, like Flappy Bird. An awful lot like Flappy Bird. Dolphin might not be the first of this type of game, but it is probably one of the first. Sure, you can change direction and head left instead of right, but you will be doing exactly the same stuff, just in the other direction.
Dolphin uses a tone scale to help you decide where on the screen the gap in the wall will be. You get used to using sound cues so quickly it almost seems as though other games had just been wasting one of your senses, with their digital bloops and farts. In that way it is one of the first musical games, or at least one of the first to use sound as a game mechanic, and not just window dressing.
There is a commonly known exploit in Dolphin that skilled players used to achieve very high scores. Your dolphin can jump out of the water, and if you time it right, leap completely over the wall of seahorses, ignoring the sound mechanic completely. This is also a very risky strategy, because the octopus will inevitably creep up on you, catching speedy currents, while you stay above them so you can time your jumps. If you mistime a jump you will hit the wall and get yourself knocked back toward the octopuses waiting tentacles. It’s a tactic you can use, but eventually you will need to dive and engage with the sound mechanic again. Nailing the timing of those jumps is a precursor to rhythm games. Again, maybe not the first, but a very early example.
It’s rare that you have one game that proves out several mechanics that are still fun and relevant decades later. Tastes change, technology moves forward. Here we see at least three mechanics, new at the time, that fully hold up today. Dolphin is still one of the best games.