Ecco the Dolphin (video is an entire play-through).
One of my absolute favorite video games that I played when I was younger was Ecco the Dolphin.
It was a side-scrolling adventure game, where you play the titular dolphin, on a quest to find what happened to your pod, on that one day where a strange storm caused your entire pod and everything else in the surrounding sea to vanish. You go on a quest to track down a blue whale who holds the key to finding your pod again, and go on to meet a strange, ancient sea-dwelling entity, travel millions of years back in time, and finally fight space aliens.
The absolute best thing about this game was the feelings of adventure, exploration, terror, and joy that it brought out in my adolescent self. It wasn’t just a side-scrolling game: you could go in all four directions, and the game worlds were huge and richly detailed. Exploring each world was so wonderful, it was on par with the huge worlds games like The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past had, but here it seemed natural and real. One thing that would seriously irk me when I was younger (and, probably, it still does) was looking into a large aquarium. The combination of the refraction, the haziness that increased with distance, like fog, those alien looking fish and sea creatures, and the mere thought of that huge volume of water on the other side — it all really freaked me out. The levels of Ecco could achieve the same effect, something that no other video game has ever done to me: capture a real fear I had and present it back to me.
You were a dolphin, so you couldn’t hold your breath underwater forever, and would drown if you couldn’t find a pocket of air or make your way back to the surface. There were enemies and obstacles that could drain your health and kill you, but the biggest terror in the game was the feeling of helplessness as your air depleted and you frantically searched for an air pocket to breathe from. If you died because a shark bit you or you ran into a sharp piece of coral, it was just frustrating; drowning was terrifying.
And one of the best things? Being a dolphin. Being able to swim fast, jump out of the water, and spin through the air. Hyper-fast-paced games like Sonic the Hedgehog were awesome, too, but somehow flipping a realistic dolphin through the air was more satisfying than making a cartoon hedgehog go blindingly fast.
…suddenly great winds of water…