Fashionably Late: Ecco the Dolphin

Like many people who play video games as a hobby, I have a rather substantial backlog of titles I’ve purchased but haven’t yet finished for various reasons. And each year I resolve to play through every title in my backlog, but I have yet to succeed. So, in an effort to motivate me to get through these titles, and to entertain you, I’m going to start a new blog series on my website, where I review games as I complete them. Since most of the games I play through will be more than a year past their release date, I’m calling this series “Fashionably Late,” and it’ll be updated as I finish these titles.

The first game I’m going to review is late, indeed; more than 20 years late. I first played this title at a friend’s house in grade school, and it immediately captured my interest with its strange but compelling premise, unique gameplay and colorful, detailed visuals. It kept that interest by being so hard that for years I couldn’t even get past the second level. That game is Ecco the Dolphin, and recently, motivated by hubris and bravado brought on by the copious amounts of cold medicine (I was sick, not recreationally using decongestants) I was on at the time, I played it until I won.

Ecco is a difficult game to explain to somebody else. In the version of the game I played, contained within the PS3 compilation Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, each of the games is labeled by its genre, with such categories as RPG, Brawler and Puzzle. Ecco is one of only four games labeled as “Other,” the second being its sequel, Ecco: The Tides of Time. So it’s hard to summarize this game when even Sega doesn’t know how!

Ecco is certainly one of the more unique games released on the Genesis…hell, it’s one of the most unique games that’s ever been released, period. It’s part action-adventure game, part puzzle game and part dolphin simulator. You play as the title character, a dolphin named Ecco, whose pod is sucked up out of the ocean to parts unknown by a freak storm. Ecco’s goal is to find his pod and save them, and in order to do so, he must travel through underwater caves, the Arctic circle, the lost city of Atlantis and even time itself.

Despite the game’s strange premise, Ecco is a pretty normal dolphin. He swims and moves exactly as you’d expect from a dolphin. His primary means of offense is charging at enemies and ramming them with his snout, and he can interact with any friendly creatures and many objects by “singing” at them; said song can also be used to echolocate and view a map of Ecco’s surroundings. And like any other dolphin, Ecco has to breathe air to survive; stay underwater for too long, he’ll drown.

The gameplay mostly consists of moving Ecco from his starting point in a level to its exit, but this is more complicated than it sounds. Unlike many games of the time, where the exit is always to the right of the starting point, most of Ecco’s levels are mazes of one kind or another. In order to pass through these mazes, typically Ecco will have to solve puzzles to get through obstacles that block his progress. Some of these obstacles come in the form of “glyphs,” Atlantean crystals that form a key-door pairing, meaning Ecco will have to find the key glyph elsewhere in the level, then navigate to the barrier glyph to remove it and advance. Others require destroying walls of stone with objects in the environment, like other rocks, seashells or even rings of starfish that “eat” the stone (don’t ask me; Ecco has a shaky grasp of marine biology).

This may not sound too difficult, but make no mistake, there’s a reason it took me twenty years to beat this game. Ecco is one of the most difficult titles ever released on a home console. It may not have the pop culture cachet of some other infamously hard titles like Battletoads, Double Dragon, Ninja Gaiden or Ghosts and Goblins, but it’s definitely earned a place in that hall of obscenely difficult titles and broken childhood dreams.

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, game developers had a problem. They couldn’t make their games very long due to the limits of the technology of the time (with the exception of a few RPGs, which relied on level grinding to extend their length), so there were concerns that kids would be able to rent these titles and play through them in the course of a weekend…which would mean that those kids would never buy a copy of the game. Many developers came to the realization that they could prevent this by making the games so difficult that they couldn’t be beaten over the course of a single rental…or possibly ever. And by the admission of Ecco’s director, Ed Annunziata, Ecco followed suit.

However, while most titles of the era accomplished this by being arcade-hard and only providing players with limited lives and continues, Ecco doesn’t have lives at all, and has infinite continues and a password system. The player can retry a level as many times as he needs to in order to clear it…but the catch is that there are no checkpoints, meaning that the player must clear the level without dying.

Therein lies the challenge, because virtually everything in the ocean is out to kill poor Ecco, including sharks, jellyfish, pufferfish, crabs, octopi, trilobites, dunkleosteus, ammonites and giant seahorses (that shoot their young at Ecco like buckshot). On top of that, the game’s puzzles are over-the-top difficult and either don’t tell you what you need to do in order to solve them (who would guess that you can dissolve rocks by singing at starfish?), require great precision and timing to maneuver through them, or both. And in between all of this, you have to make sure Ecco doesn’t drown, get impaled on coral spikes, or crushed by floating shells or ice cubes.

Additionally, there is no after-hit invincibility, meaning that some of the nastier obstacles and enemies can swarm Ecco and drain his health in only a few seconds. Ecco also doesn’t turn instantly; he has several frames of animation as he moves from one orientation to another, which makes it difficult to recover if you flub an attack on one of the aforementioned nasty enemies. The lengthy turn animations also make it easy to get trapped and crushed to death by certain moving obstacles, especially in the final levels. Ecco is simultaneously the best and worst kind of hard game; it allows you to fail without penalty, but it demands perfection before it will allow you to advance.

Now, those of you who aren’t masochistic old-school gamers like myself are probably wondering why in the hell anybody would subject themselves to the kind of game I’ve described. The short answer is that, even after all this time, Ecco the Dolphin is still an amazing, unique title, and in many ways it’s a landmark game that offers features that wouldn’t commonly be seen in games for years to come.

Again, the premise and design of Ecco is really like nothing else out there. There are very few games in existence that put the player in the role of an animal that, for the most part, behaves like a realistic animal. Putting the player in the role of a dolphin, with a dolphin’s abilities and weaknesses, sets Ecco apart from pretty much any other video game (except for the other Ecco titles). In a medium that has always been full of copycats and clones, it’s refreshing to play something that’s never been attempted before, and Ecco certainly fits that bill.

The setting also adds a lot of value for me, personally; I was a huge marine biology dork as a kid, and anything to do with ocean life is absolutely fascinating to me. Of course, as I mentioned, Ecco takes quite a few liberties with the actual science, putting creatures where they would never be and making them behave in unrealistic ways, but some concessions have to be made for the purpose of game design and aesthetic, and I think Ecco’s developers generally made smart choices in that regard.

The game is also one of the earliest titles I can recall that has a story that is advanced in-game, through the player’s actions, and it’s far from a simple one, with some impressive (for the time) plot twists and subtle implications that are left to the player to uncover. Ecco is also the earliest game I’ve encountered that features side-quests; two levels have optional missions where you can rescue other dolphins lost in an underwater maze, in exchange for upgrades that weaponize your sonar (these upgrades are optional, but I can’t imagine playing the rest of the game without them).

The graphics hold up surprisingly well, even twenty years later. Ecco himself is impressively animated, and the other creature sprites are very detailed and colorful…though they generally have few frames of animation, which sometimes makes it look like Ecco is being assaulted by clip-art. Still, the art design shines, and some of the levels are breathtakingly beautiful. The music, rather than the catchy, melodic tunes common to games of the time, is haunting, atmospheric New Age stuff that makes great use of the Genesis sound chip.

And really, “atmosphere” is the key word here, because Ecco’s design, its difficulty, and its aesthetic all combine to create a powerful atmosphere of isolation. Ecco is a dolphin isolated from his pod, alone in a hostile environment where everything is out to kill him, and he barely has the skills he needs to survive. He’s forced to go places no dolphin should ever go, and do things no dolphin could ever be reasonably expected to do. More than any other game I’ve played, Ecco captures the feeling of being isolated and alone in a hostile world where death is never more than a few seconds away. It’s not pleasant, but it is amazingly powerful, and that’s something worth experiencing.

Well, I tried to continue my attack on my backlog with Ecco: The Tides of Time, but believe it or not, Tides is even harder than its predecessor; I wound up quitting in frustration after trying and failing a starfish-pushing puzzle for twenty minutes straight. So, I think I’ve had enough 16-bit era ball-busting to last me for a while. For my next game, I’m going to tackle something a little more modern. Something…legendary.

‘Til next time!

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