It’s 1992 and a bottlenose dolphin has just become one of the world’s best-known protagonists of a video game. Not one that has been anthropomorphised like a particular blue hedgehog, but one that lives happily in the ocean with the rest of his pod quietly going about their dolphin business. One that will go on a long quest that will take him back in time, and to the outer reaches of space. A dolphin called Ecco.
You could be forgiven for thinking I’d got my wires crossed here, but this game really did happen. Ecco the Dolphin splashed into the waters of the Sega Megadrive to gallons of thunderous applause from the critics of its day, but where did the idea for such a game come from? And more importantly, is there any room in the world for Ecco today?
The Shallow End
Let us set the scene: it’s 1992, and you’ve bought this new game everyone is talking about, the one Mean Machines magazine has awarded an astonishing 97%. You go home and put this game in your Megadrive and you’re welcomed with soft and gentle music as the game skims through the ocean, soon you’re joined by a pod of dolphins leaping in and out of the water, the soothing music settles you in, a dolphin asks ‘How high in the sky can you fly?’ and as soon as you attempt this a massive vortex sucks the majority of ocean life clean from the sea, except for you, marked by destiny with five star-shaped scars on your head, you are to be the chosen one…
Armed with only your trusty sonar and charge attack, you must leave the safety of the lagoon to investigate what has happened. An orca informs you the only one who may know what has happened is the Big Blue, but he lives far past the under-caves. The only guides you have are a series of large crystals scattered through the levels to give you advice on the way. You are in for one helluva ride.
The game’s creator, Ed Annunziata, was interested in dolphins and the ocean in general, and there was one particular researched whom Annunziata may have taken particular interest in – John C Lilly.
Lilly was known for experimentation with hallucinogens and the ocean and believed he was contacted by an entity called the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or ECCO for short. Whether this was an inspiration for the moniker of the game’s protagonist is unconfirmed, although recently Annunziata has confirmed he did read the works of Lilly, so the link is very possible.
Going in Deep
But why pick a dolphin as the protagonist of a game that takes place in the ocean? It was certainly an unusual choice but one that was a confident one and displayed the trust Sega had in Annunziata with his off-the-wall idea.
The visual approach to the game was unusual. At the time, games like the Mario and Sonic series were inspired by cartoons, creating a vibrant and colourful appeal aimed towards children, but the graphical approach of Ecco the Dolphin was more akin to games like Streets of Rage 2 that were vying for realism within the limitations of the 16-bit consoles they existed on. What ended up in the game was truly beautiful. Vast coral reefs, deep oceans of the past and present, sharks, orcas, ancient creatures that once populated the seas, all brought to life in stunning detail. The colour palette that ran throughout the game was an oceanic blue, a wise, but a safe choice for a game set in the depths of the ocean.
Even though Ecco was a game about a dolphin in the ocean, it still needed to play like a game. And for a game to play well you need some decent level design. Twenty-five levels to be precise. This was in the hands of Annunziata and Laszlo Szenttornyau. The level design of the game was quite simple in its structure. Each level would be a series of rooms and puzzles connected by tunnels or open spaces you could swim along. The main task in each level was to either remove the Barrier Glyphs that prevented you from leaving the level or to face down a boss to proceed on. Like the games of the time, levels relied on a password system to be able to return at a later date. Unlike games today where saves are often as frequent as you like, older games did not have the space to store a save on the memory chip inside of the cartridge. Whilst this game may sound like it was an easy play, you also had to consider Ecco’s health and oxygen meters. If you did not keep Ecco’s lungs filled with air he would drown, lack of oxygen meant your health meter dropped as you took damage. You could regain health by eating fish or receiving a boost from a particular Glyph in the ocean.
The other aspect of the game that needs addressing is the strong sci-fi plot that ran throughout. Ecco was a game about time travel and mystery, with the end level resulting in you travelling back in time. That’s right, that’s where Ecco went. Of course, a dolphin can’t just travel back in time, they lost that ability many centuries ago, so Ecco has to visit another favourite haunt under the sea – the lost city of Atlantis. By pure coincidence, the antediluvians do happen to understand how to travel in time, so it’s there that Ecco goes back. Now, how does Ecco know he needs to go back in time to fix things? A telepathic strand of DNA called the Asterite tells him so. He even goes as far to tell Ecco he remembers talking to him in the past, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you think this plot sounds bonkers you wouldn’t be wrong. These were hard sci-fi concepts that wouldn’t sell on paper when you pitched them. Perhaps it was this reason that Annunziata and his team faced constant fights with Sega over creative control of the game. The team won these disputes and got to make Ecco the way they intended.
Sounds of the Ocean
No game would be complete without a soundtrack. The tunes that play in the background make a game as much as the level design. They set the mood for the level and the game itself. Spencer Nilsen, Magyari Andras, and Brian Coburn were responsible for the soft and mellow sounds. The music was psychedelic, like lost works from a Donovan album, and it fitted the gameplay well.
Ecco the Dolphin came together through a labour of love. It was a game well ahead of its time, and one that its publishers did not understand what they had on their hands. Ecco touched down in the Christmas period of 1992 and went on to be a hit, both commercially and critically. It went on to be ported to the Sega CD, the Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear and a port onto Microsoft Windows. It has also featured in many classic Sega collections released on other systems.
A game as good as Ecco would demand a sequel, and it got one two years later in 1994. Ecco: The Tides of Time.
The Tides of Time continued the story from the original game, with Ecco’s previous time-travelling shenanigans causing the timeline to be split into two. The original team returned to work on the sequel, trying to make the new game more accessible to new players. The game was the second part of an intended trilogy and despite this sequel receiving relatively warm reviews, the third instalment was cancelled by Sega and a spinoff entitled Ecco Jr. was released instead. The gameplay of Ecco Jr. was simplified for children with the idea that they would then go on to play the original game but it left Ecco fans unsatisfied and Annunziata left Sega shortly after.
The Ecco series wasn’t dead though. Despite a failed attempt by Sega to relaunch the franchise on the doomed Sega Dreamcast, Annunziata himself launched a spiritual successor to the Ecco franchise in 2013. A game called The Big Blue was proposed for Kickstarter with the setting being one million years after humans have become extinct and the ocean has gained sentience. The backing required was not reached but that did not deter Annunziata and his team, and they returned with
which was a prequel to their proposed original game.
Spiritual successor or not, Ecco the Dolphin will never be forgotten. It was an unusual game set outside of the human world and is a reminder that maybe we aren’t the prominent sentient species of the planet, and just maybe we are not the only residents who search for adventure…
Does Ecco Last the Tides of Time?
Despite its age, when replayed almost thirty years later, Ecco is still a very playable game. The graphics, like all pixel art from the 2D era, have aged very well, offering an eye-popping look and feel of exploring the depths of the ocean. Not to mention that the game is still a challenge to even the most seasoned of gamers. It does deserve its status as a classic and belongs in any retro gamer’s, or gamer in general’s must-play list.