Weird Retro Mumblings: ‘Ecco the Dolphin’

*Spoiler Warning – ‘Ecco the Dolphin’ is 25 years old… but if you don’t want the plot spoiled then maybe don’t read this post…* 

The marks on your head look like the stars in the sky” – That one dolphin at the beginning

I’m going to start off with a controversial confession – it could change the entire way you read the rest of this post.. ready?… ok… I pronounce it “Eco the Dolphin”, not the more popular (and undoubtedly correct) “Echo the Dolphin”. *Sigh*, I’ve been carrying that burden for too long…

… secondly… and much less shockingly – I’ve never completed this game without cheating… 

The Undercaves is the third stage… and damn hard… 

Let loose onto the Sega Mega Drive in 1992, it rode the wave of the console’s popularity and became something of an iconic title for the little known developer ‘Novotrade’. Aside from the differences in subject matter to most ‘platformers’ (which is where I’m putting Ecco – rather than the always popular and least helpful of the genres “Action/Adventure”) of the time, which typically focused on the escapades of cartoon animals collecting stuff, Ecco stood out for effectively demonstrating the ability of the almighty 16-bits to handle smooth and swift animation of detailed sprites and backgrounds. I revisited Ecco on PC a little while ago and was surprised how much of it matched my, often very unreliable, childhood memories; I had begun that ‘revisiting’ with the intention of finally completing it without the aid of that all important “Hold A and press Start”… but failed… it is maddeningly difficult and often unfair, but before I get to that I’d like to bask in the warm shallows of nostalgia because it was a worthy candidate for retro-indulgence.

By today’s standards, Ecco feels quaint and pretty unremarkable, but at the time of release it got attention for breaking down a few gaming traditions: No score, no (traditional) ‘menu’ screen, no ‘lives’. The dolphin wasn’t big-eyed, or clad in a baseball cap and sneakers; Ecco was just a dolphin, swimming in the way that a dolphin does – I suspect that those animators spent a good few days at Sea-World getting that spot-on. The soundtrack was bold and ethereal, punctuated with Ecco’s dolphin calls and the replies of the other ocean going mammals you encountered. Health was gained, not via a small box with a cross on it, but through eating fish from the multi-coloured shoals that inhabited the reefs and caves. Octopi, sharks, and crustaceans were amongst the list of enemies; whilst other pods, orcas and a blue whale were your allies. It was a bold move, but just spend a little time on those first few stages leaping and flipping through the air and you’ll maybe begin to understand the draw of this title.

See that shell?… well it breaks rocks.. 

In absolute contrast to the realistically detailed underwater world, was the plot… which was so bizarre that it skipped straight over being terrible and landed in the brilliantly outrageous camp. During the game it unfolds gradually so each step seems reasonable but… let me summarise:

Ecco’s family are taken from him by a great storm, not content to be idle, our protagonist sets off to find them; he gets directed by a passing orca to the frozen north to speak to an old & wise blue whale who might know what happened to Ecco’s pod; the blue whale (creatively named ‘Big Blue’) directs Ecco on to a weird double-helix made of spheres; the double helix send Ecco to Atlantis to use the time machine (made for, and powered by, dolphins) built there in order for Ecco to travel back to the prehistoric era; in the past Ecco must fight the double-helix made of spheres steal one of the spheres (which was missing in the present);  Ecco then returns to the present with the missing sphere and gives it back to the double-helix (Raising the question… why?); fully restored to power, the double-helix gives Ecco some special powers in order to defeat ‘the vortex’ and send him back the time machine to travel back to the beginning of the game where he lost his family; this time Ecco is sucked up into the alien spaceship where his new powers enable him to defeat the alien leader; Ecco & family fall back down from space into the ocean… to be normal dolphins again… 

Genius! A game with the pretense of being about beautiful underwater environments and swimming around as a dolphin; but managing to pack in time-travel, dinosaurs, the lost city of Atlantis, and aliens…

It’s not all good stuff however; as a child, my sister was much more adept at, and patient with, Ecco so much of my experience of it was watching her slowly work through the game. The replaying only highlighted how awkward and difficult taking charge of that fiddly squeaking bottlenose is, and as my mind dealt with the frustration, a scene began to emerge where a game designer walked in to pitch the idea by starting “Hey, you know how everyone hates underwater levels? … well, let’s make an entire game of them…”, *Round of applause, everyone goes out for drinks*

Atlantis confusingly made it look like Ecco was flying… 

First up, and I accept that a big chunk of this is due to technical limitations of the time, the character control is painful. Ecco turns by pivoting around his midpoint, and the only people who wouldn’t call me a crazy person for seeing this as bad, are those that have also tried to use this control scheme to push something with a dolphin’s nose; during Ecco you need to push lots of things. You’re also required to line up with these things in a gloriously open and free-roaming world… with essentially only eight movement directions – if something isn’t orthogonal or diagonal to you then swim around for a while until you get lucky. You can move very, very slowly by pushing in a direction, but mostly you have to tap ‘C’ to propel yourself with your tail which makes fine speed control difficult. Overall, whilst the animation looks nice, the player never quite feels in control of our rubbery skinned friend.

Adding these controls to the labyrinthine levels makes navigating spikes and currents awkward, but you’re also faced with bizarre and illogical ‘puzzles’ to solve. Big shells and starfish can be nudged into rocks to destroy them, and shooting your sonar at some clams provides food (whilst others poison you). The tension in this game is overwhelming despite the tranquil appearance; Ecco is constantly running out of air. Being forced to delicately line up a dolphin’s trajectory through the narrowest of narrow gaps to slowly drift past a cautious octopus, all whilst watching that air-gauge tick down, is palm-perspiration inducing. The same goes for carefully searching for food (which is very sparse in later levels) on your last health bar… again with dwindling air supplies…

I remember being amazed the first time I met ‘Big Blue’

Finally, the enemies culminate in making this a brutal challenge, magnified by the flawed ‘dash’ attack. The ‘dash’ is only effective as an attack for a split second, but having performed it you are vulnerable and traveling at great speed into the unknown boundary of a 4:3 display; typically Ecco misses the intended target and ends up merrily ploughing into the next one accompanied by one of the 16-bit era’s most irritating sounds, a dolphin scream. The first enemy type encountered are the jellyfish which like to hang around near the surface, usually where you want to takeoff for a tricky jump. To make things worse, the enemies in Ecco are not persistent, so killing them is undone as soon as you leave the area. Things spiral downwards with sharks that take several hits and then the ice-crabs that accelerate towards our unlikely hero, disregarding any physical barriers, whilst he is in their range. The trilobites in the prehistoric stages usually end up finishing me off; Once locked on, these ancient antagonists mercilessly pursue the hapless dolphin, never giving the player enough time to turn around and make a clean attack (and again – ingame walls and barriers don’t interfere with them in the slightest). The penultimate level ‘The Machine’ is a lesson in patience and memory containing tough enemies coupled with a maze of corridors; the screen here moves along a set path, so take a turn down a dead end and our dolphin friend is crushed… presumably by the edge of the monitor.

At its best Ecco is a glimpse into some iconic 16-bit gaming and at worst it’s a painful reminder of how far we’ve come in terms of game design. It’s one of a few games that I think could benefit from a HD remake; analogue sticks and wide-screen would go a long way to making this at least playable. Feel free to hit up the comments if you have any memories of Ecco, or if you completed it legitimately! .. or if you played the sequels, it’d be interesting to hear how they compare.

3 thoughts on “Weird Retro Mumblings: ‘Ecco the Dolphin’

  1. Very good look at Ecco! I wanted to like this game, but it was difficult to control, like you said. Hindsight game design could possibly make better Ecco games nowadays, but I don’t think anybody would be interested, haha. Also, that story is crazy! Ecco is a really frightening game if you get far enough!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This game and its story always seem so fascinating and mysterious to me when I read about it. Every now and then, I try to give it a go, but I always give up for the reasons you listed. It feels like such a waste of an amazing concept.

    Liked by 1 person

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