Today is the twentieth anniversary of Ecco the Dolphin, a severely underrated Sega Genesis classic which has been lost quite literally in the tides of time. Ecco is one of my favorite games to write about; its dark, haunting atmosphere has left me scared to play it after all these years, and I am convinced that had it been released today, it would have fit right in with the recent slew of artistic, minimalist Indie games such as Limbo, Fez, and many others.
But why is the game so special? Most people who have played Ecco have never passed the second stage, The Undercaves, due to a high difficulty level which ramps up very quickly. Ecco is an oppressive, trying experience, one which rewards the analytical minded and the patient, and crushes everyone else who tries it into the dirt. It's a brutal, unforgiving game, one not made with children in mind, and there was a time when the creator of Ecco, Ed Annunziata was not even sure he could convince Sega to let him make it. Originally, there were conditions they wanted to implement such as the presence of humans, and hazards such as fishing nets which Ed fought vehemently against to preserve his strange, science fiction vision. Eventually he got his wish and Ecco was made, although the future for the series is grim; Sega has showed no interest in allowing a true follow up to the series be made, and has refused to license the character back to Ed. But in honor of the twentieth anniversary of one of the most bizarre and beautiful games ever made, we can at least take a look back and explore just what made the game so great, and explain what the series was about for those who have never had the patience or skill to sit through it.
Major spoilers ahead.
The story of Ecco is a convoluted one; a young dolphin finds himself alone after a violent storm sweeps his family away, and has to travel north to discover why this has happened. His travels take him across the world to the sunken city of Atlantis, where he discovers that an alien race called The Vortex are feeding off the planet once every five hundred years, and that the feedings are growing bigger each time. Using the powers given to him by an ancient creature, a giant DNA strand called The Asterite, Ecco uses a machine built by the Atlantians to travels back in time to the prehistoric age and then finally to the moment of the storm, where he goes along with his pod to the Vortex homeworld and attacks the Queen in her hive, rescuing his pod and returning to Earth safely thereafter.
In the sequel, The Tides of Time, Ecco loses his powers suddenly and realizes that the Vortex Queen, having survived the attack on her hive, has followed him to Earth and killed the Asterite with the intention of starting a new colony. Ecco is visited by a flying dolphin from the future called Trellia who tells him that time has been split into two possible futures; a dark Vortex future where the planet is infested with the alien creatures, and a good future where the Vortex are destroyed. Ecco has to travel to the Dark Vortex future in order to rebuild the Asterite, retrieve his powers, and destroy the Queen once and for all. After destroying her in her new hive on Earth, Ecco is told that in order to restore time to normal he must destroy the time machine; the stone that split the stream in two. But when he arrives he has other intentions apparently, and uses the machine instead, disappearing into the Tides of Time.
A third game was made some years later for the Sega Dreamcast by the name of Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future, although it has nothing to do with the first two. With a story written by David Brin, author of the science fiction novel Startide Rising, DOTF tells the story of a future where dolphins and humans live in harmony and fight against an alien enemy called The Foe. When the Foe destroy the defenses of Earth, they steal noble traits from dolphins by using a hole ripped in space time in order to prevent the alliance of humans and dolphins; humility, intelligence, ambition, compassion, and wisdom. Ecco must visit three alternate timelines to restore these traits; a future where the machines of man have destroyed the ocean, a future where dolphins become aggressive and tribal, expelling man from the seas, and one where the Foe have taken over the Earth. Ecco eventually restores all the traits to dolphin kind and destroys the Foe, restoring peace to the world at large.
Interestingly, one of the common themes in Ecco is the idea of actions in the past influencing the future. There are several occasions where Ecco's actions in the past directly shape the future, such as one very memorable Easter Egg where, while in Earths ancient past, Ecco speaks to land mammals in song who are influenced by him to go into the ocean. These were the predecessors of dolphins, so Ecco becomes inadvertently responsible for his own existence due to this very minor, hidden event. This is a type of time travel you don't see used often, due to the many plot holes and questions it raises, but it is used to fine effect in the first two games.
A true sequel was planned which would have wrapped up the story of the two original games, and there was even a password available at the end of Tides of Time for use in the missing sequel if one were to complete it on hard mode without cheating, no small feat for an already difficult game. Although we don't know much since Ed is still hoping to make it, it would have explained the reasoning for Ecco using the time machine, and it would have had him meeting with The Atlantians, an important part of the story of both games who were destroyed by The Vortex and disappeared using the time machine, which is such an integral element to the games central plot. At the end of Tides of Time, the Vortex Queen herself is revealed to have used the machine to go back to the distant past in order take over before the Earth has had a chance to thrive, but the game reveals that she met “creatures she could not rule”, and was forced to integrate into the life cycles of Earth, giving birth to insects, crustaceans, and all the “children of the Vortex”.
It's curious to speculate about the next potential game, and one can only hope that it is made. But apart from the storyline, what made Ecco so great?
Ecco was truly atmospheric. It thrust you into an alien world, both literally and figuratively, and perfectly utilized the terror of the unknown that the ocean in which it takes place is made so mysterious by. It was also incredibly simple, with a very minimal HUD, and logical game mechanics; eat fish for health, rise to the surface for air. Despite this though, it was incredibly difficult while simultaneously being forgiving; you will be hard pressed to get through a level in one shot, but you have unlimited tries to do so. Add to this a few extra things to do, such as rescuing your dolphin friends in order to obtain additional helpful powers, and you have a fairly seamless experience, one which provided a lot of challenge and replay value. It had it's problems, mostly in the form of bugs and glitches, but overall the first two games were a solid experience; and the third was no slouch either, although completely unrelated.
On top of this, the game had beautiful graphics, and an incredibly eery, heartbreaking, wonderful soundtrack which complimented the experience perfectly. Although not everyone was compelled by the idea of playing as a dolphin, the physics were handled quite magically as well, with fluid animations and control to further immerse the player.
It's too bad there will be little to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of this amazing series, but for those who grew up in fear of the next haunting level, in awe of the amazing and often perplexing storyline, and in wonder of the future possibilities that a potential new game might provide, Ecco will live on. Here's hoping the series makes a triumphant return in the future, but until then - a very happy twentieth anniversary to Ecco the Dolphin!