Getting lost in the Tides of Time
I just got back from a family vacation and have been feeling pretty burned out. For my wife, kids, and I, it was the first significant journey we took anywhere; a mere 14-hour road trip which might not seem like much, but with two kids in tow and me being the only one driving, it was a bit of an adventure. We went to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, specifically a town called Nanaimo which is where I grew up as a kid.
I’ll always say that the island and the ocean surrounding it is in my soul. My long-term goal is to bring my family out there and settle down. Calgary is a busy city where it feels like everyone is in transit; the conversation starter is usually “Where do you work?” — the city being very much an oil town, its greatest appeal an expansive job market and a lot of money to be made.
But I feel lonely here, disconnected from the landscape. If I didn’t have a view of the park by the river from my front door, I’d probably go mad. And even that is surrounded by a ring of boxy, samey-looking houses. I feel at peace by the sea, but with that peace comes foreboding and fear. Looking out onto the horizon, it feels like the end of the world, like there is nothing beyond it, just hundreds of miles of rolling waves and the darkness lurking beneath it. And as a child into video games, nothing captured that feeling more than playing Ecco the Dolphin on the Sega Genesis.
One of the first significant things I ever wrote for as a community blogger at Destructoid was an article about Ecco. I came to find rather quickly that the influence of the game was wide-reaching — either in the negative or positive. Ecco the Dolphin was one of my first experiences of feeling real emotion while playing a video game, namely fear and loathing about what was around the next corner stemming from my time on the island playing in the waves, discovering weird creatures, and promptly swimming for shore the more unsure I became about the general situation. After we left Nanaimo and moved into the mountains and eventually the prairies, my heart ached to go back home. But playing Ecco always gave me a distinct feeling of nostalgia for the island, and as the years went by and I eventually discovered the internet, I also found a huge community of people who felt the same way I did for different reasons, and a part of that community still exists today.
My first introduction to any kind of forum/fandom interaction was on a site called The Undercaves. It was the first time I took on a virtual moniker which stuck, wrote fanfiction, and generally interacted with a community of unique individuals talented and otherwise who had a single thing in common: love for a niche Sega Genesis cult classic.
One of the more outspoken members of the community was my friend Johnny, known as Arkonviox. He was my first introduction to what I would call a successful “internet troll,” being young and brash and too smart with computers for his own good. Unhappy with some of the things going on in the community, he decided he wanted to go his own way and split into a sister site, humbly calling it Arkonviox.com. I worked with him to moderate forums and chatrooms, contributing screenshots and other content to the site as he refined his many engines over the years. Johnny was ambitious; he had an Ecco fan game in the works among other things, and he also didn’t like the idea of competition. So when Caverns of Hope formed — a site with an aesthetic more centered around Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future for the Sega Dreamcast — Arkon was incensed and there was a bit of a “web war” (waged only by him if I’m being honest) against the site.
At the time, this was normal and seemed so important. I was pretty engaged in the community then, and pretty lonely in my real life having just moved to a new city. I met some cool people, experienced a lot of personal drama, and learned about the fickle nature of internet relationships as well as the general issues inherent in fandom. As time would go on, the next big Ecco fansite to appear would be Darksea, a competent wealth of information specifically about the Sega Genesis tiles, including interviews, breakdowns on beta versions (the first Ecco 2 beta was thoroughly covered by a community member named Histrionic on their own site.) pixel art, and then via the forums, some pretty interesting mapping and ROM editing tools which led to complete, pixel perfect maps of most of the games levels, all of which has sadly been lost at sea since the site shut down a couple of years back.
In recent years, we have seen: the discovery of a Dreamcast development kit complete with an early build of a Defender of the Future sequel, the game re-released in many anthologies and collections, and even a Kickstarter project by the series creator Ed Annunziata. There have been videos by some prolific members of YouTube, including Larry Bundy Junior, bizarre art projects embracing the psychedelic, mysterious nature of the game, and of course extensive journalistic analysis on the ketamine experimentation origins of Ecco from different media outlets that apparently inspired Ed and his creation.
What is it that makes Ecco so appealing? I have said to Ed in my own interview years ago for Sega fansite Sega-16, run by Ken Horowitz, author of Playing at the Next Level: A History of American Sega Games that Ecco was one of the first early artistic indie games. Today we have far more subversive and intentional games in the same vein. But Ecco was genuinely surprising if you were able to get through it and leap over the tremendous hurdle of difficulty.
Spoilers: Ecco the Dolphin starts simply enough with a storm that rips his family out of the sea but ends with Ecco fighting through a Giger-esque nightmare machine to face off with an alien queen on another planet to save all life on Earth from extinction. In between, Ecco has to travel back and forth through time to gain the power necessary to travel to the planet Vortex, home of the alien enemy who has been feeding off of the oceans of Earth since their own planet is dying. In the sequel, Ecco has to stop the Vortex Queen from infesting Earth as well as destroy the time machine he has been using, as it created an alternate timeline. A melancholic text scroll reveals that Ecco decided to use the machine at the end of the game instead of destroying it, and was lost in the “Tides of Time,” a cliffhanger ending leaving Ecco’s fate unknown.
The third title in the series, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future, was by Appaloosa and did not have Ed Annunziata’s input. Instead, science fiction author David Brin took the helm to develop a new story about how the values of humans and dolphins, once living together in harmony, were stolen by an alien race called “The Foe” and had to be restored by Ecco. It played out something like a reboot in a sense. Ecco is fighting an alien threat, with throwbacks such as Hanging Waters paying homage to the water tube stages of Tides of Time. A beautiful game marred by technical issues, it was a pretty solid entry into the series, had a wonderful soundtrack, and was just as crushingly difficult as its predecessors. But the story Ed had weaved in the first two games was never continued. Ecco still waits in limbo waiting to be revived. Ed later ran an ambitious Kickstarter project, hoping to team up with original composer Spencer Nilsen for a spiritual successor called The Big Blue, but despite encouraging press the project never took off, and fans are left waiting for whatever Ed’s take on the series will be in the future.
But the fans are keeping Ecco fresh in everybody’s minds. Whether they grew up with Ecco, or are discovering it for the first time, there are tons of content creators out there celebrating Ecco the Dolphin, producing all kinds of unique and wonderful art, music, websites, and videos about the series.
One of my favorite content creators on YouTube is a guy known as Mr. BaffaCake. He creates absurdist content relating to movies, video games, and even his own animations. His work caught my attention awhile ago when I stumbled onto his treatment of Ecco the Dolphin. It captured both my frustration and love for the game in a way no other YouTube video had. I watch a lot of retro game channels, but his bizarre comedy and clear understanding of the game’s depth is what led me to like his content. He is currently still producing content on a monthly basis, and he had this to say about Ecco.
“What can I say about the Ecco series that I haven’t already said in my reviews? Well, I can tell you that when I first played Ecco the Dolphin: Tides of Time as a child I had no idea what I was doing. I thought the game was some sort of dolphin simulator where you’d just splash around for a bit and eat some fish…and that’s exactly what I did. I never progressed past the second stage. That is, until I revisited the game in high school with a couple of friends with the goal of finding out what exactly Tides of Time was about. I remember staying up until 5 in the morning losing my mind at the bizarre story and incredible difficulty of a game that was infinitely more complicated than I ever could have imagined. It was an absolute blast. My friends and I spent hours trading off the controller and watching each other struggle to complete a stage. We had discovered a world of furiously frustrating fun lying just beneath the surface of a deceptively innocent looking game. I loved it and I can say with certainty that Ecco was a big part of why I started reviewing video games in the first place.”
Currently there is a slick, wonderful homage to Ecco celebrating the 25th anniversary of the game on Caverns of Hope, the last remaining major Ecco fan website. Fan sites are not as popular as they were in the old days of Geocities since the move to social media has taken precedence, but CoH stands firm and is a valuable resource of Ecco content. This particular article they have designed showcases all sorts of fan-related content, including art, interviews, videos, and music projects, and is a great little resource I hope they at least keep archived after the fact. Klaimen started the site years ago with co-founder SilverFin, and continues to run it to this day. Here are his thoughts on Ecco.
“Ecco the Dolphin and its community have been a huge part of my life. I have witnessed the release of the games and been part of the community since early on. This time is full of precious memories for me, and I have met many friendly people worldwide thanks to Ecco. It amazes me how many people still create and share Ecco the Dolphin related content on the Internet. That is why I’m looking forward to work on Ecco the Dolphin together with the community as long as I can!”
Daniel of Lion-Arts has worked with Ed Annunziata directly and has created some pretty wonderful art himself. He does CG renders and has also experimented with 3D printing. Originally interested in the possibility of a marine biology profession, he eventually settled into a career doing freelance digital artist, and lives and works in Los Angeles.
Despite being undeniably challenging (especially toward the end of the game), I quickly grew to LOVE Ecco The Dolphin on my Sega Genesis during the summer of 1993, shortly after its release (as well as its sequel the following year). Looking back now, having beat the game as a 10 year old, without the internet, or a walk-through guidebook or even a cheat code, feels like a badge of honor! I thought the highbrow story of a dolphin in the future interacting with both other sea creatures as well as advanced technologies of mankind’s abandoned future set in a world mostly covered by the ocean was brilliant & thrilling, and I still find that setting a fascinating concept.
Ecco also has a small but dedicated group of speedrunners. The “Yellow Shirt Guy,” also known as blueglass, who can be seen in many Games Done Quick videos, typically bellowing an infectious laugh in the background, and doing impressive speedruns of Ecco and its sequel. But the fastest speedrun in the any% category still belongs to a user named halfbakedprophet who discovered and used some pretty fascinating techniques to blow through Ecco at an alarming pace.
So there is a lot of love going on for various reasons that some may not understand. It’s amazing to think that a single game could bring so many different people together and keep them loving it decades later. Ed Annunziata sums up his own thoughts on the game:
Thinking about that it has been 25 years since the Ecco the Dolphin game was released is stunning to me. The fact that a few of us still remember the game enough to acknowledge it after so many years is amazingly satisfying. But to me, the story, characters, and play mechanics of the game are quite a bit older. Like the parents who celebrate the birthday of their child with the world, they alone remember all the parts that came before. (Note: I held my breath while typing this!)
It seems like yesterday I first picked up a controller with my Dad and discovered a game that was so much deeper than the sum of its parts. One that terrified and compelled me, urging me to unlock all of its mysteries. Back in a time when marketing terms like “blast processing” were in full effect, and even the title of Ecco’s game, “Ecco the Dolphin” was very much in line with the cute animal mascot sales pitch of the early nineties, Ecco was uniquely fascinating and different than anything I had played before. But even more special than the game itself, which truth be told is too difficult for its own good in places, riddled with bugs and glitches, and can be extremely frustrating and impenetrable for new players, is the community of people that sprung up around it. Even in writing this article and putting a call out for involvement I was introduced to folks I had talked to quite frequently on forums and chatrooms almost fifteen years ago.
This more than anything makes Ecco special to me, and I would love to see the franchise have at least one last hurrah. But if we never get that, if Ecco the Dolphin is truly lost forever in the Tides of Time, the people who love it will continue to keep the game alive.
Happy 25th Anniversary, Ecco!