RETRO: Ecco the Dolphin [Spooky Edition]

Ecco the Dolphin 01

Ecco the Dolphin is an action-adventure game developed by Novotrade International and published by Sega in 1992. Starring the titular Ecco, a bottlenosed dolphin with a strange constellation-shaped birthmark on his forehead, the game was unique at the time for exploring the vast depths of the ocean.

“It’s dolphins, right?” was the common refrain of most parents purchasing Ecco games for their children. Nothing could be bad about some nice, adorable, friendly dolphins! Even discarding the fact that real life dolphins are brutal and carnivorous, it was still a flawed premise from the start to assume that every animal protagonist would be as friendly as Sonic the Hedgehog… which was still a game with its own problems, but that’s for another article.

Needless to say, this didn’t pan out well for the children who received these gracious gifts. Just like Ecco himself, we’ll learn to experience true fear after the jump.

The game starts you off in Home Bay, the peaceful and seemingly idyllic home of Ecco and his pod. Most of your dolphin friends have nothing interesting to say, including the one challenging you to a pissing contest to see how far you can leap out of the water.

Still, there isn’t anything to do at this point in the game, so it doesn’t hurt to get familiar with the control scheme. As you crest the top of the sky, a tornadic waterspout strikes the water, sucking up all of your friends in the ocean – and a good chunk of the pre-existing sea life, too. By a stroke of pure luck, Ecco is left as the only survivor, all because he just had to prove he could jump higher than his friends.

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It seems a bit cruel to leave Ecco responsible for the annihilation of almost all ocean life, doesn’t it? The premise embodies the strange moral paradox present in most video games of its time: you can stop the entire events of the series from happening by just choosing to stay in the water. The opening cutscene is the most memorable part of the game, but maybe it wouldn’t have felt so guilting (and compelling) if it just happened after a timer instead of on your motions.

The game runs with the undercurrents of an antithetic problem: the vast expanses of the ocean are never-ending, and yet excessively claustrophobic. There’s something cramped about the feeling of swimming through miles and miles of empty water, with nothing but the occasional misshapen coral to remind you that you’re not just running in place.
On top of that, many levels rely on you figuring out how to navigate treacherous mazes while still finding the time to double back. Being a dolphin, Ecco must keep revisiting pockets of air so that he does not drown. Having a built-in time limit on your own character is fun and not at all nerve-wracking, if you’re a sadist.

Speaking of drowning, one particularly cruel manifestation of the game’s difficulty is the realistic dolphin physics: Ecco swims more clumsily than the average video game protagonist runs. You’ll never catch him leaping over a building, and when you do try to jump, it’s common that he will just flail around wildly on the ground. The game has a more realistic bent than its mascot-based peers, so it’s understandable, but still mildly disturbing. On top of that, Ecco himself emits ear-splitting screams whenever he’s hurt.

And, yes, when you invariably find yourself lodged into a piece of geometry or cornered by sharks, Ecco will spasm and scream as he slowly drowns to death. For kids!

The difficulty exists pretty much entirely because of once-prevalent game rental stores. At the time, this was a huge concern for designers of games for home consoles. A store that can give you a full game for nearly-free is a threat to marketing: it was trivial for a child to rent their favorite game, beat it over the weekend, and never buy it. Maybe, in this case, having a password system instead of the soon-to-be conventional save system wasn’t the best idea (it gave kids an opportunity to skip straight to the harder levels of the game), but one way or another we were left with a twice-as-hard Ecco.

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One of the more infamous parts of the game occurs in the Undercaves, which is merely two levels in. As a matter of fact, it’s up there with the barrels from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in terms of newbie traps. Though the game does give you a hint – “Swim slowly past eight arms” – it was lost on many younger players who either did not make the connection or could not read English. As you make your way into the caves, you’ll find an enormous octopus (much larger than Ecco) guarding a passageway. True to the hint, if you swim too fast, the octopus will smack you to death.

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The Arctic section of the game takes place in the underwater equivalent of a frozen wasteland. A good portion of it is spent performing difficult platforming-esque feats, leaping in and out of the water while trying to avoid being crushed by ice blocks. There’s also giant crabs to worry about, for some reason – they’re buried in walls, invisible until you approach them, and then they will speed towards you across the level until you defeat them.

Ecco the Dolphin contains quite frankly massive spoilers that most people have taken for granted. Out of respect for new players who would want to experience the horrors of the deep on their own terms, the rest of the article is under a spoiler.


After the fact…

Ecco the Dolphin was so notoriously traumatizing, in fact, that it generated a series of topics called “Am I the only one who used to get scared by this game?” on GameFAQs (a once-popular message board website) as early as 2004. That’s a pretty big deal for a game that would have been twelve years old at the time.

Of course, Ecco the Dolphin is only the first game in a trilogy of horror. We’ve only just dipped under the surface of how scary the entire Ecco series is. Just wait until we discover the horrors of the Medusa, or the Heart of the Foe – but that, of course, is for a different time.

Ecco fans, did anything scare you that we haven’t mentioned? If you’re new to the series, what was the scariest part of this article? Let us know your experiences in the comments section below!

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