Ecco the Dolphin: Easy to love, hard to enjoy

Underwater, no one will hear you scream in frustration.

This was not Ecco the Dolphin’s motto, but it could definitely have been. Ecco is a ragequit-inducing game—and series—if there ever was one, a game that will make you throw your controller at the TV screen and want to suffocate all things aquatic under tons of oil. Despite being one of the most famous and distinctive games of the 16-bit era and being widely recognized as a Megadrive/Genesis gem, Ecco has a sinister reputation: it’s probably as infamous as it is famous, and it’s a gem most gamers prefer to admire from very, very far. 

Ecco the Dolphin elicited curiosity and wonderment from the day of its release: it was a unique and original game in many ways, starting with its origins. Ecco was published by Sega and developed by Hungarian studio Novotrade International—how exotic!—and followed a release pattern that was virtually the opposite of what we’re used to: it was first released in Europe in 1992, then in North-America and finally in Japan in 1993. Ecco is the brainchild of developer Ed Annunziata, who had a very potent, structured and uncompromising vision of what his game should look, sound and play like, and managed to bring said vision to life in an astounding way. Ecco was an instant hit, and was followed two years later by a sequel. Ecco: The Tides of Time, as it is known, picks up the story where Ecco left it and expands the mythology of the series while introducing a batch of new—and unevenly inspired—gameplay mechanics. A third Megadrive/Genesis entry was planned yet never saw the light of day, supposedly due to some disagreements between Annunziata and Sega about the game’s concept; instead, a spin-off called Ecco Jr. was released in 1995, to general indifference. A 3D reboot was released in 2000 for the Dreamcast and PS2; despite being developed by the same studio, it didn’t involve any member of the original development team and follows a totally different storyline. The canon Ecco series thus counts two games only, and despite Annunziata’s persistence and repeated attempts to keep his creation alive, Ecco is more or less dead and rotting on a sea bed—for the best, will say some.   

Pleasure and pain

My relationship with the Ecco series is a tormented, ambiguous and ultimately bittersweet one, fully encompassed by this post’s title. Ever since I discovered the series, I’ve been totally enamoured of the graphics, the music, the atmosphere, the whole concept of it; yet once facing the games with a controller in hands, I’ve always found incredibly hard to actually enjoy them. I’ve always derived more pleasure from gazing at Ecco’s screen captures in gaming magazines and listening to its music than from actually playing the series, and I’d wager that I’m not the only one in that case.   

Let’s be honest: Ecco’s concept and presentation are mesmerizing. Whether you love it or hate it, this game is a league of its own: nothing remotely similar had been created before—or since, for that matter. The concept is beautifully bizarre, twisted and quite otherworldly, in more ways than one: there is of course that specific storyline element that I won’t spoil in case someone who never played the game reads this, but also the fact that the ocean is virtually a foreign world as far as we’re concerned. When I first discovered the games, I loved how exotic the names of the levels sounded, using unusual words and evoking elusive worlds of wonder: what on earth—or not—were a ‘vent’, a ‘fault’ and a ‘moray’? And wasn’t ‘City of Forever’ just the most beautiful and evocative level name ever created? On a deeper level, Ecco’s physics were incredibly innovative: being able to move in virtually every direction with speed variations in a 2D environment seen from a side view, with the scrolling graciously accommodating your every fancy, was something unseen and groundbreaking at the time. 

The music beautifully and nearly perversely enhances Ecco’s wonderful weirdness. This is a soundtrack that has gained a mythical aura over the years: described by some as stellar and by others as nightmarish, it is a wondrous and uncanny mix of Pink Floyd and Jean-Michel Jarre that leaves none indifferent. I’ve been in love with that soundtrack ever since the first time it graced my ears—a love not exactly shared by my mother, who found it creepy and depressing and lamented about my crappy gaming tastes every time I played Ecco in our living room. That highly distinctive soundtrack is probably the series’ most polarizing aspect and plays a huge part in making it so enthralling. Would the infamous ‘Welcome to the Machine’ level be so legendary without its fantastically bizarre and haunting musical theme? And would a level like ‘Tube of Medusa’ even be bearable without its awesome, uplifting theme?  

A less polarizing facet of the series is its graphical perfection. It’s widely acknowledged that Ecco and Tides of Times are two of the most beautiful and polished Megadrive/Genesis games, if not the two most beautiful games on the system. To get such stellar beauty out of the Megadrive’s entrails was a tour de force, and one that managed to stand the test of time amazingly well. The series aged gracefully, indeed, and does not look the slightest bit dated twenty-or-so years after its initial release. The underwater backgrounds are as gorgeous as ever and beg to be admired and gazed at wistfully; I swear that the deep shade of blue used for the coral banks stirs something deep in my soul, and seeing the sandy ocean floors makes me want to dive straight there.

Yes, I do love Ecco. I adore Ecco. The problem is, Ecco doesn’t love me back. 

It’s no secret that Ecco is tough as nails. The series has a ferocious and well-earned reputation in that regard and is deemed one of the most hardcore franchise of the 16-bit era—heck, maybe even of all eras since the dawn of gaming. A merciless combination of touchy jumping physics, labyrinthine level designs, nerve-racking puzzles, forced backtracking, harrowing fetch quests and the constant necessity to refill Ecco’s oxygen meter makes the series’ core gameplay highly demanding. Add to this already formidable mix tons of environmental hazards, unclear goals that you must figure out all by yourself through trial-and-error, impossibly high/long/precise jumps and respawning swarms of enemies and you get a relentlessly challenging and exacting game that keeps you on your toes at all times. Playing Ecco requires nerves of steel and a nearly infinite amount of patience: should your focus waver or your frayed nerves falter, the retribution will be immediate and brutal. 

However, the series’ trademark tough gameplay is not the reason why playing Ecco is more often than not utterly impossible to enjoy. Most gamers appreciate a good, hardcore challenge once in a while, and a demanding gameplay can make a game incredibly rewarding and compelling; but Ecco overdoes it and jumps way over the ‘compelling’ mark. The problem is that Ecco is not only difficult—which would be tolerable—but also totally unfair, which is plainly unbearable. It’s unfair because it punishes you brutally for the slightest slip without ever acknowledging any of your progress or achievements; to put it bluntly, if games can be abusive, then Ecco is the fullest, most perfect encapsulation of it. This abusiveness is all due to the saving mechanics: there is neither an instant save system nor check points in the Ecco games, only a password system; this basically means that should you die at some point in a level, you will have to restart that whole level from scratch, all your prior efforts and toiling reduced to nothing. (Having to restart a fetch/escort quest after dying two meters away from the exit in Ecco is a soul-crushing experience and probably one of the worst torments that can be inflicted on a gamer. I still want to weep when thinking of it.) Even worse, you are occasionally sent back to the beginning of the previous level; if this is not pure sadism, I don’t know what this is. (Having to redo ‘Welcome to the Machine’ after you die facing the Vortex Queen or ‘Sky Tides’ after you’re kicked out of ‘Tube of Medusa’ is as close to mental torture as it gets.) The password system is vastly insufficient: clearing a level at long last is a short-lived relief, since it only means that you’ll be stuck in the next one for an undetermined amount of time. As a result, progression in Ecco is not smooth and rewarding, but rather jagged and unfulfilling, an unpleasant alternation of teeth-grinding hours spent redoing the same things and breakthroughs too brief to be enjoyable. Ecco is way too unforgiving, demanding nothing but absolute perfection, and ends up being both infuriating and discouraging instead of compelling and rewarding. Despite numerous attempts over the years, I never managed to truly and sincerely enjoy playing Ecco, let alone finish any of the two games. I purchased the more forgiving Game Gear versions and cleared them many times, but that’s not where my heart was: the waters where I wanted to swim were the 16-bit ones, gorgeous and enticing—yet cruelly unwelcoming. 

Watered-down legacy

Twenty-two years after its glorious incipit, Ecco’s legacy remains a mixed one. Despite being widely hailed as an absolute gem of the 16-bit era and as one of the most innovative games ever created, it is hardly played nowadays, no doubt because of its unforgiving nature. Annunziata’s repeated fails at making his creation thrive only worsened things: the series could never be amended, and it slowly slipped away from awareness and disappeared from the gaming landscape. Seen from our current era, Ecco ultimately appears as a brief flash of greatness, a game series that could have been outstanding but somehow missed its moment and slowly sunk into oblivion instead.  

That’s not to say that Ecco was not made available to newer generations through various ports. It was ported all right, but significantly less than you would expect a game of this caliber to be; on top of that, it was never remade, which is a telling sign that developers and publishers alike are still wary and uncomfortable around it. As for the ports, they exclusively consist of downloadable releases on four different platforms and inclusions in three compilations of Megadrive/Genesis games, which is hardly a glorious résumé. And yet it’s one of these compilations that finally put an end to my long years of unrequited love for Ecco, in the sweetest and most unexpected way.  

I purchased the Sega Megadrive Collection (also known as the Sega Genesis Collection) for the PSP mostly for the Phantasy Star games featured on it, which I never played and yearned to discover. Of course, my sharp eye also spotted the Ecco games; but by that time, I had virtually renounced the series and accepted the fact that these games and me were not meant together. But a short time ago, lo and behold! I found myself yearning to play Ecco once again, to make one more attempt at swimming my way through its dangerous waters. My gaming instinct had spoken, and I followed it.

The very second I started my run, I noticed things were different—for the better. For one thing, I felt more at home playing Ecco on a handheld, by sheer virtue of being so used to portable systems. For another, the PSP’s supple and cleverly arranged buttons were actually much more suited to playing Ecco than the stiffer and ill-positioned ones found on the Megadrive/Genesis controller: the large, pliant D-pad allowed a better control of the dolphin’s trajectory and the tightly grouped action buttons made the use of Ecco’s Charge Sonar (dash button + sonar button) much easier than the aligned Megadrive/Genesis ones. For the first time ever, I felt that I was in full control of Ecco instead of struggling to control him, and it was a delightful feeling indeed. I could indulge in graceful and fine-tuned jumps and swim swiftly like never before, all thanks to the PSP’s soft and compliant buttons. But the greatest improvement by many nautical miles was the presence of an instant save system. O, the absolute joy! Thanks to this precious, I could preserve every increment of my hard-earned progression and managed to eat away the game, slowly but surely. Not only that, but this save system allowed me to relax and be more confident as I explored Ecco’s hazardous seas. Instead of trembling at the idea of dying and having to restart the whole level, I could luxuriate in the comforting feeling that should I die, I could reload my last save from just a couple of seconds earlier. And guess what happened? For the first time in my gaming life, I beat Ecco. I beat Ecco without cheating or skipping levels, just with a lot of patience and frequent saves. But there is more: for the first time in my gaming life, I truly and sincerely enjoyed playing Ecco. I enjoyed it from the bottom of my heart, and to be honest, I still have trouble wrapping my head around that fact of huge magnitude. I enjoyed Ecco, for all the oceans’ sake!! And how could I not have? With an instant save system, Ecco becomes a completely different game: it is stripped out of its unfairness and become an excellently challenging game, both compelling and rewarding. It becomes the game it should have been when it was first released, nothing less. 

It’s a tad bittersweet to realize that Ecco could have been so much better, nearly perfect in fact, had it been equipped with something as simple and trivial as an instant save system. This was most certainly technically feasible at the time of its release, since Final Fantasy Legend II, released in 1990 on the Gameboy, possessed such a system; and one can only ponder why Annunziata and his team decided instead to go for a much more unfair and punishing password system with no checkpoints in levels. I would be tempted to whisper “fake longevity” at that point, since my run led me to realize that Ecco is a much shorter game than I thought; in my memories, it was this extended nightmare that never seemed to end, but once played with an instant save system, it turns out that it’s really not much longer than your average 90’s platformer. Intentional checkpoint starvation is all the more plausible as Annunziata himself hinted years later that Ecco's longevity was an important factor to him and that he decided to harden the game in order to extend and preserve said longevity—more on that later.

Ironically, Ecco anticipated by two decades one of our current gaming era’s most heated debate, namely the question of whether awesome graphics are enough to make a game excellent and should be prioritized over gameplay. Ecco’s contribution to that debate is crystal-clear: the series shows in a somewhat painful way that great graphics—and soundtrack—amount to nothing if the gameplay is not properly balanced. Ecco was one of the most gorgeous games of its time and remains beautiful even nowadays, but that visual excellence was not enough to compensate for its very potent gameplay issues and make it a truly enjoyable game. Ecco was ultimately weighed down and sunk by its unforgiving and unbalanced gameplay, and all its picturesque, coral-esque beauty could not change that fate.  

A splash of trivia (spoilers!)

Last but not least, let’s have a bit of juicy trivia about Ecco, shall we? Due to its unusual nature, the series may be even more susceptible to quirky anecdotes than your average game, and here are the ones that struck me the most. 

The murky matter of Ecco’s sex: in Tides of Time’s booklet and in-game prologue and epilogue, Ecco is explicitly referred to as a male dolphin. However, things are not so clear-cut in the first game: not only is there no mention at all of Ecco’s sex in the game itself, but the booklet goes to great lengths to keep this point undetermined by carefully avoiding any personal pronouns and using the name ‘Ecco’ instead (“Ecco’s home”, “Ecco’s pod” rather than “his/her pod”). It seems indeed that the determination of Ecco’s sex was left entirely to the player’s discretion in the first game, before Annunziata or someone at Sega decided to clear the ambiguity and to assign a sex to the dolphin in Tides of Time

Ecco messing with evolution: Initially, the storyline called for a part where Ecco would encounter his mammal ancestors walking on dry land and somehow convince them to start living underwater instead, which would have provided the quirkiest explanation to the apparent paradox of having mammals such as dolphins living in the ocean. Despite being a neat idea, it was scraped during development, not doubt due to time and budget constraints; yet a few remains of this concept can still be found in the game. A couple of dolphins ponder the weirdness of having to surface to breathe while they live underwater, and in the ‘Origin Beach’ level, two hidden glyphs can be triggered by using Ecco’s sonar on the rocks above water level at each end of the stage. They contain a couple of sentences referring directly to that scraped narrative arc and give a fascinating glimpse into a part of the story lost forever in the tides of time—and also sadly remind us that many excellent ideas are bound to be mercilessly eliminated during a game’s development.  

Ecco’s hardcore… or not: Annunziata famously commented on his creation’s infamous difficulty by admitting that he was paranoid about kids renting the game and clearing it in one week-end and thus made it hard to avoid this. This is highly ironic, knowing that in the early 90’s, there was no gaming rental system in Europe where Ecco was conceived and first released. (Why, Ed, couldn’t you have made the North-American version hardcore and treat us Europeans to a softer one? Oh, well.) Not only that, but Annunziata himself—or someone at Sega, for that matter—seems to have realized that Ecco went way overboard in the difficulty department and subsequently tried to soften the game: the Mega-CD version for all regions, as well as the Japanese Megadrive version, included the possibility to respawn at the last barrier glyph encountered rather than restarting the whole level. The Japanese Megadrive version would also spare Ecco’s life if swallowed by the Vortex Queen: instead of being sent back to ‘Welcome to the Machine’, the player would end up in ‘The Stomach’ and could face the Queen again after exiting that short, labyrinthine and somewhat messy Japanese exclusive. 

The superior Mega-CD/ Sega CD version: Indeed, it would have been awesome if the Sega Megadrive Collection could also have included the Mega-CD/Sega CD version of Ecco. On top of being more forgiving thanks to the inclusion of the aforementioned check point system, it also features exclusive extra levels and a completely different soundtrack. The extra levels sport graphics that are very reminiscent of Tides of Time, and there’s little doubt that Novotrade had started working on Ecco’s sequel when they designed those Mega-CD exclusives. As for the soundtrack, it’s much more atmospheric than the Megadrive/Genesis one, but also significantly less bizarre: instead of being slightly dissonant and unnerving, it’s decidedly melodic and soothing, giving the game a totally different vibe—a vibe that I would have loved to be treated to. Oh, well. 

Lost in the tides of time: Tides of Time’s vague and somewhat unsettling epilogue was supposed to be a transition to the third entry of the series, explaining how Ecco decided to use the Time Machine to venture into unknown shores instead of destroying it. This third game was famously cancelled and we’re left instead with this bittersweet unresolved end, as well as a mysterious ‘Secret Password’ that is revealed at the end of the epilogue and was supposed to give access to special features in the never-to-be third installment.   

My favourites: To wrap this up, here’s a self-indulgent compilation of Ecco favourites. As far as levels are concerned, it’s really hard to pick up a most-loved one: Ecco’s levels are all samey while Tides of Time’s level are all drop-dead gorgeous, and they ultimately all have their specific charm. Still, I may be a tad fonder of the ‘Ice Levels’ in Ecco, while the ‘Good Future Levels’ in Tides of Time really fascinate me; I also harbour a perverse liking for Ecco’s ‘Welcome to the Machine’, which is a thrilling challenge providing that you make good use of Ecco’s Charge Sonar to eradicate the Vortex Drones. As for the music, while I love absolutely all tracks without exception, I adore the subdued, frozen aloofness of ‘Ice Zone’, the unsettling, high-pitched weirdness of ‘Welcome to The Machine’ and the focused, often-missed limpidity of the ‘Opening Theme’ in Ecco, as well as the sharp, contained restlessness of ‘Aqua Tubeway’, the ever-building-up, never-quite-resolved tension of ‘Trellia’s Bay’ and the deep, poignant longing of ‘Fin to Feather’ in Tides of Times

It’s now time to end this post, and I’m happy to do it on a highly positive note. I’m completely elated and overjoyed by this most unexpected turn of events: after many years of unrequited love, I can finally adore Ecco fully and completely, by enjoying its actual gameplay as much as its aesthetics. I’m currently deep into Tides of Time, which I started immediately after clearing Ecco, and there’s no doubt that I will also finish it at long last, with a lot of patience and save states. (Edit: I did finish it. Twice, no less! And boy, was it pure pleasure.) Better late than never, indeed! Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!