The year is 1992, you are sat playing Sonic the Hedgehog on your Sega Mega-Drive/Genesis. You are running at the speed of sound, through loop de loops, jumps and rickety bridges. Collecting rings and defeating bosses in one of the most fast paced, exciting games of its generation. Then you hear Sega announce that its next 2D side scrolling masterpiece is on the way. The gaming world thought they knew what they were in for…..what they got was something entirely different – what they got, was ‘Ecco The Dolphin’.
Imagine being back in the days where power was measured in ‘bits’, surrounded by games like Mario, Sonic and Megaman; games that are all about jumping on platforms and beating down enemies with a hundred different power-ups, all to try and grab that best time or high score. Then little Ecco swam along, delivering something at a much slower pace. Sega’s new baby didn’t want you to race through the scenery, or jump onto a spring, no, it wanted much more; it wanted you to think.
Ecco is a game in which you play a young dolphin who has had his pod violently ripped from him by a mysterious swirling vortex, leaving him stranded in a dangerous water world. Soon we find out that alien forces are behind the abduction and it is up to our little shiny friend to stop them. During the course of his adventures he will travel through time, defeat an alien queen and see the ‘game over’ screen A LOT. We will get into the difficulty later on though….. Few games in history have split gamers down the middle like this one: you either love it or you hate it…some even despise it. Thing is, this game is horrible, a cruel mistress that will punish the slightest error….but I adore it. I thought maybe it was a case of heavily rose-tinted glasses, but no, I have played it again and I still have the same fondness for it as I did all those years ago.
As I said this is not like other games of the time. The game is mostly about slowly swimming around twisted underwater levels, nudging rocks into holes and avoiding the strong currents that can throw you to the sharks. Ecco was a very innovative concept for the time; the open levels allowed total freedom of exploration in which to solve the tricky puzzles. You could go wherever you like inside of the stage….the key was finding where you were meant to go, and that was left completely up to you.
Another thing that was refreshing was the hero himself, young Ecco; never before had we played as someone so alone, so vulnerable. The levels made us confused and bewildered, just like Ecco would have felt and that is where the connection was made. If Sonic was always Sega’s golden boy then Ecco was not far behind him in a stunning shade of silver.
If the concept of Ecco all sounds very boring to you, don’t worry, because it was boring to a lot of other people back then too. In fact, if you ask the critics TODAY about their opinion of Ecco, it can often be answered with some sort of angry rant about how it drove them round the bend ‘back in the day’. So what was it then that drove people so very mad? Well……. You can spend an age wandering round doing absolutely nothing other than scratch your head in bemusement. I mean, the game tries to throw you hints (in the form of the world’s most cryptic killer whale) but they are all so vague it may as well just not be there. Then there is the jumping mechanic! You would think being a dolphin, leaping out of the water would be second nature..but no…you have to have the angle just right…JUST RIGHT..or he just sort of flops into the water like a…..well..a dolphin flopping into water.
Now we come then to the thing that really gets us gamers turing that delicious shade of satanic red…the difficulty. Here are some examples of why the game is SO hard:
1. Your health bar is tiny, the waters are full of things trying to hurt you and they do not hesitate to take ALL of your life in a couple of swift motions.
2. Because our hero is a mammal he has to, of course, breathe . Which means having to surface for air…..when you are underground….surrounded by spikes…and jellyfish. OH and if you run out of air that brings your health bar down too. Yay.
3. The second to last stage is a maze, that constantly moves sideways as you try and navigate through the winding passages. 99% of the time, if you make a wrong turn you. are. Dead.
The biggest issue most people have is the sheer lack of ‘knowing what to do’, for example; at the very start of the game you are swimming round, chillin’ with your pod, jumping….and jumping….and swimming…and jumping for what seems like an age. Then all of a sudden you jump, almost to the top of the screen, then bang, all of your pod is taken away and the story begins. But how would you would of ever known to do that specific jump? You wouldn’t and that is Ecco the dolphin in a (very wet) nutshell.
Then there are the controls: games at the time did not very often allow such freedom of movement. The underwater environments require full 360 degree manoeuvres, but the control pad has very different things in mind. Ecco, quite obviously, moves in an 8-track circle, so when you think you have something lined up just right…..you don’t. You fly into some spikes, lose half your health, run out of air then die.
What happens next though, is the mark of a true classic. You don’t switch off the machine; you just bang in the password, and off you go, once more into the depths. You try again and again and again and then …you do it, and the sense of accomplishment as you triumph over (sometimes unfair) challenge is enormous, you are one step closer to the end screen and it spurs you on.
This is where I come to the point I made earlier, my love for the game is not tarnished by its faults, in fact it just adds to the charm. A game that (back in the day) was so ahead of its time, and because of that, got a couple of things wrong along the way. There is something about the story of a young dolphin, travelling through time and defeating horrible monsters to save his family that endears me to the little guy. It is just so very ridiculous that it works (well..it’s definitely more original than a certain princess getting eternally re-kidnapped).
Then there is the soundtrack; beautiful, even in all of its 16 bit, synth glory, it manages to stir the emotions. It is meditative and soothing, yet it forewarns of the challenges to come. The calls of Ecco’s sonar, rippling through the waves is one I will never forget. Just go and search for a review of Ecco on any site you like, then find one that gives it a low score. Then have a good look at the comments, because you will usually see a raft of people who will defend this game until they are blue in the face. Fans who, like me, were grateful for the chance to think things through for themselves without someone to hold their hand.
If you look at the games industry today and you see a million and one clones of the same big name franchises, all doing the same thing. Then you spot something like Heavy Rain, L.A Noire or even a smaller title like Superbrothers for iOS doing things just a little differently; going outside our ever shrinking box to show us a different way. I guess games like that will always have to be prepared to take heavy criticism as well as being adored. But if they all walk on that same rocky road, then surely, the first steps were made by Ecco.