(Part 4 of a 54 part series. Introduction and index located here)
Game: Ecco the Dolphin
Release Year: 1992
Plot Summary: This section so far has really just been to make fun of what has passed as a plot in these games. They’ve ranged from “excuse plot to justify the action” to “utter nonsense”, so there wasn’t much to really spoil. But Ecco actually has a story to tell, and it’s a really good story at that. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I should go through it in detail or not, since while the story is pretty good, the game itself is definitely not. I don’t think I can in good conscience say something like, “But I won’t spoil it for you, go and play it yourself!” for reasons I’ll be discussing later. So be warned that I am going to discuss the story here, if you’d rather play through it on your own. I mean, it is a nearly 25 year old game, so there has to be a statute of limitations on spoilers. I’m also going describe the story in some length, probably too much for a plot ‘summary’, but I want to capture it in detail because it really was an engrossing and surprising story.
Our hero, and playable character, is the titular dolphin Ecco. Ecco has stars on his head in the shape on the constellation Delphinus, and so like the Sneetches on the Beaches, he is obviously better than all the other dolphins. So, he’s a pretty bland typical chosen (albeit a dolphin). The game begins with Ecco playing around in his home bay, a lush tropical paradise. Here we’re introduced to cetacean society, where intelligent dolphins communicate with each other via “singing” to eachother with sonar. But this idyllic existence doesn’t last for long, because soon a terrible storm sucks up the entire pod and all the surrounding sealife as well, and only Ecco is spared. It’s actually quite shocking and totally inexplicable. One moment you’re playing around in a sea teeming with life, and in the next its barren and lifeless. The game absolutely excels at environmental storytelling moments like these, using the level itself to convey the shock, horror and loneliness. So that’s the plot impetus, and what follows is a three act structure for resolving this mystery.
Act 1 is essentially an exposition fetch quest, where Ecco keeps trying to find out what the deal is and is referred on to someone else. Some dolphins tell you something, then you meet an Orca who suggests finding an old blue whale for answers (the whale is unimaginatively called “Big Blue”, which you have to imagine is a nickname or something). So then Ecco heads up to the arctic to find Big Blue, who also doesn’t know what causes the storms, but does know that they’ve been happening every 500 years. Big Blue in turn refers you to someone even older and wiser than himself, “the Asterite”, who is rumored to be the oldest being in the sea and might know what’s up. The Asterite turns out to be a floating helix of orbs, who’s appearance and nature is completely baffling and never actually explained. He also greets Ecco with “I remember you!”, which is a hint of the time travel paradoxes we’ll soon be encountering. The Asterite, inexplicability aside, is basically an exposition machine. He lets us know that aliens named the Vortex live on a distant planet, and when our planets are closest to eachother (which occurs every 500 years), they harvest life from our planet to consume because they’ve rendered their own dead and lifeless. Each successive harvest has increased in intensity, and soon all life on Earth will be consumed. Whoa! This is a lot to lay on a little dolphin.
Then we start Act 2. Although we now know who the villains are, we lack the means to stop them. The Asterite can help, but it needs a missing part of it restored, which inconveniently is located 55 million years in the past. So you need to go use the Atleantean time machine(?), which thankfully is located in a nearby sunken city. The time machine can evidently move you precisely in time but not space, since Ecco has to battle protean eels and trilobites for awhile before he eventually makes his way to a hostile version of the Asterite, who attacks on sight. Ecco steals an orb from him and returns to the present (somehow) to… give it back to the Asterite? I guess, from the Asterite’s perspective, one day a creature shows up (who’s species doesn’t even exist yet), beats him up, and rips an orb off of him. Then, millions of years later, the same creature shows up. Rather than saying, “Right, now it’s time for payback”, he figures out it’s the same guy, so sends him back in time to get his orb back… from… himself? Time travel never makes sense.
With his orb restored (but it was only missing in the first place to restore it! Argh!), the Asterite can finally help by bestowing upon Ecco… hands? Wings? Razor teeth? Nope: just the ability to breath underwater. This is sort of a letdown, but it is handy, and admittedly critical to the mission Ecco is about to undergo. Because then the Asterite tells Ecco to go back in time again, to the moment his pod got sucked up, and go with them and defeat the Vortex. So in the final act, Ecco show up back in the home lagoon (shouldn’t a past version of ourselves be swimming around here?) and get sucked up into the storm. So now we finally get to see where our pod ended up, who we haven’t seen since the storm’s original appearance way back in the game’s first moments.
And the results are terrifying. The tornado of the storm sucks everything up into a food processing tube, which grinds up the collected organic matter for consumption. I can’t stress how disorienting this level is. After an entire game of beautiful naturalistic settings, the biomechanical nightmare of the tube is utterly jarring. Ecco has to swim through this processing plant, while avoiding being ground up himself. We also meet the Vortex themselves here, who are awful Giger-esque monsters. Their bodies burst apart when sonar hits them, by the way, but their heads continue to pursue Ecco afterwards. Ecco eventually makes his way to where the feeding tubes terminate, which is at the Vortex Queen. He kills her, by systematically ripping body parts off of her head, and then returns to Earth with the rescued pod.
It’s celebrations all around, with dolphins singing your praises since you saved not only your pod but the entire planet. All except for one spoilsport dolphin who wonders “Do you think the Vortex are destroyed?” which is like, wow, way to jinx it buddy. And there’s a sequel, so no, I guess we didn’t, ugh.
Gameplay Summary: Ecco is an action-platformer using a 2D perspective. Since Ecco is swimming, he can move horizontally as well as vertically in a manner that would be like flying in a typical platformer (actually the game uses some clever animation tricks to indicate you’re floating, rather than flying). Ecco can really be a joy to control, and he darts around smoothly in a way that really feels like the balletic grace of actual dolphins. Ecco can also use sonar to sing to other cetaceans and occasionally to attack. Holding the sonar will cause it to bounce back and bring up a mini-map of the area, which is a beautiful way of tying of the game mechanics to biology.
Ecco plays out over 25 levels, and with only a couple of exceptions each has the same set-up, requiring the player to navigate a maze to find the level exit. The challenge is in exploring the underwater caves with limited air supply and fending off hostile sea life. This exploration based gameplay works well. The controls are smooth and the setting so novel, that merely exploring the sea is pretty fun in its own right. But not content with exploration alone, the game also throws in some puzzles to impede progress. These typically take the form of “glyph” crystals, which are extremely contrived “gate and key” puzzle mechanisms: a given glyph won’t let you past until you find the key glyph somewhere else first.
There are occasionally other types of puzzles. There are some baffling ones requiring the player to guide starfish or sea snails to remove obstacles, which fill the exact same puzzle mechanism as the key glyphs (you hit a gate and go find the key), but with the added “fun” of difficult maneuvering, a time limit, and moon logic. Worse still, the weirder puzzles tend to be one-offs, so the player can’t build on their knowledge in any meaningful way. There is also a recurring puzzle element of strong currents, which typically require finding something to block them or swim behind. I feel like you could build a whole game on puzzles like that, but Ecco explores the design space only fleetingly.
There’s also what might be called platforming or jump puzzles, though Ecco doesn’t jump per se. But except for Ecco’s unique method of movement, they’re the typical twitchy movement based challenges of other platformers. Sometimes these are navigating environments in which there are damaging environmental hazards, and other times it requires precise timing, or even literal jumping out of the water. In one memorable level, the challenge was to navigate extremely animated icecubes:
And the enemies themselves lean more towards puzzles than action. Being a dolphin, Ecco can’t blast his way through foes, so enemy encounters are usually about learning their behavior and finding a way to defeat or avoid them. Like, octopods have to be swum past very slowly (so they don’t detect you? I don’t think that’s how octopodes work), or seaworms that will grab if you wander too close. If you die, you restart the level.
The game is incredibly fun when it emphasizes observation and exploration. Most of the time though, it emphasizes being a total asshole.
Play Summary: I really liked Ecco, but that’s not for the game’s want of trying. The difficulty is terrible. I don’t mean it’s extremely challenging and rewarding, I mean the difficulty is arbitrary, unfair, and completely unfun. There are so many minor annoyances and sloppy design decisions, like puzzle pieces that are too hard to maneuver or enemies that respawn constantly, sometimes even while you bring the mini-map up. Those annoyances rankle, and have not aged well, but they’re nothing compared to things actually designed to be very difficult.
A casual player like myself could probably get up to the Asterite, maybe, without too much trouble. These levels are not easy, mind you- the game occasionally expects very specific things from the player, and the price for failure is restarting the stage. Most of the time this isn’t too bad a punishment, as the player learns the level layout and how to fight enemies. Enemies which vary wildly in difficulty by the way, from jellyfish and sharks that are basically just mobile environmental hazards, to goddamn hunter-killer crabs which leap out of nowhere and grab you until you’re dead. In the level I mentioned earlier with the ice cubes, the ice cubes all fly around randomly, and if they crush Ecco instantly kill him. It occurs towards the end of the level. So if you die (and you will), you have to redo the whole level, and then try again with the goddamn randomly flying death ice cubes. It’s frustrating and not at all fun, but it’s achievable. I did it with only occasional save scumming.
But the back half of the game is virtually impossible. I’m serious. Comix Zone was stupidly hard, but I could conceive of someone beating it with enough practice. These levels though… I know people have beaten them, but I would venture to guess that less than 1% of Ecco players have ever beaten it without cheating, if that. The second to last level is nonstop instant kills by crushing, so even with cheating for infinite health, and constant save reloading (woohoo emulation!) it was hard for me to beat. It was hard for me to beat, while cheating. And that’s not even mentioning the sadistic jump puzzles in the City of Forever level of Atlantis, which require some of the most precise platforming I’ve ever encountered. Or the fricking trilobites which chase you forever and move as fast as you do so you can’t outrun them. Or bullshit like the Asterite fight, which requires you to hit 4 quickly moving orbs of the same color in succession, and if you hit one of the wrong color you have to start over. While dodging lightning that can kill you in two hits.
All throughout the design is unfair, frustrating and stupidly hard. And the worst part is that it was deliberate. The designer Ed Annunziata has stated the reason for the high level of difficulty was because he was afraid of kids being able to beat it over a weekend on a rental. So he wanted it to be hard enough that you’d need to buy it, not rent it. This causes me almost physical pain: an artist defacing his own work in the vain hope that it would make him a few more bucks. Tragically it’s probably cost him money, not made any, actually. It’s hard to reconcile such a self-defeating mercenary attitude with a game that was so lovingly made that the manual has a two pages of facts about real dolphins.
Observations and Takeaways: Like Comix Zone, Ecco is a sad example of how pointless and unfun difficulty can ruin an otherwise good experience. In both games, the difficulty is naked attempt to increase the playing time, and nothing more. Comix Zone was just a generic beat em up though.Whereas there’s so much about Ecco which is innovative and compelling, even a quarter century later! But the barrier to entry for enjoying those moments is so dizzingly high. It’s enough to compel one to make a fan remake that fixes the difficulty.
While ruined by awful, awful design choices, it is worth taking note of what Ecco does well. In and of itself it’s not that great as a game actually: the puzzles are tired and the platforming, even when not rage inducing, isn’t special. But this mediocre core is completely enlivened by such a refreshingly original setting and story. It achieves this by taking an interesting premise and committing to it completely. The world building and sense of setting that Ecco builds are impressive. It excels at creating an uncanny atmosphere by blending familiarity with the alien. We know what dolphins are, and are familiar with ocean life, so Ecco doesn’t have to do any special explanation of the settings basic elements. But when deviates from these expectations, sometimes radically, it can be quite startling.
I loved that the dolphins of Ecco aren’t anthropomorphized. This isn’t a “dolphin adventure” in the way Finding Nemo is a “fish adventure”, say. Rather, it posits intelligent cetecean life in a realistic way, which makes it more harder sci-fi than it might otherwise appear to be. There are so many small moments of great writing in the way the dolphins talk to each other, or the whale calls Ecco a “little singer”, or they refer to ice as “hard water”. It’s all excellent world building, and shows that “world building” doesn’t need to mean completely from the ground up.
While Ecco‘s successes lean more towards its narrative, it’s important to note how those aspects are woven into the gameplay. It is not simply a game with a plot painted over top. So many of the mechanics feel deeply tied to the story, like Ecco’s sonar, or even the fact that you can acrobatically spin when you jump from the water, which serves no real mechanical purpose but utterly cements the feeling of playing a dolphin. My favorite moment though, is that the game never tells you that in “the Tube” you’re swimming through a nutrient slurry of eviscerated sea life. Instead, your health bar continually regenerates whenever you take damage. It does this no where else in the game, and the only time you regain health elsewhere is when you eat fish- so the implication is that you’re “eating” here, too, in a sense. Ahhh! That is top-notch sci-fi horror, and it relates that detail through gameplay. That’s an achievement in ludo-narratively consonant storytelling.
Ultimately I am glad I played Ecco, even if it wasn’t quite worth the slog.
Next Time: The next up in the collection will be Gain Ground, a weird little shoot-em-up with a huge cast of 20 playable characters.