I Play the Mega Drive Collection Part 4: Ecco the Dolphin

Criticism, I Play the Mega Drive Hits Collection

(Part 4 of a 54 part series. Introduction and index located here)

EccoTheDolphin_md_eu_cover

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.

HomeBay

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, BigBluewhere 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. EelFriendSo 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.

TheTube

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.

Glyph

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:

IceBlocksAnd 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.

EccoJump_GIFByHauke

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.

WhatTheHell

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.

FriendSinger

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.

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8 thoughts on “I Play the Mega Drive Collection Part 4: Ecco the Dolphin

  1. Excellent article! I actually love the gameplay despite the difficulty, but different strokes for different folks (it also helps that, by now, I know all the level layouts by memory).

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    1. Ha, I agree it’s definitely a “despite the difficulty” sort of thing (rather than the difficulty positively contributing to the experience). But I really do have such mixed feelings on Ecco, and I think the gameplay itself (as distinct from its difficulty) does have some really strong moments- even just the way Ecco moves is wonderfully designed. But I don’t know, on the other hand, so many of the later levels (‘Dark Water’ in particular) don’t feel difficult so much as actively hostile to the player. Well, and the caveat is that I’m playing these games here in 2015 (some for the first time) and I’m sort of judging them by modern standards, which is a little unfair, but is in part to try and separate timeless design from nostalgia.

      Did you discover Ecco recently and enjoy it? Or have you been playing it since it came out?

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      1. Dark Water is quite unfair indeed! That level (and the rest of the game, really) actually becomes much easier in the PC version, which lets you continue from certain glyphs; I believe the Sega CD version has that feature as well but I’m not sure.

        As for your question, the answer is… a bit of both. I don’t remember exactly when I discovered the game but it was sometime around the mid 90’s. At that time I didn’t own a Mega Drive of my own, I had to rent it, and the rental place happened to have a 2 in 1 cartridge with Ecco and Sonic 2, which was perfect as I liked Sonic, I liked marine life… and I was short on cash! Honestly, like many other people back then I didn’t really understand the game and I didn’t get far, I just knew that I loved its music and its ambience nonetheless.

        A few years later I finally bought a Mega Drive (it was past its prime but I still wanted it anyway), and the first game I requested for it was -you know. My parents were unable to find the original, and they got me the sequel instead. When I first played it I was even more confused than before, as I hadn’t reached the science-fictiony parts of the original yet, and thus the early (re)introduction of those elements was quite jarring to me. Complicating matters further was the fact that the cartridge was a Japanese bootleg, so I had no way to read the texts and figure out what was happening from them. Despite that, I was able to progress, and thus I ended up finishing Tides of Time way before the original; this gave me a lot of “oooh!” moments when I revisited it with my newly gained experience and I started to find out what the heck was the deal with the Asterite and the Vortex.

        So, long story short, I did play Ecco 1 close to the time it came out, but my full exposure to the title was more recent, with Tides of Time softening it for me (to this day I consider ToT the best and easier of both games, though not all fans agree on either point).

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      2. What a great story! That’s amazing playing through a Japanese bootleg. It reminds me a little of the aesthetic Asher Vollmer was going for in Royals, which is meant to evoke discovering some game for which you’ve lost the manual and sort of have to figure out as you go.
        Funnily enough your experience is almost the opposite of my relationship to these two games though. Ecco the Tides of Time was the first game I ever had on the Mega Drive, and I have fond memories of it, despite never being able to beat it (I always got stuck at the level where the Medusa throws you out of the air waterways, ugh). But I had never played the original until this recent playthrough. So as a result, the science fiction-y elements weren’t as big a surprise, since I already had vague memories of Ecco time traveling and such (though I didn’t recall any of the particulars, so the Vortex were still a big reveal). Unfortunately I won’t get to revisit Tides of Time (and hopefully beat Tube of Medusa to avenge my inner seven year old) in this series for quite awhile. I’m basically playing them in a random order, and I’ll hit Ecco Jr next as the 16th game, and it won’t be until the 28th one that I get to tackle Tides of Time.

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      3. Oh yes, Tube of Medusa, the bane of all Ecco fans (hint for your eventual playthrough: the left path is easier IMO). And wait until you reach Globe Holder… At least Ecco Jr. won’t give you any problems, being a game for kids and all. I sometimes use it as a “relaxation” game due to the lack of challenge and pretty visuals (the most colorful and varied of the MD Eccos, even though the overall quality of the graphics is not really up to the others’).

        Royals looks interesting, I’m downloading it as I write this.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “The Asterite turns out to be a floating helix of orbs”

    – Actually a double helix, like DNA.

    “Ecco is an action-platformer using a 2D perspective.”

    – Ecco is NOT a platformer. Not really. That’s one aspect that makes it so unique.

    “octopods”

    – The correct plural of octopus is octopuses, or if you want to be unnecessarily pedantic, octopodes. At least you didn’t write “octopi”. ;)

    “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”

    – The game is difficult, but not too much so, considering the era it came from. At least 14-year-old me was able to beat it back in the day on the real hardware without any cheats, and with barely any knowledge of English. Granted, the EU version, which runs about 16.6% slower than the US or JP version (50 Hz vs. 60 Hz), meaning you have a bit more reaction time.

    It’s a bit sad that Sega only re-releases revision 00 in these collections, arguably the “worst” and most difficult version of the game. Revision 01, which was made for Japan and also exists in an unreleased English version (ROM file available in the depths of the web), as well as the Mega/Sega CD releases, all fixed bugs, introduced a checkpoint system, and even brought some new levels. If you’re interested in taking a look at the best version, you can easily find Ecco PC on the web in the form of the unofficial “Ecco PC Fixed and Enhanced Edition”.

    “or enemies that respawn constantly, sometimes even while you bring the mini-map up.”

    – Fun fact: you can prevent enemies from respawning. The 3rd and 4th regular level (The Vents and The Lagoon) each have a set of 3 lost dolphins. Rescuing them is optional; if you do, you are rewarded with special abilities. For The Vents, that’s charge sonar: press the charge button quickly followed by the sonar button to send out a sonar blast that damages enemies. For The Lagoon, it’s anti-respawn: kill an enemy by charging, then quickly press the charge button again. A star will spiral into Ecco and a (quiet) sound effect will play, confirming that this enemy will be gone for good.
    Like everything else, the game never makes this perfectly clear (and even displays an incorrect message on obtaining the anti-respawn ability), so it’s up to the player to figure it out.

    “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.”

    – Again, that’s not really platforming. But yeah, that part of City of Forever is terrible, perhaps the worst part of the game for me. And you have to play it twice during the game. However, there is a shortcut that lets you skip almost the entirety of that level, including the dreadful jumps. The shortcut is hidden, but not THAT hard to find, if you make use of the sonar map and explore a bit.
    Also, in the PC version, they made those jumps really easy (there’s basically “wind” that helps push Ecco over the walls).

    “Ultimately I am glad I played Ecco, even if it wasn’t quite worth the slog.”

    – Any plans to play Ecco 2: The Tides of Time? It’s a much more polished game. Still difficult, even in its easy mode, but it’s manageable.

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    1. Ecco is NOT a platformer. Not really. That’s one aspect that makes it so unique.

      Well, I’d quibble a bit there. It’s definitely not a platformer in the sense that you jump around on platforms like, say, Mario. But I’m really using “platformer” here as a shorthand for “a game in which a 2D sprite navigates an environment shown in a side-view Orthographic projection”, which is the common element between platformers. I agree the game has many unique aspects though and breaks from a great many genre conventions.

      The correct plural of octopus is octopuses, or if you want to be unnecessarily pedantic, octopodes. At least you didn’t write “octopi”. ;)

      I’m mortified! You’re completely right, it should be octopodes (because I do want to be unnecessarily pedantic). I have edited the post to rectify this, thank you for pointing that out!

      It’s a bit sad that Sega only re-releases revision 00 in these collections, arguably the “worst” and most difficult version of the game. Revision 01, which was made for Japan and also exists in an unreleased English version (ROM file available in the depths of the web), as well as the Mega/Sega CD releases, all fixed bugs, introduced a checkpoint system, and even brought some new levels. If you’re interested in taking a look at the best version, you can easily find Ecco PC on the web in the form of the unofficial “Ecco PC Fixed and Enhanced Edition”.

      Oh wow, I was unaware the different versions had substantial revisions between them. I knew the Sega CD edition had levels omitted from the Mega Drive one (I read the game transcript of them from a fan site to make sure I didn’t miss any substantive plot points in the missing levels), but I didn’t realize there were mechanical edits. I’ll see if I can check out the PC version, thank you for the heads up!

      Fun fact: you can prevent enemies from respawning.

      This is crazy. I know what you’re talking about since I did save all the lost dolphins (I’m not a monster). The first one grants the handy charge/sonar, which I definitely made use of for the rest of the game. But for the second pod they say, “Sing this song and it will confuse the hungry ones…” which doesn’t appear to really do much. I’ll have to go back and test this out, that would have been an immensely helpful ability to have, the constant respawning was such a major annoyance.

      Any plans to play Ecco 2: The Tides of Time? It’s a much more polished game. Still difficult, even in its easy mode, but it’s manageable.

      I do plan on playing Tides of Time! I’m doing a series where I’m playing through 54 Genesis classics (intro here), but partly for fun and partly so I don’t cherry-pick, I’m playing them in basically a random order (it’s the careless order that the package on Steam has them in). So I won’t actually get to Tides of Time for quite awhile, it’ll be the 28th game I play, unfortunately (and I’ll hit Ecco Jr before that, as the 16th one). I’m excited for Tides of Time though, since that one I actually played when I was a kid and really loved (though never beat, thanks to the Tube of Meduda, per my conversation with Reactor).

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      1. Yes, there are quite a few differences between the Ecco 1 revisions. Here’s another tidbit that isn’t well known: in the common revision 00, and only there, you can hold the buttons A (sonar) plus start before the start of a new level. The buttons have to be pressed in the very brief, black “loading screen” between levels, basically. When done right, Ecco will be invincible. The health and air bars will still decrease, but he won’t die. This is different from the invincibility that can be enabled in the hidden debug/cheat menu.

        The anti-respawn ability really is immensely helpful. And yes, that was the wrong message I was talking about. Regular sonar already confuses sharks, I think. They must have changed things around in development and forgot to update the message. Even subsequent revisions of Ecco 1 never fixed that.
        If you’d like to test it without going through the trouble of rescuing those dolphins, you can simply use an appropriate password, e.g. “LACILYMQ”. Speaking of that, there is an Ecco Password Tool (on the Caverns of Hope fansite) that lets you create and decode Ecco 1 and 2 passwords, I used it for this.

        Ah, so you’ve already played Tides of Time. The Tube of Medusa level can be a bit annoying, because you can fall back to the previous level, Skylands. I remember how I found out another little trick while playing the game on my Mega Drive: if you do a soft reset (reset button on the console) before the password screen for Skylands shows up, then start the game and go to the password entry screen, the password for Tube of Medusa will still be there and you can quickly continue. Faster than playing through Skylands again, or entering the password yourself. An emulator with savestates makes that trick obsolete, of course.

        Anyway, good luck with this project. I hope you’ll at least reach Tides of Time, playing through that many games is a tall order.

        Liked by 1 person

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