A Trip Through the Trippy Depths of Ecco the Dolphin
There have been a lot of weird games in video game history. The 1990s in particular during the heights of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were a Wild West of odd and over-the-type titles like your Earthworm Jims, Clayfighters and Boogermans. Did folks know they wanted a game where you play as a dolphin traversing the sea and fighting against extraterrestrials? Absolutely not, but they would have been remiss to not at least try it when it was offered in the form of Ecco the Dolphin. This bizarre title initially hit shelves today in 1992.
Ecco the Dolphin was the creation of Ed Annunziata who had a hand in his share of interesting titles like Vectorman and the infamous Spider-Man game that actually shows Kingpin dropping Spidey and/or Mary Jane in a vat of acid in some of the endings. Ecco the Dolphin itself was inspired by some very unique resources. It began simply enough in researching dolphins and especially their means of communication. Particularly, Annunziata drew inspiration from dolphin biology and communication books like Sounding by Hank Searls and the works of John C. Lily. John C. Lily was an expert on dolphins, but also experimented with psychoactive drugs, during which he claimed that cosmic entities existed in a higher organization known as the Earth Coincidence Control Office or E.C.C.O.
The band Pink Floyd also inspired Annunziata. During the creation of the musical score for the game, Annunziata played Pink Floyd for the musical team in hopes that they would produce a similar style for the game’s soundtrack. Another reference was included in the second to last level of the game, titled “Welcome to the Machine” after a song of the same name on Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here. The game is difficult, almost absurdly so. This too was purposeful in Annunziata’s design. He was worried that kids would just go and rent the game without ever buying it and beat it in a weekend, and so he sought to make the game particularly difficult at certain stretches to extend playtime.
Ecco starts out simple enough. Ecco and his pod are traveling through the seas, minding their own business when an enormous storm takes all but Ecco from the sea, leaving the titular protagonist alone. Ecco sets off to find his friends and finds that chaos is being sewn all across the oceans by the freakish storms. He comes to communicate and help other cetaceous species and take up quests that take him from his home bay to the Arctic. Soon enough, Ecco locates the oldest creature in the waters who tells him he must collect an item that can only be found by going back in time using a machine in the lost city of Atlantis. Yes, and if that wasn’t weird enough, Ecco learns that the reason for the storms is because an alien species known as The Vortex harvest the Earth’s waters and life every 500 years.
Despite the somewhat batty plot, Ecco featured art and systems that were extremely unique at the time. Using echo location, the dolphin could talk to other animals and interact with environmental puzzles. Enemies could be attacked by speeding up and ramming them, but eventually Ecco’s song can also be upgraded to be used as a chargeable weapon against enemies. Of course, if you’re going to have a bizarre plot, the level design should reflect it as well. Ecco the Dolphin was more than just the same seas. Each area hosted a vibrant setting full of its own unique challenges.
Ecco the Dolphin was certainly a product of its time, fitting right in among the very peculiar games of its era. It was a time when developers were stretching pixel art, graphics and sound to their absolute limits on 16-bit consoles and Ecco was a prime example of the unique ideas that came with some crafty implementation. Ecco was well received at the time of its release despite its occasionally absurd difficulty and the bizarre nature of its premise and plot lend it to a certain special place in most people’s memory. The fact is that in a world were clones of iconic games have always come at a dime a dozen, the game where a dolphin travels back in time to fight aliens is going to stand out.