Ecco the Dolphin

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Ecco the Dolphin (1992)

You know me well enough by now to know that I’m just not a man who scares easily. I am a well-oiled machine, fearless and ruthless in my approach. I am the master of my domain, the king of my castle, the lord of my manor. I don’t give chances, I show no mercy, I allow no quarter. That is, until along comes a little spider and off I go, screaming in terror and bowling over anyone in my way like so many bemused skittles.

Alright, we all have phobias, don’t we? Can’t a hard man like myself be allowed to take fright from a few irrational things? All the same, I wasn’t born in Sydney, or Ouagadougou, so why should I find myself frightened of spiders? Particularly when the biggest, hardest nut of a spider we get in Ireland would be mercilessly and immediately bullied and have his lunch money extorted by the bigger boys from Laos?

Well, you can thank that film Arachnophobia for that. It was on way past my bedtime, and my parents took an old laissez-faire approach to forbidding me from watching it.

The results were quite literally horrifying; I’ve never had the minerals to go and give it another look nearly 20 years later but the upshot of it is that some sleepy little town in California all of a sudden finds its society crippled by spiders with axes to grind.

Christ, they were coming out of the sink’s drain and killing people with their eyes open and everything. I went to bed a man that night, scarred by what I had seen and what would change me forever. I’d have only been about 5.

The second fear is a little less difficult to get my head around. Simply put, I’m also afraid of water. Yeah, yeah, I’m almost entirely comprised of the stuff and I drink litres of it every day and I even sometimes have baths and showers like you.

But I can’t get in there and start swimming, heavens no. What if I drowned? What then? How dismal a death would that be? I can get on boats and I’m even partial to a log flume or two, but that’s it. I stand in the swimming pool and fold my arms and don’t let the evil stuff reach above my neck.

How did this embarrassing fear come about, I wonder? I’m not given to child psychology or idle speculation, but I genuinely think it was because I was watching Rosie and Jim (a firm favourite of 90s children in the UK and Ireland – look it up) and the canalboat captain character fell right into the sea, surely to his death.

I was aghast, and turned the programme off straight away (my remote control skills were exceptional back then) and didn’t tune back in for several weeks.

When I summoned all of my courage and went back to my favourite series, the captain had miraculously returned and seemed not to be traumatised by the event – unlike my good self. My days, did that water look cold.

That captain’s tumble is really the only explanation I can think as to why I become a quivering wreck on two thirds of the earth’s surface (at least). It certainly wasn’t through playing Ecco the Dolphin for the Sega Mega Drive, because I know I never experienced it as a child – and God, would I have remembered it if I had.

It looks all cutesy and chirpy and innocent on the cover and even on the game’s opening screens. It’s a dolphin, and dolphins are cute, aren’t they? The National Geographic channel may have informed us all sometime later that dolphins often kill their own young and are partial to gangrape.

But Flipper had comforted us. He had showed us that dolphins were man’s best friend at sea. So having a dolphin as a heroic protagonist seemed like a good move for Novotrade International, the mysteriously disappeared Hungarian outfit responsible for this H.R. Giger nightmare of a game.

You start off innocently enough: you’re just swimming with your friends in your colony, there’s other friendly fishes around, the sharks are all in the bold corner and even the plankton looks pretty.

You do a few classic leaps out of the water – and then the trouble starts: with a highly disconcerting dirge that only the Mega Drive was able to pull off, a massive intergalactic vortex opens up and sweeps all of your buddies out of the sea in an almighty tornado.

You’re powerless to help any of your fishy friends and peers as they’re all being sucked towards certain death; all you can do is watch it all transpire and feel the fear. The whole ugly spectacle is over as quickly as it began, and you’re left in the vast expanses of the sea, all alone, as more foreboding music begins to play.

Crikey. And keep in mind, this all takes place in the first twenty seconds. Any young kid who settled themselves in for a pleasant little trip through the ocean with Ecco and all his marine buddies, all of those children would have seen this. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. It really was the Fourth Reich in motion. And I thanked the Gods that I saw it as a grown man and not as a young lad – I nearly even managed to hold on to my bladder.

Talk about an effective way of setting the tone. Your mission, should you even choose to accept it at this point, is to traverse the fathoms of the ocean and rescue your friends. There’s even a plot of sorts – other fishy deities tell you to gather orbs and go back in time to stop the vortex, or something like that. Finding Nemo didn’t have the happiest of beginnings, but at least there were laughs along the way. Ecco leaves all his humour on the title screen.

What Ecco does bring with him are two very special skills, skills that he’s no doubt acquired over a very long life in the sea. The first is his echo-location ability, which enables Ecco to talk to other aquatic beings as well as attack the various vicious fishes trying to chop him down. The other is his ability to swim at breakneck speed, which usually has you ramming into hazards more often than not. Handicapping Ecco, and I suppose all dolphin-folk, is the biological fact that dolphins cannot breathe underwater and need to come up for air at regular intervals.

The result is a game that has you hurtling through underwater caverns and desperately avoiding powerful enemies, in the hope that you’ll find where it is you need to go before you run out of air. There’s no map feature, and the levels tend to be massive and full of all sorts of threats, making Ecco a very tough game indeed. It’s taxing on the soul as well – a deeply eerie atmosphere pervades the whole game.

You are all alone down there in the depths of the ocean, bar enemies that are out to get you, and you’re always aware of this isolation and desolation. The surreal music and oddities in the graphics make it a quintessential Mega Drive game, and they both only add to the feeling that there’s something seriously wrong with this game. And I’ll not spoil what happens in the final couple of levels, but I’ll say Ridley Scott ought to have been proud.

It’s just about as simple as that, really: swim at pace through over twenty massive levels, die quite frequently to hazards seen at the last second and feel your sanity and mental wellbeing slipping the more you play.

Ecco the Dolphin isn’t at all a bad game, and in fact it’s one of the more fondly remembered games of the Mega Drive era – fondly remembered by kids with more guts than me, I should think. To play it now is more an interesting experiment more than anything. But if you can sit down and see this one all the way to the end, with no cheats and little reliance on a guide, then well done to you – you’re an even braver person than me.

12 February 2015

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