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Ecco the Dolphin Celebrates 25 Infuriating Years of Life

There's so much to love about this weird, wonderful game, but actually playing it is like sticking your face in a barrel of snapping turtles.

Analysis by Nadia Oxford, .

Today is the 25th anniversary of Ecco the Dolphin, one of the most beautiful and unique games to splash out of the 16-bit era. It's also one of the most infuriating action-adventure games given life, ever. When I learned Ecco is 25, I immediately took the bus down to Lake Ontario and punched a carp.

Ecco the Dolphin hurts me. The game's creator, Ed Annunziata, gave us a title with a fascinating story and graphics that are still lovely to look at. Its surreal, Pink Floyd-inspired soundtrack is haunting. Atmosphere drips from the game like droplets from the ceiling of an undersea tunnel: Ecco's journey from his tropical home waters to the dark, frigid northern seas is coupled with a growing sense of loneliness and despair few other adventure games have echoed since, so to speak.

But experiencing the best of what Ecco the Dolphin has to offer takes enormous effort, because the game simply isn't much fun to play. After a wonderful opening stage where you frolic, flip, and jump with your pod-mates, you're crammed into several long underwater levels filled with quick-spawning enemies, airless dead ends, and spikes, spikes, spikes. You're told in no uncertain terms that "Playtime is over, fish. May as well check out now."

Protip: Defeat the dolphin-sized hell-crabs with generous amounts of melted butter.

I usually do. My typical "eff this" checkpoint is The Vents, about three levels in. There are more watery corridors that terminate in dead ends, plus a bonus confrontation with an octopus itching to bash your clever little head in. As a youngster, I gave the level several honest tries, but Ecco was invariably ejected and replaced with Sonic the Hedgehog. Subsequent attempts to play through Ecco as an adult haven't yielded better results.

Ecco has additional problems outside of its brutal level design, and they're the issues that that really chew on you because they technically should be easy to fix. One, Ecco lacks invincibility frames, so if he touches a jellyfish five times in the space of three seconds (accompanied by five nerve-shredding screams of dolphin agony), he's tuna. Two, Ecco's charge attack only allows for a short burst of speed followed by a dead stop that puts you within easy reach of that shark you just pissed off. Three, enemies respawn if Ecco so much as flips a fin.

Worst of all is how badly Ecco's lung capacity sucks. The average dolphin can hold its breath for around 10 to 15 minutes; Ecco must be a chain-smoker, because he can't manage a fraction of that time limit before he chokes and dies.

Despite his seeming frailty, the story for Ecco hints he's the chosen amongst his species. Indeed, he eventually gains the abilities necessary to travel into space and neutralize the alien hive harvesting life from Earth's oceans. That includes the ability to breathe underwater—but not until the tail-end of the game. By that point, things get so hairy that you long for those flowery opening levels where Ecco's biggest fear was smothering in some godforsaken water-vein. That's because the game's last level—"Welcome to the Machine"—is an auto-scrolling maze that turns you into fish-paste faster than you can say "Where have you been?" Make one mistake, and it's back to start.

It should be noted Welcome to the Machine literally takes place in an alien meat grinder assembled by the Vortex race. That means Ecco, his kidnapped friends, and everything else the Vortex sucked up from Earth's oceans will be crushed into a nutrient-rich slurry to feed the brood's Queen if Ecco fails. Thematically, Ecco the Dolphin doesn't play; it's a dark game. I still love the idea of telling a "Save the World!" story from a dolphin's point of view, even if Ecco does romanticize the species a bit (dolphins, like all sentient species, have the potential to be colossal jerks who aren't above murder, rape, and infanticide). Ecco travels to the ruins of Atlantis to learn the secrets of time and space before healing the source of all life and going interstellar to push back against the invaders harvesting the oceans for food. Not a single thing about that preceding sentence isn't metal. It's just a shame experiencing Ecco's story is like reading from a book that bites your fingers every time you turn a page.

They have so much to teach humankind.

Annunziata admits he went a little tough on Ecco the Dolphin's challenge level. "I was paranoid about game rentals and kids beating the game over the weekend," he tweeted in 2013. "So.. I.. uh... made it hard." You sure did, my friend!

1994's Ecco: The Tides of Time took things a little easier, thankfully, and it doubled down its delightful tales about magical sky-dolphins. Unfortunately, the Ecco franchise seems to have swum off into the horizon along with the '90s. Annunziata tried to Kickstart a spiritual successor, Big Blue, without much success. He intents to return to the ocean with another project, The Little Blue, but details have been scarce for a while.

Let's all just wish Ecco the Dolphin a happy 25th anniversary for now. Even though its gameplay is as gentle as a dolphin ramming its snout full-tilt into a man's genitals, it deserves praise for telling its young audience a story about time-travelling cetaceans in a time when "Save the Princess" was still the norm.

Yikes. "Welcome to the Next Level" indeed.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar for MetManMas #1 MetManMas A month ago
    Oh yes, Ecco the Dolphin is an awesome sight to see but brutally difficult. Like, I picked up the 3DS version which had a quick and easy switch to turn on all the invincibility codes and still didn't really enjoy it 'cuz the puzzles and navigation are such a colossal pain in the ass.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #2 Roto13 A month ago
    I got this game when I was 9. The day I got it, I randomly put in a password that I just pulled out of my head, and it took me to that horrifying alien boss from the last image.

    I noped on out of there and didn't play it again until I was a teenager.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #3 Funny_Colour_Blue A month ago
    @Roto13 That's actually how I beat Ecco the dolphin: If you swap the last two letters of the password the game gives you, from the first cave level in game. You'll eventually end up at the last boss:

    i.e.UYNAINCC to UYNAICNC

    I do not miss this game. Ecco, always felt like it was a combination of the worst parts of Zelda, combined with the worst parts of Sonic's physics. While interesting in theory, in execution, I'd waste hours, just trying to line up my "dolphin jump" up right, to get to the time machine, that would send you back to the moment before the vortex rips your pod apart - only to fall all the way back down again, from a mistimed jump)

    I don't miss this game, but one day I hope to finally meet someone whose a fan, and has legitimately beat it from start to finish, so they can tell the rest of the world what we're doing wrong.

    ...Like, a game where you're using speed and momentum to unlock puzzles and reach higher places, was a really cool idea, it felt like a Sonic game, it felt like a skateboarding game where you were actually rewarded for experimenting with speed in order to reach those higher jumps. But this game was just so punishing difficult for all the wrong reasons, it's just not fun.

    Does anyone know if the dreamcast Ecco faired any better? I bought it for PS2 awhile back and haven't had a chance to properly check it out.
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  • Avatar for boxofficepoison #4 boxofficepoison A month ago
    My non gamer brother and my mom loved this game back in the day. They wouldnt really play it per se but theyd have a lot of fun in that first area just splashing around playing as a dolphin.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #5 Vonlenska A month ago
    TheSega CD soundtrack is still in my regular rotation and probably always will be. It's as ethereal and beautiful as the game is infuriatingly difficult.

    I loved the Dreamcast game, too, even though it was a similar thing - super hard past a certain point, but beautiful music and storytelling. The David Brin script kind of tied things up a little more neatly, but I loved the mystery of the 16-bit games. If I remember right (and I admittedly might not, CRT fuzz and spritework being what it is), all the cities in the background are in ruins. It's a subtle detail, hardly something you notice right away, but intriguing once you have.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #6 link6616 A month ago
    There is a lot to not like about eco, but that first level was just powerful experience. Calm, serene, a little mysterious, then SUDDENLY EVERYTHING GETS RUINED!? And the music goes quiet as you ponder what happened...

    As a child at least, I found that really effecting.
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #7 WiIIyTheAntelope A month ago
    The story behind the inspiration for Ecco is actually just as screwed up as the story in the game
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #8 VotesForCows A month ago
    Got this when I was 14 I think. Incredible experience for all the reasons you mention Nadia, especially the music and the lonely vibe. But by god is it a terrible game mechanically. Utterly awful.
    @Funny_Colour_Blue I did finish it once, eventually. I ended up making maps so I could breeze through it, and like a lot of games back then we just adapted to the poor mechanics for lack of anything else to play. But I agree that its mechanically poor and probably too difficult even if it was easy to control. Everything else about it is amazing though.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #9 Roto13 A month ago
    @link6616 If there's one thing Ecco does very well, it's atmosphere.
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  • Avatar for Toelkki #10 Toelkki A month ago
    Nitpicky: "Playtime is over, fish" -- who's the fish, or am I missing some pop culture reference?

    I don't remember how far I got in the game -- I remember time travelling to the past and hating the trilobites, and probably making it back to the present to get the missing part of the rotating thing.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #11 Funny_Colour_Blue A month ago
    @VotesForCows This is amazing dude! I gotta ask ya. Is there a trick to getting to "The Tube/Welcome to the Machine" legitimately? Like besides playing through the game from start to finish?

    Like, as a kid, I remember, getting to the level "The City of Forever" and using the time machine, to send you back to the first level - but once you're sent back to the first level and you jump into the sky, sometimes it will send you to the next level "The Tube", but other sometimes you'll have to play through the whole game again.

    Like, is there a trick to triggering whether or not, you make it to "The Tube"? Like, I remember many times where, either me or a friend of mine, would be playing the first level of the game and when we made the jump into the sky, sometimes it would randomly send you to "The Tube" from a new game, without having played the rest of the game - It blew my mind!

    We tried many times, even on emulators, to see if we could get sent to the last level of the game on command, but we just couldn't do it. It just seems like it's something that happens at random.
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  • Avatar for DeeMer #12 DeeMer A month ago
    My brothers and I managed to beat Ecco once, many years ago. It was probably a decade after the game came out, and my youngest brother received a Genesis + SEGA CD add-on as a hand-me-down from one of my stepdad's friends. Around this time, it was cheap to buy old Genesis games from closing rental stores, so my twin and I amassed a small collection including Ecco.

    The game is hard. HARD I SAY. But the toughest level, if I remember correctly, isn't Welcome to the Machine. I'd say the ice level is tougher, although I don't remember why. WttM may be a long autoscroller, but a couple of teenage boys can memorize the patterns relatively quickly.
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  • Avatar for SuperShinobi #13 SuperShinobi A month ago
    It was a highly-rated and highly original game at the time, scoring 97% in the UK magazine Mean Machines for example. Even though it audiovisually holds up, It may not be as enjoyable now, because we're used to games being much easier these days. It's the same with other notably hard games from that era such as Ghouls'n Ghosts for example. EGM called G'n G the best game ever when it was released, but now a lot of people would say it's just frustratingly hard.

    Back then a high level of difficulty was a good thing, as it meant you couldn't beat the game too soon after having paid $60 for the game. It was better for a game to be too hard rather than too easy. Like many other games from that era, It's a relatively short game and it's possible to beat it in about an hour, so the difficulty level had to be high to extend the total playtime. With Ecco the difficulty was perhaps a bit too high, as the designer tweeted. Kolibri on the 32X, from the same developer, managed to be even tougher.

    I think Ecco: Defender of the Future (2000) is the best game in the series. The 3D levels and visuals suited the game better than the slightly claustrophobic 2D levels of the original Ecco. Also the soundtrack of Ecco: DoftF is even better.Edited last month by SuperShinobi
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #14 VotesForCows A month ago
    @Funny_Colour_Blue I didn't know you could skip right from the first level, must be a bug or something? Its a long time ago now, so I don't really remember. But I don't recall having to restart the game. I remember the time machine sending you back to home bay right before it all kicks off, and then jumping up into the tube. But not sure about the rest, sorry!

    Such a cool game though. Would love to see someone try it again, but with less cruelty!
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #15 SIGGYZtar A month ago
    Let me play EVO instead.
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  • Avatar for Thetick #16 Thetick A month ago
    I Finished this game and really enjoyed. Back then I had a lot more time and a lot less games, so it I just played it. The dreamcast ecco is my favorite though.
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  • Avatar for Brotoles #17 Brotoles A month ago
    @Vonlenska the soundtrack is what made me go through the whole game!! I still listen to it too ❤❤
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