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."
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.
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.