Something In the Water: My Nightmare of ‘Ecco the Dolphin’
It's not the most likely candidate for scariest game ever, but SEGA's 1992 game didn't half fuck some of its players up.
As a child, video games were my main pastime. There were few things that my younger nerd enjoyed more than a journey into a virtual world that was as vivid as my imagination would come to be. I wasn't lonely; I had many friends with whom I played at school and occasionally in the street, but, for the most part, the non-educational hours of the day were me time with my consoles.
For some reason, however, that had to involve deflecting the nagging of family, whose constant urging me to play outside suggested that our house stood in the middle of fucking Disney World. Sonic didn't pester me like that. The only way he would ever judge me was tapping his foot impatiently while I stopped playing to get more juice. All Mario ever had to say was "wa-hoo!" as we leapt into another adventure, never, "It's a lovely day outside, get off the computer." They understood me.
My mother then – perhaps reluctantly – bought me a game for my birthday, a recommendation from her friend's son. Little did I know he was a long-haired, dope-smoking recluse and death metal aficionado. I hasten to add that I have nothing against such types – they're just not necessarily ideal role models for childhood recreation. Considering my interest in sea life and a vague ambition of becoming a marine biologist (it didn't materialise in later life – if I could be snorkelling for a living, I wouldn't be sitting here writing), she took his advice and purchased a copy of Ecco the Dolphin for the SEGA Mega Drive. It was to be one of the most memorable games I would play in my life.
"You're a wee dolphin," she offered as I was handed the box and surveyed the cover art. "You swim around in the sea with the fish. It will be just like the aquarium."
I excitedly popped in the cartridge and, within moments, was at the title screen. Games had next to no loading times back then, so no sooner had my mum closed the door on her way out than I started the first level. I got a feel for the controls and, before long, was merrily darting around Home Bay, talking to my dolphin chums via sonar and leaping out of the water like I didn't have a care in the world. One huge jump, however, would prove to be disastrous. Breaching a certain height triggered a violent hurricane that instantly sucked all of the wildlife out of the sea and into the sky with a frightening cacophony. I stared in disbelief as I was suddenly alone in the water, and a strange, mournful tune filtered in. If anything, the game was starting as it meant to go on.
Two things happened recently to inspire this tale of seafaring woe. No sooner had I found the eldritch abomination of an original cartridge in a cellar-clearing spree than Ecco's creator Ed Annunziata followed me on Twitter. While I wait for a 140-character apology to restore the fractured pieces of my childhood, I'll share with you some of the aspects of this game that terrified me after that initial introduction.
Having also seen it added to the Nintendo eShop (in 3D no less – like I want to be closer to what's happening), perhaps I can dissuade – or at least mentally prepare – a generation who didn't experience Ecco the first time around. Normally, I would feel a bit crazy and exposed talking about a 16bit game in this way but, judging by YouTube comments and replies to a recent Facebook post I made on this very matter, it would seem that I'm not alone. Just like Ecco wasn't...
I realise that I've been fairly cagey in detailing these horrors, so let's dive in, if you'll pardon the expression. Introductory levels see you face a huge octopus whose arms you need to slowly pass or face a sting, as well as the odd easily avoided shark. Those I can live with. The rest, I still struggle to.
The first major jump comes at a quarter of the way through the game in the Open Ocean level. The urgency with which it starts, by dropping Ecco from the sky (wait, what?) into the Pacific (although it isn't so specific) as screeching, soaring music mercilessly floods out. It's the most linear course in the game, with no walls or floor, just more sharks than a dodgy pool house, all of whom are intent on lining their stomachs with our cetacean pal. Surviving that prime example of the fight-or-flight response eventually leads you to the Big Blue, a monolithic whale and perhaps the biggest piece of sprite artwork to grace a '90s console. He was, thank fuck, a friendly creature, but the way he appeared from the vast nothingness of the Arctic waters with a low, echoing drone was enough to guarantee that the controller hadn't even hit the floor by the time I was out of the room.
After that came the Asterite. He wasn't particularly fearsome, but he did set the precedent for the game being weird on a Gary Busey level. A DNA double helix of orbs, he was an undiscovered life-form and a being of higher consciousness that would guide Ecco in his quest. He sends us to the ruins of Atlantis, where things take a notable leap from realism. Learning of aliens that feed upon the planet every five hundred years and using a time machine built by the humans to accordingly flee, Ecco warps back millions of years into the past. Terrific, dinosaurs ahoy.
Here's a little scenario that would often happen in the prehistoric arc. Having been dropped into the water by a pterodactyl that helps you navigate the Carboniferous landscape, you decide to swim slowly as the path guides you downwards into dark caverns. Suddenly, a trilobite that can inexplicably swim faster than a dolphin gives chase from nowhere and attacks relentlessly, Ecco doing that piercing screech like he's being electrocuted every time. You're soon forced to reconsider your wary approach to exploration and dash off, invariably swimming right into the titanium jaws of a Dunkleosteus, a monstrous, thankfully now-extinct armoured fish. All of this while you're technically drowning.
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Returning through time to the first level of our Lovecraftian childhood adventure, Ecco follows his pod into the intergalactic tube that claimed half of the ocean and flies across the universe into some kind of industrial space station. At this point, everything is entirely fucking mental. The penultimate level is a lurching, biomechanical hell in which one wrong turn will compress Ecco into an economy brand of canned tuna in a flash of scarlet red, forcing you to start from the beginning. Couple that with the fact there are mini-Cthulhus coming at you from all angles, and it's perhaps one of the most frustrating levels in gaming history – a deliberate decision on the creator's part to increase the likelihood of purchases over weekend rentals. The final boss, Vortex Queen, is potent nightmare fuel; a gargantuan, disembodied H.R. Giger Alien-like head against a backdrop of complete blackness. Being sucked into her gaping, razor-lined void of a mouth will send you back to the previous stage, ensuring that if the fear didn't get to you, the anger would.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes Ecco such an unsettling experience. It's as much these things happening as it is the instilled sense that they could happen at any moment. Music is an obvious factor: the throbbing basslines that beat like a heart as you search frantically for air pockets; the whimpers over the plaintive, prehistoric themes; the idiosyncratic ambience and playful melodies that undermined your struggle. These Pink Floydian soundscapes create a perpetual sense of mystery and, subsequently, a merciless sonic backdrop against which an enemy could spring at you from thin H2O. Strangely, for levels so full of life, there's a sense of loneliness. The underwater world is unknown to us to begin with but, here, it's further turned into a barren dystopia, with in-game clues suggesting humans no longer inhabit the planet and the initial high degree of realism conjuring up a palpable feeling of abandonment.
I've shot and slashed my fair share of monsters – I finished ZombiU with few repercussions, I can just about play Resident Evil 4 with the lights off, and closing the bedroom door firmly keeps Five Nights At Freddy's out of my dreams. Why does Ecco scare me more than most straight-up horror games? I think it's ultimately down to context. You go into a survival shoot 'em up knowing that you'll be spending the majority of your time feeling jolts in your viscera as you fight for your life against whatever unholiness may come. Abandoned mansions, claps of thunder and bumps in the night are created with the intention of filling underwear. You go into a relatively realistic game about a dolphin, however, with expectations of flipping joviality, interaction with other marine creatures and perhaps the odd-run in with a shark at most.
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Looking at it retrospectively only serves to add to the wonder of what now-defunct developers Novotrade achieved. Fitting so much atmosphere and so many disparate elements into a cartridge game in 1992 is, in a way, a much more impressive feat than giving a Hollywood shine and deliberate scares to the horror games of today. The anachronistic, subtle discomfort plays on the mind more and has undoubtedly led to a demographic of '90s kids who never learned to swim. A 1994 sequel, The Tides of Time, didn't so much take the sci-fi baton as bludgeon the original to death with it and run off with its wallet, but it's the pseudo-realism of the first that keeps the crown on its head.
I feel that I might be coming down with an acute case of Stockholm Syndrome as, even after all of this, I can't begrudge Ecco the title of something of a masterpiece. Atmosphere is woven into every pixel of its being, and it rarely lets up. It's a completely immersive game and, in its own way, unlike any other I've ever played. Despite a fair portion of the memories it holds being unpleasant (to the extent that I still do a semi-conscious psych-up every time I see the glistening SEGA logo upon starting), that's pretty special.
Or perhaps mum knew all along, and it was a ploy to scare me into getting some fresh air.
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