Nostalgia Spot: Was Ecco The Dolphin The Most Frustrating Game of The 90’s?

Only 90’s kids will understand the torment of spending 45 minutes skidding around on some ice only to repeatedly bump your stupid dolphin nose and splosh listlessly back into the water.

Only 90’s kids will understand seeking out the cheat codes to get to all but the first act of a game so hard, even your dad couldn’t help you get past its evil jump puzzles.

Only 90’s kids will understand having those cheat codes, and still not knowing what in the name of sanity was going on with the giant strand of DNA and the aliens and the time machines.

Ecco The Dolphin

Yep. While the standard for gamer nostalgia posts is to talk about how great the games we had for systems like the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive as it was known in the UK and some other markets) were back in the day, today I am going to buck the trend and talk about a game that, were I to play it now, would probably have the capacity to make me violent without drinking.

Let’s go back to a time when I was young and innocent enough not to know that dolphins could rape people, and thought they were the loveliest and cutest of all the beasts. It was 1992. Full of expectation, I inserted the Ecco The Dolphin cartridge into my console (after rapidly passing it in front of my mouth a few times while blowing, which was the custom of the time even though, it turned out, it wasn’t good for the cartridges at all).

There was Ecco, happy, playful and cute, and I could make him leap out into the air and do flips, or dart through the water at high speed. There were other nice dolphins to talk to, pretty fishes and coral everywhere, and lovely, lilting music.

This was awesome for about ten minutes (well, I was a nine year old girl), at which point I got stuck.

Getting stuck is basically what happens in Ecco The Dolphin. And no, you don’t get stuck because you need to improve your fighting skills to beat a really tough boss, or because you need to figure out a complicated puzzle and you can’t just find the solution online because it’s 1992. You get stuck because jumping. You get stuck because moving a rock to an exact spot with your nose. You attempt the same thing eleventy-kasquillion times and expect a different result on the eleventy-kasquillion-and-first. Sure, you could tell the game was going to have some slight educational undertones, but I was expecting a lesson about marine biology or conservation or how echolocation works, not some Kafka-esque lesson in futility.

So, after long periods of this, including somehow managing to get through a hellish ice level, I followed the gamer protocol of the time and sought out cheats. Ecco didn’t have saves, but there was a password for each of the levels. With the passwords, I could at least have a look around at what happened in the rest of the game. If you are young enough not to remember gaming before mainstream internet, sources of cheats and passwords back then were basically gamer magazines (and, in the UK, this long forgotten TV show called Bad Influence, which was frickin’ awesome). Somehow, I or one of my friends managed to get hold of the Ecco passwords, and I finally thought I might get to see how the story was going to go.

I was nine, and it was 1992, so as you might expect I’d never done drugs, or seen the internet. My exposure to surreal, messed up things was fairly low. However, even by my current standards, I would say that that game’s story was bloody weird.

I was wondering if I was just remembering it wrong, so I checked out the Ecco The Dolphin Wikia (yes, that is a thing that exists), and nope, it really is as bewildering as trying to get directions to the bus stop from someone who speaks only in Radiohead lyrics he’s translated into High Valyrian.

There are aliens, the lost city of Atlantis, time travel to prehistoric times, the aforementioned giant strand of DNA that is some kind of deity or something, more aliens, some kind of war between Earth and aliens that maybe happened in the past or the future or whatever, something about a vortex, a library… It was like the diaries of a mad man. Presumably one who had been driven mad slowly, by jump puzzles.

I mean check some of this out…

It was weird because the bits I could actually get through without cheating were all fairly normal dolphin themed things like coral reefs and fights with sharks, so I wonder how many people played the game without ever finding out how bizarre it got…

The guy who created Ecco, Ed Annunziata (which is Italian for ‘I once went to Sea World on acid’), did try and create a prequel to the game, attempting to raise funds via Kickstarter in 2013. The campaign was unsuccessful, probably because everyone who remembers Ecco suffers a blood pressure spike when they hear its name.

I have to say though, that trippy story aside, it could have been a really nice game if it wasn’t so damn hard (which it was, even by 90’s console game standards). With modern graphics and game physics, the potential Ecco had atmospherically and visually could really be brought out, and something cool could be made. So, in a way, I hope Ecco’s prequel, The Big Blue, does get made.

Do you have memories of Ecco The Dolphin? Is there a game from your childhood you remember being even more frustrating than this one? Let us know in the comments!


Photo by Gamerscore Blog

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