Ecco is 30 Years Old!

This is by no means exclusive to games, but there are certain properties that, when you stop for a moment to actually think about what you are seeing, seem truly bizarre. Mario… a plumber that hangs around with toadstools is like a fever dream. Sonic, a blue hedgehog that can run fast actually makes no sense at all… and let’s not even get started on the can of worms that is ‘Seaman’ on the Dreamcast. With many of these concepts, if you’d told me that the lead designer just asked their 5 year old kid to write some fiction and then turned what they wrote into a game I’d not find it hard to believe you. With Ecco the Dolphin, I can’t help but feel that at the root of a storm faring, alien fighting bottlenose dolphin the words acid, trip, toddler and experiment could fit neatly into an apt and coherent sentence. That said, at the risk of straying into libilous territory, I’ll leave you to your own devices to decide how to arrange a sentence out of that.  

Originally released on the Genesis in 1992 (yes this franchise is 30 years old), you might not be shocked to hear that it took series creator Ed Annunziata a few attempts to get the project off the ground. After pitching the idea for more than a year, Ed eventually handed in his notice with then Novotrade International (which would become Appaloosa Interactive in 1996) with a mind to taking a job he had been offered at EA. Desperate to keep Annunziata on board, the now defunct developer agreed to his desire to create a prototype for his dolphin game, and in 6 weeks Annunziata and his small team had a working prototype that was compelling enough that Sega quietly greenlit the project. 10 months later, Ecco was released as a Mega Drive exclusive.

In researching the idea of making a video game about dolphins,Annunziata was particularly inspired by a book written by Hank Searls named ‘Sounding’. In this, Searls explains in detail about how dolphins rely upon echolocation to communicate and navigate around the oceans. This also formed the basis of the eventual title of the game. Originally planned to be called Delphinius taken from Greek mythology, Delphinius is the name of a small constellation of stars, named as such by Ptolemy after a story in which a dolphin of the same name helped Poseidon win over Amphitrite and as a thank you, he placed the dolphins image in the sky. As a nod to this, the constellation still appears on Ecco’s head on the main menu. Another idea for naming Ecco was to call him ‘Botticelli the Dolphin’. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were popular at the time and it was felt that they may be able to tap into and ride this wave in some way. Eventually though, they settled on Ecco, a clear nod to the echolocation abilities that would eventually form bedrock of the main gameplay loop. 

Another interesting idea behind the game is that it seems Pink Floyd played an inadvertently integral role in the eventual feel for the game. Annunziata also had a deep interest in science fiction and fantasy stories, which was something he was keen to build into his concept for Ecco the dolphin. As a guide to the art team, Annunziata would play Pink Floyd songs to them in an attempt to portray how he wanted to feel for the game to develop.

During the development of Ecco, it’s easy to forget that this was probably the height of the video game rental market. At the time of writing this in 2022, it’s an interesting thought exercise to run through in your mind the various ways in which development teams across the games industry have attempted to mitigate what they saw as challenges to hardware sales. Many reading this will remember the system employed in the early 2010’s where new games would come with a code to unlock all the features of a game, with a £10 charge being levied to those that bought the game 2nd hand. In the 90’s concerns were awash about the rental market. To combat this, Annunziata decided to ratchet up the difficulty level of Ecco in an attempt to mitigate the amount of players that would potentially rent the game and complete it over a weekend. This however, was eventually deemed a mistake, with newer versions of the game appearing in shops with a patch to reduce the difficulty. This was taken a step further in the Japanese market when they added checkpoints. Allowing players to make better progress. 

Upon release of Ecco, it quickly became apparent that they were onto a hit. The original game would go on to sell millions of copies and immediately upon completion of the project, the Ecco team were set to work on the Mega CD version, in the hope that this new found IP would push players towards purchasing the peripheral. In this version of the game, the difficulty was again toned down and they were able to add a CD quality soundtrack that featured state of the art surround sound technology. 

With the new found popularity of Ecco: Tides of Time, a direct sequel was soon greenlit. Annunziata and his team were keen to lean more heavily into the science fiction side of the story this time round, introducing a time travel mechanic that would see Ecco travelling back in time to the lost city of Atlantis as well as into the distant future with more highly evolved versions of dolphins with larger fins and flippers. These changes to the feel of the game allowed the developers to play with the now familiar format of Ecco the dolphin games, adding a 3D open sea section, as well as “Meta-Spheres”, that allowed Ecco to change into a bird and fly around out of the water. Again after completion, the Ecco team moved on to the Mega CD version, which would again feature the CD quality soundtrack, as well as 3D cut scenes that depict the story of the first game.

During the development of Ecco: Tides of Time, the decision was made to turn the franchise into a trilogy. During planning, it had been mooted that the story of the third game would centre around a war between the Atlanteans and the Vortex kind, which were races from the previous games. This was foreshadowed with a cliffhanger ending to Tides of Time in the hopes of pulling players back for the final instalment. Unfortunately, Annunziata would leave Sega before development began for the third game. This would lead to a hiatus from the IP and it wouldn’t surface again until the Dreamcast reboot. A game that was generally well received, but ultimately failed to turn the tide of the struggling console.

Given the difficulty that Annunziata had in getting Ecco the Dolphin off the ground, I always find myself to be relieved that it was a success. One of the best things about Sega over the years, particularly during this era, was that Sega weren’t afraid to take risks and to me, Ecco is a fantastic example of that (even if the reality is somewhat less inspirational). If you are reading this, then you will be a fan of gaming and even if games like Ecco the Dolphin aren’t your cup of tea, I can’t help but feel that these games, (i.e. games that are willing to stand out from the crowd and try something new) are vital to the continued health of our industry. If we look at our modern gaming landscape, it doesn’t take a genius to see the endless tide of remakes, sequels and remasters coming our way… granted, these do have their place and value to us as gamers, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of allowing developers to try something new and fresh. Even if it doesn’t always pay off. Fortunately for us though, Ecco is a classic and if you’ve heard any of my podcasts over the years, you will likely be aware that I’ve got a particular dislike of swimming in games and a strong belief that it’s far more common to play a game that makes a mess of swimming than one that doe it well. Thankfully Ecco is in the latter category.

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