Honorable Mention in Horror: Ecco the Dolphin

A young boy sits on the floor, bathed in the the cobalt hues of  the Cathode Ray Tube television. His parents have given him the okay to play with the Sega Genesis (he always asks for permission first), and now he’s choosing a game. Sonic the Hedgehog has been a constant in the last few months of his life, but he keeps dying in the Spring Yard Zone so he’s frustrated and wants to try something else. Sorting through the cartridges, both owned and borrowed, he happens upon one with a dolphin in mid-air, and decides this will be today’s adventure.

After the familiar Sega logo shimmers, the screen becomes a fast-paced tracking shot of an ocean, with dolphins propelling themselves out of the water only to come back down and puncture the surface upon re-entry. They swim like knives while making a grating sound somewhat comparable to the unraveling of shrink wrap, though the boy won’t make this connection until fifteen years later. Ominous, yet oddly optimistic music accompanies these harsh noises. A smug title screen with Ecco regarding the player arrives, smiling his best dolphin smile. And then:

The boy is now in control. Ecco is in a small cove with his pod. They are in good spirits, competing to see who can jump the highest. The boy uses Ecco’s sonar to communicate with the friendly creatures, and they goad him into testing his leaping mettle. The boy excitedly obliges, if only to see if he understands the controls. Gathering speed, he pilots the dolphin and launches him into the sky – but everything goes wrong all at once.

The screen flashes red, black,  and white. The marine life is pilfered from the ocean by an unseen force above, writhing in a horrible vortex while an ungodly cacophony of screams and deep vibrations traumatize the boy. The sounds and flashes stop, and Ecco alone is dropped into the ocean with an eerie apathy. Wide-eyed, the boy is transfixed, his paralysis interrupted only when he realizes Ecco will drown if he doesn’t swim up quickly. All of the subtle optimism bubbling beneath the previous song has been replaced by a haunting, synthetic bass note, punctuated by quick stabs of computerized bells.

This small child never gets much farther than this. The sound effects, the constant deprivation of air, the increasingly bizarre settings, and the incredible difficulty all serve to keep him sheathed in a cold sweat, as if he has just been submerged in the same depths as Ecco. He stays away from Ecco the Dolphin’s cartridge for months at a time, occasionally revisiting those icy, dark depths hoping to simultaneously overcome the challenge and his fear. The failures continue, and eventually he resorts to trying to use passwords to try and cheat. With no gaming atlas to guide him, he attempts combination after combination of letters in hopes of any boon he might acquire. ‘AAAAAAAA’ takes him to an early level that he can easily reach on his own. When he arrives at ‘NNNNNNNN’, he finds a new fear he could never have anticipated. ‘WELCOME TO THE MACHINE’ cascades down the screen, supplying the boy with a name of the fear he will harbor for years to come. All of the water is gone, replaced by assorted circuits, tubing, and…alien creatures.

After the boy overcomes his shock, he realizes that Ecco no longer has a breath meter, his health is regenerating, and his sonar can make the aliens disintegrate (though their heads are autonomous and still fight him, regardless of their recent mutilation). The level requires no exploration, unlike the rest of the game, and asks the boy only to avoid obstacles while the level automatically scrolls. Though it takes him many tries, he overcomes the challenge, anticipating credits and a palpable relief. Instead he finds only darkness and this:

He turns it off and does not sleep well that night.

Years pass and the boy grows. Two sequels come along, and though he ignores the first, the third game is on the Sega Dreamcast. Two dimensions were already terrifying, and the thought of swimming in a full three-dimensional space brought that cold sweat right back to him. He watches his father play, and that is enough for him to remember fear of depths, darkness, and drowning. It isn’t until he is twenty years of age that he goes back and finishes all three games.

He won’t lie though. Those fears are still there. Deep inside him, he will always fear what lays deep beneath the waves.

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  • franky mcdonald

    Well said. I got into the game when i read a Thrasher review, but they said it was great to play for its psychedelic property’s. I eventually got pissed over the fact eccos a fish, and he drowns. (school would eventually explain why he drowned.

    • zackfurniss

      Psychedelic is one word for it. I’d personally go for emotionally scarring.

      Stupid Ecco! Stop being a mammal, needin’ to breathe and stuff.

  • rem

    I can think of a game that were kinda like this for me. Thief 2 the metal age, I could never get very far in it, there was something about the first person camera (I had not played many 1st person games at that point, mostly 3D platformers) that made it all feel so much more real, I would end up freaking out while playing it (I was mega paranoid someone would see me) then the game crashed.

    those who have tried to play the thief games know it’s very hard to make Thief 2 run right on any computer newer then one it was designed for.

    • zackfurniss

      Oh man, Rem, Thief is pretty creepy all around. Any time they make you face zombies… And if anyone has played Thi3f (ugh), all I need to say is “The Cradle” to send shivers up their spines.

  • Steven Bayne

    XD this has to be one of the best articles I’ve ever read. XD

    • zackfurniss

      Ha! I appreciate it! Hopefully we can find even more to keep you around!

      • Steven Bayne

        Yeah,definitely. This was one my favorite childhood games. This article was definitely a blast from the past.

  • The Effect

    Maybe I was just missing something, but I never got being horrified by this game. Even as a kid, I.thought it was cool that there was more to it than it looked. A “flippy, cheery” dolphin game wouldn’t have been as interesting. And the plot was downright engaging, which a lot of games from back then tried, but didn’t do as well as Ecco.

    At the same time, I think it speaks to the game’s success that it did affect the people who were so bugged by it, so much. Obviously, that’s what the people behind it were going for, if not probably quite to the kind of an extreme that it did, for some of them. And using the combination of difficulty, music, visuals, and tone that they did was really impressive, particularly given that those kinds of goals rarely succeed.

    Not saying there wasn’t a little sadism going on with that gameplay… Or at least that somebody wasn’t having a major power trip with it — I’m pretty something like, “I sent you back to ‘Welcome to the Machine’ because I’m a developer, and I can” went through some minds in development. But it’s not exactly like it was a wake-up-screaming kind of thing, either. Just a game that could get frustrating. But overall, was still pretty cool.


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