Friday 6 January 2017

Mega Drive Review - Ecco the Dolphin (Game 124)

I always find notoriously divisive games the most interesting and when it comes to Mega Drive games that split opinions it's hard to top 'Ecco the Dolphin'. In a five page review, Mean Machines Sega magazine could stop praising the game; to them it was "a Mega Drive classic without a doubt, a strong contender for best game ever".  Destructiod couldn't have had a more opposing opinion. They believed "'Ecco the Dolphin' is rightly recognised as one of the worst games the Genesis ever boasted."

How did a "dolphin simulator" divide opinion so completely?

Released in 1992
Developed by Novotrade
Published by Sega.

Now is a great time to be a fan of surreal and unusual videos games. With everyone able to publish their own games via Steam and Mobile platforms it's hard to imagine there isn't a place for even the most unusual of ideas. It reminds us of the glorious PD scene that existed alongside full priced Amiga games and bedroom coders writing spectrum titles. Sony has even jumped on the indie scene and is happy to throw their weight behind titles that catch their eye. But as a console manufacturer and publisher this is somewhat unusual. Traditionally publishers only want to back the generic and the traditional. This makes the existence of 'Ecco the Dolphin' even stranger, especially when you look back at how much Sega eventually promoted it. The publisher was not initially on board however. The games creator Ed Annunziata evidently spent over a year trying to convince Sega of America to hand over  $10,000 that he needed to make a prototype of his "dream game; 'Ecco the Dolphin'". "For a year, I’m explaining it to them and I’m showing beautiful images" Annunziata once told the website Sega Nerds. "I’m not really sure if I could convey it, but I’m sure any publisher, SEGA included, if they could jump into my mind for five seconds, run through and jump back out that they’d say, “Let’s sign a contract,” or “Let’s get this funded.”" Perhaps, Sega were weary given the controversial research that inspired the game's concept.

Annunziata, a self confessed "biology fan boy", admitted on Twitter that he "read a lot of John Lilly". This eccentric neuroscientist is now celebrated for his philanthropic endeavours and for being the driving force behind the creation of the Marine Mammal Protection act. However, Lilly's studies are infamous, mainly because they involve NASA funded flooding of buildings, dolphin love making, alien contact, suicide, LSD and Ketamine. 

The excellent 'Slope's Game Room' YouTube Channel has explored this in extensive and disturbing detail.  Those interested in the history of the 'Ecco' series should certainly have a watch. However, gamers that know of the inspiration behind the game typically react in shock. One NeoGaf user was particularly vocal. "['Ecco the Dolphin'] is a game with a name based around the fact that [John] Lily, while on Ketamine and in an isolation chamber, was (according to him) contacted by an extra-terrestrial entity called the Earth Coincidence Control Office. Oh, what's an acronym for that? What were they thinking? What made them want to do a game about these studies, about this subject?!"

"So he took drugs and made a game?" Another user asked, "Ed Annunziata is out of his God damn mind." The creator however is adamant on Twitter that creation of 'Ecco the Dolphin' was achieved without the use of drugs; frequently stating on social media that  "I never took LSD!!!!" and " Ketamine wasn't even a thing way back when I thought up 'Ecco', but I did work in a small animal hospital where it was used on cats everyday!"

It's understandable why so many players now wonder what's really going on in a game that was originally sold to them as a simple cute dolphin game. It begins, with a large open area and hardly any instruction or player hand holding. Experimentation leads you to realise that a single press of the A button releases Ecco’s sonar which allows for interaction with some objects and other sea-life. Holding this same button gives a map of the area, however despite its beam like physical appearance you can’t (initially at least) use the sonar as a weapon. Instead a swift press of the B button prompts Ecco to plough into foes, killing most. Pressing C repeatedly makes our aquatic friend swim faster, though it doesn’t aid navigating Ecco around the screen which initially feels rather cumbersome and lacking precision.  In each level the player is charged with guiding Ecco through a number of underwater mazes filled with foes and puzzles. Strong currents, spiky shells and a giant octopus are just a few of the challenges that our protagonist must face.  The first objective seems innocent enough, a dolphin friend challenges Ecco to leap as high into the air as possible. Given that Ecco has an oxygen meter that must be replenished by visiting the surface, I thought this was simply a training mission intended to show this mechanic to the player. Imagine my genuine surprise when my dramatic leap from the water coincided with the moment a whirlwind strikes, sucking all life from the ocean. Ecco is left alone, and the player as a result feels even more directionless. Eventually you’ll realise stage objectives are given by large crystals scattered throughout the stages. Typically the crystals only speak a few words though. They serve as hints rather than prescriptive missions.  For example, Ecco’s first objective is to find a whale called Big Blue. However his location is not given meaning a great deal of backtracking and dead-end discovery inevitably follows.  As the game progresses more and more fantastical elements are introduced including the lost city of Atlantis and the concept of time travelling. However, despite sounding absurd on paper these somehow never feel that out of place in Ecco’s mystical World. Along with mission guidance, touching crystals also reveals snippets of the game’s lore. However after 25 levels, I must confess I didn’t completly understand why I was in space battling an alien queen.
'Ecco the Dolphin' is clearly a game that strays from traditional narrative paths but Ed Annunziata had a vision. "I have made games all my adult life. My passion is to create original games with original play mechanics. This is what gets me up in the morning and pushes me through the day. I consider computer games an art form."  However, for the audience to accept an unconventional "artistic story" they needed to be submerged in a realistic and relatable environment. 'Ecco the Dolphin' had to look beautiful and fortunately even through modern eyes the Mega Drive title is stunning.  "Graphically the game is unsurpassed" noted Mean Machines magazine. "The depiction of the underwater environments is brilliant incorporating everything right down to the last starfish. The animation is super smooth as well". 

Nature documentaries and H.R. Giger paintings seem like unlikely bedfellows but both served as inspiration for the look of ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. Stylised realism was the intention, with large sprites and plentiful animation. There’s a constant movement on screen giving a sense that the world around Ecco is living. The environment ripples and warps but, while stylish, such creativity was actually the result of a mistake. "[The] background effect is the result of a bug, i.e., it’s a glitch!” Ed Aunnunziata once confessed on Twitter. “It looks so beautiful [so] we kept it". So impressive were the graphics that the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau was even willing to endorse the game.  “’Ecco the Dolphin’ is not just a game it is an adventure” he declares in one of Sega’s lavish promotional adverts.  “The graphics are so real [my crew] won’t want to go in the sea anymore. Simply brilliant”.

For Annunziata though, splendid graphics were not enough to fully engage a player. He believed an immersive game needs to sound as good as it looks. "Music is not just an accompaniment to the visuals and gameplay, but is at the heart of the experience" the designer once said.

Annunziata worked with Csaba Gigor and Gábor Foltán, on the soundtrack, playing them songs by Pink Floyds to illustrate the feeling he was aiming for. The game has a sombre tone, which seemed a world away from the bouncy melodies that were so typical of Nintendo consoles. However, real critical adulation came when Spencer Nilsen reworked the soundtrack for the Sega CD version of ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. It is this score that’s often heralded as one of the greatest gaming soundtracks of all time. Sweeping droning synch tracks blend seamlessly with underground electro. The wails and groans of the audio mirror both the beautifully dangerous environments and Ecco’s own melancholy. Nilsen’s score didn't just find critical appreciation though; he is also applauded by his peers and contemporaries.  "Spencer Nilsen's groundbreaking videogame scores [have] changed the industry" argues Emmy award winning composer Bear McCreary. "His scores were years ahead of their time and their influence can be heard in all the most popular videogame scores of today."

While reviewers loved the music and graphics (and questioned surreal story) players probably remember the game’s punishing difficulty. Like a side scrolling brawler our dolphin protagonist is in real trouble when foes surround him and annoyingly group attacks are frequent. For a game that's initially so tranquil, the continued assault from sea monsters seems ill-fitting. The juxtaposition was the designer’s intention.  "When I was a kid, I saw 'Jaws'" Ed Annuziata remembers. "Ever since, I loved the idea that the sea is both beautiful & terrifying at the same time."  Despite the artistic intentions there was a more commercial and practical reason why Ecco the Dolphin was hunted throughout the game; it ensure longevity.  Annunziata even admitted on Twitter that he consciously made the game difficult to ensure a longer game length. "I was paranoid about game rentals and kids beating the game over the weekend. So.. I.. uh... made it hard." Indeed the designers favourite level was 'Welcome to the Machine' a stage infamous for its difficulty. According to Annuziata it was "way over the top challenging". It wouldn't be an over exaggeration to say that most players never saw most of the game, frustrated by near impossible leaps and the more brutal sections where Ecco is at the mercy of far too many foes. In the Mega Drive version death means returning to the start of a stage, even if you die figuring out how to defeat a boss. It does seem unfair to not have mid stage or pre-boss continue points, particularly for a game that has exploration and discovery at its core. Feeling bewildered and lost in an environment is only enjoyable if there's little consequence for venturing into the wrong direction.

All too often the game seems to expect the player to know that they need to experiment with unconventional things. You have to wonder why anyone would decide to use a snail shell to knock down a wall in the days before online FAQs. Maybe players were simply more patient at the time of the games launch. Mean Machines magazine even praised the obscure puzzles; "five hours solid play just to get through four levels [is] brilliant!  What is more, the size of the maps and the complexity of the puzzles increase with every level. Level five had us just stumped for ages!"

Any signposting in the game is vague and obscure.  As a result you shouldn't be excessively punished if you can't figure out a route through a level, but this isn't the case. Enemies respawn but there are few ways to restore health. Traveling aimlessly in circles only leads to inevitable death. The years have clearly proven that the original game was too difficult. This explains why the most recent port on the Nintendo 3DS includes "Super Dolphin Mode" which decreases the difficulty by giving players invincibility and unlimited oxygen. Ultimately this allows a player to explore the rich beautiful environments. It allows them to venture into the unknown without the constant fear that one step (or rather flap) in the wrong direction will lead to an undesirable game over screen. Annunziata has since admitted that vague objectives and directionless gameplay was perhaps a mistake. "Often playing underwater games it is easy to get lost, or not know what to do next. [In future projects] we will have to be very careful to construct the game so that this doesn't happen. The game has to fun and satisfying."

It's sad that 'Ecco the Dolphin' seems to only be discussed by gamers when they want to cite the odd and unusual games of yesteryear. However even the developer notes that it's a difficult game to define using generic terminology.   "Looking back I have to admit my games are all weird but I'm proud about that, I try to be unique" Ed Annunziata admits on his Kickstarter profile.  Inevitably however, unusual games divide audiences which certainly explain the massive gulf between the opinions of critics.
"One of the reasons I like 'Ecco' so much is because [...] it took you a little bit to figure it out" critic Ryan Goddard once said to Ed Annunziata. "Once you got into it, [‘Ecco the Dolphin’] is one of the most beautiful gaming experiences there were. I don’t think people gave it the love that it deserved, but for the ones who did, it’s always going to be in their top five or top 10." It's something Annunziata clearly agrees with as he simply replies "you couldn’t have said anything better just then." Evidently, ‘Ecco the Dolphin’ is appreciated by some and despised by others.  But, isn’t that true of all great works of art?

Where did I get this game from?
The person who once sold me a big bundle of Mega Drive games a few years back clearly liked ‘Ecco the Dolphin’. In the pile of dirty uncared for games were two copies of the game! Sadly they didn’t have instructions, but that’s kind of in-keeping with the spirit of the title, a game all about exploration and self discovery.

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