Ecco the Dolphin and the Secrets of the Universe

Looking for answers? Dianetics, The Secret, The Seven Deadly Foibles of Unrepentant Sociopaths? The revelations that you seek are in Ecco the Dolphin.

Produced by Ed Annunziata and developed by the international Novotrade International team (later Appaloosa Interactive), the first Ecco the Dolphin came out early in the age of Sega Genesis. Dolphins and whales in general were high on the mainstream consciousness through the 70s and 80s, with Songs of the Humpback Whale debuting in 1970, the first human-recorded sounds of whale communication, and going on to sell a multiplatinum thirty million copies in the following decades. The record burned through our hominid brains, a universal call for the sacred mysteries of nature, and it’s a short hop from there to the illustrative work of Robert Wyland, whose depictions linking whales and far galaxies look like concept art for Ecco.

What makes Ecco really stand out, though, is that as a game it was so phenomenally well crafted. And, like most exceptionally well made video games, it contains the secrets of the universe.

I unpacked the Sega Genesis (not my family’s original — a used system picked up on ebay a couple of years ago) for a little book launch party this past weekend, and as inevitably happens when I’m left alone with a Genesis, when the party was over I fired up Ecco II: The Tides of Time.

I’ve played this game many times (though admittedly rarely all the way through). This time around I was struck by two things: 1) the flow and progression of this game is actually completely brilliant; 2) how in the world did they get away with shipping a game that was so incredibly hard?

Realization #2 is perhaps what Tides of Time in particular is so well-known for, which is unfortunate. The game is hard. But the best games are. The very best games are the ones that are brutally hard but don’t allow you to put them down. This is a delicate, stunning balance, an invisibly momentous achievement — the challenge pushes you to your absolute limit, but with every play you feel yourself getting just a little bit closer. You never, at any point, truly feel that you can’t win. And riding that knife-edge of balance and challenge is wickedly difficult. How the team managed it in the wild west of this still relatively early console development I have no idea, but there is something magical about this period in game history, something that produced genius. Although Ecco II is my go-to has-everything game, if you put a gun to my head I’d still have a hard time telling you whether it, Phantasy Star IV, or Sid Meier’s Pirates! Gold should be declared king of the Sega Genesis.

But in spite of all that, I couldn’t help but marvel at how really rather absurdly difficult even the first few levels of Ecco II are. I cruised through the first two, marveling again at the challenge and simplicity of the vibrating-crystal puzzle in the third level — and by the time I hit my first failed run at “Sky Tides”, I was developing some serious respect for my twelve-year-old self for having the tenacity to beat the game. I was also astonished that I’d done it. I went up against the “Tube of Medusa” a round dozen times before I stopped, in astonishment, and wondered how in the hell anyone managed to push through these levels.

That was when I googled “Tube of Medusa” and found these brilliant play-through videos. I watched the end of the game first, partly because I didn’t know that’s what it was (it was the most popular video — doubtless for the thousands of people who played but never finished the game). And then I went back and watched from the beginning, cackling to myself with glee when he thought the crystals puzzle was difficult. And when he thought “Skyway” was a pain. And when he died over and over again for the next entire video against “Sky Tides”. And when he went up against the Medusa, died, and found himself rolled back to “Skyway” and completely lost his shit. If you’ve ever played any of the Ecco games you owe it to yourself to watch these videos.


The videos themselves are a tight illustration of this frustration-challenge-triumph progression that is so well done in the Ecco games (the first two anyway — I loved the story of Defender of the Future, but just never quite bought the 3D interpretation of Ecco). The games drive you absolutely mad — but you keep playing, not out of some deeply planted masochistic impulse, but because the game is persistently telling you: just a little longer. Just try one more time.

And this gets to the heart of one of the most powerful lessons that games as a whole teach.

Games, especially physics simulators like Ecco, are encapsulated constructions of our perception of the nature of reality. We simulate the rules of the universe in small packages in an attempt to understand how it works, how we work. The artistic insight and understanding achieved through games is therefore an insight that emerges from the process of experiencing the simulation — a core truth about our experience of life itself.

There was no doubt in my mind that as a kid I absorbed deep and powerful things from Ecco. The sheer beauty of the game was an insight all on its own — the way its music and physics feel and graphics lull you into this trance-like flow state. And this beauty and flow is emphasized again through the game’s mechanics, which require such a precision of movement and reflex that it cannot be conscious. In playing the most difficult parts of Ecco, you will bang your head again and again if you are distracted, or too self-conscious. You succeed when you let go, when you let reflex take over, when you are absorbed in the game.

Ecco II could not be what it is without its incredible difficulty. And it makes me wilt a little inside to think that games like this would have an awfully hard time being made and published in today’s market. Ecco’s difficulty did repel many gamers, who weren’t sufficiently hooked through the opening to rise to the challenges it offered. (To this day, if you google Ecco what you’ll find are a lot of gamers complaining about how hard the game was, which they translate to “it sucks” — and then wonder today why games are so much easier than they used to be [and then complain about that].) But another point of interest for me is that I often find that some of the most brilliant, creative, and inspiring young women I know today loved Ecco as a kid. It spoke to something in all of us, something so powerful that it made us beat a game that to this day is infamous in the history of stupidly hard games.

So here, in short, are critical lessons that Ecco teaches:

1) Fail. Fail a lot. Then win. Every success book will tell you this, but Ecco actually shows it to you. The problem with the books is that their message often reaches us as patently false. Sure, the people who “win” at various things in life almost always have a long string of failed attempts behind them. But so do the people who continually fail. The critical variation here is: fail a lot, but get just a little bit better every time. That is how you win. And that just a little bit better is the sweet taste of success that gives us courage in
the face of failure.

2) Paying too much attention throws you off your game. You need to let go and release your intuitive mind. First you strategize, but when you perform, you let go. An astonishing amount of fail comes from over thinking.

3) Explore. Sometimes the thing that you’re looking for is tucked away in a corner that you’ll only find if you’re thorough and meticulous.

4) Know your tools. Think ahead. If you take the time to map out your surroundings and develop a plan, you drastically up your odds.

5) Go slow. If you rush into the unknown you will almost always die. Going slow and keeping control — cultivating disciplined patience — gets you where you want to go faster than rushing, even though this is unintuitive.

6) Analyze your failure. You can sometimes brute force your way through a challenge by sheer luck, but if you stop, take a breath, and think, you can usually observe something about the way your environment is behaving in reaction to your attempt that will be the key to your success. There is always a key. There is always a secret. And the faster you acknowledge and alter your mistakes, the faster you succeed.

7) Master your emotions. The thing that makes most challenges seem unwinnable is your own reaction to the challenge. Adrenaline is only productive in certain situations. Most of the time it just gets in your way. Breathe.

These seem like simple things when they’re listed and told, which is the nature of lessons. You can rarely effectively absorb them from a list or a collection of words. But a game allows you to experience the lesson, to perform the metaphor, and so many of our intrinsic learning systems kick in as a result that the realizations are hundreds of times more powerful.

If you listen through those youtube videos, you can hear Hidenozuke going through this process, which is fascinating and fun.

I do wish he’d do a run-through of the first game. Though any reasonable physician, I suppose, might not allow it.

3 thoughts on “Ecco the Dolphin and the Secrets of the Universe”

  1. Well, you already know my take here, but I will pipe up about the difficulty level. I think the only other thing like it I’ve played is VVVVV, in that wretched six screen high spike-lined loop that I literally played over and over again, at five seconds a pop for at least a half hour, until I beat it on pure muscle memory. That kind of extreme flow-inducing game is so hard to come by, and it’s SUCH a shame that the “Things are difficult? Deal with it, improve, succeed.” mindset has been replaced by “This is too hard; I’m entitled to have a super easy game. I quit.”

    I worry about what it says in the long run, and in the short run I’m now super inclined to up the difficulty in one of my personal projects. Thanks for the write up! Spread the Ecco love!

  2. I never beat any of the Ecco games (maybe because it was back when I had to rent games), but to this day they are still some of my favorite games. I never made it past Tube of Medusa, but I will still talk endlessly about how much I love that game. And now I need to call my parents and my sister up to find out who has the Genesis and cajole them to ship it to me. Ecco on my husband’s hacked Xbox is just not the same.

  3. I still remember the morning when school was flooded out and my friends all gathered in my family’s TV room to marathon through both Ecco games as one of the greatest gaming experiences of my life — and more than that, one of the purest moments of collaboration I’ve ever enjoyed.

    An entire day of 4 girls ages 9-12, seamlessly hot-swapping a single Genesis controller as we reached the parts that came most naturally to each of us. It was a thing of beauty, and if Houston wasn’t built on clay and/or had any concept of drainage, it might never have happened.

    We discovered quite a few glitches on our own (like swimming up through the Asterite in the original Ecco) which probably led to me pursuing computer science many years later. Actually, getting a job in software development felt like a huge betrayal — I expected something more like my collaborative Ecco experiences, and less like the endless peen-measuring contest that all those dudes insisted on turning it into.

    Ecco I and II were beautiful, challenging, but manageable games that relied on timing and strategy rather than memorizing worthless minutiae. Today I can’t finish the series without at least the LIFEFISH cheat, and yes, I sort of wish I had the perseverance of my 9-year-old self… But all of the friends from that rainy day in 1994 when we finished(!) both(!!) games in a row, I still cherish to this day.

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