“Do not give up little singer…” The Big Blue, Ecco the Dolphin
There is a balance in video games that does not exist in other art forms between time consumed and experience delivered. Where most popular art has a standard length and accessibility, games are amorphous. Some, like Skyrim or any number of JRPGs, advertise weeks of gameplay, while others, like Journey, will only last about two hours, offering an emotional catharsis instead of mastery. Ecco the Dolphin is an example of a game that could have offered a more artistic experiential reward, but instead tried to artificially extend its playtime and ended up becoming a 16-bit endurance nightmare.
Ecco The Dolphin is too hard. The game, released for the Sega Genesis in 1992, is a psychedelic aquatic action-puzzler that’s made nearly inaccessible thanks to its high level of difficulty, which is a damn shame because Ecco has a completely unique tone and mood to go with an absolutely insane story.
The game was produced and co-designed by Ed Annunziata. It puts players in the role of the titular aquatic mammal after aliens abduct his family in a freak storm. His journey takes him from his home bay to the lost city of Atlantis, then back in time to the age of flying lizards and finally to an alternate timeline in which Ecco travels into space to kill the invading dolphin-snatchers. As cool as that sounds – and it is super cool – it’s not worth the extreme amount of effort.
Ecco’s difficulty is to its detriment, and the decision to place the game among the pantheon of the unbeatable cartridges was made due to market anxiety. In 1992, with video stores renting games out at a fraction of the retail price for three days at a time, a game needed to last longer than a weekend. Ed Annunziata was aware of the three-day longevity hurdle, so rather than banking on the game’s replay value or artistic merit, he tinkered with the difficulty knob.
Obscure Ecco Trivia #17: I was paranoid about game rentals and kids beating the game over the weekend. So.. I.. uh… made it hard.
— ED Annunziata (@edannunziata) December 30, 2012
To Annunziata’s credit, he succeeded. Beating Ecco The Dolphin requires a high level of memorization of very minute details. In the game’s first set of levels, for example, there are a few instances where the stage exit can only be accessed after moving an object with Ecco’s sonar and the player must know exactly how many sound waves to project at precise angles within an unforgiving time limit. Failure sends players back to the start of the level, and success presents them with an even more punishing environmental puzzle.
Though there is a certain sense of accomplishment that can only be experienced by slogging through Ecco’s 24-ish levels (there’s a backtracking section that requires you replay a few levels prior to the game’s final act), the game is a perfect example of how video games are uniquely valued by players in a manner distinct from other media. Regardless of genre, no one expects a film to last more than 120 minutes so audiences make evaluations based on content and coherence. With a video game there is a demand for both some kind of artistry and a bang-for-your-buck dollar value per hour. For a game to be considered worthy of its full retail price it needs to be fun or beautiful while also promising to take up a certain amount of time – either through the main story, multiplayer, or replay – to justify the purchase.
In Ecco The Dolphin the balance between longevity and artistic experience is askew. The game can stand on its own as a crazy tale about a time-travelling dolphin that journeys into space to save his family, complete with eerie Easter eggs, a section where you befriend a pteranodon, and a soundtrack inspired by Pink Floyd. As it is, Ecco is weighed down by its developer’s initial fears that its true value wouldn’t be enough to satisfy his audience. It had the potential to be a dream, but instead it’s a beautiful nightmare.