Today is July 29th, 2012.
On this day, twenty years ago, the first Ecco the Dolphin game was released in North America, on the SEGA Genesis. It would be released in Japan the day after on the Mega Drive, and in Europe the day after that.
I was four years old.
I’m pretty sure we didn’t actually get the game for a year or two after that, but Ecco the Dolphin is one of the first games I really remember. I remember an incident when I was supposed to be in bed, but heard the mellow, soft tones of the game’s opening song start up, and came downstairs to watch my dad play.
“Wow,” he said. “You have some eagle ears.”
“Uh-uh. Dolphin ears!”
The music… oh, the music. The beautiful, chiptune music, alien and inviting, cold and unforgiving.
Much later, Dad ended up calling the SEGA gameplay tips hotline for help beating the Vortex Queen. It had taken him quite a while to figure out the trick with the Asterite, and apparently the Queen was just too much. According to him, the hold music was the track that plays during the endgame sequence and credits.
Two years later, Tides of Time was released, and was gobbled up eagerly by my family. Mostly, though, I again watched Dad play. We beat it, and were treated to the secret password…
Then, of course, Ecco proper dropped off the planet for years. We still have yet to find out what happens. We probably never will. One of gaming’s greatest tragedies, our hero lost in the tides of time.
I did love Ecco Jr., though, as a youngling. I read the manual and figured out thus how to open up the “parents’ menu”, and spent a good while reading the dolphin facts included therein. I also remember being frustrated and a little insulted when the folks turned on auto-sonar. I could play better than that.
Years passed. The Dreamcast came out. There was only one game, only one game, that got my family to buy it: Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future. We must have got it on or near launch day; I whiled the time waiting for it to drop playing and enjoying the original Sonic Adventure.
I was disappointed that Ecco’s story from Tides wasn’t concluded, but I had a fun time playing the game. It would be the first Ecco game I beat on my own, and one of the first I beat before my father. I don’t think he ever did beat Defender, actually…
The Internet was just coming into people’s homes at that time. I remember spending time on Defender’s GameFAQs board, hunt-and-pecking the Dreamcast browser’s onscreen keyboard to communicate.
There were others. There were others who had played these games.
I remember the Undercaves, the first Ecco fansite.
I remember being singly confused by the sheer dysfunctionality the fandom was eventually plunged into… and now, I’m pleased that, fragmented and small though we are, the past is the past and bygones are bygones.
I discovered Wikipedia. I realized they didn’t have an Ecco article. So, I wrote one for them. Someone gave me a Barnstar for defending it from vandals.
Years later, after fighting over another article (coincidentally enough, the one about the Baiji river dolphin) finally made me break contact with Wikipedia as an active contributor, I would repeat this process with TV Tropes.
So many memories tied in with this series. Let me thank it for the following things:
One, a lifelong love of cetaceans. The education these games hand out through simple gameplay mechanics is beauty itself. Dolphins are not fish, they breathe air, they fear sharks, they live in family groups, they use sonar. They are intelligent. Ecco Jr. went a step further and outright included data points about dolphins. Yes, I had to go outside the games and actually read and learn something. But these games lit that spark, a fire that burns brightly still.
Two, a love for xenofiction. It’s amazing just how bizarre Ecco’s world is, especially in the Genesis games, and the games do not shy an inch from how alien our protagonist and his friends and foes are. I loved it then, I love it now, and I seek similarly and proudly strange stories to this day.
Three, a love for and patience with piss-hard games. Beating the original Ecco and Defender of the Future are proud marks of honour in my gaming repertoire, and I instantly respect anyone else who has. Tides still eludes me. One day…
I’ve written fanfic, edited fanvids, doodled fanart. Ecco is one of my heroes, and I know I’ll be thinking of him for years further to come, no matter how little the rights owners seem to care about this diamond they have, the misshapen, weird little diamond that shines brighter than a star, this diamond they’ve left to languish in the corner of the pool.
Ecco, thank you. Thank you. And thank you, to everyone who was involved in bringing his stories to us. Thank you, a thousand times, thank you, for the beauty and the wonder these games still show us, and the fear, and the triumph.
Here’s to another twenty years. And here’s me hoping, in my heart of hearts, that we will one day be able to use our secret passwords.