In the early 1990s, America found itself in the middle of a raucous console war. Nintendo, the video game industry’s 600-pound gorilla, found itself in the unusual position of being outflanked by Sega. Originally founded in 1940 by Americans selling slot machines to the military (“Sega” comes from “service gaming”), Sega had gone through a number of iterations before being sold to the Japanese CSK in 1984, a move which barely made a ripple in the American press. It experimented a lot — and still does — and one of its weirdest and most ambitious games takes on the perspective of a dolphin.
Sega had been in the business of arcade games, but once those had declined in the 1980s, it began making its own at-home hardware. But, in a pattern that would prove typical for anyone attempting to challenge Nintendo, its sales were paltry ... at first.
Societal patterns outside of gaming had changed by the ‘90s, though. Outsiders from grunge to hip-hop were gaining cultural cache, and Sega of America decided to embrace their underdog status for the Genesis with a slogan that is still remembered decades later: Sega does what Nintendon’t.
The strategy worked, in large part because Sega backed up its claim. The games on the Genesis tended to be either more violent or cerebral than those on the Super Nintendo, clearly aiming for an older audience.
In the latter category were games like the cult classic Ecco the Dolphin, which was as gorgeous as it was difficult. If you’ve subscribed to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack, you can play Ecco the Dolphin right now.
Ecco the Dolphin, perhaps best known as the game where you play as a dolphin, leaped forth from the mind of Ed Annunziata, a developer who had gotten his start making educational sea-faring games like The Voyage of the Mimi. But for Annunziata (as he discusses in an interview with Electric Playground) the real inspiration came from the 1982 novel The Sounding. Written by Hank Searls, the story is partially told from the perspective of a sperm whale. Searls writes:
“Tonight he was blatting, from spring-taut internal lips in his headcase, a loud and repeated peal: ‘Blang ... blang ... blang …’ The sound, like a mallet slamming an empty steel drum, would have deafened a man in water.”
The book goes on to explore ancient aquatic mammalian lore and showcases the animals as majestic creatures who have forgotten more than humans can remember. It’s easy to see what intrigued Annunziata. It is less easy to see why he made the game so tremendously difficult.
When the player meets Ecco, the dolphins is playing happily with their pod in the ocean. Ecco has two abilities: A forward rush increases speed and lets Ecco hit a target with its snout, and echolocation uses sound to locate objects. And since echolocation is (sadly) unnatural to humans, messages are conveyed in poetic mystery, often lacking context. This dialogue can be intriguing and feel worthwhile after one of the game’s many gorgeous reveals.
But it can also be frustrating.
When asked in a 2013 interview commemorating the game’s 20th anniversary if he would like to say anything to current and new players, Annunziata responded, presumably over email, “Sorry the game is so hard! :)”
He’s not really sorry, of course. But he is right: Ecco the Dolphin is incredibly hard. A new player on the Switch will find themselves at a disadvantage immediately. There are no tutorials or explanations of the game’s controls or mechanics. It’s worth looking, at the very least, at the game’s official instruction manual, which is not available via the Switch. For example, it takes some time to realize there are two bars of health: one for physical health and one for oxygen levels.
The game also doesn’t provide many clues about what to do or where to go. Some aspects, like mapping through echolocation, can help, but there’s a lot of trial and error. This could be a positive or a negative, depending on how much hand-holding a player enjoys.
Even beyond the struggle for comprehension, merely using all these tools correctly is a challenge. Ecco’s health meter can get quickly shredded by jellyfish and blowfish (much like real life, we guess?). You might find your poor dolphin with only one or two bars of oxygen left after nimbly dodging around such dangerous creatures. Both of these are replenishable, but finding the means to do so is another challenge.
There’s a reason that Ecco walkthroughs are riddled with phrases like, “Okay, I'm not going to lie. This is going to be very frustrating to a new time player of Ecco.” Expect to die and die some more. Ecco will prove a challenge to the modern gamer just as it did all those years ago.
With that disclaimer, however, Ecco is still worth playing. The side-scrolling world of Ecco is unlike any other game from that era. It truly captures what it looks and feels like to view the world from a dolphin’s perspective. From its gorgeous sea creatures and backgrounds to its Pink Floyd-inspired soundtrack, the vibes are absolutely sublime, even compared to today’s standards. There’s a reason the game’s aesthetics inspired the mid-2010s extremely niche Tumblr trend seapunk.
Just remember the old sea captain’s saying: If the vibes be fair, player beware!