RetroVision – Ecco, The Unlikely Tale of a Cult Classic
Ecco the Dolphin is a curious game, it blends genres and in many ways is quite a unique title. On release it was an instant best-seller, and it has subsequently become not only a defining title for SEGA’s Mega Drive/Genesis console, but also something of a cult classic. However, it was not plain sailing when it came to getting someone to believe in the vision of an action-adventure title set in the sea, with a dolphin as the lead character to boot.
Creator Ed Annunziata has always held a fascination with Dolphins, and thought what better way to inspire other people to be interested, than through a video game. However, the early 90s video game industry was full to the brim of commandos, cyborgs and characters with attitude. Ecco was none of these. Additionally, whilst most games moved from left to right, Annunziata wanted to ditch gravity in favour of completely free-flowing controls, being inspired by Dolphins and the Sea itself. On top of that the game also held messages of protecting the environment, rather than having everything blown to pieces, and even gets all sci-fi with a story surrounding Alien invaders and time-travel.
Annunziata also put considerable research into both marine environments, and the psychology of Dolphins, being particularly inspired by Hank Searls’ novel, Sounding. As he explained in a previous interview, he really wanted to channel the feel of being underwater, and of being a dolphin exploring a land hidden from human eyes. As such he made the Dolphin’s ability of ‘echolocation’ a critical component of the game, something not only heightened the player’s embodiment of being a dolphin, but also lent itself to Ecco’s name. Additionally, in order to achieve this, he gave considerable attention to the game’s now highly revered soundtrack. Even going as far as to play Pink Floyd to the music team to showcase what he was aiming for.
Now, given that the ideas behind Ecco the Dolphin’s creation strayed considerably from the norm at the time, it won’t come as any surprise to learn that Annunziata found it difficulty to get publishers to believe in his vision. In fact, as he has explained on many occasions, he usually lost most publishers as soon as he mentioned Ecco and the Dolphins. Despite this, he did get one company to believe in his vision, that company was obviously SEGA. However, he didn’t approach SEGA in his usual way.
Annunziata knew that in order to make someone believe in this vision, rather than talking about it and alienating them, he would simply have to show them. So, in something of a last ditch attempt to convince people of Ecco the Dolphin’s merit, he built a prototype to show SEGA. This was all it took, and after only seeing small portion of the prototype, SEGA’s American arm were in, believing they had something that could rival the brands of SEGA of Japan.
I somehow, through tenacity, was able to get a small amount of money, and I had a magical team, and we built a prototype in a kind of skunkworks fashion. And when I showed it there wasn’t even a moment where they said ‘hey yeah let’s do this’ – it just showed up on the product plans. It was just there: dolphin, dolphin, dolphin. Every time I saw the roadmap I saw my game there. There was no debate, no green-light official meeting – it was just there right after the prototype, and that was all it really took.
Annunziata was subsequently brought into SEGA to build the game, and it was released initially in Europe in 1992, before going on sale globally in 1993, exclusively for the SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis and MEGA-CD. This move hugely paid off, especially for SEGA of America, who usually struggled to sell western games in Japan. Ecco didn’t just go straight to number one in Japan, but went on to become one the best-selling games of 1993, despite the scepticism of most publishers within the industry.
Additionally, there may also be one further reason behind the game’s tremendous sales. Despite obviously being an exceptional game that broke many boundaries within gaming, many at SEGA, especially Annunziata himself, believed that if they made the game too easy then people would simply rent the game, complete it, and then return it. Now renting may not be much of a thing anymore, but as we all know, it was a standard way for many to play games in the 80s and 90s.
As such, Annunziata wanted to make the game so hard that people would want to purchase it so they could complete it. Obviously in a situation like this, the gameplay would have to be of a high quality, but SEGA and Annunziata’s team already believed this was the case, so they simply racked up the difficulty to match that of many 16-bit games. On a personal note this is something I have good memories of, as I always thought Ecco was near impossible as a child, and more enjoyed just endlessly exploring.
I was paranoid about game rentals and kids beating the game over the weekend. So.. I.. uh… made it hard.
Nevertheless, Ecco’s success led on to the equally well-received sequel, Ecco the Dolphin: The Tides of Time, which was released the following year in 1994, with two further games following after. What’s more, Ecco the Dolphin has gone on to be re-released on variety of platforms over the years, including Nintendo’s Virtual Console, smartphones, Steam, and a 3D version for the 3DS. Ecco the Dolphin may have been an unconventional game, featuring and unconventional hero in an unconventional story, but it struck a cord with most 16-bit gamers for its unique and engaging gameplay, well crafted world, and attention to detail, especially when concerning Dolphins and their ecosystem. Ecco may have struggled his way into this world, but thankfully he’s here to stay.