Ecco the Dolphin (series)
"No matter where you go, you know I'll find you/No matter where you've been, I'll bring you home"—"St. Gabriel's Mask Vocal Remix"
A Sega video game series about a time-travelling bottlenose dolphin who fights space aliens. His friends include a pteranodon, a telepathic strand of DNA, and flying dolphins from ten million years in the future. Or, if you ask some people, a telepathic crystal and various alternate future dolphins.
The games feature notoriously difficult gameplay, which focuses on solving puzzles with the ever-present Oxygen Meter hanging over the player, and surreal storylines focused on a dolphin's perspective on alien invasions (that don't involve leaving with a thank-you note). Despite the apparent silliness of the premise, the alien (sometimes literally) setting, atmospheric music and minimalist dialogue create a lingering sense of eeriness.
The series was originally for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, and began with Ecco the Dolphin. In this game, Ecco's pod was snatched from the seas by a mysterious storm, so he set out to find them, helping other dolphins along the way.
As the storyline went on, it got progressively more bizarre: first, Ecco went to see a blue whale for advice. The blue whale didn't know much, but sent Ecco to talk to the Asterite, the oldest being in the seas with the appearance of globes arranged on a double-helix. The Asterite, with no explanation, recognised Ecco and told him it could help him, except it was missing a globe and thus not at full power. The solution: travel to Atlantis and go back in time 55 million years to retrieve the wayward sphere. In Atlantis, Ecco discovers that the source of the storm was a species of hiveminded alien who had lost the ability to make their own food and was thus harvesting from Earth's seas every 500 years.
In the end, Ecco saves his pod and destroys the Vortex aliens - or so he thought.
Ecco: The Tides of Time picked up where the original left off. Ecco finds out from his descendant, Trellia the flying dolphin from ten million years in the future, that the Vortex Queen was Not Quite Dead and had followed Ecco to Earth, whereupon she killed the Asterite and began a takeover. On top of that, Ecco's time-travelling in the first game had split the timestream in two: one where Trellia and her fellows created a paradise for themselves, and one where the Vortex razed the sea and sky, killing the Earth. Whoops. The second game, then, followed Ecco's adventures as he sought to save the Asterite (also Not Quite Dead) and the good future of Earth. It ended with Ecco vanishing mysteriously into the "Tides of Time"
Its return came in the form of Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future for the Sega Dreamcast, which brought the series to three-dimensions and completely ignored the universe and storyline that came before it. About the only things it had in common with the original series was the protagonist being a dolphin named Ecco, aliens, and time travel. It also introduced a dolphin/human (and whale) society, where the original games relegated humans to backgrounds in Atlantis and the odd background sunken ship. Fan reaction was mixed.
In Defender, the plot centered around the Foe aliens breaking the timestream by stealing dolphinkind's "most noble traits" - Intelligence, Ambition, Compassion, Wisdom, and Humility - in the past, before they could unite with humans. It was of course Ecco's job to get these traits back, over the course of three different alternate futures: Man's Nightmare, Dolphins' Nightmare, and Domain of the Enemy.
One was a dying world with polluted water, no humans on account of them having gone extinct in their war against the Foe, and stupid-but-still-sapient dolphins who either worshipped men as a benevolent force which had uplifted dolphinkind from being mere animals and eagerly awaited their return or regarded them as a nasty species that had enslaved dolphinkind. It turns out both factions were probably right.
The next reality happened after Ecco sent back Intelligence and Ambition, turning dolphins into a surly bunch of warlords who drove humans from the seas. Arguably the prettiest section of the game, since the dolphins used a lot of organic-looking technology, and since it includes Hanging Waters, aka "Let's See How Many Mythology Gags Can Fit In One Level".
The final alternate reality saw every trait but Humilty restored to dolphins. In this one, the Foe took over and turned Earth into Mordor. And... that's... about it...
All in all, Ecco is a very bizarre, haunting, frustrating, and strangely charming series. Don't expect to see any more of him in either the Genesis or Defender storyline anytime soon. Unless it's for an official April Fools' Day prank.
- Badass Adorable: Ecco, of course, being both a dolphin and the protagonist of an adventure game series, would obviously qualify as this, but it tends towards Fridge Brilliance when you consider that the label Badass Adorable arguably applies to real-life dolphins as well.
- Bad Future: Central to the plot of Tides and playable in a few levels. Defender of the Future has three Bad Futures to go through in total during Ecco's quest to restore the timeline to its proper state.
- Bullfight Boss: The Globe Holder from Tides has elements of this in the second phase, although it's not really a "boss." The great white shark in Defender is a somewhat straighter example.
- Cosmic Horror Story
- Crap Saccharine World: Who knew a video game about dolphins can be so disturbing?
- Crystal Spires and Togas: Any time Atlantis shows up.
- Easing Into the Adventure: Each game lets you spend as long as you like in the first lagoon; there's always a certain something that kicks the plot off, and the player has control over when it occurs.
- Escort Mission: Each game (even the edutainment one) has at least one, though in the original they are optional. They're also not too bad as escort missions go; in the Genesis games, your charges are invulnerable, and the Defender ones aren't killable. They're arguably not even true escort missions, since you don't have to protect them or even keep them in sight, they just follow you automatically and unerringly.
- Defender had an irritating glitch during the most difficult escort mission. You were meant to protect a dolphin so he could lead you to a door and open it for you. Sometimes, after going through a short tunnel, he would manage to swim inside a rock on the other side and become stuck. Made irritating by the fact that a Power of Sonar gem would have made him obsolete anyway.
- Everything Is Even Worse With Sharks: Well, naturally. Sharks are some of the tougher enemies, often taking three to five hits to kill. Ecco himself is transformed into a shark several times in Tides, mostly so he can rampage about the level eating everything... and for an excuse to choose between getting munched by One-Hit Kill sharks or turn yourself into one and proceeding to get attacked by other dolphins.
- Floating Continent: In the Good Future of Tides. The flying dolphins say they were "born of the great eruptions", whatever that means. A few also show up in the Hanging Waters level-set in Defender.
- Friendly Playful Dolphin: The trope's at its most active in Ecco Jr., though some minigames in Defender show the dolphins' playful side. It's nearly absent from the original two games - Ecco's podmate challenges him to see how high he can jump at the start of Ecco the Dolphin, but for the most part the Singers are too concerned with surviving the Vortex assault to be very playful.
- Green Aesop: Like Sonic CD, this is one of the rare series where the utopian conclusion is one where technology and nature coexist in harmony instead of taking the "all technology is evil" route common with animal protagonists.
- Hailfire Peaks, naturally all with an Under the Sea twist:
- Green Hill Zone: The first level in every game.
- Underground Level: The Undercaves would be the first example.
- Slippy-Slidey Ice World: In which Ecco can literally slip and slide around on his belly atop the ice.
- Prehistoria: And how!
- Eternal Engine: Welcome to the Machine
- The second game also features undersea versions of Bubbly Clouds (Sky Tides) and Mordor (Lunar Bay).
- Heroic Dolphin: And Ecco, while being the most obvious, isn't actually the only example: dolphinkind in general shows up en masse to kick Vortex carapace at the Asterite's request in Tides, and the Resistance dolphins in Defender's Dolphins' Nightmare section pull some courageous maneuvers.
- Heroic Mime: Ecco does use his voice as a general problem-solving tool, but the player's never privy to anything he says beyond "Queek-queek-queek" and "SQUAAARK!!"
- He also chatters when you press the sonar button out of water in Defender. Interestingly, one of the scrapped ideas involved being able to see what Ecco's sonar translated to by singing at a mirror.
- Hive Mind: The Vortex and Foe alike, though it's clearer with the Vortex.
- Horde of Alien Locusts: Again, the aliens in both storylines.
- Locked Door: Summarized by "SEARCH FOR THE KEY-GLYPH" for the first two. Defender has a few story-related examples scattered around.
- The Maze: At least one in each game, some more frustrating than others
- Make Me Wanna Shout: Ecco's sonar gets various weapons-grade upgrades throughout the games.
- New Age: Let's see, you gotcher dolphins, your New Age-y music, your themes of harmony with the environment...
- Nintendo Hard: Controller-throwingly so. As to rub salt on the wound, most of the achievements/trophies for the ports revolve around not dying until getting to a certain level and until you beat the game three times in a row.
- No Biological Sex: The Asterite and its Defender Expy, the Guardian.
- Oddball in the Series: Ecco Jr.
- Pass Through the Rings: Those goddamn teleport levels from Tides. Predictably, some of this in Defender as well, since it's the only 3D game in the series.
- Sapient Cetaceans:
- Aside from Ecco discussing subjects like alien invasions and lost families with other creatures, including those of other species, the series also involves solving notoriously challenging puzzles when playing as Ecco.
- The comic books based on the series more directly portray Ecco as a very clever and resourceful dolphin, even to the point of showing Ecco tricking a jellyfish and a polar bear into attacking each other instead of him.
- Scenery Porn: Many, many lovely shots of the ocean.
- Stalking Mission: Defender. There's a deadly version in Tides, and in Hard mode Ecco must make the stalkee chase him.
- Surprise Creepy: You wouldn't think a series about a dolphin could possibly be this eerie, would you?
- Sword of Plot Advancement: The special powers the Asterite gives Ecco in the first and second games, the dolphins' noble traits in Defender.
- Time Travel: In every single game, apart from Ecco Jr.
- Underwater Ruins: Doubles as Scenery Porn.
- Un Installment: Ecco Water Wars 2, Sega's April Fools' Day joke.
- Wasted Song: Tides brings us Convergence, which is a medley of just about every major theme in the game. Too bad you only hear it as you're restoring the Asterite... and during the dolphins' cavalry charge on Lunar Bay that immediately follows that scene. It's not supposed to play there, but they forgot to kick the music over on the zone change - as long as you don't have to reload the level, you'll hear it most of the way to the Vortex Queen.
- What Do You Mean It Wasn't Made on Drugs?: According to series creator Ed Annunziata, "No, I never took LSD, but I did read a lot from John C Lilly." Lilly himself, however, was a marine biologist who was quite the fan of ketamine. He tried to talk to dolphins, believed in the benevolent Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO) and in malevolent Solid State Intelligence aliens (SSI).
- Xenofiction: Even in Defender, where humans are a much more relevant species, the games are told from a cetacean perspective.
- Ascended Fridge Horror: One of the main means by which Tides of Time is Darker and Edgier than the first; it simply addresses the darker implications of time travel in further depth than the original did.
- Also, at a couple of points late in the game, you can take a wrong turn and accidentally get turned into a Vortex creature. But wait, it gets worse. Notice how the mechanical floating things look like jellyfish? Now take another look at that creature you've turned into. No real legs, but kind of a tail, a large head, and two short arms where the flippers would be. Yeah. That's what the Vortex Queen would turn all the dolphins into, if it didn't outright kill them.
- Bag of Spilling: You start Tides with the powers the Asterite gave Ecco in the first game, but they are lost when the Asterite is killed. Which of course occurs just before the first real level of the game.
- Boss-Only Level: The Vortex Queen fights in both games take up their own levels.
- Several of the bosses in Tides take this form: Moray Abyss and Globeholder are the other major examples.
- Call a Rabbit a Smeerp: The cetaceans refer to themselves as "Singers" and have different names for various animals: Shelled Ones = clams, Hungry Ones = sharks, Eight-Arms = giant octopus, etc.
- Cat and Mouse Boss: The final level of Tides's Playable Epilogue. The Vortex Queen is heading for the time machine, hoping to paradox you out of existence. You have to get there first and destroy it. Unfortunately, she's currently in an invincible larval state that can crush you into paste if she sees you. And you need her to open doors for you. Good luck.
- The Cavalry - Near the end of Tides, the Asterite restores Ecco's powers from the first game and sends you to storm the Vortex base in Lunar Bay. It also summons a bunch of other dolphins, who proceed to kick the crap out of anything that would otherwise be trying to kill you as you pick your way through the level.
- Darker and Edgier: Tides is noticeably darker than the original, though that's not to say the original wasn't dark.
- The original involves Ecco using a time machine to change the past and save his pod from an alien race.
- The sequel involves Ecco realizing he didn't change the past but simply split the stream of time, allowing for a variety of futures, including one in which said alien race apparently takes over and the whole place seems to be a technological hellhole.
- Debug Room: Both Ecco and Tides have debug menus accessable by making Ecco face the player, pausing, and entering a certain button combo. Among things accessable are a Sound Test, God Mode invincibility, all the messages in each game with a few Dummied Out extras, a level select, and X/Y-coordinate warps.
- Doomed Home Bay: Jump really high to trigger the apocalypse!
- Early-Bird Cameo: A rather weird variant. The password TRELLIAS skips Ecco to the final boss in the first game.
- Everything Trying to Kill You: Ecco's enemies are fairly reasonable for the most part, but the prehistoric levels of the first game feature Goddamned Trilobites and giant seahorses who shoot their young at you.
- Flying Seafood Special: Both dolphins and gigantic medusae.
- Genius Loci: The ocean in the good future, according to the future dolphins.
- Immediate Sequel: Tides.
- I Will Find You: Ecco's motive in the original is to find his pod.
- Mercy Mode - Tides has a variant: play on normal, and you start on hard. Do badly enough and you get booted back to easy; do well enough, and you'll be back to hard. Also in Tides, the Four Islands Stalking Mission will eventually have mercy on you and just give you what you need if you fail about 10-12 times, but not before the dolphin gets more and more frustrated with you.
- My Own Grampa: Variant: while retrieving the Asterite's globe in Ecco the Dolphin, Ecco encounters some proto-cetaceans and accidentally gives them the idea to take to the seas.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: "You are the Stone that splits the Stream of Time in two."
- No Ontological Inertia: The Asterite's powerup only works when it's alive.
- One-Hit Kill: So many things do this you wonder why they bothered letting you keep the life meter for the last few levels.
- Oxygenated Underwater Bubbles: These can be gotten from oysters, although sometimes you get a poisoned bubble if you aren't careful.
- Password Save: Try filling it out with all N's in the first game.
- Playable Epilogue: Tides has one three levels long.
- Ptero-Soarer: There's a helpful pteranodon in the first game. Somehow, without the use of any grasping hindfeet, he manages to carry Ecco over some cliffs.
- Shapeshifting: Specifically, of the Animorphism variety, Ecco can turn into a shark, a seagull, a jellyfish, a vortex creature and a school of fish that can lose and gain members as you go along.
- The Sky Is an Ocean: The Tides Of Time features flying dolphins, a giant flying jellyfish, and ocean paths in the sky.
- Somewhere a Palaeontologist Is Crying: The prehistoric levels of Ecco the Dolphin include trilobites, pteranodons, and proto-cetaceans cohabiting.
- Stable Time Loop: Ecco is sent back in time to find the Asterite's lost globe, but ultimately ends up stealing it from it in the past, and thus being the reason the Asterite doesn't have said globe in the first place. The Asterite itself comes to this revelation when you first meet it, but of course, you're not likely to understand a word it's saying at the time.
- Ambition Is Evil: Ambition is actually one of the dolphins' Noble Traits, but if it's only paired with Intelligence and not tempered by Compassion, Wisdom, and Humility...
- Continuity Reboot: Shares no story connections with the Genesis games, instead returning to the basic theme of a time-travelling dolphin battling space aliens.
- Crap Saccharine World: The Dolphins' Nightmare levels are some of the most drop-dead beautiful things to come out of the Dreamcast. It's also not called a nightmare for nothing.
- David Brin: He wrote the storyline.
- Fauxlosophic Narration: Much of the story exposition in Defender comes off as this.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: In the Man's Nightmare section, when they take over without uniting with the dolphins, instead uplifting them, enslaving them, and turning Earth into a polluted wasteland during the Foe war. Of course, the dolphins from the Dolphins' Nightmare section are some pretty nasty customers as well, routinely torturing and killing each other and abusing whales, so maybe it's more like Unchecked Dominant Species Are Bastards. Things only go well when dolphins and humans unite as humble equals.
- An Ice Person/Playing with Fire: The Ice and Fire Exalted One, natch.
- Invisibility: One of Ecco's glyph powers.
- Mythology Gag: Defender of the Future occasionally references the original games, but Hanging Waters in particular seems to be a love letter to them. The level itself is the 3D version of the Skyway, the squid may be referencing both the Eight-Arms and the flying medusa all in one go, and the giant bird towards the end calls the helpful pteranodon to mind, right down to how he's summoned with song.
- Nostalgia Level: Includes two hidden sidescrolling levels based on the Genesis games; one is actually called Passage from Genesis.
- Poison Fish: Among the many health-restoring fish there is one specific kind that'll hurt instead of heal you. These poison fish are the only way to heal you from a slow death due to jellyfish poison. If you're poisoned and eat this fish, you won't take damage and your health won't increase, but the poison will be gone. They can also be mildly useful after you learn the Song of Fish. Sharks don't want to eat poison fish, so having a little cloud of them following you around makes a nifty living shield. The downside? Fish are slow, so said living shield is only effective when you don't need or want to swim quickly.
- Space Is an Ocean: The opening cinematic seems to make it apparent that both man and dolphin prefer the "space fetus" method of interstellar travel from the end of 2001: A Space Oddyssey.
- Spikes of Villainy: The Clan. Especially their leaders.
- Uplifted Animal: The dolphins, having lost their native Intelligence, are artificially uplifted in the Man's Nightmare section.
- Womb Level: The final boss.