Monday, 16 April 2012

Ecco the Dolphin (Genesis/Mega Drive)


So Ray asks me "Hey mecha-neko, why don't you play a console game?", and I say "Sure, why not. What should I play?". He says "Why don't you play a neko game?". I say "A neko game? I'd love to play a neko-"

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGH!

Let me explain. Me and Ecco don't get on. Every time I've seen or played Ecco, it's been a troubling experience. Just looking at this title screen and listening to this music I'm feeling somewhere between nervous and nauseous.

And where does he get off, being so smug with that smug dolphin face of his? Stop looking at me. I SAID STOP LOOKING AT ME!

Oh sure, it's all fun and games. Ecco and his dolphin buddies frolicking at the bottom of the ocean. That's how it all starts. And it's not even that pleasant here.

I'm plonked in this empty cave. No context. I was expecting some sort of intro after being treated to that attract sequence.

Maybe this is a test room to let the player get used to the controls. There's not very many other dolphin games to practice with, so it's a good idea to take some time to get used to Ecco's controls. I can do a dashing thrust with the B button or simply swim fast with the C button. I've got two choices: left or right. Don't expect it really matters. Left.

I'm looking at a screen showing the letters of the alphabet, some arrows and some dots. It takes me a couple of seconds to register that this is a password screen and not an enter your name screen. Would it have killed them to put the word 'Password' at the top of the screen? There's no 'END' button, either. I fumble around with the controls trying to get rid of it.

Oh crap. What's going on?!

Why would they make AAAAAAAA a valid password, really?

Stop, stop, stop! Abort! Start again!

Heading right out of the cave this time makes Ecco appear in his home turf: the... sea. There's lots of other dolphin chums swimming around and leaping from the waterline. Everything seems pretty calm. Maybe everything isn't so bad after all!

Ecco and pals are rather well-animated brutes. We can all swim freely in eight directions and leap about, but I don't seem to have anywhere special to go right now.

Hey, Ecco's picked up another ability since his internment in the starting cave: we can now chat to his chums by shooting ultrasonic waves at them. What's new, dolphin friend?

Dolphins communicate to each other in ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME for that extra feeling of safety and warmth that only smug arsehole dolphins can exude.

Do I have marks on my head? My sprite doesn't... we dolphins all share the same sprite don't we? Oh, Ecco's got sparkles on his head on the title screen! I thought he just had a shiny head. Maybe he's a vampire dolphin.

I'm going to have a look around underwater and see if there's any mischief I can get myself into.

Nope. No mischief here. Only myself, the ocean floor and lots of parallax scrolling. What's up with these rock tiles? They don't seem to match up to each other. I thought something was wrong when I was near the surface, but I guess it's supposed to look like this. This music isn't very relaxing. There's a tense marching beat behind it.

The pals have some useful hints to share. One philosophical chap asks "Ecco, if we breathe air why do we live beneath the waves?". Because we're dolphins! But we do breathe air. Which means I have finite air, and there's no air gauge on screen that I can see. Which means I'm going to end up drowning, slowly, trapped in a pitch black maze at the bottom of the ocean. That's something to look forward to.

There's a passage to the lower right that's blocked by rocks. None of my abilities have any effect. I wonder if the passage leads to some kind of terrible secret that no dolphin may enter without permission of the Village Elder.

One of my dolphin comrades asks "How high in the sky can you fly?" How high, my man? Why, super high, of course! Just give me a couple of minutes. I need to figure out how the gears work on this thing.

Okay, here we go! *wooooosh*

As I majestically arc through the air, I'm interrupted by a synthesized shriek and a flashing background as the full contents of the ocean are snatched into the air by an unknown force.

"How high in the sky can you fly?" will go down in dolphin history as one of the dumbest, most fate-tempting questions ever asked. It's the dolphin equivalent of "What can possibly go wrong?".

When the show is over Ecco is dropped back into the ocean; the force seems to have taken absolutely everything except him. He was simply too smug to handle and they sent him back.

The music's changed to a much more serious theme. Now the adventure begins. A desperate chase by one dolphin to rescue all other ocean life. His weapons: his wits. First up, do we know where our friends have been taken? We do. They've been taken up. We go up.

I try to recreate my spectacular, serenity-shattering leap, but no dice. Either whatever Ecco triggered only works once, or it was sheer coincidence that Ecco happened to be leaping at the exact time the catastrophe happened.

The debacle has shocked Ecco into vulnerability, giving him life and air gauges. I mistimed this jump somewhat, but Ecco bounced harmlessly off the island.

Through the now mysteriously unblocked side tunnel, I find another bay like Ecco's own. There's still some dolphins here! In fact, this place is teeming with life. Tiny life-restoring fish to eat, and jellyfish that hurt Ecco only slightly, but touching them makes him stop for a moment, and get hit again and again and so on.

The other dolphins didn't have anything to offer beyond "... suddenly great winds of water... ". Rather than stick around and enjoy my new acquaintance's dolphin diarrhea anecdotes, I decide to systematically check all the passages on the sea bed.

Turns out there's massive tunnel networks down here! You can bring up a map by holding down the sonar button, but it doesn't show you much beyond what you can see on screen anyway except now it's really small.

It's difficult to get Ecco to break the water's surface. You have to steer him in loops in confined spaces while holding the 'fast swim' button, and then aim diagonally (on this pad?) the way you want to go and hit the jump button just before you reach the surface. When you re-enter the water, Ecco's still moving at quite a rate, so you've got to be ready to yank him away from danger immediately after landing.

Hello, Mr. Orca sir! My name's Ecco!

"I know not what has happened to your pod. Perhaps the Big Blue will help you. You must travel past the undercaves to find him." And then he swims away.

The Big Blue, huh? Is that another whale? Or is it a metaphor for the ocean itself? I suppose it's not going to be as simple as this crystal just below us?

I send a sonar wave toward the crystal before leaving. It wobbles slightly and makes a 'donk' sound. Switch? Checkpoint?

Ecco's air runs out incredibly fast so I have to drive as fast as I can. And what happens as I dart my way through the passages toward what I think is salvation? Ecco shoots out from the water's surface like a cannonball, hits the spikes I couldn't see and splat. There's a momentary flickering, a loud wailing and I'm back to the entrance of the level.

Ugh. Not a checkpoint then.

After rushing through the maze again to meet the orca, I find a second crystal blocking another passage to the right. If I try to collide with it, it emits some rays and pushes me back. I hit it with a wave of my own.

"SEARCH FOR THE KEY-GLYPH"

This is as far as I've ever got in Ecco. These five words have been stuck in my head for two decades.

Search for the Key-Glyph? What does that even MEAN? Was it that crystal next to the whale? The one that looks exactly like this one? I used that one! It went 'donk'! It didn't do anything!

So around and around I go. I can't stop playing this game until I find this Key-Glyph. It's probably not a physical thing because Ecco doesn't have any arms. I may have to find him some arms first. Or maybe a bag to keep stuff in.

Round and round and round. I head back to the crystal in the maze. I figure that maybe it is a switch, but I donked it the wrong number of times. I donked it on but then I somehow donked it off again, or perhaps it runs on a timer. When I approach it, it emits a bunch of circles. And then the circles appear around Ecco momentarily. Putting the pieces together, I go back to the crystal the blocked my path. I sonar it, and it gently falls off the screen. Success.

The Key-Glyph is a bunch of circles you get from bumping into crystals that look identical to the crystals that block your path. Find the Key-Glyph crystal, then find the blocking crystal, then shoot it.

And then while I'm taking notes on my groundbreaking discovery, Ecco slowly drifts away from the screen with the crystal on and when I return to it THE GOD DAMNED CRYSTAL HAS REAPPEARED AND I HAVE TO GO GET MORE CIRCLES FROM THE UNDERGROUND MAZE.

So this is where 'AAAAAAAA' puts you?

And here I was worried that I'd skipped half the game and was about to get freaked out by some kind of suddenly appearing screen-filling monstrosity. Instead, I'm just in a perfectly ordinary cramped maze with one-way currents, no access to the surface for air, lots of wall spikes and EVEN MORE Key-Glyphs.

This level's music is backed by a repeating pulsing bass tone that permeates the soul and freezes the heart. It's not enough that we have to see Ecco himself dying a slow death on screen, Novotrade decided to forcibly drag the player into the grave also using that thoroughly evil device: the Mega Drive sound chip.

The currents push you into the spikes, by the way. You get infinite lives. It's not enough.

Say, did I ever mention how the background rock looks like a heap of malformed bones fused together?

The path ahead is blocked by these spiky shells. All logic says you shouldn't touch them; Ecco's practically a great big inflatable toy. Indeed, getting anywhere near them hurts a lot. To get past them, you need to charge directly at them. If you mess up the charge timing or your aim is slightly off or you hit two at once, you stop, get stuck and have to hope you can detach yourself from them before you're sent back to the very start of the level.

When you die, you see the level description and password again. The password changes every time I die. It's keeping track. What possible reason could the game have to do that, other than to surprise the unskilled or unlucky player with a "You died too many times. You have failed to save Ecco's pod." end sequence?

These damn pufferfish. They chase you in swift lunging motions. They're not that dangerous and you can kill them with the charge, but Ecco's charge attack simply isn't reliable. I'd say it's got a 50/50 chance of working given perfect conditions. Getting hit by one of these things and coming to halt when you're trying to shoot through a tunnel like a bullet thanks to the limited air is unbelieveably aggravating.

Trying to navigate these underwater mazes isn't fun at all. Ecco drives like a remote controlled car. He's very good at going incredibly fast in straight lines and maintaining that speed around arcs, but he's not very good at stopping. The camera does its best to show you whats in front of you, but everything moves so fast it's sure to give many people motion sickness.

He's very good at getting trapped on walls. If you glance one of these walls, you might think he'd simply slide off it and be on his way. Nope. He's stuck there. You have to give him a second to unstuck himself and then carefully move in the opposite direction.

It's another blocked passage. No Key-Glyph this time. These rocks look like the same type that simply disappeared after the dolphin pals were kidnapped at the start. How do you suppose we get past them this time?

There's a cone shaped shell with flashing red and blue lines on it that you have to push into them. Ecco isn't great at precision. He swoops and dives rather than snapping to directions. He's got no way of pushing things upwards and you can't balance stuff on his back. You have to push the shell of a shelf on the screen above and then race it down here. When you're beside the falling shell and facing the right direction, you push into the rocks to make them disappear. You screw it up (and you WILL), you have to swim several screens away to make the thing disappear and then try again.

Rock covered tunnel unblocked. Key-Glyph circles acquired. Pufferfish and jellyfish eluded. One block of air left. Here we go...

NO.

NO NO NO NO NO.

Okay, fine, YES. I want to meet this Big Blue. I'm sure he's on the next level.

This thing is really unpleasant.

His tentacle moves is made up of a number of separate sprites and it moves back and forth erratically. It doesn't attack you unless you move fast. And 'fast' means, you get to tap 'down' once every second. Anything faster than that and he lurches toward Ecco, there's a horrible dolphin shriek and you've lost at least three squares of health and one square of air AND you're pushed back up the screen away from it. Did I mention that you have to pass this thing both ways with no stop for air?

I'M FREE!

No Big Blue to be found. I'm sure he's on the next next level.

On this level, Ecco hears news of some dolphins trapped in more underwater tunnels. The other dolphins are powerless to help thanks to strong currents blasting everything upwards.

No problem, Ecco's a clever lad. Push down a rock that's almost indistinguishable from the rest of the immovable ground and follow it down. And when I try to move to the side to enter one of these passages, I get blasted all the way back to the top again. To get the rock to reappear I have to travel a couple of screens away.

To get health back, as well as eating the fish, there's clam type things you can sonar to make them produce healing bubbles. If you're worried about drowning, you might be tempted to alternate between the charge and 'fast swim' buttons for extra speed. That's what I did. And I accidentally hit a clam with my charge attack. I got jammed in the wall while the clam maliciously produced a steady stream of INSTANT KILL YOU BUBBLES. It only gets worse from here.

Oh, would you look at the time? I have to do something that ISN'T PLAYING ECCO.

I know what this game is. It's Shadow of the Beast under water. These games aren't so much played and enjoyed, as stared at with concern and fear.

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Semi-Random Game Box