Ecco the Dolphin

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Screenshot of Ecco The Dolphin for the Sega Megadrive and Sega Genesis.

Ecco the Dolphin is a series of videogames taking place underwater and originally developed for the Sega Mega Drive (in Japan and Europe), the Sega Genesis (North America) and the Sega Dreamcast (worldwide). These games have also been ported numerous times. The games are named after their main character, Ecco, a young bottlenose dolphin. They are known for being unique and highly challenging titles.

The Ecco the Dolphin games hinge on the idea that cetaceans are sapient beings and have their own society under the waves. In the Mega Drive/Genesis games, humans are barely acknowledged and never by name. The cetaceans also call themselves "Singers." In the Dreamcast game, dolphins and presumably other cetaceans have united with humans in a cross-species society.


Storylines and ports

The Ecco the Dolphin games can be divided into two distinct storylines: the Mega Drive/Genesis games (Ecco the Dolphin, Ecco: The Tides of Time, and Ecco Jr.) and the Sega Dreamcast game (Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future).

Ecco the Dolphin and Ecco: The Tides of Time were both re-released on the Sega CD and Game Gear, and Defender of the Future was re-released on the Sony PlayStation 2. Ecco the Dolphin was also re-released on the Nintendo Game Boy Advance as part of the fourth Sega Smash Pack, along with Sonic Spinball and Golden Axe. However, this port is often looked down upon by Ecco fans; some the most frequent complaints include the removal of most of the music, stiff-feeling controls, poorly-scaled graphics, Ecco going off the screen and message screens being hard to read.

Two six-part comic book series of Ecco the Dolphin stories based on the first game were featured in Sonic the Comic in 1993 and 1995. They can be found here. (

Ecco the character

Ecco is a young adult bottlenose dolphin. He is very strong and intelligent, even for a cetacean. He is also able to use many unusual powers, such as shapechanging and using his sonar as a weapon. He has five distinct markings on his head; they are stars that form the constellation Delphinus.

Mega Drive/Genesis storyline

Ecco the Dolphin

Ecco the Dolphin gameplay

The original Ecco the Dolphin was a game released in 1992 for the Sega Mega Drive and Sega Genesis. It was developed by Novotrade. The gameplay was essentially side-scrolling, although it scrolled vertically as well, since Ecco is a swimming creature. Attacking enemies was accomplished by making Ecco ram into them at high speeds. Swimming could be made progressively faster by tapping a certain button, and the speed could be maintained by holding it down. Players could perform a purely aesthetic spin in the air when jumping out of the water. Two unique features of the game played on actual dolphin habits. One was a sonar map that could be brought up by making Ecco "sing" (this was also how he talked to other Singers as well as interact with certain things such as clams and Glyphs) and then holding the button down to make the "song" return to him, a la echolocation in real dolphins. The other was the fact that Ecco, being a mammal, had to surface periodically for air, or else find an air vent. Ecco would drown if his 'air meter' ran out. His health was measured by a separate meter; it was depleted by enemies or when his air meter had run out, and it was recharged by eating fish, "singing" to clams, or, later in the game, singing to special Glyphs and statues. Ecco's song could be optionally 'upgraded' at two points in the game; one allowed it to be used in combination with a charge as a long-range weapon, and the other made singing at a shark temporarily disorient it.

The Glyphs were crystals that would respond somehow if Ecco sang to or touched them. Some blocked paths, and a 'Key Glyph' had to be found in such cases to pass. Others gave information, and a few in later levels would replenish health and air and give Ecco temporary invulnerability.

The original Ecco had what is considered by many to have a very high level of difficulty. Among many other things, the twisting underwater passages in many levels, combined with the air limit, often led to death and frustration. Many jumps out of the water, over small islands and ruined buildings, were also difficult. Some levels featured moving obstacle courses where a mistimed movement meant instant death. The game featured infinite tries and levels divided up with a password system.

Ecco the Dolphin storyline

The storyline followed young Ecco as he searched for his pod, who were ripped from the sea by a mysterious storm. At first, he was searching for the Big Blue, a gigantic blue whale, on a tip from an orca that the Big Blue might know where his pod had gone. The Big Blue happened to live near the North Pole, and so Ecco went to the frozen north. On finding the Big Blue, he was disappointed; all that the whale knew was that storms of the kind that had taken Ecco's pod had been occurring every 500 years. The Big Blue pointed him in the direction of a being known as the Asterite.

Ecco left the frozen north and found the Asterite, the oldest creature on Earth. The Asterite probably communicated telepathically; as the Big Blue put it, "We feel great energy of thought from the Asterite, but it will not sing to us." The Asterite made Ecco a deal. First, Ecco had to use a time machine built by the Atlanteans to go back in time and find the Asterite's missing globe. Then, empowered by this globe, the Asterite could help Ecco.

So, Ecco swam to the sunken city of Atlantis. There, besides the time machine, Ecco found a library. He learned the cause of the storm; it was a harvest of Earth's waters that was conducted every 500 years by the Vortex life forms. The Vortex had lost their ability to make their own food; and so, every 500 years, they would harvest from the waters of Earth.

Ecco travelled back in time 65 million years with the Atlantean time machine. The game originally was going to have him meet ancient cetaceans, before they came into the sea, as part of the story, but the art for these scenes were not completed due to time constraints. However, the messages can still be found hidden in the prehistoric levels.

Ecco fought the Asterite of the past (the young Asterite was apparently considerably less trusting than the older version) and stole one of its globes. For whatever reason, this opened a time portal and Ecco was flung back into his present. He gave the Asterite its missing globe and in return received the power to turn his sonar into a deadly weapon against the Vortex (that is, without combining it with a charge attack), as well as the ability to breathe while underwater. Ecco made a return trip to Atlantis to travel back to the hour of the Vortex harvest, going with his pod this time. The final three levels were a constantly-scrolling obstacle course, an ever-moving maze that killed Ecco if he could not keep up with it, and a final fight with the Vortex Queen. Keeping with the high difficulty level set by the rest of the game, losing to the Vortex Queen meant going through the long and difficult previous level.

Eventually, the Vortex Queen was vanquished and Ecco rescued his pod. Exactly how they got back to Earth is never explained, but get back they did, and there was celebration.

Ecco: The Tides of Time

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Title screen of Ecco: Tides of Time

Tides of Time gameplay

Tides of Time was the direct sequel to the original Ecco, released in 1995, again developed by Novotrade. The controls for the first game were kept, and Tides of Time maintained the same high level of difficulty as its predecessor. New puzzles were added, such as following another dolphin around and a 'scavenger hunt' of sorts later in the game. One of the more unique additions was the Metaspheres, which could transform Ecco into different animals. The transformations were level-specific, and included a seagull, a jellyfish, a shark, a school of fish, and at one point a Vortex drone. A few quasi-3D levels were also added into the game. The health meter, the air meter, and the Glyphs returned in Tides of Time. Both the "charge song" and the "confusion song" upgrades returned from Ecco the Dolphin and were usable from the start of the game.

Tides of Time storyline

Tides of Time picked up right where the original Ecco the Dolphin left off. It turned out that the Vortex Queen was far from vanquished, and had in fact followed Ecco to Earth to build a new hive for herself. Ecco lost his powers from the Asterite early on, and soon after met a dolphin with unusually long fins. She was his descendant, Trellia, and had come to take him to her present in Ecco's distant future.

Trellia's future was a dolphin paradise. The dolphins had evolved helium sacs, and could thus fly; they also displayed limited telekinetic powers. The ocean had developed its own mind, and waterways that floated through the skies (called the Skyway in Tides of Time and reproduced as the Hanging Waters in Defender of the Future) apparently connected all the more normal waters of Earth. There were also a few floating basins of water. Ecco travelled through this future for a while, and found the Asterite.

The Asterite told Ecco that something was amiss. When Ecco used the time machine to save his pod, he split the stream of time in two. One possible future for Earth was this bright, happy future of flying dolphins; the other was a dead, mechanical world, sucked dry by the Vortex. The Asterite itself had been 'killed' in the past by the Vortex Queen; how it was talking to Ecco then wasn't explained until later. The Asterite sent Ecco back to his own time after their conversation.

Back in his own time, Ecco ended up having to piece the Asterite together by bringing the globes that made up the creature back together. The final pair of globes had been taken by the Vortex to their future; thus, Ecco had to get there and retrieve them before the Asterite could help him defeat the Vortex once and for all. The Atlantean time machine was not an option; it could only go into the past. The problem was solved when two Vortex drones captured Ecco and took him to their own future.

The Vortex future was full of strange machines reminiscent of the final levels of Ecco the Dolphin. None of these levels auto-scrolled, however. One of the more unique levels was Gravitor Box, in which gravity was manipulated in unusual ways. Ecco did eventually find the Asterite's last two globes, and once the player beat the boss guarding them, another time portal opened to Ecco's present.

With the Asterite complete again, it was able to bestow Ecco with the same powers as it had last time — breathing underwater and a song that could destroy the Vortex. It also called all of Ecco's fellow Singers to help with the fight against the Vortex. Ecco himself fought the Vortex Queen; however, she again escaped, reverting to a larval state and bolting for the Atlantean time machine. Ecco followed her into the past. The Vortex Queen found creatures she could not rule over, and eventually the Vortex kind was forced to simply integrate into the ecosystems of Earth. Ecco was never heard from again, lost in the tides of time.

There was a third game in the series planned that would have continued this storyline, but it was never released. Both Ecco the Dolphin and Ecco: The Tides of Time were ported to the Sega Game Gear.

Tides of Time Prototype Version

A prototype version of Ecco 2: Tides of Time was leaked onto the internet some time ago. This version appears to have been burned to testing EPROM in February of 1994, so it was very early in development (as ED Annzuniata, Ecco's creator calls it, a 'pre-alpha' build.) It was only partially completed, had various placeholders and test levels, but also a large quantity of never-before-seen areas, enemies and test features that are quite interesting to see.

A full documentation of the Ecco 2 Prototype and a downloadable version of it are available at DARK SEA (

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Ecco Jr.

Ecco Jr. was something of a side game, released in 1995. It had the controls and basic gameplay of the other two Mega Drive/Genesis titles, but was very much geared towards younger players, lacking the extreme difficulty of Ecco the Dolphin and Ecco: The Tides of Time. The story was that a younger version of Ecco went to see the Big Blue, completing tasks such as herding seahorses, swimming through rings, and finding lost balls for sea lions along the way. Two other playable characters were introduced: Kitenee the baby dolphin and Tara the orca. They were interchangeable with Ecco and each other at any time; every character had a different voice but not much else was different between them. The game had a password system, though all the passwords were included in the instruction manual, and a "Parent's Menu" that had, among other things, facts about real dolphins.

Sega Dreamcast storyline

Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future

Defender of the Future gameplay

Defender of the Future was an entirely new game universe with virtually no ties to the original Ecco the Dolphin MegaDrive/Genesis titles. The gameplay, however, was fairly similar to the old games', but in three dimentions. It was released in 2000 for the Sega Dreamcast, developed by Appaloosa Interactive, which Novotrade had changed its name to; the team working on the game was different from the one which had worked on the original games. Ecco's sonar was kept as a means of interaction with other cetaceans (no longer called Singers in the game) and certain environmental objects, and a sonar map could be brought up but was often regarded as being inferior to the old 2-D version. The same style of movement was kept with slight alterations for the demands of a 3-D game. The control stick now only changed the direction Ecco was facing; pressing left and right changed the direction he faced horizontally, and pressing up and down changed the vertical direction. To actually move foreword, the player had to tap a button to gain speed and hold the same button down to maintain it. Out of the water, Ecco could perform the purely aesthetic flips in the air from the original games. Charging foes was kept as Ecco's standard attack, though the designers added a homing feature. The health and air meters also returned, though the health meter could be increased by collecting power-ups called Vitalits, and the meters had a slightly different look compared to the Genesis games.

Some new moves were introduced in Defender of the Future. One was a quick 180 turn, useful for battles. Another was a means of stopping quickly; when Ecco had already stopped, the same buttons would make him swim backwards. A third new move was the tailwalk; Ecco would raise his upper body out of the water and was able to look at things above the surface; this had limited use in gameplay but was a good way to see small graphical details.

The graphics of the game are generally regarded as being some of the most realistic ever used in a Dreamcast game. Many reviewers have commented that Ecco looks like a real dolphin. One of the most major complaints against the graphics is the high level of fog; other reviewers have pointed out that visibility in the ocean is often much reduced from what it is above the surface. There were also some pop-up problems with distant objects. This is all caused by the engine not being terribly efficient overall, and not being able to render as much onscreen as was desirable without the generation of too much slowdown. The fog was used to obscure the distance and decrease the number of polygons that had to be drawn. The few cutscenes used the in-game graphical engine.

Defender of the Future continued the legacy of high difficulty set by its predecessors. The levels were again divided up, but the idea of a password system was dropped in favor of a memory card save file. The game has few loading times in the levels; the levels were loaded all in one go just before they started, and these load times could be moderately long.

The "charge song" and "confusion song" returned in Defender of the Future, but in different forms. The "charge song" was given a name, the Power of Sonar, and was part of a set of five temporary power-ups that could be activated by collecting icons. The powers were:

  • Power of Vigor (Ecco moved faster and did more damage when charging enemies)
  • Power of Sonar (Sonar did damage to enemies)
  • Power of Air (The air meter was temporarily doubled)
  • Power of Endurance (The health meter was maxed out to double the normal maximum; it couldn't be replenished it reached the level the player had already obtained, and would be lost if the player made it to the next level of the game)
  • Power of Stealth (Ecco became temporarily invisible)

The "confusion song" was named the Song of the Shark, and it too was part of a larger set of songs. These songs were permanent and activated by singing at the right thing. They were:

  • Song of the Shark (confused sharks)
  • Song of the Turtle (turtles would follow Ecco around)
  • Song of the Fish (schools of fish would follow Ecco around)
  • Song of the Ray (made manta rays go in the direction the song pointed; made smaller sting rays panic and flee)
  • Song of the Plant (made a certain kind of plant spray ink)

Defender of the Future storyline

Defender of the Future bore a different storyline from that of the Mega Drive/Genesis games; it is generally regarded as an alternate universe. The story was written by science fiction author David Brin, who had already written a few stories about intelligent dolphins. The storyline and game were divided into four parts:

Isle of Tranquility

At the dawn of the 30th Century, dolphins and humans had been together in a cross-species society for 500 years. Together, they had set out to explore space, offering peace and friendship to all who would welcome it. But space had its dangers; a violent species known as the Foe decided Earth was a good planet to take over. However, the dolphins and humans drove them to the brink of defeat, and so the Foe sought vengeance on Earth. The few caretaker dolphins who had been left behind on Earth were not entirely defenseless; they were protected by a creation of theirs they called the Guardian. It was a gigantic, sentient being made of a crystalline substance; it projected a force field over the entire planet. Undeterred, the Foe began making suicide attacks on the field, searching for a weak point.

The player was given this background information before being thrown into the game. Soon after the game started, the Foe found their weak point, destroying the field and breaking the Guardian. Isle of Tranquility followed Ecco around until he managed to get to the dolphin city of Atlantis (apparently different from the Atlantis of legend) and repair the Guardian. He accessed the city when no other dolphin could by temporarily becoming a fish using the Ancient Power of Metamorphosis (obviously an homage to the Metaspheres). He was too late to stop the Foe invasion.

A Foe ship caused a rip in the time continuum and headed back in time in order to stop dolphins and humans from uniting into one society. Ecco was caught in the wake of the time vortex, and ended up witnessing the Foe steal the Noble Dolphin Traits of Intelligence, Ambition, Compassion, Wisdom and Humility. Ecco used the Ancient Power of Metamorphosis to become a flying Foe unit and destroy the ship; this scattered the globes containing the Noble Traits across history. With the traits gone, however, the future was already changed. Dolphins became weak and gullible; humans enslaved and exploited them. When Ecco returned to 'his' present, 500 years after the Foe attack, humans had already gone extinct and dolphins were barely sentient animals.

Man's Nightmare

The Man's Nightmare levels were based around human technology, with heavily polluted water. The dolphins Ecco met were divided into three subtypes: the Crimson, dolphins with red paint worn on their flippers; the Circle, white dolphins who showed an eagerness to operate machinery; and the Movers, orange and white dolphins with the build of orcas that had once apparently been the muscle of the dolphins when they had been enslaved. The dolphins didn't know humans were extinct. Some of them thought they had been left to test their loyalty, and spoke of a great Engine of Salvation that the Chosen One would activate with the Labor Harness. Ecco managed to put on the Labor Harness, which allowed him to control human machines by singing at them, and headed off to activate the Engine of Salvation while looking for the globes that contained the Noble Traits.

After Ecco managed to find the Noble Trait of Intelligence and touch it, it was sent back in time and began affecting the Circle, Movers and Crimson. They figured out the truth of man's extinction and his "Engine of Salvation"; it was really a weapon that had been designed to fight the Foe, but man and the Foe had destroyed one another before the weapon had been completed. The player's new task became stopping the weapon from activating; the reward was the Noble Trait of Ambition and progress into the next section of the game.

Dolphin's Nightmare

With Intelligence and Ambition both sent back, history changed. Dolphins became aggressive creatures and forced humans from the seas, never to return. They built their own independent society under the waves, and some above them; this level set featured the Hanging Waters as an homage to the Skyway from Tides of Time. The dolphins seen in this section of the game were divided into two subtypes; the Clan dolphins were militaristic orange-and-white (lower ranking) or black-and-white (higher ranking) creatures who lorded over the green Outcasts. Both subtypes looked down their beaks at whales; the Clan, for instance, used a pair of captured humpback whales as living power generators for their Hanging Waters.

The level set started by throwing Ecco into an Outcast village that had been cut off from their food supply by the Clan. After getting fish back to them, one villager helped him reach the nearby Clan outpost. There, Ecco found and rescued the leader of a secret resistance group that had formed in the Outcast village. The Resistance, it turned out, had been keeping watch over the Noble Trait of Compassion, but were afraid to touch the globe. The Clan had their own Trait which was later discovered to be Wisdom; they wanted the Resistance's globe for themselves. Ecco sent Compassion back and infiltrated a large Clan base. He tattooed himself with the rank of general and managed to get the Hanging Waters activated so he could fight the Clan's leaders, the three Exalted Ones. The third Exalted One had the globe of Wisdom; Ecco sent it back, and history changed again.

Domain of the Enemy

With all but one of their traits restored, dolphins (evidently) united with humans. However, without the final Trait of Humility, the society was heedless of the Foe's danger, and was defeated. Earth was taken over, and the Foe Queen herself became the guardian of Humility. There was not a lot of plot development in this final stretch; all that happened plot wise was that Ecco destroyed a Foe hatchery and slew the Foe Queen to gain back Humility and restore his own future.


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