clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Eerie, Influential Afterlife of ‘Ecco the Dolphin’

Thirty years after its release on Sega Genesis, the punishing, unsettling, and surreal 16-bit classic is still swimming through the brains of the people who made and played it

Sega/Ringer illustration

This month marks the 30-year anniversary of Ecco the Dolphin, a side-scrolling Sega Genesis video game about the woes of a marine mammal. But the game’s creator, Ed Annunziata, is effectively still out to sea. During our conversation, he imagines the abiding darkness of the ocean, and tells me about the synchronized leaps and jaunts of dolphins. Even the stars are drawn into the orbit of his enthusiasm, as he regales me with tales of distant constellations and bygone civilizations. These are decades-old fragments of Ecco lore, and they are almost nonexistent in the game itself. He excitedly hauls them up from the depths.

In Ecco’s backstory, Annunziata explains, the humans of Atlantis flee from the wrath of an extraterrestrial race known as the Vortex. Cassandra, an Atlantean, leaves behind a series of glyphs that will eventually be found by a bottlenose dolphin named Ecco, who will fight back against the Vortex, albeit thousands of years after the planet is deserted by humankind. “What gave her that idea? That’s crazy,” Annunziata says, adopting an air of coy showmanship. The answer is in the night sky. From Cassandra’s doomed position on Earth, she spots the constellation Delphinus and entertains the possibility that dolphins will become the planet’s new stewards. At this point, Annunziata’s little campfire story makes me think of Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero, wherein one character—a marine researcher and an ostensible mermaid—gestures to the sea and brightly remarks, “The future’s in here, you know.”

Other answers lie elsewhere, in works that are similarly lodged in Annunziata’s own mind. Ecco was influenced by Pink Floyd, Dean Koontz’s 1983 horror novel Phantoms, the paintings of Maxfield Parrish, and—especially in the case of Ecco’s sequel, The Tides of Time—James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi film The Abyss. The game is also frequently discussed in relation to the neuroscientist John C. Lilly, whose controversial research into dolphin intelligence relied on psychedelics and sensory deprivation tanks. “I got into Lilly when I was young,” Annunziata says. “I read The Center of the Cyclone.” He also rented some time in a sensory deprivation tank, where he found himself afloat in epsom salts and about $200 poorer. Annunziata is generally compelled by research that explores “the science of [the] mind from a physical, metaphysical, and psychedelic perspective,” but not to the extent that he’s experimented with ketamine or LSD. He says Lilly did not actually influence Ecco, and that the perceived connections are coincidental. However, he concedes that it’s possible a Lilly-related topic was on his mind during the making of Ecco—namely, William Hurt’s turn in Ken Russell’s 1980 Lilly-inspired movie, Altered States.

To these introductory contexts, we can add Annunziata’s pre-Sega gig at Sunburst Communications, where he developed ocean-based educational software. (“The entire company, very ocean-oriented, went to go see The Abyss when it opened, in Scotts Valley,” Annunziata says, reemphasizing that formative viewing experience.) We can also add Sega’s attempts at borrowing some eco-friendly cachet. The oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau is quoted in Ecco’s manual, and referenced in one of its television commercials. The latter gambit elicited some litigious feedback. “We didn’t get sued, but got threatened [with a lawsuit],” Annunziata reminisces.

In a broader sense, Cousteau is inseparable from Ecco’s appeal, or at least its resonance. The Princeton historian D. Graham Burnett has written about how Cousteau’s celebrity was among the factors that transformed the popular conception of dolphins between 1950 and 1970. As Burnett notes, “Whales and dolphins come in these years to serve in a compelling sort of prosopopoeia: They give the ocean both a face and a voice—enough like ours to seize our attention, different enough to hold it.” Incidentally, this recalls a line of dialogue from The Tides of Time: “The ocean is now conscious, it feels and thinks.”

“I tried hard to get people to notice,” Annunziata says, referring to the first game. “Especially in the scientific community.” While those efforts weren’t as successful as he had hoped, Ecco did at least attract the notice of critics and consumers. In fact, it’s still being discussed in multitudinous ways, even though few video games have closely followed its bizarre example. But long before any of this could occur, Annunziata had to labor over a gameplay prototype, pitch the idea to Sega, and then produce and design the game itself.

Still reminiscing, he casts his mind back to making Ecco in the early ’90s. Though raised in the Bronx, Annunziata later moved to California. In 1990, he joined Sega of America, which was then based in Redwood Shores. The sea had long ago washed into his dreams. He had read Hank Searls’s 1982 novel Sounding, which partly focuses on the perspective of a sperm whale. This, too, stoked his enduring interest in a dolphin game. His superiors at Sega eventually funded the concept. The Hungarian studio Novotrade International, no longer burdened by the Iron Curtain, was assigned the task. (The company was later renamed Appaloosa Interactive.) “They’re geniuses,” Annunziata says. A nearly yearlong development process began, as did a few friendships. Annunziata is still in touch with many of Ecco’s developers, including Zsolt Balogh, the draftsman behind its transporting pixel art.

“Everybody [at Sega] was focused on much bigger titles,” Annunziata says, recalling the latitude that he and his Novotrade colleagues briefly enjoyed. Here and elsewhere, his remarks are energetic and rascally, but they may also indicate a certain wistfulness. Annunziata’s ’90s output is uncommonly rich with off-kilter concepts that don’t seem tethered to preexisting audience demands. Instead, these ideas appear to have been loosed upon the world because of his own personal whims. No one asked for a shooting game with a hummingbird hero; Annunziata still gave us one (Kolibri, for the Sega 32X). This impression is supported by his pleasant memories of Ecco’s development process. “I just loved making it,” he says. “If it was me and four other people experiencing [the final game] and that was it, I would have been just as happy.” But he left Sega in 1997. Since 2010, he’s been overseeing the studio Playchemy, where he is making a new dolphin-related game.

Upon its initial release in 1992, Ecco became a financial success. Spinoffs and ports materialized. The Tides of Time debuted in 1994. A 3D reboot for the Sega Dreamcast, made without Annunziata’s input, turned up in 2000. Since then, Sega has not green-lit a new Ecco game. Instead, it seems to be perpetually rereleasing the original title.

Perpetual, too, are the considerations of fans and baffled onlookers. Over the years, Ecco has given this audience cause for wonder, confusion, and dismay. Though an obscenely difficult game, it has become a durable prompt for online chatter. Lapsed and lifelong gaming enthusiasts alike are still gathering online to answer variations on the same navel-gazing query: “Remember Ecco?”

There was a point when I, like many others, could remember only two things about Ecco: the first level, and my unavailing efforts to complete it. “You are Ecco,” the retail box had insisted, but my childhood stint as a dolphin was brief: I lolloped below the surface, dashed around, moved on. I had discerned in this experience something alien—or alien, at least, to my understanding of video games at the time. Ecco’s character sprite was mostly impassive and uncommunicative. The goals were murky, the controls unlike those of the Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog games to which I was accustomed.

Everything looked nice, though. It still does. Blues commingle, marking the border between the livid skies toward which Ecco leaps and the cobalt depths into which he descends. Alas, those underwater journeys are rather stressful. Ecco’s air meter must be replenished through air pockets or by retreats to the surface. In bids for another breath, the player may direct him to race broken-field around obstacles and through caverns and, perhaps, right into a dead end. Jellyfish pester, octopus tentacles lash out, sharks whoosh into view. In the manual, writer Carol Ann Hanshaw condenses this dilemma into a warning. Like much else in Ecco, it seems to float out from its original context to resemble a hazy rumination on life: “Many things can and will hurt you.”

Fortunately, Ecco can charge into his enemies. He can also emit sonar pulses at sea life and glyphs—a kind of “singing,” or so the game claims. These songs can activate slides of elliptical prose that bring to mind some drunken homage to Burma-Shave’s quirky roadside billboards. In one case, an ally tells Ecco (the “young singer”) about a dying whale: “Ancient songs of wisdom are songs of the Big Blue. The Big Blue swims north to die … Swim fast, young singer.”

I did not swim fast enough. For decades, I knew nothing of the game’s other quiddities, locked as they were behind barriers of difficulty. I had not journeyed with Ecco through the ivory pixels of an unpeopled Atlantis. I had not been yeeted across time into prehistoric waters, where Ecco sings to the pteranodons above. I certainly had not met the Asterite, an ageless bundle of spheres coiled into a double helix. More elliptical dialogue conveys that entity’s greeting, or the game’s idea of holy writ: “I remember you! … Of course, it was you … and it was I who sent you …” It remembers because at its behest Ecco will travel into the past, reencounter the Asterite, and with its help acquire the powers needed to complete the game’s roughly six-hour quest. (Per the confusing time travel “logic,” parts of this event have already occurred, though the player has yet to formally witness them.)

I had failed, as well, to realize that Ecco’s family—the pod whisked away in the first level—was devoured by the Vortex, that aforementioned race of resource-starved extraterrestrials. In league with the Asterite, Ecco goes back in time to prevent this tragedy, and doggedly hunts down the Vortex Queen. Her head, disembodied and vast, is suspended in darkness and surrounded by loyal Vortex drones. The dolphin gouges out her unfeeling eyes, and knocks her fanged mandible clean off its hinges. The end credits appear soon thereafter. (The Tides of Time, meanwhile, ends on a faintly melancholic cliff-hanger that is still unresolved.)

These are some of the surrealities that have beckoned gaming enthusiasts back to Ecco, or at least to long-winded discussions thereof. People keep recalling—or otherwise discovering—the game’s untold horrors, which must be well told by now. Yet goggle-eyed astonishment persists. Ecco mania may not be as infectious as other online contagions, but it has generated countless tweets, reams of Tumblr posts, lengthy exchanges on forums, viral Reddit threads with hundreds of replies, and a raft of TikTok and Instagram entries, among other undulating responses.

The typed comments vary, encompassing remarks that are disconcerted (“That game taught me what anxiety is”), touching (“This was my mom’s game. She loved it. I’m looking forward to playing it in her memory”), misinformed (“The creator of the game apparently loved ketamine”), and awed (“Imagine a dolphin went not only back in time but in space to get his homies …”). There are memories of bleary-eyed nights (“Used to play this while too high, enjoyed jumping out of the water. The upstairs neighbor pounded on the door to complain about the noise at 1 a.m.”), deathly flashbacks (“I’m forever trapped in a sea cave drowning over and over again”), and much else besides (“Bruh shit was fucked in this game”).

In the ’90s, some children had alarmed reactions to Ecco, as I was reminded after talking to Emily Donnelly, a knowledge manager and longtime Ecco fan. Donnelly first played Ecco shortly after its initial release. As an idle gesture, they inputted a passcode that ended up activating the penultimate level, a maddening H.R. Giger and Pink Floyd tribute entitled “Welcome to the Machine.” Here the limits of the screen are routinely jostled. This forces the player to move in fits and starts across the Vortex hive. Drones repeatedly descend on Ecco, and the Vortex Queen awaits at the end of the maze.

“It made me want to bury the cartridge in my bureau and never think about it again,” Donnelly tells me, referring to the level’s abundant supply of “nightmare fuel.” Similar experiences are scored into the memories of other Ecco fans. What’s more, the game reportedly debuted around the year-end holidays in multiple regions, essentially offering itself up as a last-minute or belated gift idea. One thinks of the scene from The Nightmare Before Christmas when two children scurry to the tree and then quickly retreat, screaming while their presents give chase.

In Donnelly’s case, they restarted the game in earnest. They wanted to see how it would build to that unnerving crescendo. Evidently, they did continue thinking about Ecco. They still contemplate the game’s “mysteries,” its “master class example of building a game around its mood,” and its impact on their artistic tastes.

Annunziata’s own stance is similar. “I never stopped thinking about them,” he says, referring to his Ecco games. “I’ve been there. I’m still there. All this time.” He talks about pitching Ecco sequels over the years, and about Sega’s tepid response. “I could not get any love at all,” he admits. “I would get personally hurt about it.” During one meeting with Sega, it was suggested to him that a new Ecco title could abandon all that pesky weirdness and become an “endless swimmer [game] that’s cute—cartoony cute.” This was not at all what Annunziata had in mind.

“They got this fuckin’ phenomenal hedgehog that Jim Carrey makes movies with,” he observes, citing one possible reason for Sega’s unconcern. But Annunziata’s creative spirits are buoyant, his perspective sanguine: “Before I die, another dolphin game will surface—no pun intended.” As for Sega, he’s since adopted a more charitable view: “I realized I shouldn’t really be insulted.” He nods to inevitable sea changes in the philosophy and staff of the storied company. As he understands it, no one currently employed at Sega “was there when we made [the original Ecco]. So nobody really gets it.” Then again, all those ports indicate otherwise. (Most recently, the Sega CD versions of the first two games were included in the second Sega Genesis Mini console.)

In the ’90s, too, the higher-ups at Sega did eventually focus intently on the first game. Once they noticed the visuals had improved, Annunziata’s creative freedom was assailed. “I was inundated with suggestions like: ‘OK, we need scuba divers with harpoons,’” he recalls. “Every idea was: ‘How can we fold the whole thing back to talk about us?’” He refused to admit any such interlopers into Ecco’s posthuman setting. “The self-centeredness of humanity is amazing,” he remarks. “I like chipping away at that, at least in my own tiny universe.”

That universe ended up attracting some intriguing visitors. Annunziata was told by a colleague that Jodie Foster had played and enjoyed Ecco. (I was unable to gather any confirmation from Foster’s publicist and agents, but her general regard for video games is documented.) Meanwhile, John Singleton, the late filmmaker, was aware of the first two games. He met with Annunziata in the ’90s to discuss adapting Ecco into an animated movie, though these plans later fell through. Michael Jackson apparently played the first installment. (“Michael beat it,” claims Annunziata.) Moreover, one day in the ’90s, Jackson visited Sega’s offices. He sat down beside Annunziata, who was playing an audio-free version of The Tides of Time. Jackson began to sing. “I got a live spontaneous soundtrack,” Annunziata says, before trying to re-create the mellifluous sounds he heard.

Jackson’s visit is also fondly remembered by Spencer Nilsen, the composer behind the New Age-y, surround-sound scores in the Sega CD ports of Ecco and The Tides of Time. (I’m more familiar with the Sega Genesis versions of the games; Novotrade used that console’s Yamaha FM synthesizer to achieve plangent dronings and varieties of otherworldly pitter-patter.) Nilsen had been hired to oversee Sega’s burgeoning sound studio. While scoring Ecco, he wanted to “avoid the familiar,” and he stayed loyal to the nonhuman aesthetic prescribed by Annunziata. He sampled cetacean sounds from nature albums and collaborated with others to create “a palette of tones, textures, and instruments.” Drawing from these elements, he designed keening soundscapes that sway in and out of earshot.

These experiments did not go unrecognized. His work is still praised by gaming enthusiasts of discerning taste, even though his time at Sega ended in the late ’90s. “That was my window,” Nilsen says. “When I left Sega, I left games.” But his friendship with Annunziata has endured (“Ed and I are like brothers from different mothers,” he tells me), and so has his musicianship. (He released a new album earlier this year.) Even so, he thinks of his video game era as his “15 minutes of fame,” and appreciatively references the game-related fan mail he’s received over the years. Through such feedback, he has learned that the Ecco scores appealed to both children and adults: “Parents in the other room went, ‘What’s that? That’s not typical of what we’ve been hearing coming out of that machine …’”

Over the decades, interest in Ecco has manifested in other surprising forms: an art installation; a Vampire Weekend album; maternal odes; flashing bits of glitch photography; tribute songs; a menu item at a Japanese gaming bar; a hypothetical Ecco-themed beverage; and, among other examples, two long-running fan communities, Caverns of Hope and Ecco Online, both of which preserve all manner of Ecco-related content. What’s more, in 2010 the musician Daniel Lopatin released on cassette the compilation album Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. (Lopatin also uses the alias Oneohtrix Point Never, and he scored the 2019 Safdie brothers film Uncut Gems.) The cassette’s cover art features snippets of the Boris Vallejo painting from Ecco’s North American retail packaging.

Eccojams is the origin of vaporwave, a mode of electronic music that is marked by the sampling and estranging of ’80s pop songs, and by borrowings from Muzak and other styles. It revises and avoids the familiar, as Nilsen did, though its own emphases are not entirely nonhuman. Thirty-six minutes into Eccojams, one hears a sample of Fleetwood Mac’s 1982 track “Gypsy,” except Stevie Nicks’s silvery vocals are digitally staggered. Yet she still sings, somewhat legibly, of lightning that “strikes maybe once, maybe twice.”

As the Ecco references indicate, vaporwave actually relates to an array of music and technology from the ’80s and ’90s. Its take on those eras has been described as affectionate, but also as a critique of the inevitable obsolescence—the siren songs—entailed by the logic of capitalism. In the Journal of Popular Music Studies, Paul Ballam-Cross emphasizes that vaporwave’s listeners may respond with both longing and ironic detachment. Vaporwave also inspired a subgenre called mallsoft. Ballam-Cross uses the example of a popular YouTube upload of Toto’s 1982 track “Africa,” one that is stylized to evoke a “broadcast in an empty shopping center.” Such videos are darkened by impressions of loneliness and, indeed, emptiness. Ballam-Cross locates mallsoft and vaporwave on an “internet-based nostalgia genre continuum,” and contends that these genres kindle both actual and imagined memories. The past they conjure up “is simultaneously nostalgic and new.”

We may seem far from Ecco’s waters, or from video games generally. But the distance isn’t so vast. On Twitter pages like “Supper Mario Broth,” factoids related to video games are cataloged in a studious and nostalgic spirit. Many of the youngsters who gamed in the ’80s and ’90s are not only decades closer to their dotage, but are also adept at creatively discussing old media until it jolts them anew. Creative revisions abound, too. In a recent phenomenon, Super Mario 64—an innocuous 1996 video game—has been reworked into short online horror films, and skillfully woven into remixes of Radiohead and Aphex Twin songs. One of these concoctions, “09.02.97,” has amassed millions of views on YouTube. There the beloved game is molded into a spooky imitation of videotape footage. The overall mood suggests an ironic lark, a haunted lament, or a mixture of the two. Such activities are regularly celebrated and scrutinized by the Reddit community r/CreepyGaming.

These stunts also fit into a wider online tendency related to memory and mischief, one that includes the nostalgia-detonating aesthetics weirdcore and dreamcore, the horror tales of r/NoSleep, viral creepypasta urban legends, and other virtual japes and howls. In this context, games are reimagined in styles that can feel true to life’s capacity for dread and despair, if not always to the games themselves. On the other hand, some viewers believe these projects are dredging up the darkness that was already lurking. “I always felt like Mario 64 gives a sad/empty vibe,” reads one YouTube comment. “Like being alone in a limited polygonal world [where] time doesn’t make a difference.”

In any event, a cortège of video game fans are now baking their own Proustian madeleines, with no concern for edibility. Merely recalling one’s early gaming days is seemingly becoming, for some, insufficient. Longing for that past may be old hat. Perhaps some want, on occasion, the novelty of viewing any given game as the friend suddenly unknown to them, or as the rug pulled from underfoot.

Ecco readily complies. For many, its darkly tinged weirdness was concealed for decades behind its difficulty and its initial summery vibe. It can authentically fulfill this masochistic desire to gaze at some old bauble and find, belatedly, cause for confusion or unease. Its visual elements also have a detachable vagueness, a pliability that eases appropriation. This doesn’t always result in horror. Images from the game can signal both phobias and joys, as well as lysergic ambience, eco-consciousness, the oceanic aesthetic of seapunk, and the signage of British pubs. Meanwhile, Ecco’s pink shadings and sunken statuary correspond to motifs from vaporwave’s own visual aesthetic.

But what else might be motivating those eerier examples? Darkness—in the form of dreary themes and visuals—is often regarded as something that is decidedly salable and inherently serious. Many folks are truly perturbed by Ecco and Super Mario 64, but some may also be trying to dignify gaming as a hobby, or as an art. (Admittedly, the same could be said about those who write lengthy articles on the legacy of a 16-bit dolphin.) In other words, how seriously should we be taking this? How much solemnity can be brought to bear on some old video game?

Annunziata seems to be of two minds about the topic, at least as far Ecco is concerned. At one point in our conversation, he tries to coax me back down to Earth, and not without some justification. “As sophisticated as you kindly make it sound,” he tells me, he views Ecco as a “comic-book level sci-fi [game]” that was aimed at a young audience. “But I think the story and the whole thing is worthy of adults,” he hedges. He also believes the arthouse filmmaker Terrence Malick could helm a film adaptation of Ecco, continuing where Singleton left off. To be clear, Annunziata hasn’t met Malick. This is just one of his recurring daydreams—a starry-eyed vision in which the filmmaker’s ethereal storytelling style intersects with his own.

Annunziata’s thoughts on Ecco are complicated, and sometimes contradictory. He sifts through the surreal memories, the friendships forged, the songs of varying registers, and the work long ago relinquished to the currents of the internet. He also locates his own memory of unease. He remembers the pilot episode of the 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman, in which an infant is placed aboard a spaceship. After being jettisoned from his imperiled planet, this young rocketeer crashes onto the earthly property of the Kents, two farmers whom the child—their soon-to-be adopted son, Clark—will later regard as kin. Annunziata isn’t thinking of those eventual consolations. He points instead to the strangeness of Clark’s arrival. “When [Clark] landed on the farm,” he says, “I wept like a baby. I was a baby. I was like 6.” He hoped Ecco would provide its own affecting “sense of loss,” and likewise evoke a separation from “your people, your environment.”

Those who regard video games as infantilizing distractions may find in these hopes an easy target. However, Annunziata’s comments have less to do with regressive emotions than with elemental poignancies and anxieties. While puttering about Ecco’s worlds and pilgrimaging through the blue abyss, one does find occasion to gaze absently and ponder freely, as one might gaze and ponder while sipping their morning coffee. Reveries tend to ensue, maudlin and otherwise.

Granted, one might also occasionally slip into the manner of that one-off Simpsons character who insists that “Itchy & Scratchy comprise a dramaturgical dyad.” But the friction between Ecco’s apparent frivolity and its highfalutin weirdness is an essential part of its appeal. The game casts a spell. It fascinates by yoking its identity as a lowbrow corporate product—an action-adventure dolphin video game for the Sega Genesis—to a mode of storytelling that is surprisingly strange, unpalatable, and inspiring. The dolphin wanders, and so does the player’s mind.

One may find, for instance, that Ecco’s mood is not unlike that of the empty mall feebly broadcasting Toto’s “Africa.” The displaced settings of the game’s time-travel narrative evoke the act of reminiscing: its incoherency, its velocity, its occasional emptiness. Ecco’s nonhuman mandate makes one feel like an uninvited guest who is floating, heavy-lidded, through long-gone worlds. Obscured by glitch and vaporwave art—hailing us from afar—those worlds become lonelier still.

In this case, time does make a difference. Today, this decades-old game reaches us across layers of technology and mounting climatological hazards, as our species stumbles oafishly toward the future. This has sharpened Ecco’s emotionality—its emphasis on an orphaned dolphin for whom time is both subject and master. Here is a protagonist who glides through the years and the horrors, and who is allowed only a deeply provisional resolution. Here, too, is the alienating scope of nature. (In the manual, Hanshaw refers to Ecco being “alone in the watery emptiness that now seems far too big.”)

Amid the game’s antiquated and ancient spaces, one also thinks of the sprawl of a lifetime, and of its hard limits. Players may feel like they are both within and without, participant and passing observer. “Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore,” as Bob Dylan put it, compacting both hope and dread into one line, as well as a sense of time’s opportunities unfurling and tapering at once. Something of this melancholy can be felt in the midst of playing Ecco, or at least in the midst of remembering it.

But my discussion with Annunziata ultimately winds down elsewhere, on notes less solemn. For a moment, Ecco’s gloomy associations disperse before the welcome respite of its creator’s good cheer. Hints of self-deprecation and impish optimism return. He guides our chat back toward wild dreams and half-jokes, referring to the memories still to come, and to the Ecco-related work ahead. “I wanna make a third game and I wanna make a movie,” Annunziata declares. “Yeah, me and my buddy Terrence.”

M.D. Rodrigues is a writer based in Canada. He has also written for The Washington Post, Wired, The Economist’s Prospero blog, and other outlets.

Video Games

‘Dead Space’ Only Gets Better With Age

Video Games

The Golden Age of Multiplayer: How Online Gaming Conquered Video Games

Sound Only

‘Like..?,’ Neal Stephenson, and ‘Resident Evil 6’

View all stories in Video Games