Ecco the Dolphin: unexpected terror in the deep blue sea

It's Halloween, the day we all turn our attention to all things spoooooooky. In honor of this occasion, Heidi Kemps makes a convincing case for the secret scariness of the seemingly non-horror-oriented Ecco the Dolphin. Later, the Joystiq staff will share their own picks for unintentionally frightening games. We'll just leave you in suspense for now (boo!)

Dolphins! Every adolescent girl on the planet loves dolphins, but being a fan of marine life in general, I really liked dolphins. I was certainly among the many, many girls with Lisa Frank school supplies emblazoned with imagery of brightly airbrushed, neon-colored dolphins, but I was far more into porpoises than even that, with plenty of other themed baubles in my possession. So, of course, when Ecco the Dolphin came out for the Genesis, I was excited to check the game out, especially with the rave reviews it had received in magazines at the time.

Little did I suspect the horrors Sega and Novotrade had in store for me.

The game is surprisingly unsettling, that much is inarguable. The protagonist feels incredibly fragile and defenseless (it seems like everything in this game can/wants to kill you), and the stage design, music, and incredibly tough difficulty create a weird sense of despair and loneliness -- which is further augmented by the bait-and-switch in the plot midway through the game. Why did your pod vanish? Oh, they were all kidnapped for food by terrifying, H.R. Giger-inspired aliens. And now they want to eat everything on Earth. And only your adorable and amazingly fragile little dolphin hide can stop them!

So after a bunch of weirdness involving time travel, you wind up in the alien spaceship, which looks like a terrifying mess of green futuristic slaughter machinery. You're also fighting the aliens, who take several hits to die and separate/explode into separate body parts along the way. And the second-to-last stage is an unpredictable autoscrolling level that can crush you instantaneously. I suspect other people who played through Ecco cried a little inside just remembering that level.

This all is disturbing enough, but what really left me terrified was the final boss. After dying constantly (and being sent back to the aforementioned nightmare autoscrolling level several times), I admitted my weakness and used the invincibility code. The final boss is the massive, many-fanged, bug-eyed head of the alien queen, who sucks everything in the arena inwards periodically to feed. You can get sucked in and eaten, which sends you back a stage.

Except that didn't happen this time. Instead, the background went completely red, and all I could see was a black, dolphin-shaped silhouette spinning around in the center of the screen, unable to move. Every now and then, something that looked like bubbles would come and poke the silhouette, only to quickly vanish. I jumped to a terrifying conclusion: I was watching Ecco being slowly, painfully, eternally digested by the alien queen. I turned off the Genesis and ran back to my room completely terrified by what I had just witnessed.

I was told many years later by Ecco fans that this screen is actually a bug that happens *only* if you get eaten with the invincibility code. (The "digestive bubbles" I saw were actually enemy sprites overlapping mine.) I went on Youtube to see if anyone had recorded this bug happening, because I certainly wasn't going to try and recreate it myself. Alas, no luck. You'll just have to take my word that it exists.

I never did finish Ecco.

[Image: Ecco Dark Sea]

Heidi Kemps is an intrepid freelancer living in the lap of luxury in Daly City surrounded by games, Japanese comics, and far too many figures. She contributes to G4, GamesRadar, GamePro, @Gamer, GameSpot, and a wealth of international publications, some of which do not start with the letter G. She enjoys long walks in Akihabara as well as meaningful discussions about Virtua Fighter. You can follow her ongoing freelance adventures at @zerochan.