The Tea: Ecco the Dolphin's Intro Was a Sad, Lonely Chunk of My Childhood
Game prologues are infamous for being long and boring and holding your hand way too tightly when you really just want to keep both on the controller. Like, can’t you just trust I know how to jump and move forward?
No, actually, you can’t. I’m one of those babies who needs prologues (and walkthroughs, and mid-game snacks, and sometimes short pauses during scary parts), and I’ll admit that in all my years of gaming, I’ve spent far too long just existing in them. Prologues are the virtual wombs of video games, and I'm never fully ready to leave the relative safety of quirky, introductory mini-games for the unknown, outside world.
In this special miniseries, I’ll be taking (quick) bites out of four prologues that I remember not as appetizers to a larger adventure, but as the main course itself. In the case of Ecco the Dolphin, it’s because I never made it past the tutorial.
"Try this dolphin game. Kids like dolphins, right?"
Ecco was one of three Sega Genesis games I remember playing in my family's attic. Unlike the shoot-em-up Sunset Riders or the blink-and-you-die classic Sonic the Hedgehog, Ecco seemed like it’d be more in line with my five-year-old tastes and eye-hand coordination.
It started out okay. I was just a ‘lil dolphin, boppin’ around the ocean with all my dolphin buds. One of them, clearly the pod's resident hotshot, challenged me to jump as high as I could out of the water. This was apparently the triple-dog dare of dolphins, because the game would not let me refuse on the principle of modesty or stage fright.
So after a few failed skims of the surface, I did it. And Ecco launched high, high, high into the air, and I got a taste of what any shred of athletic ability must've felt like for other kids who actually went outside. In that moment, my bottlenose body was like a missile, unstoppable, flying toward the heavens.
But like Icarus reaching for the sun, my joy was not to last. While I was getting the sweetest dolphin air you could imagine, a huge vortex opened up in the water below. Five-year-old me watched in mute horror as my dolphin friends and family were slurped into the black hole like long strands of spaghetti.
A Swim with Dolphin Death
Growing up, my biggest fear was the loss of a family member. I’d end every night and start every morning with a ritualistic prayer for the safekeeping of my mom, dad, sisters, dogs, grandparents, cats, aunts, uncles, and friends, in that order.
I’d mouth the words the same way each time, and would start all of it over again if I skipped anyone by mistake. I was convinced that if I didn’t do this exactly right, God would smite them on the spot. So just to be safe, I started doing it anytime anyone left the house. “Please, please, please, in Jesus’s name, Amen,” I’d repeat in my head after Dad left for work or my sisters for school or Mom for the grocery store. I’d try to finish it before the garage door closed, so I could still see them in the car and trust that it wouldn’t be the last time I did.
You can imagine how I felt splashing back into the water as Ecco after the vortex had closed its mouth over my pod. The ocean was empty and I was alone.
For the longest time, I thought it was my fault, like maybe my jump had triggered the vortex, and I was responsible. I restarted the game again and again, trying to avoid it, but eventually I accepted that to jump and lose everyone and everything was the only option the game had given me.
And after that, all there was to do was swim.
I explored every pixelated reef and cove, holding down the C-button and singing out to no one. I never figured out where I was supposed to go. I rammed poor Ecco into rock walls and leapt onto the beach and fired myself back into the air again and again and again, hoping to find whatever pocket my family had been tucked into.
I gave up eventually, and since these were the days before the internet (at least at my house), that was it. I never found out what happened next. For me, Ecco’s lonely, empty prologue was the whole game. I shut off the Sega and resigned him to a life of dolphin solitude.
It wasn’t until years later that I stumbled onto the game again on some online forum. “Aliens??” I thought. “Those were aliens???” It turns out, the vortex hadn’t been my fault after all, but rather that of an intergalactic colonizing race that fed off the Earth’s oceans. Ecco had some deep lore, apparently. Once we’d made the switch from dial-up to high-speed, I made sure to watch the ending, and found myself tearing up once the credits started to roll. After all these years, Ecco had found his family.
Now I’m just waiting for the next E3 so Sega can announce the long-awaited reboot in which Ecco takes on the big oil companies.
Did you know there are only 52 Ecco the Dolphin pieces on FanFiction.net? Come on, people! Start generating that sweet cetacean content! While y’all get to work writing the Ecco/Doctor Who crossover you know the world needs, I’ll leave you with this, a fan poem that would’ve blown five-year-old me’s mind. 22-year-old me is just a little confused, but I hope its author is living their truth.
Oh, and #EccoForKingdomHearts3.
Are there any prologues you’ve never made it past? Did you know there were aliens in this weird dolphin game? Who is responsible for that? Sound off in the comments below!
Until next time. Stay steamy.
The Tea (never timely, always hot) is a weekly column steeped in gaming culture and the fandom experience. Tune in Thursdays for another cup of steamy content.