Ecco Mega Drive Cover['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Novotrade International's underwater adventure: Ecco the Dolphin]

Tide of adventure

One of the most important and difficult things for a game to accomplish is the atmosphere. From the newest sci-fi FPS to the earliest 8-bit platformers, they worry about sound, lighting, and color to immerse the player into their worlds. One of the key elements in this equation of atmosphere is audio, not only the sound effects from your actions, but also (and sometimes more importantly) the music.

One of the major problems with 16-bit and pre-16-bit games is that the music was entirely synthesized interpretations of real instruments. This style bores many people who don't enjoy chiptune music beyond humming the underworld theme of Super Mario Brothers (though this is not always the case). There is an artificial wall between the players and the game that prevents them from full immersion. If nothing else, the use of compact-disc media started tearing down this wall with Red Book audio. Novotrade International knew this and jumped on the opportunity to create one of the most immersive and atmospheric games of the 16-bit era.

Ecco still has friendsA sea of discovery

Ecco the Dolphin has been released many times on different platforms and is a fairly well-known game. I hope everyone can understand if I skimp on the details for this game under the assumption of familiarity. Besides, all you need to know about the game is on the cover. But more importantly, it's a game about loneliness. The game's atmosphere and plot details emphasize this theme, but its story elements are introduced gently enough that they never detract from the real star of the game--not the dolphin, but the dark, claustrophobic arena of the ocean depths.

Mood plays an incredibly significant role in the game, and so you must take music into great consideration when choosing which version to play. Obviously, this is where the Sega CD comes in. By placing special emphasis on the sound of the game for the CD version, Tassonyi Kadocsa created the quintessential version of Ecco. Spencer Nilsen produced the music for the CD version, and while some fan cliques accuse him of butchering the US version of Sonic CD, he created quite a masterful soundtrack to accompany Ecco's dark and desolate ocean setting.

Ecco so lonelyDeep sea diving

It's quite a task to reproduce a pelagic setting in a game. The few earlier attempts failed, and most platforming games up before then had terrible underwater control, so it is a singular feat that the game moves so freely and smoothly. It captures the flow and elegance of fish through a glass tank, at an aquarium, or in a zoo. Navigating gracefully around the ocean floor and through the countless coral catacombs is just the start of the game. The backgrounds become darker and darker as you swim further and further underwater. You begin to run out of oxygen, and you are constantly harassed by enemies and obstacles while you attempt to reach each tiny pocket of air. The game keeps Ecco further and further from the surface until you are forbidden from returning there.

If the atmosphere and immersion of the CD version is not a good enough reason to track it down, its playability should be. The exceptionally frustrating difficulty of the Genesis/Mega Drive version has been toned down for the CD version. Restart points are now closer to the place of death, instead of much further back in the level (or even at the start). As well-known as this game is, most people haven’t really played it. For one reason or another (perhaps you were too young, or it was too hard, or you were struggling to be a man at an age where dolphins were totally just for girls) it goes overlooked, and people who've never played it assume they must have, once, somewhere, like at a friend's house or something. Perhaps, now is the time to go back and give it that chance.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]