The Dreamcast Legacy - Jupiter and Mars

There is a hardy breed of gamer that has a special soft spot in their gaming hearts for a certain woe-be-gotten series, and that heart whispers the name Ecco. The games are not obscure by any means, as the majority of Sega aficionados would have at least had a taste of dolphin (eww!) during either the 16-bit golden age or the new millennium reboot on Dreamcast. Only a much smaller subset - the most diligent and committed gamers (read: sado-masochistic gamers) - persisted far enough through the sheer vertical learning curve to be rewarded with one of the most unique gaming experiences of all time. 
I think this is about as far as most people got in the original series
Unfortunately for fans of the series, the full potential of the Ecco saga has always been frustratingly unfulfilled. The original 16-bit games were supposed to be realised as a trilogy, but the third game never materialised. Ecco II: The Tides of Time sadly ends on a sombre note - much like the Empire Strikes Back - but unlike Star Wars, there is no Return of the Jedi to close out the third act.
Unlike Ryo in his cave, it seems Ecco is destined to be forever lost in the tides of time 
The amazing reboot on Dreamcast was handled by a new creative team at Appaloosa Interactive (formerly Novotrade) and did not continue the same story left open by the Mega Drive games. This does not hamper my esteem for the game, in many ways it had to start from a clean slate after a six year hiatus. Defender of the Future is my all time favourite game on Dreamcast, and it should be held in as high esteem and discussed in the same company as games like Metroid Prime for updating a classic 2D game style and successfully refashioning it into a fully realised 3D world. 

Dreamcast perfection
I can't understate how much I love this game. Most people would have struggled to get past the opening tutorial act set in the present day, but the second act in the polluted underwater diamond mine of man's future dominance over dolphin, and the third act of dolphin rising above man into interconnected cities of water hanging in the sky, are some of the most ingeniously crafted, meticulously-refined and breathtakingly beautiful levels ever designed in a 3D game world. 
DotF would also be ported to PS2 with a slackened difficulty and extra features, but it is the inferior version. There are no PS2 jaggies in my underwater paradise, thank you!
The key reason for these superlative accolades is because game designers need to work a lot harder with an underwater adventure game. In most games of the action-adventure-3D-puzzle-ish persuasion, there is a central conceit that most designers fall back on - gravity. One of the more common challenges is to force the player to scale a mountain or the outside of a tower, navigating platforms and ladders and jumping over gaps. Mistakes are punished by gravity - falling down and returning the player back to the start, or causing injury or loss of life. 
Gravity is a harsh mistress
You can't apply that same level design to an Ecco game - you would just simply swim to the top of the tower unhindered. While gravity still plays a minor role to keep you upright and to denote the way up to the surface and down to the depths below, it is no longer a crutch to be used in level design. A lot more thought is required to plan out passages, caves, air pockets, doors and switches. On the receiving end, the player needs to adjust their approach to the game, no longer able to rely on years of gaming experience and training, everything feels original and fresh and you have to develop new techniques in order to survive and succeed. It's like playing video games for the first time all over again.

You must zink like ze dolphin! You must get inzide ze dolphin'z head!

Sadly, Defender of the Future never got the audience it deserved, and the sequel Sentinels of the Universe, did not seem to get very far past the drawing board before it got canned. Appaloosa would swap out the dolphin for the great white shark, applying its underwater expertise to Jaws Unleashed in 2006, perhaps in the hopes of catching the blood-thirsty eyes of the Call of Duty fraternity who wouldn't look twice at a dreamy, trippy, time-travelling, crystal-glyph-whispering, space-alien-fighting dolphin. However, this proved to be a mistake, with Jaws garnering mixed reviews, and dubiously earning Gamespot's "Worst game everyone played of 2006." Appaloosa went bankrupt soon after. 
An early build of Sentinels of the Universe was leaked and released last year. Find out more here
Ed Annunziata, the original designer of the first Ecco games, has attempted and failed numerous times to rekindle Sega's interest in revisiting the franchise. He decided to go it alone in 2013 with a Kickstarter for a similarly themed aquatic mmorpg, The Big Blue, where dolphins and other marine life in the far off distant future, long after the extinction of man, battle against synthetic lifeforms that originate from the polymer and hydrocarbon primordial soup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This fantastically imaginative idea unfortunately did not resonate with enough backers, and the Kickstarter failed to get funded. Annunziata's Plan B was a scaled back and less ambitious game known as The Little Blue, but nothing seems to have eventuated from that plan either. In 2016, Sega and Annunziata agreed to an amicable resolution regarding the rights to the Ecco franchise, which tantalisingly hints at the possibility of a new Ecco game, but the details of that agreement seem to be elusive, and both parties are keeping mum on the subject

Shame this never got up. It had lots of potential

Enter indie developer Tigertron. Clearly avid fans of the Ecco series, in particular Defender of the Future, and the trippy, eco-friendly, metaphysical ethos that's woven into the fabric of the franchise, they have recently announced a new dolphin-centred underwater sci-fi adventure for PS4 and PSVR - Jupiter and Mars. You control the titular pair of dolphins, and your mission is to clean up the worlds reefs and ecosystem from machinery and pollution left behind after mankind has unceremoniously carked it. Puzzles are solved by working together with your AI-controlled companion, and you're also assisted by wise old whales known as the Elders... stop me if this is sounding familiar. It looks beautiful too, with glowing neon topography lines representing your powers of sonar echolocation. The prospect of playing this in VR is also a nice plus, looking like a worthy Dreamcast-related companion to 2016's Rez Infinite


Jupiter and Mars is due for release in May 2018, so if you have a PS4 and a penchant for long overdue spiritual sequels to a certain cetacean Dreamcast title, you'd be wise not to miss it. 

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3 comments:

Tom Charnock said...

Great stuff Scott, your love for Ecco makes me want to fire it up again and try to get further than the first couple of levels!

jon lee said...

I loved 16bit Ecco although it was a challenge yo play, but for some strange reason I dont own the Dreamcast game. I will rectify this at some point and will definitely be getting the vr game.

hoogafanter said...

Ecco has always been frustrating for me. Even the Dreamcast version, as beautiful as it is, can't captivate me for long. I never feel fully in control of Ecco and I have alot of trouble with the mechanics in general. Genesis games were much easier for me to control but they were still tough as nails and I never got too far...

I did however, beat an(the?) Ecco game for game gear one year as a kid when I was on vacation. Yes, I used an AC adapter. I remember being so damn proud of myself because every level was so damn challenging and took me a long time to beat. I'll always have that memory and that's why I will say I do love Ecco...