“Sing to the shelled ones and they will heal your wounds”
It’s been awhile since I have done one of these Nerd Tunes articles. Honestly, it’s been due to lack of interest on my part. Don’t get me wrong, I love video game music, probably more than any other kind, I do still listen to the stuff daily. I just don’t feel that a printed article is a good way to discuss these soundtracks; I would much prefer to do these in a podcast format. With that said, while I am toying around with the idea of doing a podcast, I really felt like discussing the music of one of my favorite video game franchises from the Sega Genesis era, Ecco the Dolphin. Since it will still be a while before I am ready to do any podcast version of Nerd Tunes, I decided I would return here to discuss these games in the good old printed way.
For those unfamiliar with me, I’m just a guy that enjoys video game music, well actually pretty much all music, but that’s not relevant to what we are here to talk about. I’m not educated on all the technical aspects of music and sound design, so my perspective comes from that of a layman. With that in mind don’t expect me to go too deep into the mechanics of the soundtrack, I’m not very well-versed in music theory. So what you will be hearing today are the ramblings of an insane person about the music that he likes. It probably won’t be educational or informative, but it might at times, be at least slightly entertaining.
So why Ecco? I know the games aren’t universally praised, in fact, some consider then to be mediocre at best. For me, though it was love at first sight, I was instantly enthralled with them the first time I booted up Ecco the Dolphin on my Sega Genesis. Some might think the games themselves have a ridiculous premise, I mean… playing as a dolphin is a little strange maybe, and not just any dolphin, but a time traveling alien fighting dolphin.
Regardless of anyone else’s opinion, I still love these games. Whether or not the gameplay is any good can be debated in another article, because this is Nerd Tunes and we are here to talk about the music. I’ve decided to break the discussion down by each game in the series. We will be starting with the first game, and then we will work our way through the franchise. Now my introduction is out of the way. Let’s get to the reason you came here.
Ecco the Dolphin
Year of Release: 1992
Composer(s): Spencer Nilsen, Brian Coburn, András Magyari
Now a little note before we start, this game has multiple soundtracks, with their being a different version for the Genesis, the Sega CD, and Game Gear. We are only going to talk about the Genesis version today. It’s not because I have anything against the other version or their composers, but I honestly just don’t feel like covering them here. Maybe if I do a podcast I might touch on it, but not today. So focusing on the Sega Genesis version of the game, let’s continue.
It’s not hard to imagine that back in 1992, when this game was released, that there were kids tugging on their parents’ legs and excitedly informing them that they wanted the “Dolphin game”. Sure there is a good chance that didn’t actually happen very often, but leave me to my delusions. So I should probably be getting on with our discussion about the soundtrack now… let’s see… the composers were, according to Google… Spencer Nilsen, Brian Coburn, András Magyari… honestly, I am not sure how much if any Spencer Nilsen contributed to the Genesis version of this game, as I initially believed he only worked on the Sega CD soundtrack. You might know Nilsen from the somewhat controversial soundtrack for the North American version of Sonic CD. His work is top notch, in my opinion, and Ecco is no exception, but I think he only worked on the CD versions. I really think more than likely this soundtrack was mainly handled by Brian Coburn and András Magyari. Whatever the case, I don’t want to take to much time discussing it, so let’s move on.
The very first track, titled “Opening Theme” should illustrate what I like so much about this soundtrack. It starts out subtle and atmospheric, then about forty seconds in the tone shifts to a heavier more intense sound. It sets the stage perfectly for the aquatic theme of the game. When I hear it I usually imagine flying over the surface of the ocean, occasionally diving beneath the waves to see what’s in the depths. The track comes in at over six minutes in length, making it an impressive piece for a Sega Genesis game.
The next track that stands out to me is the third track on the list, a piece of music with the ominous title, “Medusa Bay”. It has kind of a sad tone to it, with strange drawn-out sounds and an eerie subtlety. It does an excellent job of underscoring Ecco’s plight, he is alone in a dangerous world, and must face incredible odds if he hopes to see his family again. What could one lone dolphin hope to accomplish when confronted with a technological advanced alien menace?
The lonely sadness of “Medusa Bay” is quickly forgotten when the next track, “Undercaves” begins to play. You can almost feel the sense of determination on this track, and things just got real. This is also the moment where the game starts to show signs of difficulty, so the music is a nice touch. It made me feel like I had to keep going, no matter how many times I died.
So skipping ahead to a track called “Open Ocean” we find ourselves hearing a strange new tune. Weird high-pitched tones that have a lot in common with 1950s sci-fi music. It almost sounds like an attempt to emulate the sounds of a Theremin, which is cool. The sound could be foreshadowing of the things Ecco will encounter further in his adventure, or it could just be that the composer thought it sounded cool. Whatever the reason, “Open Ocean” is an excellent track that I will never forget.
Jumping over the good, but forgettable “Ice Zone”, the relaxing “Island Zone”, and the strange “Time Travel”, we arrive at “Jurassic Beach”, which is the next track I wanted to discuss. This piece makes excellent use of percussion, with a wooden xylophone-like instrument, in addition to the occasional flute-like sound. You can probably tell I’m uneducated in music theory at this point, but hey, I try my best. So back to the track, it has a tribal tone to it and works quite well with the level it accompanies.
There are only two more from this game that I want to bring up, “The Stomach” and “Ending Theme”. Both of these tracks are awesome, with the first being some sort of bouncy, upbeat piece, and the second suiting the end of your journey quite well. The composers did a stellar job putting this entire soundtrack together, and I feel that regardless of your feelings about the game, you would have to admit this is quality stuff. With the first game covered, Ecco has defeated the alien threat and rescued his pod, now then let’s take a listen to its sequel and see what happens next, and what sort of music it brings to the table.
Ecco: The Tides of Time
Year of Release: 1994
Composer(s): Attila Dobos, András Magyari, Andy Armer
So just like the previous game, this one had multiple soundtracks across its different versions. Again we are focusing on the Genesis version, not because I don’t like Spencer Nilsen’s Sega CD version, or the Game Gear one, but because I am already long-winded enough without having to cover them all.
This game picks up right after its predecessor, with Ecco having rescued his pod, and gained the powers of some kind of dolphin-god that doesn’t need air, and can kill things by singing at them. Unfortunately, his days as a super-cetacean are brief, as something evil attacks and destroys the “Asterite”, an ancient creature that serves as the source of Ecco’s powers. Shortly after this occurs, Ecco ends up in the far-flung future, where he learns that his time-traveling exploits from the first game have caused split-time lines, and it’s up to him to save the day once again. Also, I failed to mention that in this future dolphins have evolved to a point where they can fly, so yeah, there is that.
The soundtrack continues with the “dark and lonely” tone from the first game. With the opening theme being especially spine-tingling. Starting with the title screen you can tell that despite Ecco’s heroics in the past, things are taking a turn for the worse. Who would have thought that dolphins can have it so hard? The good news for Ecco is though that he encounters his descendant Trellia, a time-traveling dolphin from the future, shortly after the game begins. Why is this a good thing? Well among other things it means that at some point between saving the world’s oceans, Ecco gets the chance to settle down and have a family, so he might have a chance at happiness at some point. I have kind of gotten off track here though since we are supposed to be talking about the music, so let’s get back to that.
Skipping a few tracks in you will get to “Two Tides”, and you will find yourself listen to some weird jazzy track. This is one of my favorite pieces on this soundtrack. It’s just a nice change of pace from the typical sounds of Ecco. Not so lonely or determined, just laid back and relaxing. Like something that would play in a seedy bar scene from a futuristic 16-bit RPG. A couple of tracks after “Two Tides” we run into “Trellia’s Bay”, which returns the ambiance of dark determination to the adventure. It has a steady beat that builds until it reaches a compelling pace that lets us know it’s time to take care of business, it’s a really solid track.
So going forward a couple of tracks again… it’s sort of like we are time traveling through the music, just like our dolphin friend Ecco… I’m going to pretend I didn’t write that sentence, so moving on. Our next melody might have a familiar title, “Tube of Medusa”, which might remind you of “Medusa Bay” from the first game. The levels apparently get their names from the jellyfish that are featured in them, with that being said my mind still goes to strange places when I think about what a Medusa’s Tube looks like. Enough discussion about the name, the music itself deserves much more attention than it’s title. When I hear this track I actually find it has a lot in common with the music feature in the early Sonic the Hedgehog games. If you knew how I feel about those soundtracks you would know how much of a compliment that is. If you want to hear a rock remix of it, I have randomly decided to include a link to this cover that I found while researching this article. I thought it was cool.
Continuing on, we are swimming in the “Sea of Darkness”, a short, but intense track. As you can imagine it plays during a dark section of the game that features our cetacean hero exploring some underwater caves. The constant heartbeat tone that serves as the percussion in the track is a reminder that Ecco is forever only moments away from running out of air. The next track worth examining is “Convergence”, a very busy, multi-layered tune. There is a lot going on here, many strange sounds to take in. You would expect this kind of complexity from the last entry in the soundtrack, and they deliver. This serves as the epilogue to the game, and it really sets that kind of tone.
So that’s it for Tides of Time, a difficult, but ultimately excellent sequel to Ecco the Dolphin. The game ends with our hero defeating his nemesis, The Vortex Queen, at least for the time being. Rather than sitting idle to celebrate his victory, Ecco instead decides to use an ancient time machine continue his temporal adventures. Where he ends up at I am unsure, as there was never a real sequel to Tides of Time. There are two more games we are going to cover, but one is a prequel and the other a reimagining, so who knows where this version of Ecco went, but we are sure he continued his role as the defender of the oceans in some strange new timeline.
Year of Release: 1995
Composer(s): Andy Armer, Gábor Foltán, László Fazekas
So you are probably thinking, “I’ve read through this guys nonsense this long, but surely he isn’t going to cover Ecco Jr?” Wrong! I am covering them all, and that includes Ecco Jr. I’m not going to let a little thing like a game’s intended audience keep me from a good soundtrack, and I hope you won’t either.
Some people may read the description of Ecco Jr., and then dismiss it as a child’s game that’s not worth their time. I believe this would be a mistake, the game itself is a lot easier than it’s two predecessors, but can still be very enjoyable. Ecco Jr. can be seen as a prequel to the first two games, seeing a younger Ecco, taking on much simpler adventures. It’s cool that making kid-friendly versions of popular games used to be a thing. I’m still waiting for “Call of Duty: Fun with Math!”.
The music is a bit lighter in tone than what you will find in the rest of the series. The whole soundtrack has a carefree jazz-inspired sound to it. Several of the tracks are worth listening too, including “The Sea of Music”, “Fish Reef”, and “The Endless Sea”. It’s actually kind of disheartening if you think about this game too much. Ecco playing around with his friends Tara and Kitnee, not a worry in the world. Who knows what happened to these two in the dark future that awaits Ecco, but I don’t think we ever see them again.
I know this section ended up being a lot shorter than the others. It’s not that there is anything about this soundtrack that makes it feel less worth talking about, it’s just shorter and a bit simpler. Overall the quality is still quite good, and you should give it a listen. Up next we are jumping all the way to the year 2000, and the Sega Dreamcast, I hope you are excited.
Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future
Year Released: 2000
Composer(s): Tim Follin, Attila Herger
Ah, the great Dreamcast, it might be my favorite console of all time. Things just felt different back then. It was the first time I turned on a new system, and it felt truly next-gen. Sega’s final foray into our living rooms was also a bastion for innovated and exciting games. The most recent game in the Ecco series, which I have fond memories of, sadly might also remain the final one. Whether or not I am simply blinded by nostalgia is something you can feel free to argue with me about.
The soundtrack was handled by Tim Follin, a well-known composer who is notable for his work on consoles from the ZX Spectrum all the way through the Dreamcast. Wikipedia tells us “Follin’s methodology of music was that music is “basically an unconscious experience” that does not and should not “engage your intellect.”. This statement is easy to agree with when you listen to his work on this game. In fact, it is so relaxing and ambient at times that I started to drift off to sleep while listening to it.
Starting with “Title Screen”, you can tell this is going to be a different kind of Ecco, a brighter more friendly game perhaps? It could be that, or the music could be fooling you into complacency, just so the game can come out of nowhere and destroy you. This is exactly what happens, as the game does continue the relatively high level of difficulty from its Genesis predecessors. If you are looking for a nice tune to listen to while dowsing off somewhere aquatic, look no further than “Aquamarine Bay”, a very relaxing track with a tropical feel to it.
Things do start to get a little more intense as the soundtrack enters the two-part “Perils of the Coral Reef”. Even with its more robust framework, this is still throughout very ambient and comfortable on the ears. It culminates in Ecco’s encounter with a fearsome, great white shark, and while it likes the power of some “boss themes” the music does an excellent job of severing as a backdrop for the encounter. After this we end up floating into “Four Ways of Mystery”, a very haunting melody, it’s short, but it makes an impression.
Another track of note is “Passage from Genesis”, which may or may not be a nod to the previous home of the series. This song features and underlining guitar melody that makes it stand out as a beautiful, and enjoyable piece. The following tracks, such as “Up and Down” and “Pathways from Nowhere” are also robust and continue the environmental feeling inspired by the rest of the album.
“Roaring Forces” and a few of the other songs feature an excellent chorus accompaniment, and it fits nicely with the overall sound. If I could say one thing about this album, it would be that it makes me feel like I’m floating in a tropical lagoon somewhere, which is an expected emotional response to a soundtrack meant to hold up a game about the ocean.
“Sleeping Forces of Doom” really stands out with its drumrolls and slow rhythm. Another track you should hear is “Caverns of Hope,” it has a kind of desperate sound to it, that I actually would equate to hope. Then there is the fast-paced “Hanging Waters”, a part of the game designed as an homage to “Skyway” from Ecco: Tides of Time. The latter half of the soundtrack is full of energy, with “Ice and Fire” really amping things up… that title made me think of “Game of Thrones,” which then had me briefly distracted from writing this.
Carrying on through the exciting “Mutaclone” and the dark “Transfiguration” we end up at the end… “Credits”, which is a happy track that calls back the tone from the title screen. This is fitting, because in the alternate universe that Defender of the Future takes place in Ecco actually gets a happy ending with everything tied up quite nicely.
So that’s it, our journey has come to an end… unfortunately. There was actually going to be another Ecco game for the Dreamcast, titled “Sentinels of the Universe”, and who knows what kind of soundtrack that would have featured. Ed Annunziata, the co-creator of Ecco, had tried to kickstart a spiritual sequel to the series, but it was unsuccessful. He has since started that he will be making a smaller title, “The Little Blue” to hopefully spark enough interest to fund the full game. If it does happen it would be nice to play a modern game in the vein of the Ecco series.
Anyway, if you are still reading this at this point, I applaud your patience. The summary of the last three-thousand or so words can be written as “Go and listen to the music from those dolphin games.” So yeah… you should do that.
Now on to a little post-article housekeeping. This may or may not be the last print version of Nerd Tunes, and if so this will be the last time you have to deal with my nonsense. With that in mind, I hope you look forward to what the future holds as much as I do. Maybe between now and then you can check out the rest of The Nerd Stash, I hear there are some pretty neat things on there… Beyond that, the only thing I can say is to thank you for reading my random thoughts on old games.