I played a lot of Genesis (Mega Drive for you guys in the UK, I guess) games as a kid. This is going to sound sad, but there were a couple games I could never play, because they scared the heck out of me. Even more so because they weren't meant to be scary: The "Ecco the Dolphin" games. I don't do well with water in games, okay? Not since the Chemical Plant stage in Sonic 2.
Anyway, years went by, and in the meantime, I'd looked into what I had missed by watching playthroughs and stuff. The game was actually pretty interesting. There were aliens, time travel, and this weird thing that looked like a DNA strand made of spheres. So eventually, I worked up the nerve to try and play it again, but my original cartridges had been misplaced. Not by me, but that's another story.
Frustratingly enough, I had gotten a compilation disc of genesis games for my PS3, and it had those games included. However, when I tried to load the Ecco games, my PS3 would freeze. The disc was in perfect condition, and while my PS3 is one of the older models, it's extremely reliable. Odd.
With that option gone, I went old-school. I decided to check out a retro games store, and managed to find the first two games. They were in amazing condition, like they'd never really been played. They even came with the cases. I asked the guy running the store about this, and he said the previous owner had never really wanted to play them, so they just sat around gathering dust. Not entirely unbelievable, that's the same state my copies had been in before they disappeared.
It Starts Edit
So I got home and started up the first game. I watched the intro sequence, which is a bunch of dolphins swimming and jumping out of the water as the screen pans right. While I'd never really played the game, I'd watched the intro sequence dozens of times as a kid, and it was exactly as I remembered it. I decided to let the game go into attract mode, to kinda ease myself into playing it.
So the game started auto-playing one of the earlier levels... as I watched the game go, I noticed something odd, there were objects from other levels. They weren't the sort of things you could interact with, just eye candy, so I wasn't too worried.
I started actually playing the game, and got placed in the starting cavern. It has 2 exits. The one to the right starts at the beginning of the game. The one at the left puts you at the password screen, where you could put one of the codes that showed up at the start of each stage to start there instead. I decided to try out a well-known code for reaching one of the last stages: all "N"s. Instead of showing the title to the level against a watery background, it said "THAT'S CHEATING." and dumped me back into the starting cavern.
It struck me as odd, but I decided to keep playing. A site I used to visit a long time ago covered stuff like beta builds and bootleg copies of games, so I figured I'd report my findings there. The Ecco games are actually fairly challenging, so I thought maybe someone tried to make it even harder, or something. We all know that guy that has to play on the highest difficulty.
So I went right this time and appeared in the middle of Home Bay, the first level. No title screen, but that's normal. I looked around and saw that none of the NPC dolphins were to be found. No fish, either. Now, that does happen in the game, but the player is supposed to trigger it first. By all accounts, someone already had.
It was getting late, so I decided to investigate more tomorrow. I turned the game off and went to sleep. I dreamed about the game that night. This wasn't unexpected, I often dream about games I'd gotten particularly into, but it had been a few years since the last time it had happened. Ecco was back in Home Bay, the normal one, or so I'd thought. When I talked to one of the other dolphins, the message I got was "PLEASE KEEP PLAYING." I woke up shortly after, and it was morning. I couldn't go straight back to playing because I had classes, but I couldn't quite focus after that odd dream. Was I still feeling guilty about not beating the game earlier?
It Gets Worse Edit
I got back to play it some more, and started on the first level again. It worked normally this time. I had Ecco swim around, talk to his friends or family (the game never really says), and jumped out of the bay to trigger the waterspout that empties the bay of all its contents. Ecco was kept suspended in the air, but not dragged into the spout with the others, eventually falling back into the sea as the wind abated. There was a flash and the happy intro music cut out as the game transitioned to Ecco drifting near the bottom of Home Bay, his air meter dangerously low. He moved sluggishly as I tried to guide him to the surface, almost fighting against my controller inputs. Whatever the issue, it stopped once he surfaced, air gauge refilling. With that, I took him through the exit to start the game proper.
I noticed in the next level that the NPC dolphins were gone. Just conspicuous empty spaces where the lost ones were supposed to be. The orca in one of the deeper caverns was still around, though. As usual, it told me to find Big Blue, a old whale. What was different was that the message seemed more urgent this time. "There are not many left," it told me.
I wasn't very good at the game, so progress was slow after that. Yet, every time I slept, I had those dreams, and got words of encouragement. Every time I beat a level, I'd get something like "YOU ARE ONE STEP CLOSER." or "PLEASE, WE'RE COUNTING ON YOU."
I tried looking up passwords to later levels, but every time I tried them, I got the "THAT'S CHEATING" message and was sent back to the starting point. However, when I typed in the password I'd written down for the last stage I'd gotten to, the level loaded normally.
"So why didn't you leave?" Edit
It was now painfully obvious that this wasn't a hacked game. I tried to quit, really. I've read the stories, I've heard what happens when people keep messing with the obviously haunted/possessed thing. The first night I went without playing, more dreams came. Not good ones.
It was still in the form of the game. This time, I was in a level with green, alien architecture. The same the aliens use. And I saw /her/. The Vortex Queen, the final boss. A green, bulbous, insect head, but with a jaw full of human-looking teeth. All the fish and stuff, disappearing from the oceans? Food. For her and her children. She started the animation for her only attack, trying to inhale the player-character. I saw several fish and dolphins get dragged from off-screen and into her mouth. There was no blood, the entire sequence was still in the style of the game. The last part was another message. "YOU CAN STOP THIS." When I woke up, I decided the only way out of... whatever I had stumbled into was to go through the game. If someone was actually helped, that was fine too.
So, I put all my spare time into the game. Whenever I wasn't playing the game, I was reading walkthroughs, or watching speedruns. I even managed to learn the trick of bypassing barrier glyphs by swimming into them backwards. The first time I did it, I thought the game would be... angry or something, but before the next level screen showed, it had the message. "CLEVER. PERHAPS YOU WILL SUCCEED."
I made it to the Open Ocean stage, which is just a race to the right side of the screen through shark-infested waters. The level description changed, though. This time, it said "Little prey remains, the hunters are desperate." I started the level and 3 "chase" sharks came from the left side of the screen. I started accelerating, but I noticed that the sharks didn't fall behind as my character hit top speed. In fact, they started to gain if I let up for even a second, so I had to keep mashing the 'go faster' button. I didn't like this at all. The old childhood fears of water stages were coming back in full force. The only reason the sharks were tolerable before is because I could usually tackle them before they got a chance to attack. I wanted nothing more than to throw down the controller and call it a night.
As I kept moving forward, I got a better look at the shark sprites. They looked painfully thin, like they hadn't eaten in a very long time. Near the top and bottom edges of the screen, I saw more sharks, and these were attacking each other as I tried to make it through the level. No blood, but I saw the sprites flicker and disappear, just like they do when attacked by your character.
Eventually, I got to the Vortex stages. Honestly, I was psyched. I still wanted my life back, but I also wanted... closure, I guess? To know that whatever was going wrong was fixed.
The Final Battle Edit
As I reached the first of their stages, I got a new level title screen. Not rippling blue water, with shiny purple letters. The background was the same fluorescent shade of green I'd seen earlier, and the text was completely black. "THE TUBE". A couple auto-scrolling levels and a boss fight, and I was done. But, as I reached the halfway point of the tube, there was a sound I'd never heard before. A low grumble, and a message screen. "YOU WILL NOT STOP US."
I should have guessed. If the good guys in the game were... I'll just call it 'alive', then of course the enemies would be too. As I exited the message screen, a wave of the smaller aliens came down from the top of the tube, which normally has static obstacles only. At this point though, you basically have super powers, including a sonar pulse that tears these guys to shreds. I made it through without dying even once.
I made it to the pen-ultimate stage, "WELCOME TO THE MACHINE". This one is more of a maze. You'll often have to pick 1 of 2 paths, and hope it doesn't leave you to a dead end, which will get you crushed as the level keeps scrolling. Between the Vortex now attacking from multiple directions, the turrets built into the stage, and the stupid auto-scrolling, I died. Several times. And each time I got dumped back to the level title screen, the Vortex were mocking my failure. I didn't even care about saving some dolphins that may or may not have been alive anymore. I just wanted to prove the Vortex wrong because I'm stubborn like that.
It took maybe 2 hours of play to finally get through with all the bullshit they added. The last level title was now on my screen: "FINAL FIGHT". There's the giant head again, in all its ugly 16-bit glory. And more small fries and turrets, which I had to dodge by constantly moving around the stage: a large boxed-in expanse of black background. To kill the Queen, you have to shoot out her eyes and break her jaw off. I was almost expecting comical amounts of blood or ichor upon doing this, but nothing. That section was completely unaltered, and frankly it didn't need any changes to unsettle me. I was still pummeling a giant insect face, and the idea that it actually existed, in some alternate dimension or whatever, didn't help.
The Queen wasn't going down quietly either. Each attack was answered with another rumbling cry and more vortex drones coming in to back her up. I had maybe a couple attacks to go when she did something new. Instead of attacking in a passive-aggressive fashion by trying to suck up all the water, and Ecco with it, she went on offense, turning and lunging at my character with her half-broken mouth. I'll admit it, I screamed like a little girl when that happened. It was sheer dumb luck I got out of the way. But, her desperate attacking only made the fight easier. I just had to bait her into charging, then circle around and bash the back of her head before she could recover. There was one last rumbling roar as it turned back towards the screen, sinking down past the bottom of the level, coughing up Ecco's family. How did they survive being eaten? I don't know. Don't ask.
At last, I saw the victory sequence. Ecco and his buddies swimming back to Earth, celebrating by swimming in formation because... they're dolphins, I guess that's all they really have. I wasn't complaining. Ecco does his last bit, talking to his rescued friends, but I noticed there were 4 dolphins instead of 3. The fourth had a special message. "THANK YOU. WE'RE SORRY WE KEPT PUSHING YOU. WE HAD NO OTHER CHOICE."
It'd taken weeks, but my foray into... no, I'm not even gonna say it... whatever it was, it was over. The dreams? Stopped. The game? It was a week before I even looked at it again, but everything worked as normal. I haven't been able to replicate anything out of the ordinary on that cartridge. Not the graphical glitches, not the dialogue changes, not the password screen being really fussy about what it actually accepted. After all that unusual activity, I'm just left with an old cartridge and some bad grades for finals. The Genesis collection disc is working fine, too.
There was just one matter still unresolved. That second cartridge, containing the second game. I hadn't played it all once I got caught up in my strange little adventure. I'm not sure what to do with it. I don't want to devote another chunk of my life to some haunted game with nothing but a 'thanks'. But I don't want to pawn the game off to some other schmuck, leaving them in the same predicament. And... while it felt like a chore some days (with noticeably worse punishment), there was a sense of purpose when I was playing.
I don't know. It might just be a normal game. I should find out.
Written by: Cirrus G