This article spoils the storyline of Ecco the Dolphin. Read on at your own risk!
A friend of mine asked me why I never talk about modern or relevant games, so naturally I’ve decided to talk about the Asterite, an obscure character and boss from a game that first released in 1992.
Back in the dusty and forgotten days of 1995 (or thereabouts), my family got our first PC, a Packard Bell computer with a charming Navigator interface and a variety of programs included in the box. Two of these were Sega games – one was Comix Zone, an interesting combat platformer with a comic-panel-based visual style, and the other was Ecco the Dolphin.
My experience with games was fairly limited at this point in my life; I’d only really played a few brief minutes at stores, at some friends’ houses, and on a Virgin Atlantic flight. Needless to say, I wasn’t very good at them, and neither one of these Sega offerings was a particularly gentle introduction to the world of gaming.
Now, I’m not going to talk about the entire adventure, so let’s summarise the next few things quickly. Ecco the Dolphin may not be the hardest game ever created, but it’s unforgiving and easy to get lost. There are a variety of puzzles and challenges, be it finding missing dolphins or trying to move kegs around with pinpoint precision. It’s easy to lose the will to continue at times, especially when Ecco’s air seems to run out incredibly quickly.
As for the story, I’d mostly played games like Sonic the Hedgehog, where you just ran along and hit things for a while, and the only words you ever saw were level names. Ecco the Dolphin, meanwhile, featured dialogue with friendly sea life, and ancient glyphs that would share plot points with you. The game opens with Ecco relaxing with his fellow dolphins when he’s encouraged to jump as high as he can. Just as he does so, a mysterious waterspout seems to devour all of the sea life in Home Bay, including Ecco’s pod. Left by himself, Ecco sets out into the wider world to find his lost companions.
I’d not played many games as I said, so I had practically no expectations for what twists and turns might appear over the course of the story. As it turned out, it was no simple lost-and-found search, but instead a grand world-spanning adventure of destiny, with some aliens thrown in for good measure. In brief, you discovered that hungry aliens known as the Vortex visited Earth every five hundred years to steal marine life, to make up for the shortfall on their own world. Ecco was apparently a prophesied dolphin who would gain some sort of mystical power and take on the Vortex.
To do so, Ecco needed help, understandably. Some of this came in the form of a whale known as the Big Blue, exposition-spouting glyphs left by the ancient Atlanteans, and perhaps mostly notably, a mysterious being called the Asterite.
Ah, there we go – we’re finally getting to the point.
The Asterite was a strange being made up of rotating globes that resembled a DNA strand. Before it could help Ecco, it needed assistance – one of its globes was missing, and it asked Ecco to head over to Atlantis and use a time machine to return to the Jurassic period. Once in the past, Ecco’s mission was to go and beat up the Asterite’s younger self and swipe a replacement globe.
Once Ecco grabbed the globe, he was sent back to the present (somehow), whereupon he restored the Asterite to its former strength, and it granted him the power to fight the Vortex (endless breath, and sonar zap power), as well as advising him to use the time machine to return to the hour of the waterspout. This time, however, he was to head into the spout and confront the Vortex directly.
I was really into the story when I first played Ecco the Dolphin. I’d never encountered anything like it in a video game (lack of experience notwithstanding), and I felt shivers at the thought of going back to the start of the game to rescue my friends.
But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to talk about fighting the Asterite.
Many games have roadblocks. Sometimes, it’s jumping on a series of awkwardly-placed tortoises over a misty void in Crash Bandicoot. At other points, it’s the Capra Demon and its awkwardly tight ambush in Dark Souls. In yet another example, maybe it’s working as a forklift driver in Shenmue (don’t give me that look, I enjoyed that section myself).
However, the Asterite proved to be that barrier for me in Ecco the Dolphin. I just could not beat him. This is how the fight played out:
1) I would enter the chamber where the Asterite dwells.
2) I’d strike the Asterite as much as I could.
3) I’d get killed by its lightning attacks.
4) If the lightning didn’t get me, drowning would.
Seriously, I just could not beat him. I’d attack, and attack, and attack, and nothing would happen. The sun set and came up again, nations rose and fell, and still I’d be there, trying over and over to defeat the Asterite.
And then, suddenly, on one random attempt each playthrough, the Asterite would collapse, and I’d be catapulted back into the present. Victory!
Now, seasoned veterans of Ecco the Dolphin might be shaking their heads at me around now, or maybe nodding in sad understanding. You see, the Asterite isn’t an endurance test. It’s not Dr Robotnik in one of his malevolent contraptions.
The Asterite fight was not so much a fight as a puzzle. I wasn’t really aware that such things existed in Ecco the Dolphin. Sure, I’d moved a few kegs around and navigated some mazes, but the only way to beat enemies was to hit them a lot, right?
Well, no. The Asterite is comprised of various coloured orbs, and what you needed to do was tap four orbs of the same colour. Each one you hit would start flashing, and that would reset if you hit an orb of a different colour. I vaguely noticed this happening now and then, but I was largely focused on whacking the Asterite as much as I could before my inevitable demise. Once you’d tapped the required chain of four orbs, you won.
I didn’t figure this out until maybe my fourth or fifth playthrough. Yes, I played Ecco the Dolphin a lot back then. It was one of the only games I had access to, and Comix Zone, for all that I loved it, was suffering incarnate beyond the first stage.
But as I was saying, I played the game multiple times before realising the strategy. I approached the Asterite with dread each time. How would I defeat it? There was no rhyme or reason to my victories! It was a roll of the dice, the universe throwing a coin and deciding my destiny for me.
So do you see the inherent tragedy in what happened each playthrough? I sat there at the PC mindlessly attacking the Asterite over and over, waiting for the one blessed time that, by completely baffling chance, I accidentally hit orbs of the same colour four times in a row. The Asterite’s globes spin around at quite a rate, so the chances of this happening are a million to one (I calculated it exactly). It’s crazy! The irony is that, by the time I figured it out, it was probably my last full playthrough of the game.
My childhood was full of this sort of disaster. In my series on Final Fantasy VIII, I’ll talk about my struggles with Sorceress Adel in more depth, but how about the time in the original Tomb Raider at Palace Midas? There were a few burning columns over a pool of water, and you had to switch off the flames and jump across the columns before the flames reactivated. I tried over and over and could not make the jumps. I would come back to the game again and again, and never make it in time.
One day, I woke up during a holiday visiting my grandparents, with an epiphany – I could spam medkits while burning, activate the switch on the other side, and then jump into the water. My solution was not to get better – it was to mitigate my failure in a costly fashion. Good times.
These days, if I bang my face against a wall in a game a few times, I’ll more often than not just look up the answer on the internet. Part of this is laziness, but another part is a fear of bugs. I wouldn’t like to think of the number of times I’ve got stuck for hours trying to find that one last damn collectible, only to discover that “it can bug and disappear, but just leave and re-enter the area and it should spawn”.
So it’s with a certain level of amusement and fondness that I look back on those pristine early days, when I still had the patience to suffer torment and humiliation over and over again with no thought that maybe I was doing something wrong.
And that’s why I felt I should talk about the Asterite – a nod to one of my greatest enemies, which turned out to be myself.