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Ecco the Dolphin, A Relic from When Caring About Earth was Good Business

Back when society briefly cared about staving off an ecological apocalypse, Novotrade and Sega converted that eco-compassion into a fascinating video game voyage.

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Only '90s kids will remember a time when conversations about the future of Earth's climate and ecology were couched in terms of hope and possibility rather than as a foregone conclusion that the human race is well past the turning point of driving itself to extinction within the next century!

Yes, for a brief time in the '90s, hand-wringing (yet hopeful) jeremiads about saving the planet came into vogue again, having more or less vanished after Woodstock in favor of the clueless '70s (when even our clothes were made of synthetic, chemically concocted materials) and the greedy '80s (when the word "yuppie" came into existence). As the new decade dawned, America donned its bellbottoms, cared about Earth Day for the final time, and joined together to express their hopes for a clear, happy planet. Then we all realized it was much less trouble to just keep polluting and living our destructive lives, and in the grand Social Security tradition, decided to just let future generations deal with the fallout of our self-involved existences. (Sorry, millennials.)

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WATCH: A look back at Ecco the Dolphin.

It was a weird time — a time when giant, toxic megacorporations banded together to talk about the essential nature of, well, nature... even as they deforested vast swaths of South America and dumped mercury into the Gulf of Mexico. An era where Tiger Toys sold a line of "Captain Planet" toys designed to promote environmental awareness — toys made of plastics that generated all sorts of dangerous chemical byproducts as they were made. And, naturally, video games got in on this groovy, love-in action as well, be it with Sonic the Hedgehog's mission to prevent Dr. Robotnik from transforming wildlife into cyborgs or Awesome Possum's crusade to kick Dr. Machino's butt. (The post-Sonic '90s were, alas, somewhat short on original themes for games.)

Of all the games to emerge from this morass, I'm particularly fond of two: Taito's Growl, because it's a lousy, generic, belt-scrolling brawler that had conservation messages shoehorned into it in the most inelegant way imaginable; and Novotrade's Ecco the Dolphin, because it's so unique. Ecco clearly emerged from the primal soup of '90s environmental awareness, with its oceanic setting and themes of depopulation among higher orders of sea mammals, but it doesn't beat players over the head with its messages. Ecco transcended mere Earth Day moralizing to become a brilliant adventure in its own right, an action-adventure game set in large, free-scrolling underwater environments where the protagonist could move through 360 degrees of motion and challenging, puzzle-driven gameplay appeared around every corner.

Ecco, which debuted 23 years ago today, stood out not only among its nature-loving, granola-munching peers, but also among other Sega Genesis games. With a leisurely pace and evocative atmosphere belying a ferocious difficulty level, Ecco looked, played, and felt like nothing else during the 16-bit generation. It's pretty unique these days, too — the upcoming Abzû captures its ambiance, but not its brutality. If only we'd seen more games like Ecco, maybe these murderous summers and bitter winters could have been prevented.

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