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True Fan Hack Stories: Ecco PC Fixed & Enhanced Edition

The first of a new feature series here at RadioSEGA.net, where I go into the fan games/hacks and the people that made them! The inaugural edition features the Ecco PC Fixed and Enhanced Edtiion from our friends Caverns of Hope!

Hallo people! Welcome to the first of a new feature series here at RadioSEGA.net, called True Fan Hack Stories. In TFHS, I go and interview the people behind the projects made for and by the SEGA community as well as go into the fan game & fan hacks themselves.

And just in time for the winner of our RadioSEGA Character Battle 2014, the first edition of TFHS welcomes Klaimen & Korama from the Ecco the Dolphin fansite, Caverns of Hope and its fan hack Ecco PC Fixed and Enhanced Edition. Hope you'll enjoy this interview as I ask the duo about the project as well as other tidbits. Enjoy!


Hey! This is Twinny from RadioSEGA! Thanks for having this interview!

Klaimen: Hey Twinny, this is Klaimen from Caverns of Hope! Korama and me will try our best to answer your questions about the Ecco PC Fixed and Enhanced Edition.

First and foremost, thanks and congrats on being part of the very first True Fan Hack Stories feature on RadioSEGA!

: Thanks for having us! It's an honor for us to be the first ones featured in this new RadioSEGA feature, and it's very exciting. I'm also looking forward to the upcoming stories after this one.

Alright, before we get started, tell us a little about yourselves and site you all run.

Klaimen: We both live in Germany, me living in the North. While I spent a lot of my childhood at the Baltic Sea, SEGA games have caught me since the late 80ies. I've ever since owned a Master System, Mega Drive and Dreamcast and I don't want to miss the awesome experiences I've had with the games on these consoles!

Caverns of Hope is an Ecco the Dolphin fan website I've been running since September 2001. The site went through a lot of different stages, with more and less active phases, depending on the amount of time we could spend working on it. The best part, though, is the friendly and extremely creative community with their fan works, be it artwork, music or games!

When was the first time you saw or heard of Ecco the Dolphin?

Klaimen: I've seen the game first when I was about 10 years old. I was with my parents in a big store in the next town over, to decide the games I'd get Xmas. I think I got to choose one game, while they'd select the other for me. We spent a lot of time their, being assisted by one of the sellers, and trying the games on the console there. Of course my choice was Aladdin! (lol) It's true, though. But really, I believe my parents chose Ecco for educational reasons, and they couldn't have chosen any better game for me, really! The education factor, however, may be minor compared to the plenty of frustration the game gave me! Haha!

The European, Japanese, and North American (U.S.) box arts for the original Ecco the Dolphin for PC.

Korama: I saw a review of the game in a magazine, when it was first released. The screenshots immediately captivated my imagination. However, I couldn't afford to go out and buy every game that looked interesting. Luckily, some time later while swapping Mega Drive games with a classmate, I discovered that he had Ecco, and that's how I got to play it for the first time. Somehow I managed to beat it, eventually. It was tough, but the experience was so great that I couldn't wait for the sequel, which I then bought as soon as I could.


With that said, looking back at the game, were there any things you felt missing or just needed to be made better?

: I think my personal experience during my first play through was so unique that I cannot objectively state on that. I spent lots of hours on it in my childhood, and the best part for me was to figure out what you have to do, where you have to go. I didn't care that you'd die so often, because I had plenty of time after school. The good thing is that you get unlimited lives and passwords to pick the game up later. Ecco is a game that rewards you if you spend a lot of time with it. It's a lot about exploration, and figuring out the whole story. And it paints a great picture of the harsh, yet beautiful life in the ocean. I think any changes may have been worse for the game as a whole.

Korama: Talking about the original Mega Drive release? Pretty much what Klaimen said. The game really is difficult, though, maybe too much for today's standards. However, subsequent releases of Ecco 1, such as the Japanese and CD versions, and Ecco PC too, toned the difficulty down a bit by introducing checkpoints. Those would have been great to have in the original release, of course. Talking about Ecco PC: this version introduced a nice "high detail" mode with graphics redrawn in a higher resolution than the Mega Drive could handle. Unfortunately, that mode lacks the two layer scrolling between foreground and background. That's the one big thing that we still need to fix.

When or what did the spark for the project come up then?

Klaimen: Korama has actually been fixing Ecco PC for about 10 years now. The reason is simple: Ecco PC was built for Windows 95, and on every new Windows release the game struggled to work more and more. The official game setup program stopped working on Windows XP. Thus, Korama invented the "Ecco PC Wizard", a tool that installs Ecco PC data from the original discs and compressed data files. After installation you could select from multiple patches to make the game compatible with your Windows version.

While the Wizard could still make the game work on Vista, it became nearly impossible to run Ecco PC on Windows 7. Now on Windows 8 the game will shut down immediately in an error message when attempting to run it. Just in time, after taking a break from COH, Korama returned and started fixing Ecco PC again, to make it work flawlessly on all currently supported Windows versions.

Korama: Yes, I did patch Ecco PC ten years ago already (but I have NOT been working on it non-stop till then!). Just enough to get it going at that time. I've always found it annoying when I wanted to replay one of my old PC games, only to see that it wouldn't work anymore with the current version of Windows. I don't necessarily blame Microsoft. Sometimes those old games break because they contain bad code and bugs which simply did not manifest in the older Windows version out of dumb luck. There are several cases of this in Ecco PC. I have experience with reverse-engineering and with programming, so when I have the time and feel like it, I start to investigate a broken game in order to make it playable again. However, most of the time my patches do not get a polished and elaborate release like this Ecco PC project.

What ideas (if any) did you guys want to implement into this version to differentiate itself from the original?

: I believe Korama didn't want to change the original game contents at all, for good reason. It's still supposed to play like the original Ecco game we know and love, and we do not dare altering Ed Annunziata's masterpiece, at all. However, we've always wanted to combine all features of the different game versions in one, while being easily accessible. Ecco PC is the best base for that. Our biggest request was the ability to select from both Soundtrack versions (the Mega Drive/Genesis and the Sega CD/Mega CD ones). Also, the original Ecco PC version was lacking many sound effects from the console versions which needed to be placed back in (it was shipped with only 10, while the console versions have about 60!).

Korama: For me, it was rather spontaneous. At first I didn't intend to add any features to the game, I just wanted to make it playable again. As Klaimen said, I patched Ecco PC a decade ago already, so I had a few features worked out from the start, like fixing the save/restore game dialogs, increasing the number of savegame slots, and restoring the missing sound effects. But some of the graphic modes have been broken for a long time, and I finally wanted to repair them all. While working on the project, I came up with some new ideas that weren't too difficult to implement, such as the palette blending and playing the game mirrored. Klaimen thought of the custom soundtrack features and restoring the time travel music that no CD-based version of the game has had before.

How was the rewriting process? What were the difficulties about fixing the port?

Klaimen: In the first step, Korama made all graphic modes work again - there are 5 different modes (normal and high detail, each full screen and windowed). They all use different methods to draw the screens, so this was very intensive work. During this stage, Korama added a nice graphical improvement, the palette blending effect. It works like this: In the original game, when swimming downwards, the palette will change in multiple steps to a different brightness, to simulate the depth of the ocean. The fixed version smoothens this effect by blending the palette steps for a couple frames, adding a subtle but nice transition effect.

Next, Korama added the ability to play the music from audio files on your hard drive (e.g. MP3s). The original Ecco PC used CD Audio, which was always hard to get to work. The idea of being able to replace the original soundtrack came quickly with the MP3 functions. However, the music track assignment varies between the game versions. Korama found a way to assign music tracks in a different order, making it possible to play e.g. with the original MegaDrive chiptune soundtrack.

The addition of the remaining Sound Effects was similarly problematic. Interestingly, Ecco PC has always had code for playing the missing sound effects. Why they have not been added is a mystery. Korama fixed that and reassigned sound effects; now the game features all of them like they play in the console versions.

During the different stages of programming, the Launcher tool advanced quite a bit. In the beginning, the Launcher had no user input options at all - changes could only be made by changing entries in a INI text file. Thankfully, Korama created a user friendly option window, allowing for making all kinds of tweaks to the game and the new functions with ease.
Other tweaks include the rendered videos being scaled to fill the window/screen, as well as fixes from the previous Wizard patches, such as removing the CD check functions or skipping the intro video. And BTW, there are a couple secrets and cheats in the fixed version, too! ;)

Korama: Well, I didn't rewrite the whole game. I'd like to try that some day, but I don't have time for that at the moment. Ecco PC still uses most of its original code. I did rewrite specific parts, such as the handling of sound, video, and graphic output. I devised workarounds for all the major issues and made the game use my custom code where necessary. That might sound easier than it actually is.

Without going into too much technical detail, some portions of Ecco PC are a real mess. Klaimen mentioned the five different graphic modes - you'd think that they're handled pretty much the same way by the game, but no. Some of them use DirectDraw (part of Microsoft's DirectX library, which is used by games to get direct and fast access to your PC's hardware.) While others use MS-DOS era VGA hardware access (a big no-no since at least Windows XP).

Direct3D is still widely used today, of course. DirectDraw, which was mainly used for 2D games like Ecco PC, has been deprecated, though. DirectDraw still works in Windows 8, but not in the way Ecco PC expects it to. So, that's how I got started, actually. I wanted to see if I could create a "fake" DirectDraw interface and make the game use it. That way, I could lie to the game and for example pretend that Windows was running in the old 8 bit / 256 color mode that the game needs for its palette-based graphics, even when Windows is actually running in 24 or 32 bit true color mode. It turned out to work really well and I finished the initial proof of concept faster than I expected. The rest just developed from there.

From the beginning, I had two goals: 1. don't modify the game executable on disk, do it in memory (requires a loader/launcher for starting the game every time, but makes bugfixes and updates much easier), and 2. make sure that all patches work for all four known versions of Ecco PC (Japanese, European, and two US ones). That meant more work, but I think it was worth it in the end.

During development, I sent new versions of the launcher to Klaimen, and his feedback helped a lot with finding bugs and coming up with new features.

Were there plans to release this onto Mac or did difficulties made it impossible?

: The game was only written for Windows 95 (besides a rudimentary Windows 3.1 version being attached). Porting it to another platform like the Mac would require a lot more work and time, I believe, which is something we do not have. It's not impossible, though. Maybe sometime?

The game would need to be rewritten from scratch for other platforms. Yeah, maybe someday...

If possible, what other Ecco installments would you guys hope to fix and enhance?

Klaimen: Obviously we'd love to give the same treats to Ecco: The Tides of Time. Similar to Ecco 1, the game has two different soundtracks, and the CD version has those additional rendered videos, but with different cuts. Unfortunately the game was never ported to PC, and doing so would require a lot more effort than the Ecco PC fix. We actually hope that SEGA will one day release official versions of the game with all the features, and to be played on modern consoles. I think the whole gaming community would benefit a lot from that!

Any special thanks you guys would like to give out towards the project?

Klaimen: We'd like to thank everyone who spread the word about this re-release. Besides making Ecco PC playable again, our intention was to raise awareness about Ecco the Dolphin. We're really glad that sites like SegaBits and RadioSEGA spread the news about the release, but also about everyone who gave us a retweet or spread the word to their friends! We hope that Ecco the Dolphin will see a return one day!

Hope you enjoyed the inaugural edition of True Fan Hack Stories! It was a great meeting with the boys from Cavern of Hope and got to know a lot behind their love for the cult-favorite game. Course, you can download the game right over at this link.

I'm targeting TFHS is a monthly feature for the site, but have other potential interviewees lined up. Check my Twitter page to know the status of future installments! Take care!

9th August, 2014 - 20:30 GMT Twinny Article viewed 10810 times 0 Comments


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