Friday, 14 September 2012


Today begins the start of a new series of Videogame features by avid gamer Nick Murray: Friday Flashbacks - taking a look at the best, worst and unjustly forgotten in the retro gaming back catalogue. For this first instalment, Nick has chosen to take a look back at the aptly titled side-scroller Flashback.

(released as Flashback: The Quest for Identity in US)
Release Year: 1992
Original Console Release: Amiga
Ports: MS-DOS, Acorn Archimedes, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Super Nintendo, Mega-CD, 3DO, CD-i, MS-DOS, Apple Macintosh, FM Towns, Atari Jaguar

By Nick Murray, Videogames Contributor.

Flashback. What could be a more appropriate game to start with than the one which gave this very feature it's title. It’s one of those games that I loved but until recently hadn't played since I was a kid, so it was interesting to revisit it and see how well it had stood the test of time...

Flashback puts you in the shoes of Conrad B. Hart, an agent of the Galaxia Bureau of Investigation who is suffering from a bad case of amnesia (When aren’t they? - Kyle). As you make your way through the game's dystopian levels, you learn of a dastardly plot involving shape shifting aliens and the end of mankind! It's typical sci-fi fare, but the characters and sense of impending danger really struck a chord with me many years ago, and that tension still rings true today. If you're a fan of Blade Runner and the like, you'll know what to expect but appreciate the run down, polluted world in which you traverse through over the course of the game.   

The game was first released in 1992 for the Amiga, and came from French developers Delphine Software, who have since closed down. It was then ported to other platforms in 1993, including the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive. The differences between the different versions is minimal, although the Mega Drive version has slightly better graphics as was standard in the SNES-Mega Drive/Genesis era. Nothing that changes the core gameplay experience though. At least hopefully not, as it's the SNES version I own.

At it's core, Flashback is a fairly standard 2D side-scrolling platformer, with an emphasis on puzzle solving. You will travel through maze like levels, looking for items and unlocking doors, all the while blasting mutants, droids, dirty cops and aliens. These action sequences keep the game from growing stale, as the puzzles are never overly taxing, and the maze like design does result in frequent back tracking. Without the occasional shootout, the whole experience would have very quickly become repetitive. 

One divisive element to the game, however, were it’s controls. Flashback's mix of puzzles and action are made all the more challenging due to it’s handling, which hasn't aged well at all. To be fair they're not completely horrible, but some of the button commands are really quite bizarre. For instance, to achieve a running jump you are required to push the action button while moving in the direction you want to go, before releasing your finger from the D-Pad and pressing up, while still holding the action button, sending Conrad bounding forward. Already it is unnecessarily awkward. This is because of all the buttons on the controller, they decided the ‘up’ directional would be jump. That's fine for fighting games, but it's really awkward in platformers. Your gaming subconscious just won't allow it, especially when you need to react quickly. There were, and will be now more than ever, many an occasion where you will find yourself under fire and needing to get out of the way fast, except you can't because you’re automatically reverting to the tried and true platforming control conventions, which instead of leaping your character out of harms way are having him stand there like an idiot repeatedly readying then holstering his weapon of choice. After a while of playing, you do get more used to this unwieldy control system, but it is one of the gaping flaws the title has to this day, and is perhaps one which has become even more problematic with time. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with controls, especially in an area where practically every release was usually some form of side-scroller, but Flashback failed to pull off something that was different for the right reasons.

Speaking of side-scrollers, the game undoubtedly owes a debt to the original Prince of Persia title. Both games utilise rotoscope animation, which still gives a nice sense of fluidity to the characters' motions; every movement and reaction is smooth and realistic. The game on the whole looks fantastic for it’s time, with the hand drawn backgrounds giving a nice sense of depth and keep the environment interesting. Admittedly this is lost a little when you find yourself in the corridors of New Washington. It still looks good, and is true to the setting, but the labyrinth design of the level means you will soon get bored of looking at the same grey walls over and over. 

Outside of the levels, Flashback boasts some of the best cutscenes of the time. When you first turn on the power, don't press start and watch the intro video. The eery slow motion and threat of the chase of the pre-menu scenes cast the perfect tone for the game. Cutscenes done in this way occur frequently at key points in the game, and even simple things like picking up an item have a little animation that you just can't bring yourself to skip. It’s a neat flourish that adds to the cheesy, somewhat cinematic fun.

There is no question though the lasting highlight and overall best thing about Flashback is its soundtrack. The synth heavy punchy tones give every cutscene weight, from something as simple as charging your shield or as weighty unravelling secrets from Hart’s past. With echoes of Blade Runner’s end credits and Terminator’s chase music, it is a soundtrack completely befitting to the genre, and in case you can't tell, I still love it! Even if you never play the game, see if you can check out the soundtrack, fans of the genre and gaming era won't be disappointed. There was also an official Flashback album released, but is quite difficult to source today and featured music inspired by the game's soundtrack as opposed to the soundtrack itself. I have no idea what those songs are like, but if any of you have heard them or own a copy yourself, let me know in the comments. 

This game really resonated on me and is one of my gaming history staples; when talking about games with friends I will often tell them about this awesome science fiction platformer, and all too often they will stare back at me blankly. I'm sure there will be many of you who have played this before, and to those of you who have please share your Flashback memories in the comments section below. A lot of you, however, will not remember it, or have even heard of it, and to those people I say do yourself a favour, go and dust off your old Mega Drives or Super Nintendos, get on eBay and get yourself a copy of Flashback. You won't regret it.

Just remember: hold action, direction across, release, press up = jump! 

Simple, right?

'Friday Flashback' will be published every other Friday.
Next Feature: Friday 28 September. 

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