In Retrospect: FlashbackPlatforms: Retro
There are moments in my life where I try to deny, usually to my girlfriend, that I wasn't actually that geeky as a teenager. I mean sure the lack of girls and the hand painted Warhammer 40,000 models may tip the balance the wrong way on the geek see-saw but I always felt I was just a regular kid. However, then I remember something that has stuck with me to this day that can only truly be attributed to the upper echelons of geekdom. I don’t think it’s normal that I had game reviews and previews pinned to my wall so I could read them every night before going to bed, it really should have been pictures of bands, girls or even girls in bands. Looking back I laugh now and acknowledge the geek factor and any defence I think I may have about not being a geek quickly erodes. That all being said, when I think of the game that inspired me to rip the pages from my magazines and pin them to the wall it all makes a little more sense and that game was Flashback on the Sega Megadrive.
Flashback was originally released on the Amiga in 1992 and the Megadrive release was close to a year behind it, the game was to see releases on nearly all platforms at the time, even the ill fated Atari Jaguar. Flashback’s arrival came at the time of standard platformers like Sonic, Bubsy and Puggsy and while it didn’t have the cute, cuddly and instantly recognisable hero figure Flashback was the definition of a game-changer. A few years previous the now disbanded Delphine Software had released Another World, the Eric Chahi directed game was a great cinematic experience and while Flashback isn’t a sequel they do share similarities in mechanics and visuals but for me Flashback was miles ahead.
Much was made of the visuals of Flashback at the time, rightly so, and even today I feel the animation is top drawer and each of the staggering number of character actions are beautifully rendered through hand drawing and rotoscoping techniques. I spent so much of my time drawing and then holstering my gun just because it looked so good and the rest of my time was spend doing a forward roll and then drawing my gun because it looked even cooler. The game was littered with cut-scenes that were ambitious and exciting and even the act of picking up an item was met with a small cut-scene, at the time this was unprecedented. What we had here was a 32-bit game on a 16-bit console; the game was often touted as ‘The CD game on a cartridge’ which lost some of its selling power when they started selling it on CD consoles.
As a hero of a videogame Conrad Hart was a breath of fresh air, here we stepped away from the cutesy mascots or hulking heroes and moved into something more mature. Conrad was an amnesiac cop on the run with only instructions from himself in a message he recorded before his memory was wiped for guidance, always pushing towards revealing the alien plot to enslave humanity. It’s pretty much by the numbers science fiction but it was a push forward for gaming in trying to take the cinematic concept and make a game that did not just have a credible story but was also involving to play. There was a real gravity to the game, everything felt solid, for this reason I always felt that Conrad was very human and if you mistimed your jump or even dropped from just slightly too high a ledge you could almost feel what Conrad felt. This added a real humanity and feeling of mortality to the game, a great sense of gravity.
The gameplay itself was at heart a platform game yet it would share more in common with something like Portal than the platformers of the time. Moving into the next screen presented you with a static level which you would be required to negotiate with a mixture of platforming, stealth, combat and using items. While a lot of the time these puzzles riff off a similar theme they are never boring and with the addition of a portable teleportation device midway through the game you are constantly kept intrigued as to how to solve these areas. Flashback is not only confined to puzzle solving, as you delve further into the world and meet more characters you stumble upon a variety of things to do. I distinctly remember trying so secure some falsified papers and being told that as I did not have enough cash I would have to got to the employment centre to get jobs. Besides my paper round, Flashback was my first real introduction to working life as I had to go to the employment office, get my job, commute via rail, complete the job and then receive payment. My parents would like to thank Delphine Sofware for my healthy work ethic.
After battling my way through alien worlds, competing in game shows, working like a donkey, fighting corrupt cops and finally destroying the alien home planet it was time to say goodbye to Conrad and this marvellous adventure. As Conrad disappeared off aimlessly into space aboard his ship and entered cryo-sleep the only thing that I was certain of was that I wanted more of this, I cared enough to want this story to continue. There was a follow up to Flashback in the shape of Fade to Black a fully 3D over the shoulder adventure which to be honest disappointed me, despite getting relatively positive reviews and selling enough to go platinum. The charm of the original was gone; I feel that the developers weren’t fully comfortable with the 3D aspect as opposed to their refinement and mastery of the 2d platformer. There had also been a planned follow up side-scroller to Fade to Black but unfortunately Delphine went under before they got the chance to release it. I am thankful for ever having had Flashback in the first place but if ever a game deserved a proper sequel it was this, the game deserved to go out with a bang, not the fizzle it received.
Like Conrad I feel that I suffer from some sort of amnesia. It’s weird that I couldn’t tell you about my first day at high school, I couldn’t tell you about my last day of university and to be honest I’d probably struggle to tell you what I had for dinner last night. I can, however, tell you minutia about the day I bought Flashback. I can tell you that I got the bus with my parents into town, that it was a beautiful summer’s day in June, that we got the actual last copy of Flashback in Belfast from Dixons, we went to see Jurassic Park that day and I also got a Judge Dredd t-shirt. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that this game meant something to me, it’s very rarely that a game of such quality comes about and much rarer that it makes its mark on you. I say when it does happen, embrace your inner geek and be proud and thanks to Flashback I’ll never forget the summer of 1993.