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'Flashback' Is the Most Cinematic Adventure of the 16-Bit Age

The game started life as 'The Godfather in Space.'

by Mike Diver
Jun 8 2017, 5:01pm

Remember Flashback? VectorCell's 2013 platformer, pushed out onto PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 via their respective digital platforms? Released to a rousing reception of Get In The Bin? Course you do, because even if you never played it, this century's Flashback was remarkable, and covered widely as a result, for its utter pointlessness.

It doesn't matter that, reportedly, the game handled like a lame duck trying to paddle its way across a lake of Key lime pie. That its upgradable skills system felt entirely unnecessary, or that its voice acting was possibly the worst ever heard in an HD-era video game—awesome, sauce, indeed. Nah. The game was a waste of time because it never needed to exist.

It was, like you don't already know, a remake. And sure, remakes have their place in the modern gaming era—great franchises of the past deserve their chance to shine using contemporary technology. But some games were near-perfect the first time, and while the hardware's moved on, the way they look, sound and play really doesn't necessitate any kind of update. That's French studio Delphine Software's Flashback, right there: a 16-bit gem from 1992 that even when seen today, just fizzes and pops with tremendous appeal. And a lot of that is down to just how successfully it cribs from sci-fi precedents set by the world of cinema.

Okay, it didn't always play so great. There was a definite learning curve to how protagonist Conrad Hart controlled, with his array of rolls and leaps, ducks and hops—it was easy to miss ledges or completely roll off them, as the beats, the very particular positioning, slowly became second nature. The static screens—no side-scrolling here, you just pressed into the right of the display and pow, there you were on the left of a whole new scene—meant that dangers often appeared as if from nowhere, necessitating swift movement back and forth, through the screen transitions, which was jarring to say the least.

Above: 'Flashback,' full Amiga intro

But the story of Flashback is what comprised its core motivation—for me, at least, who at the time was regularly fascinated by movies he wasn't really old enough to be watching. Total Recall, Alien and its sequel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and anime breakouts like Akira—these influences, and more, are all over Flashback.

To look at it, in stills, in screenshots, you see a 2D platformer like many others of the time, with a player-controlled character wielding a gun, dodging enemy fire and defeating his foes. There are things to pick up, to put down, switches to flip and lifts to ascend on. Press A to Speak to Dude. Big deal.

But to play Flashback was to slowly but surely, patience permitting, get it—to learn that precision here was everything, that maneuvering Conrad necessitated subtle strategy at times, and that rushing into a new screen blindly often spelled death. That even with limited hardware, Delphine was able to manifest terrific atmosphere across a bold variety of settings, from the jungles and underground cities of Titan to a grimly futuristic Earth via a Running Man-indebted game show where to lose is to die. And that richness supports a familiar but nonetheless compelling tale of alien invaders mixing into human society, conquering us from within.

Uncovering who's not quite as human as they first appear? Pure Blade Runner. And that they're aliens, not androids, is a clear nod to They Live.

"I think we'd now look far more negatively on something that aped such obvious sources throughout the game, in the way that Flashback did," comments Karl Moon of the Cane and Rinse video game podcast—who just recently ran a fantastic Flashback episode (I already had this piece planned, so that was a nice coincidence)—when I ask him about all of the game's sci-fi touchstones. Mixed into the already mentioned influences are elements of Blade Runner and They Live, too.

"I think the very obvious nods were relevant to its success in gaming culture in 1992, when games weren't the mainstream media source they are now. Having something that never strayed too far from source materials— Blade Runner, Total Recall, Akira and so on—meant the game never lost that audience who could relate this adventure to something."

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With its fluid, rotoscoped animation and legitimately disquieting mood, punctuated by brief flurries of music but often set to eerie silence, Flashback left an impression enough of itself beside the myriad parallels to become a favorite of many who encountered it. Be that on the debut 1992 Amiga release, or later console versions—although, as designer Paul Cuisset told Retro Gamer magazine's July 2013 issue, the game's main platform was the Mega Drive, and everything else was a port. "The game was created for this platform," he said, adding that Sega's 16-bit release is "the best version."

In an era age of countless movie-license video games, from Disney's Aladdin to Alien 3, Batman Returns to a surprisingly excellent Dune adaptation for Mega-CD—and the slew of crappy tie-ins that steadily saw the game-of-the-movie become more laughing stock than valuable multimedia crossover—Flashback is perhaps the best "non-official" example of the lot.

Read more: Waypoint Staffers Pick Their Super Nintendo Mini Essentials

Games will never be cinematic in the strictest sense, when it comes to how they operate, how they're constructed and interacted with; but taken as a term to broadly encompass narrative and aesthetic inspirations, Flashback is one of the most cinematic games of all time.

An entire stage is a love letter to The Running Man—Conrad participates in the "Death Tower" TV show on Titan, a to-the-death knockout competition, to win credits enough for a flight back to Earth. He begins the game with no memory whatsoever of who he is, where he is, or why—but eventually receives a message from himself, which fills in important blanks in an unsubtle nod to the plot of Total Recall.

Uncovering who's not quite as human as they first appear? Pure Blade Runner, baby (Conrad's color scheme is fairly Deckard, too). That they're aliens, not androids, represents a leaf and more out of They Live's script.

I still have my original Mega Drive copy—shout out to anyone else who used to buy their games from Tandy.

And the hypersleep-in-deep-space climax is Alien through and through—albeit without any real optimism offered that Conrad might be picked up by a friendly ship. And, as Flashback's so-so sequel Fade to Black revealed, he had good reason to get no hopes up.

Perhaps the oddest connection between Flashback and cinema, though, is its underlying reason for being—the conversations that saw the project get the green light in the first place. "It was an adaptation of The Godfather," Cuisset told Retro Gamer back in 2013. " The Godfather in space… That's how Flashback started."

Not that it's obvious, at all. I've known the game, as inside out as I thought it could be, since the early 1990s and never got wind of its Godfather roots until the Retro Gamer interview. "It isn't the immediate tie-in you associate with Flashback," says Moon, backing me up, "even after playing it several times across a quarter of a century."

If you play Flashback today, maybe for the first time, don't go HD. Those pixels, they're prettier than any remake could ever be.

What transpired, what came out, was obviously quite different to any first impressions of what such a proposal might produce, but The Godfather anecdote is a fascinating footnote in the story of what remains a tremendous video game. In its original guise, that is, rather than the remake. Cuisset worked on that, too, but even his presence evidently, as the reviews are testament to, couldn't see lightning bottled for a second time.

Truthfully, he didn't need to, however much he wanted to, or felt the time was right to redo what's absolutely the greatest game amongst his credits (which, for shame, also include Shaq-Fu). Somewhat against the odds given its numerous lifts from films, Flashback really did live up to its stateside-release subtitle: "The Quest for Identity." Although there were games a little like it before, it felt like nothing else; and for all of the echoes from the silver screen, nothing came across as a complete rip-off. (Okay, maybe the "Death Tower" section. Just a bit.) And there's nothing much out there today that comes close to its absorbing mix of action and mystery, tight platforming and visual character.

"Twenty five years on, we still look at Flashback and see very little since that feels the same way," Moon says. "The introduction of 3D into video games had a huge impact, and that's perhaps why Flashback's identity still shines through. Twenty five years later, it's still beautiful."

I couldn't say it better myself. Just promise me, please, that if you play Flashback today, maybe for the first time, don't go HD. Those pixels, they're prettier than any remake could ever be.