Solaris Japan

Friday, 25 September 2015

Snes Review - Flashback (Game 089)

How much do the games designers played as children sculpt the games we play today ? 'Flashback' may be best known as one of the best 16bit cinematic platform games, but it's also a game that inspired a generation of game makers.
Developed by Delphine Software
Published by U.S. Gold
Released in 1992

When you were a child games were made by mystical Japanese geniuses. Learned in the fine arts of story telling and game creation, they realised a 6 year old's dreams using what could only be magic. However As you get older the process becomes less mysterious and the game creators become more human. Even more humbling though, the older you get the more likely the games you're enjoying are being made by someone your age or even younger. While it's hard not to envy those who make a living making games, the fact that they are the same age as many of us playing is actually a huge benefit. They grew up playing the same games as you did and that schooling inevitably feeds into the games they create now. The games you loved as a child echo in the titles you play today, simply because their creators loved them too.


One of the many gems on the PS4 is a shooting/platforming hybrid called 'Velocity 2X'. With a space heroine that resembles 'Metroid's Samus Aran, vertical ship sections that look like 'Swiv' and an art style that reminds us of 'Another World' it's evident that the games' developers Futurlab have dabbled in many of the same games I did in days gone past. Indeed, when promoting 'Velocity 2X'  Futurlab owner and director James Marsden was all too eager to discuss the games he loved growing up. "'Street Fighter II', 'WipEout 2097', 'Flashback', 'Turrican 2' – those are the games that stole my imagination at a young age."

The six games that Marsden has overseen all have a metacritic average of 83, so he is a man worth paying attention to. He creates games following a very ridged check list, a gospel devised based on years of playing games. "if there’s one thing [Futurlab is] truly good at, it’s understanding the essence of what makes things great, and being able to apply that understanding" Marsden notes. 

To fully understand Marsden's checklist we need to explore the games which inspired him to write it. It stands to reason that the games he played growing up were (consciously or otherwise) the case studies upon which the rules were defined. So if 'Flashback' is a game that inspired Marsden to create 'Velocity 2X', it is also, presumably, a game who's strengths and failings lead to the creation of his checklist. After all, it was this very game that prompted platforming to be folded into a vertical shooter game In The first place. as Marsden notes he blended the two bi-polar genres as he "just wanted to add some 'Flashback' into the mechanics introduced in 'Velocity'".

Created in 1992 by Paul Cuisset, 'Flashback' is a science fiction cinematic platform game developed by Delphine Software. Originally advertised as a "CD-ROM game on a cartridge", 'Flashback' features fully hand-drawn backdrops and slick rotoscoped characters, something creator Cuissset was particularly proud of. "We had an experiment with a guy and a camera. we filmed him and then drew over the image. It was so realistic, there was no question after that, I knew we had to use this technique. Of course each frame is a sprite in itself and we had more than 1,000 for the main character himself". The problem is that this many sprites caused headaches when it came to fitting them all onto a cartridge. "We had to compress everything and technically that was quite difficult " recalls Cuisset. The end result was worth it though and the fantastic visuals significantly contributed to the game's astonishing commercial and critical success. Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine even called 'Flashback' "one of the best games ever made! The action is non-stop, and it really feels like you're playing a movie!" 

As a cinematic platformer, 'Flashback' Is as much about story as it is gameplay.  "I think we wanted to have an experience like a film but it was very time consuming" recalls developer Cuisset. "Previously we did mostly adventure games so it was quite natural to try and bring a story into a platform game. The idea was to try and tell a story [bigger] than what had been done before. A universe that would be deeper".
 A gripping cyberpunk narrative is told across 7 huge levels, with numerous cut scenes advancing the intriguing "aliens taking over the World" plot. Each of these levels span a large number of non-scrolling screens, which in the main are filled with numerous platforms to traverse. Conrad B Hart, the playable avatar will, for the majority of the game, jump across and between these platforms. Doing so allows him to find items which solve various puzzles, with the ultimate aim of each stage being to find a route through the maze like design while avoiding or shooting any enemies that obstruct your path.  



Conrad exhibits realistic human running speed and jumping ability, as well as realistic weakness — he will die if he falls from too great a height for example. The game is therefore built around trial and error; repeating screens over and over until the optimal route is discovered. 'Velocity 2X' designer  James Marsden is a fan of this style of game, also citing 'Hot Line Miami' as a good example of repetitive game design done right. "Repetitive action is really fun and remains fun pretty much forever as long as there's obvious goal and a fatal consequence for getting things wrong. It [has to be] a skill based challenge that carries the risk of you screwing it up and this keeps it fresh, keeps it fun". 

Along with his love of "perfection from repetition", James Marsden lists six key things that need to be considered when creating a game. Most importantly they must have "Responsive Controls", close to perfect, if not perfect. Once that's nailed a great game needs a "Watertight Concept" which means the game has to make sense throughout. With an "Appropriate Learning Curve" that continually challenges players in a way that’s fun. These three crucial considerations loosely relate to a game's gameplay. But Marsden also believes presentation and user feedback are worth bearing in mind. Evidently a good game is filled with "Positivity and Reward". It must also have "Frictionless User Interface", streamlined to keep the player engaged. With all these things perfected in a game, finally it needs to have "Consistent Audio & Visual Style".

Considering GamePro magazine claimed "'Flashback' has all the ingredients of a 16-bit classic: great graphics, extraordinary animation, cool sounds" clearly Paul Cuissset had nailed this particular category. 

However  when it came to "Responsive Controls", (the thing Marsden believes is the most important thing in any game) 'Flashback' falls woefully short. "It's essential that you get them right, because If the controls aren’t fun, then you risk frustrating your players, or worse still, boring them" Marsden elaborates. The problem is 'Flashbacks' beauty is at the expense of its precision. With so many frames of animation Conrad just isn't responsive and too often it feels like you're waiting for an animation to finish before you can make your next move. It may be a fraction of a second but when enemies close in, you want to at least try to shoot at them before they kill you. However even this seemingly simple task is made excessively complicated, with the player having to press one button to draw their gun and another to fire it. Notoriously strict Edge Magazine noted that "the game's controls are almost mind-numbingly complicated, not to mention requiring a fairly steep learning curve." To make the situation worse the glorious visuals disguise platform edges, meaning that on a first play through too much time is wasted trying to find the exact spot where you need to stand to be able to climb to a platform above. A novice player will spend more time watching Conrad jump vertically than actually do anything meaningful. "The player should always feel in control of the game" Marsden reminds us. "They are allowed to feel like they’re crap at it, that’s fine, but the moment the game feels like it’s too hard to play as a result of the controls being too difficult, it stops being fun." Given his history with 'Flashback' you can't help but wonder if this specific rule was written as a result of frustrations trying to work out which button to press to actually get 'Flashback's main protagonist to do what you wish.

While objectives are clearly defined often you're never quite sure where to go or how to complete them. This again flies in the face of Marsden's good game guide.  "It's really important that a player knows how to win, and therefore knows how and why they failed" he notes. The best games have gradual learning curves that allow the player to continually feel challenged without feeling overwhelmed, but this isn't strictly the case in 'Flashback'. Of course you meet more challenging foes in later levels, but to even get through the first stage you have to successfully perform the bulk of Conrads moves with precision and dexterity. While typically generous with their praise, Nintendo Power criticised the game for its challenge noting that "play control takes some getting used to", claiming it'll take several hours of trial and error to clear the opening stage. 

At least when the story is strong the time taken to get to a "between level cutscenes" feels justified . Marsden uses the phrase "Feedback" to describe any event or action that is a direct result of a player’s performance. It might be a virtual trophy, a new character to play as or in the case of 'Flashback' the next piece of an engaging story. As James Marsden notes "It’s amazing how much of a difference positive feedback makes to a game. You can have great gameplay mechanics, but if there’s little to no feedback, the game doesn’t feel great." Admittedly once the complex controls and the quirks of 'Flashback' become ingrained in the player, playing the game becomes its own reward. Whilst it's challenging to learn which button to press when, once you do successfully completing a series of complex jumps, then dispatch several enemies, after an elaborate combat roll it is all incredibly satisfying. It's made all the sweeter when the game looks fluid and attractive while you do all this. 

The slight problem for Nintendo fans is that 'Flashback' will only look great when you do complicated moves like this, on a system other than the Super Nintendo. Even Super Play Magazine, the consoles greatest cheerleaders, admit that "You get the impression that the SNES is struggling slightly to achieve what you'd be better off doing on a PC". Indeed creator Paul Cuisset knows which platform he would prefer people to play his excellent game on and it doesn't have a Nintendo logo on it. "The best version for me is the Mega Drive version" he once told Retro Gamer magazine, "It was the main platform". With a faster CPU the Megadrive didn't bat an eyelid when numerous enemies were on screen. However when the screen got busy the Snes nearly grinds to a halt. In fact in the worse cases the music in some cutscenes actually ends before the visuals do. To solve the problem caused by the sluggish processor, several shots are actually cut from the Snes' between level story sequences, when compared to other versions. The opening cutscene on the PC for example has 13 separate shots, the snes version has just 5. It's a 53 second sequence on the PC yet despite having less than half the content the Super Nintendo version is running so slowly it lasts 47 seconds. 

Cuts aren't only made for technical reasons though. Given the gritty cyberpunk story it's hardly surprising Nintendo wanted a bar turned into a cafe and "Death Tower" to become "cyber tower". But these changes are so superficial unless you are altered to them you would never notice, it's effect is hardly detrimental to the game as a whole.

James Marsden makes the excellent point that a game is only as good as its worst element. "All aspects of a production rely on each other to create the whole [...] If one aspect isn’t as polished as the others, it lets the entire experience down. The overall perception of the production is brought down to the level of the weakest part, which means if your graphics and concept are great, but your controls suck, your game sucks." Again it could be argued that Marsden comes to this conclusion based on a frustrated childhood playing 'Flashback' with it complicate controls and beautiful visuals. However it would be foolish to ignore a game this good simply because it takes time to master. Yes your first few hours may be spent leaping vertically in the air trying to discover how you actually navigate around the platforms in this platformer. However, when everything clicks into place (presuming your not playing the technically compromised Snes version) it's very obvious why so many people adore the game. 


Sega Force once hoped that  "'Flashback' [was] the start of a new generation of games" but what it really did was inspire a new generation of games makers. It's taken twenty years but it inspired James Marsden to incorporate elements in the sublime 'Velocity 2X'. We played the same games growing up and now thanks to his amazing understanding of what makes a good game, we can both appreciate their legacy today. 

You'd be hard pushed to not enjoy 'Flashback' despite its age. For a modern gamer though, the unforgiving pixel perfect jumps and complex control may make it a game that requires a bit of practice. Fortunately if it's immediacy you crave 'Velocity 2X' has everything you need and at least by playing it, you can enjoy the parts of 'Flashback' that echo through it. 


Where did I get this game from?

When revering the game back in 1993, "DieHard Game Fan" magazine said "there are some games you just have to have and this is definitely one of them". It's praise that drives up the price of 'Flashback' on eBay, where price has spiked in recent years. This is where I got my copy from, for roughly the same price as 'Velocity 2X' is to download on to a ps4. Had I know how much the Snes struggles with the game though I would have been wiser to buy "the lead" version on the Mega Drive. 


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