28th Jun2018

‘Flashback’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

flashback-switch

Once upon a time, fluidly realistic character animation was a new thing in gaming. In 1989, Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia gave us a groundbreaking rotoscoped avatar (based on Mechner’s own brother, no less). In 1991, French developer Delphine Software pushed the medium into cinematic territory with the brief but dazzling Another World. The following year, Delphine delivered their masterpiece: Flashback. But it needs to be seen in context – like many gaming greats, returning to it today reveals a flawed experience.

There are shades of Total Recall in the cyberpunk plot, which involves your character, Conrad, trying to recover his memories and return to Earth. He begins in a jungle and works his way to New Washington, where he earns money doing mercenary jobs. After fighting through the “Death Tower” TV show (the best section), Conrad makes it back to Earth. But then – spoiler alert! – we discover that aliens are trying to take over the Earth, so he must venture to their planet and blow them up.

Moment to moment, this is a slow-paced platforming adventure of geometric precision. Forget about bouncing around on platforms to avoid incoming fire. Conrad moves like a real person, so he is deliberately sluggish and cumbersome to control. He must overcome his inertia to break into a run. He will skid to a stop. He can jump to higher platforms – but only after clambering slowly up onto the ledge. Meanwhile, the enemies are armed, aggressive, and their bullets cannot be dodged.

This is not the 2013 remake. This is a re-release of the original game, and it is pretty barebones. Classic Mode is just like the original, where the sparse save points are your only friend. Modern Mode offers a rewind function, allowing you to zip back 30 seconds when you die. Changing the difficulty level will increase or decrease your overall rewind time.

Visual options are par for the course for modern emulation: CRT, scanlines and authentic TV fuzz; anti-aliasing; and a horrible filter which smoothes out the sharp pixel edges. The game is always in 4/3 format, with no widescreen support.

Removing the modern tweaks, the graphics are a timeless blend of pixel art for the gameplay sections, and hand-drawn animated cutscenes. It’s amusing to think that these graphics would have been considered too old school in 1995, when Flashback’s sequel, Fade to Black, arrived in a hail of ugly polygons and fog. Nowadays, the crisp 2D plane looks gorgeous, and entirely in keeping with the predominant indie aesthetic of the 2010s.

Sound has been given a lick of sonic paint. The midi music is now replaced by some so-so synth work; but thankfully the incidental, dynamic nature of the score, occasionally punctuating the action, is retained. Original sound is an option, although in general the new sound effects are great – your gunfire has real punch. However, I did encounter a strange glitch, where I would randomly hear the sound of smashing glass.

So, gameplay-wise, does Flashback hold up in the cold light of 2018? In some ways, yes. The controls still feel fluid. And the unique atmosphere remains, its eerie quietness and sense of isolation reminiscent of Super Metroid. But in terms of gameplay and expansiveness, it’s not as immediate or as replayable as Nintendo’s classic.

While the platforming is fun, there is very little to the combat. Essentially, you just rolling back and forth, dodging and firing. The teleporter device is neat: throw the receiver, and then activate the teleporter to jump to the receiver’s location. Trouble is, the teleporter enables you to break the game with surprising ease. Toss the receiver down a pit and your only option is to reload your last save. The possibility of becoming irretrievably stranded in a game of any era is unacceptable.

Not that replaying sections will knock you back far – Flashback is remarkably brief. Two hours, tops. Granted, that’s nearly four times the length of Another World, but it’s still a shock which severely stunts the scope of the game.

And that brings the pricing into focus. Eighteen quid for a 25-year-old game which will last less time than most modern movies? Do me a favour. Flashback, in its historical context, is a classic. But at this price it’s a steal – and not for the consumer. For those with memories of the original release, it’s worth considering. For anyone new to Delphine’s gorgeous, flawed world, prepare for disappointment.

Flashback is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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