In 1993 I spent an entire day in an independent videogame rental store that had nowhere to sit except for the front windowsill. So I sat there like a fidgeting twelve year old mannequin, advertising with my endless cans of coke and packets of crisps in my stonewash jeans and Ultimate Warrior t-shirt. I was waiting for something special. I was waiting for Flashback.
It had just been released on Sega Mega Drive and I had no prior knowledge of the already released (but less polished) Amiga version. I’d seen it in some of the magazines back then and it looked incredible: so real and yet so exotic. Mundane in spite of being so over-saturated. It was something new that looked familiar – owing much to the action movies of the day. So I waited.
When it was finally in my hands, I rushed home and lost 24 hours to it. Then I bought it and lost countless more hours over several months. Since that day, I’ve probably played Flashback from start to finish another twenty times. It’s a wonderful moment in the rich and varied history of videogames. Flashback was the game that made me want to write about games.
And now they’ve remade it and I have to tell you all that it isn’t very good.
It’s been remade in the Unreal Engine which, as Shadow Complex indicated a couple of years ago, could be a great fit for an updated version of Flashback. But this isn’t really an updated version of Flashback. It’s almost a remake, with many sections being a screen-for-screen match to the 1993 version. But again, it’s not quite that either. They’ve tinkered with it just enough that it feels slightly wrong. Like three different people recounting the story of a slightly drunken night out.
That won’t be an issue to people playing for the first time, of course, but it does seem to indicate a desire from the developers to move things along – to modernise – without much consideration from the publisher to allow the time required to do that. It all feels very rushed and mostly unfinished, with dreadful voice acting and writing one obvious area that needed much more time and attention than it got.
There are new sections of gameplay that aren’t fully realised or a particularly good fit with the older style of play, too. It seems like someone had a good idea, restricted within the constraints of a remake as it was, but they didn’t have the time or resources to make it a cohesive reality. Everywhere they’ve tried to modernise has fallen flat and actually ends up detracting from the original core gameplay which, in itself, is probably a little too dated to appeal to modern sensibilities.
It’s ostensibly the same game though. You play as Conrad B Hart, awaking without memory in a jungle. You piece together your memory via holographic messages that you had the foresight to leave yourself before you were captured by the aliens that you discovered trying to take over Earth. What ensues is part considered, deliberate exploratory platformer and part action puzzle game.
Later combat and some of the puzzles tend to eventually break down into a rote sequence of button presses rather than anything too fluid but that doesn’t mean you won’t need timing and precision to succeed. This is not a game where you’ll fight your way through a surplus of enemies, it’s much more measured than that. Enemy AI consists of very short patrol patterns – each screen is a largely static space, after all – and repeating the same actions until you’ve dispatched them. There’s more danger in the environmental hazards with things like lasers offering one-hit death and a quick fade to the Game Over screen.
There are times when trial and error is your only way through a section but there are just as many times when taking a moment and puzzling something out will lead you to slightly less obvious solutions to problems. This was always Flashback’s strength and it’s still there, albeit more difficult to discern through that new layer of paint.
The environmental art is fantastic, really bringing those familiar areas up to date with a beautiful, luscious new look that’s bustling with life. The verdant green jungles, bright neon cityscapes and vibrant purples of alien areas are all excellently re-imagined from their older selves.
The same can’t be said of the characters, however. Those are unimaginatively designed – even in terms of the characters they’re updating – with often quite rudimentary animation. Cut scenes are particularly poor, with the dull characters, shoddy animation and dreadful acting and dialogue creating something of a perfect storm for terrible cut scene presentation. Again, it appears to be rushed and made without enough care.
Another new inclusion is that of in-level VR consoles that allow you to partake in XP-building tasks like destroying a certain number of enemies in a certain time frame. They serve to let you level up your firepower, gadgets or stamina and health a little faster but they’re a little disjointed and certain tasks seemed largely broken. Luckily, it’s easy enough to almost entirely ignore this element of the game.
In 1993 Flashback was a fantastic blend of well told, tense story with revolutionary visual flair. In 2013, it’s a bit of a confused mess. There was an opportunity – given some time, cash and care – to remake a classic game in a modern way. That opportunity has been almost entirely wasted and instead what we got is an insult to the memory of the original. For newcomers to Flashback this will likely be an unappealing, disjointed experience. For those of us who remember the original with fondness, it’s a slap in the face.
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