Flashback: The Quest for Identity

Mix equal parts of They Live and Total Recall, add in a healthy dose of style, and you get this awesome action/adventure scroller. You play as Conrad Hart, a man who has just evaded imprisonment and been shot down over the jungles of Saturn’s moon, Titan. You have no recollection of your own identity or who your aggressors are, but a cryptic message in your pocket is a holograph of you instructing yourself to recover your lost memory and get your ass to Earth. And so begins your story, involving alien infiltration, government conspiracies, a unique set of state-of-the-art glasses, and some of the coolest gadgets you can hope to find in a platform game.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Flashback is swank. Created by Delphine Studios, makers of the game’s precursor Out of this World, Flashback represents their best attempt to create cinematic gameplay. Though the NES had games that attempted to play out like movies, this is one of the first that seamlessly blends solid plot and solid gameplay action into one complete experience. With new animation scanning techniques and some astounding cinematics for its time, this was one of the most impressive games released in 1993.

Conrad makes his short-lived escape in the intro cinema.

The graphics are less amazing by today’s standards, of course, but the gameplay is still excellent, and it holds up as one of the better SNES games you can get your hands on. The backgrounds are hand drawn and converted to digital, with the detail and care coming through clearly in an artistic watercolor look. The much hyped animation system makes for very natural and realistic character movement. The characters are rotoscoped, essentially meaning that video of actors moving was shot, printed, a transparency placed over each frame, and the character drawn using the video for a tracing reference. It’s an impressive blending of realism and art, and the effect looks great even on the SNES.

The cinematics which work so well to tie together the plot of the game are very impressive for the SNES, both in graphics and in cinematic direction. They’re fun to watch and do a perfect job of telling the game’s complex story. Backgrounds also set up an exciting comic book feel, and give a nice sci-fi look throughout. Everything is also detailed well, and except for pickups (which would appear as simple blobs if it weren’t for the helpful action messages), everything is clear and understandable.

Just as important as the graphics is the useful control system that let you pull off an impressive number of moves. Conrad can automatically leap and catch the edges of platforms, run and change direction quickly, roll away from danger, and more. Moves can even be linked, so with a few quick taps Conrad could easily leap off a ledge, tuck into a somersault as he lands, tear his pistol from his coat as he’s rolling, and come up blazing lead. Admittedly most of his moves are some variation of a jump (this IS a platformer after all), but his actions are varied enough to carry you through the game – and you’re guaranteed to use every trick he’s got way more than once. You also can’t perform many acrobatics with your weapon out, forcing you to keep it hidden under your coat to be drawn before each encounter. Some people may be annoyed with constantly having to fumble for your weapon, but it looks cool, occasionally works as a disguise, and does allow for some interesting action moments.

You'll run into the cops often throughout the game. It doesn't help that they're corrupt and you're a wanted man.

The only thing cooler than Conrad’s moves is his creative inventory. Along the way you’ll face some pretty vicious traps and enemies, and come across some truly original items to help you defeat both. The mechanical and exploding “mice” make multiple appearances, and are robotic devices that run the length of a platform when dropped to trigger switches or kill bad guys. Most handy is a wristwatch that creates a green force field in front of you for just about a second, but if timed properly can absorb any bullets fired at you. This watch acts as your ass-saver straight through to the end. Late in the game you get access to a teleport receiver that you can throw or drop anywhere in the level, and a teleport remote to instantly take you to where the receiver is. Not only is this effective to get past certain traps, but you can position it at an energy generator if you need to escape in an emergency and recharge your shields. Even a simple rock can be picked up and thrown to distract an enemy.

Flashback only has seven acts, but each one is surprisingly long and involved. The longest, New Washington, actually requires you to get a job within the city to make enough money to continue. You’ll then play through about eight varied and exciting missions which take you all throughout the city. Very clever, and and example of how the game definitely makes the most out of the levels it has. Sounds are generally good, but spare, with nice effects and limited music. Most of the game is quiet except for footsteps or action noises, but some brief themes play at proper times during the levels.

The faults of the game are few, but could be enough to turn some people away. First is the extensive control system. You’re really going to need to find a manual for the game in order to figure out what to do. There is definitely not a library of obscure commands that you must remember, in fact most of the controls are pretty logical, but there are situations where tapping a button or holding it will be the difference between life and death. You really will use every move more than once, so you’ll need to know them. Another issue is the difficulty. You carry around a shield device that can take four hits before needing to be recharged at one of the energy terminals scattered around the levels. However, there are a number of situations, hazards, and puzzles that will kill you instantly if you don’t do something exactly right. Unless you’re following a walkthrough, you’ll have to do a lot of trial and error, with death forcing you to start the level over.

Still, this is an excellent game, but no one can please everyone all the time. You’re going to have to like platformers, and it helps if you find its action and sci-fi elements really cool, but anyone who wants a solid adventure game with an awesome conspiratorial atmosphere will do well with this one. It’s one of the best you can find.

The Good

Classic adventure gaming at its best. Worth getting and completing.

The Bad

Need a manual for the controls, will be unforgivingly difficult for some.

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