The Completist Presents: Flashback-The Quest for Identity
Hello everyone. First and foremost, I want to thank Eric Bailey editor and chief here at the Castle for believing in me and giving me a shot at writing for this fantastic site. I would also like to thank all of the great writers and content creators who contribute to “the budding flower” of 1 More Castle. You guys are the ones who inspired me to contribute myself with your quality content. I was sucked into this beautiful abyss and after many nights reading through all the amazing articles, I’m going to try my hand at contributing to this wonderful community.
In case you hadn’t read my header, I decided to call this column “The Completist.” There is a reason for this: I love to play through games, to completion. Whenever I start a new game, I have no intention of giving up until my fingers fall off or I see the credits roll. It can be tough, it can be frustrating and it can put undue strain on my marriage but most of all, it can be rewarding. In keeping with my strange compulsion, this column will be dedicated to what it takes to actually complete a game and the many ways that completing a game challenges the player. This isn’t going to be a walkthrough or FAQ sheet but more of a personal take on the challenge and excitement a complete journey through a video game can create. So without further adieu, I present to you my Completist take on “Flashback: The Quest for Identity.”
With the remake of Flashback coming out this summer, I figured it would be fitting to re-visit the classic it was based on. Flashback is a game about precision and timing with a little puzzle solving thrown in. The difficulty in this game lies in your inability to be patient. It’s really as simple as that. If you’ve played the original Prince of Persia then you know how this game plays. Every movement is as fluid as a flowing stream. Every animation, like honey pouring out of your honey bear. Slow and methodical. If you don’t allow the honey that extra second or two to finish “flowing” you’ll end up with sticky hands. The same can be said for Flashback. You have to be patient and precise with your actions. Remember those two things, and you will likely finish this journey.
The Sega Genesis version of Flashback is probably one of about 20 games in my life that I always felt the need to go back to. I would just get that calling. Probably from protagonist, Conrad B. Hart himself. Urging me to help him regain his memory and direct him through the many obstacles leading up to the shape shifting alien home world. However, every time I hit that power button to give Conrad a helping hand, I’d get to a certain point, and then off it would go, collecting dust for an indiscernible amount of time. I believe my colleague, Joe Martin referred to it as the Battle Toad Effect (you beat me to the punch brother). The rest of the mountain stands menacingly in your path, but you find yourself too scared to finish the trek.
This time will be different though. Perhaps with age comes maturity. My utter failure at learning to play the guitar led me to want to finish Flashback (and quite a few other games I might add). And so I set out to do so. Starting with New Washington. Which is actually level 2, but at the same time my plateau. That insurmountable checkpoint about 5,000 feet up Everest. With 24,000 more to go. I never had problems passing the first area or “Titan’s Jungle” as I like to call it (because apparently they terraformed Titan?). It just takes some exploration, and a little puzzle solving. You find the right items, shoot a couple mutants, jump a few ledges, grab a few key cards and that ever so important anti-gravity belt and voila! You take the leap of faith to New Washington, literally.
New Washington is where Flashback takes an interesting turn. It *almost* becomes an open world. And its startling, in a way. It always unnerved me. What do I do? Where do I go? Considering I originally played this game around the same time as I played Ultima VII where the joy of playing comes from wandering aimlessly, I can’t imagine why I was concerned.
The challenge throughout most of New Washington is less about precision platforming and more about simply finding your way (and not coincidentally, your identity). You have to ride the subway, you have to find a job, you have to hunt down corrupt cops at bars and did I also mention that you have to diffuse a faulty reactor core (which does involve precision platforming)? All this so you can earn enough credits to buy yourself some false papers and get onto the “Death Tower” game show. Why? To win an impossibly expensive ticket to earth. Why? To stop the aliens of course!
Once you’ve pirated your recently recovered identity with those false papers (you get your identity back through a laser brain scan), it’s time to bring the gun out blazing for “Death Tower.” It feels eerily similar to The Running Man or perhaps SmashTV. You traverse up 8 floors with other “terminator” like contestants gunning for you at every turn. Throw some probes and random land mines into the mix and it makes for an eventful show. Not the hardest part of the trek thus far but difficult none the less.
Reaching the top of “Death Tower” rewards you with the cheesiest game show host you will ever see, brought to you by 16-bit cinematic (one of many you will enjoy in this traverse). I can’t say I’ve reached the top of Everest yet, but I did FINALLY get past my plateau and on to the area I dreamed about as a 13 year old: Earth. Or more precisely, into a menagerie of angry corrupt cops spewing bullets at you the second you set foot on your home soil. Why are all cops in this game corrupt?
After reaching Earth and dispatching a couple of annoying drones, you take a colossal leap from a conveniently positioned rooftop and end up in an establishment called “Paradise Club.” While it may sound like it’s a strip club, don’t get your hopes up, sadly there are no women. However, since you will find blue, blubbering, shape shifting aliens down in the depths below (eventually), one might assume that the shape shifters are in fact the eluded to strippers, or vise versa.
After blasting away what seems like at least fifty jet pack wearing corrupt cops, you take a cab (yes, a taxi cab) and then discover a hidden alien base. Conrad happens to overhear a conversation and discovers that these aliens are of course, hell bent on doing what aliens do best: destroying mankind! Really, is there anything else aliens would rather do?
Reaching the end point of the base is quite the challenge. Between squishy aliens that climb walls, to hordes of robotic probes, to the moving “Green Death” mist, this place is crawling with chaos. Patience is only part of the test here. Platforming excellence is also key. Walk to those ledges slowly, don’t roll to that next screen, drop down by hanging from your arms, use your shield when possible, you get the idea. When you finally reach your destination you will find a mysterious blue machine waiting for you. Step underneath it and ZAP! Off to the distant planet “Morphs” we go. This is it Conrad, the home stretch!
Let the battle begin. The alien home world. You’ll find that it looks remarkably like every other alien “area” in the 8 and 16-bit era. We have slime, we have eye balls, we have brainy, fleshy looking terrain, think Abadox mixed with Shinobi 3. But we aren’t here to gawk at the surroundings, we are here to complete the game. And to complete it, we are up for some serious challenges in this dungeon pit of despair.
You will find yourself continually hounded by the relentless onslaught of aliens, shifting from floor to ceiling and racing at you like pissed off Rottweilers, knocking you back again and again. I found myself rolling almost constantly to avoid their “sludge” attacks. Dispatching them takes a good bit of failure and patience before you can properly recognize their behavior pattern. Using the items you have on hand (a teleporter you can toss around being the most useful) will also make for an easier jaunt through this insane area.
Once you have fought your way down several floors you will find yourself in front of a pit. Toss your teleporter down the hole, hit the button and the “Servo Brain” awaits. Not only that, but you’ve got a nasty alien, an automated bomb dropper and what I like to call the floating man-o-war. Dispatch all of them, take out the “Servo Brain” with your hand gun and your left with a pile of pink mucus. One ugly, squishy brain down, one to go. Head down that last elevator shaft and let’s take on the “Master Brain.”
The “Master Brain” himself is exactly what a brain should be, a defenseless blob of hanging goo and a total pushover. What isn’t a total push over are the aliens that he constant hurls your way. Two to three at a time! Every button you hit during this sequence must be meaningful. There’s no elbow room. You then get a precious few seconds to climb up the platform and blast away at “Master Brain” himself. Four shots takes it down. Easy right? Hell no!
Once you’ve reduced the “Master Brain” to sludge, you must continue to fight your way through the final home stretch. Several more nasty aliens and a couple of “green death” traps later, you find yourself at an impasse. But wait, you hear something:
“An inner voice interrupts your thoughts.”
“Trust me, son, put the atomic charge here… and flee as soon as it reaches the planet’s core.”
Did I mention you get an atomic charge from one of the only non-corrupt cops in the game? It also fits in the palm of your hand, how handy. What? There’s also an elevator that happens to go straight to the core? Why would they need something like that? No matter, let’s do this! You place the charge down on the elevator, hit the controls and…. an earth quake… sirens… the planet’s core is going nova! RUN CONRAD! NOW!
And so at this point in most well designed games, the line begins to blur between you and the character you are playing. Nothing can get you into a character’s mind better than accompanying them on an epic journey, not just for the high moments, but for the frustrating and maddening ones as well. In a way, you might even feel for a moment that you’re becoming the character. After all, in video games, unlike films, it’s the player that chooses the character’s fate.
So during the final sequence of Flashback, I found that I was being absorbed into Conrad’s life and death struggle. I could smell the putrid air surrounding me in the alien cave. I could see the slimy walls glimmering in the ambient light. I could feel the urgency in every one of his actions.
I bolt to the left, but blocking my way are two menacing “green death” traps. I pull out my teleporter, toss it through the air and take a running leap. Milliseconds before certain vaporization I hit the yellow button on my control and instantly appear on the other side. The momentum from my jump throws me forward into a roll and then rockets me to my feet again. I see an elevator ahead. I take it up, two more jumps and I see another elevator. Down quickly, I sprint back through “Master Brains” stinking remains. One more elevator and I’m there.
I take the long ride up the last elevator. Jagged debris falling all around me. I reach the top. My goal, a large opening in the cave, looks about 200 yards off. I dash to the right, running so fast I can barely feel my legs flailing under me. Ahead is an unstable rock bridge, no choice but to hit it full speed. The rocks begin to break away. I leap and barely grasp the edge of the cliff. Mustering all my strength, I pull myself up.
Regaining my composure I sprint for the next obstacle, a pit with a nefarious platform in the middle. This is going to be tough. I shift my legs into overdrive and leap the first gap, barely landing on the platform. I roll to avoid slipping, never losing my forward momentum. The second gap is shorter, I’m up and leaping it in less than a second. I see two more rock bridges ahead. Full speed and I’m over them as the rocks tumble down behind me. One more pit in front of me. One last burst of energy and a massive leap and I’m across. The last 50 yards are all that’s left!
An elevated platform lies directly in my path. I struggle up the embankment. I summon all my remaining strength for one last herculean leap, rolling to the edge of the last rock bridge. This is it! I sprint for the finish line while the world turns to ruble around me. An open door awaits, I leap and roll through. It’s a hanger. With a ship! Quick the elevator! Up to the bridge. I fire up the thrusters and blast my way out of the cave just in the nick of time.
Seconds later I am in space and all is quiet. I turn to look behind me and in the twilight of the planet’s atmosphere I see a brief, white flicker. Then a small explosion. Then a light so bright all is lost to me. I awaken. I check the scanners. The alien planet has been destroyed.
“That’s my story, just the way I lived it.”
“The galaxy I am in today doesn’t appear on any of our navigation charts.”
“It’s impossible for me to calculate my return trajectory.”
“I’ll probably drift in space for a very long time…”