By Dan Phillips
I Hate Myself, Old Boy
There’s something deep inside the English collective psyche that’s primed for masochism. It’s right down in our DNA. You only have to look at our sporting history to see it plain as day: In tennis, Tim Henman was never anything other than a semi final credible also-ran who was never going to beat the world’s best, but he was a national icon as synonymous with the sport as strawberries and cream. In football, England haven’t won the World Cup since 1966, yet regardless of current form, the entire nation hinges their morale, mental health and financial wealth on their impossible victory despite the fact that most of the top teams could thrash us senseless with their reserves. These impossible ambitions – that a Briton or team of Britons will win major sporting plaudits – are not born of rational reason. They are, in fact, born of an intense masochism to which this entire island nation is addicted to inflicting upon themselves.Which brings me happily to this latest instalment of Tough as Nails.
Since the heady days of the Amiga 500+, I have had one long-standing gaming ambition. It is my Wimbledon, my World Cup. My Everest. It’s a game I’ve been playing on and off since before I had pubes and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever finish it. It’s called Flashback and it is bastard hard.
If you’ve played Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia, you may have some idea of what to expect from Flashback. It’s a mix between platforming and adventure game in which you wake up stranded in the jungle (after a really badly aged cut scene, no less), somehow embroiled in a conspiracy plot and with but a small handgun and a message, left by yourself to you, shortly before you picked up a handy dose of amnesia. So far, so Total Recall.
We’ve covered a lot of games in Tough as Nails. Some, like Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage, are hard because they’re poorly made monstrosities hiding their meagre length and dearth of ideas behind a wall of impossible challenge. Others, like Ninja Gaiden, are hard because they require an intense mastery of a very specific skill set but are actually very good games . Flashback is something of both, in a way. The game is mercilessly hard and gives you little to no indication of what to do and it punishes every misstep you make regardless, but I wouldn’t still have such a strong desire to finish it if it wasn’t a pretty good game to start with.
A Cruel Temptress
Flashback has a lot going for it. For one thing, it looks and sounds great: When I first encountered it in the mists of time and youth, it stood out because it seemed so natural and realistic. Like Prince of Persia, Flashback uses an interesting animation technique called Rotoscoping in which still images of actual people performing actions are traced and digitised, forming the frames of animation for in-game characters. It’s a kind of rudimentary motion capture that still looks cool today and when I was younger it blew my tiny mind. Flashback also stood out at the time because of the audio. Foregoing music wholesale, the soundtrack is instead made up of background noises like jungle wildlife, bleeping machinery and grunting mutants.
All this cool stylistic stuff makes Flashback feel really natural, even with aged 16-bit visuals, but the realism in the game goes a fair bit beyond just the look and animation. Games these days, despite being graphically astonishing, are very unrealistic things. They give us shiny waypoints, helpful voices in our ear and other handy tricks that work on their own internal logic, which means being good at games is really down to understanding what games traditionally want us to do. Try and explore a level of Call of Duty like you would a real world location, for example, and you fail. Adhere to the waypoints, however, and you’re unstoppable.
Flashback does not work that way. In many ways that’s why it’s so God damn hard. You’re totally divorced from that comforting acquired knowledge from years of gaming and instead have to think far more logically, more like in the real world. Environments are made up of puzzle-like mazes using a firm set of rules – for all the fluidity of the game’s animation, Flashback is made on a rigid grid with set distances for jumps, and a set height for ledges to grab on to. Even in the jungle, Flashback forces you to be utterly meticulous in your progress because one mistimed button press and you will invariably fail the jump or miss the ledge you were aiming for and, like the real world, usually fall to your death.
Death in Flashback is not to be sniffed at, either. Tough as Nails is dedicated to the genuine article with difficulty so although I had to use emulation to play Flashback again (I honestly have a copy! I just lost some cables…), the comforting glow of save states was authentically ignored. Far removed from the modern kid’s gloves of regular checkpoints, Flashback deaths are more like receiving a bare knuckle thrashing. There are no checkpoints between levels, so each level, each lethal gauntlet of insta-death traps, chasms and disintegrating laser beams has to be committed to memory and executed perfectly or it’s back to the beginning.
Assorted mutant goons and robots also make an appearance – though they’re not quite as dangerous as the environment itself, they still pose a brutal challenge. You’re equipped with an energy shield which grants you four hits before you die, but that’s a cold consolation against the lighting reflexes of the mutants, or the mean-spirited placement of the robots that hide just over the line of each screen you pass in to, waiting to electrocute anyone not well prepared to take them on blind.
Flashback hates me on a deep and profound level. I’ll probably never finish it because, objectively speaking, it’s unfair, overly harsh and wilfully obtuse. But I’ll probably keep playing it from time to time because I still love it. It’s a technical marvel, uncannily atmospheric and oddly compelling. Besides, like I said, there’s something masochistic about the English.