Facts About Flashback (1992): The Godfather of Cinematic Platforming
Note: This article is a complement to the YouTube video Facts About Flashback. If you would prefer a more concise, and cinematic, rundown of this article’s findings then please click the above link.
Flashback is a 1992 cinematic platformer developed by Delphine Software, a French development team based in Paris. The team was small, consisting of about ten people, which is interesting given the cutting-edge nature of the project. Flashback is regularly cited as a game ahead of its time. Its realistic movement, lushly rendered backdrops, and detailed world-building made it stand out as a more mature kind of platforming game. The cinematic aspect is key to its longevity. Flashback is a short game, but its seven levels are memorable, borrowing heavily from science-fiction films of the eighties and early nineties. In fact, playing Flashback is like playing every retro sci-fi action movie ever made. The game stretched the limits of technology to allow for such an experience. A combination of great artistry and smart story-telling helped turn Flashback into the timeless cult classic it is today.
Flashback targeted a more mature audience than the average platformer. It was often marketed as a cinematic adventure game with an intriguing science-fiction plot. One full-page advertisement features a startled pair of eyes. A golden laser beam focuses its light between the eyes, smack in the middle of the forehead. This is the same image used in the original title screen. It’s an intense sort of image that belongs on the poster of a psychological thriller. Big bold white letters read ‘THE EYES HAVE IT!’ Super Mario this is not. The same blue-and-orange aesthetic is used for the game’s cover art. The artwork features images typical of science-fiction movie posters. There’s a planet sitting in one corner, a reptilian humanoid face in another, and opposite this a cube beaming with more of that mysterious golden light. Everything floats against the starry backdrop of outer space. In the middle is a serious-looking man wearing a green eyepiece, who looks like he’s on the cusp of a great discovery. That or he’s just discovered a new stain on his ceiling. It’s high-brow entertainment either way. Accolades like ‘ACTION ADVENTURE OF THE YEAR’ surround the artwork in another full-page ad. The game boasts ‘the most lifelike animation ever created for a video game’. Elsewhere the action is compared to ‘movie animation’ and the sequences are said to be ‘straight out of Hollywood’. This is a game that combines ‘strategy and speed’. It’s a special kind of game made for that special kind of man — the thinking man equipped with the lightning-quick reflexes of a Hollywood action hero.
The television spots promote the high-octane action in their own special ways. The French commercial relies on an artsy framing device. A man’s face is photographed in black and white. His eyes are closed as if in deep thought. The camera slowly zooms in on the face, etched deep in shadow, as a narrator whispers a sultry-sounding monologue and a clock ticks menacingly in the background. This slow zoom is intercut with quick snapshots of gameplay, sometimes shown in extreme close-up, always backed by manic punk music. It’s pretty heady stuff. The American commercial relies on a similar tactic, splicing black-and-white footage with quick snippets of gameplay. Here the effect is to show how exciting the game is compared to reality. The real-life footage is stripped of colour, the game footage shown in glorious technicolour. One voice softly coos ‘Life is hard’, the other rasps ‘Flashback is harder.’ The American commercial goes for the more direct approach. But in both cases the message is clear. This is no boys’ game.
The origins of Flashback can be traced back to a Hollywood classic. In a 2013 interview with Retro Gamer, the game’s writer and director, Paul Cuisset, reveals the game was originally intended as an adaptation of The Godfather. He explains: ‘U.S. Gold [the publisher] came to us at Delphine and they had the licence to make a game and they wanted us to create something. We suggested to make a game in the future; The Godfather in space.’ It should be noted that early game adaptations tended to be loosely based on the source material. By that point, Delphine Software had already adapted a famous film franchise into a video game, that game being Operation Stealth, and that film franchise being James Bond. Operation Stealth was a point-and-click adventure which only made use of the Bond licence in the US. Elsewhere James was ‘Mr. Glames’. 007 was retrofitted into a globe-trotting spy adventure, evident in the fact he receives orders from the CIA despite working for MI6. The idea behind The Godfather game was ‘to transpose the story of Michael Corleone into the future where he would be chased by mafiosi.’ Instead of a young scientist escaping from cyborg cops, it would be Michael Corleone running away from mafia hitmen. The first demo took 6 to 7 months to make. Soon after U.S. Gold decided it was not possible to continue with the licence. It may have gone too far in a few places.
Cuisset went about reinventing the story. He saved the basics of the game, and drew inspiration from various cinematic sources for the story. Flashback pays homage to a huge range of science-fiction films. Its story can be interpreted as a pastiche of retro sci-fi action cinema. The main character wakes up on a jungle planet with no memory of how he got there. Later he comes across a holocube, a device which replays a video hologram he recorded while back on earth. (The hologram technology is similar to the one shown in the early Star Wars films, projecting monochromatic light.) His holographic self, addressing him as Conrad, tells him to find his friend Ian in New Washington. This scene mirrors the one in Total Recall where amnesiac Quaid is given instructions from his past self in the form of a video recording. Once Conrad finds Ian, he takes a seat in a bulky metallic chair and his past memories are implanted. Similar scenes take place in Total Recall, except with artificial rather than real memories. Conrad finds out he invented high-tech glasses capable of measuring molecular density. These glasses allowed him to see aliens posing as humans on earth. This concept is similar to John Carpenter’s They Live, about a drifter who discovers through special sunglasses that aliens are concealing themselves among the population. However, Conrad isn’t a drifter. He’s a hero scientist. In this regard, he is more comparable to Buckaroo Banzai, a cult eighties action hero who ‘could look both heroic…and project the kind of intelligence you would associate with a neurosurgeon and inventor.’ Banzai invents a device that allows an object to pass through solid matter. In doing so he accidentally unveils reptilian humanoids disguised as men on earth. These aliens look similar to the one shown in the top-right corner of Flashback’s cover art. The game’s aliens are in fact Morphs, so called because they can morph into any object at will. They can even take on the form of a conscious, primordial goo, as Conrad later discovers when visiting their home planet. This behaviour reflects the liquid molecular T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The aliens want to take over earth, as is their wont. It’s Conrad’s job to stop them by blowing up their planet, naturally. In such a way, Flashback tells a classic sci-fi action story.
An accompanying Marvel comic was released with Flashback in the States. The Genesis, SNES, and Sega CD versions were packaged with the comic, which acts a prelude to the game itself.
The comic’s cover features a bright neon palette of pink, blue, and yellow, lending it an instant eighties look. Unlike the box art, comic-book Conrad is depicted as a strapping scientist hero, with a line for a jaw, sharply defined cheeks, and handsome black eyebrows. He’s cool. You can tell because he has a single loose lock of hair curled across his brow. Also he’s holding a gun. And he has a pretty-looking blonde by his side. She’s Sonya, his girlfriend, who is never mentioned in the game, but plays an influential role in the Flashback remake of 2013. Behind them is an alien Morph, black and sinewy, with a cape that tails off into an inky blue splash.
The comic story portrays Conrad in the mould of the traditional American action hero. He works for an interplanetary forensic investigation team known as GBI or Galaxia Bureau of Investigation. He’s the top scorer in a holographic shootout simulation and leading in the ‘GBI’s athletics department’. He’s the sharpshooter. His best friend Ian is the brains, better suited to academics than athletics. With Ian’s help, Conrad was able to finish making the Molecular Density Analyzer glasses. The M.D.A. ‘registers the density of matter, making forensic investigations a thousand times more accurate.’ They work a bit like the Predator’s heat vision, allowing him to see objects otherwise hidden to the naked eye. After unveiling a presidential candidate as an alien, he’s stunned by a pair of cyborg cops and taken ‘to Titan’s space station for reprogramming.’ This set-up explains both Conrad’s athletic prowess and the origins of his strange green glasses. Conrad himself looks noticeably stronger and handsomer than he does in the game, although this could be partly due to technical limitations. The game Conrad has more of a Marty McFly look, coming across as a cool everyman rather than a romanticised action hero.
Flashback’s levels are richly rendered, each one evoking elements from the best of science-fiction cinema. The game wears its inspirations on its sleeve. A peek at the jukebox reveals such song names as ‘The Running Man’ and ‘Escape to New Washington’, clear-cut references to Schwarzenegger flick The Running Man and Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Arnold Schwarzenegger films were evidently a main source of inspiration for the game. The first level sees Conrad in a mysterious alien jungle populated by aggressive mutant creatures, mirroring the hostile jungle world of Predator. The human-populated city of New Washington is found underground, beneath the jungle. Titan’s social structure can be seen as a reverse of the one depicted in The Time Machine, in which strange troglodyte creatures lurk underground while placid non-mutants live above ground. New Washington draws inspiration from Blade Runner, with its sharp-angled vehicles, rusty walls, and monolithic metal-grey structures. Much like the dystopian LA of Blade Runner, New Washington is a corrupt future city, in which rogue cyborgs hide out behind neon-lit bars, and unlawful cops. Conrad can take on various jobs within the city, making Flashback one of the first games to incorporate jobs into its gameplay. The second level works like a sandbox lite, paving the way for the early GTA games. The Death Tower pays obvious homage to The Running Man. It’s there that Conrad competes in a life-or-death game show to earn his ticket to earth. Morph planet is filled with slimy skeletal alien architecture, echoing the extraterrestrial hive of Aliens. But instead of looking shady, Morph planet is painted in bright pinks and purples, the same shades seen on the psychedelic covers of seventies science-fiction paperbacks. This design choice is typical of Flashback, a game which shamelessly flaunts its inspirations.
Flashback’s impressive visuals are matched by its music and sound design. There’s a good reason for this. Jean Baudlot, the game’s composer, originally worked for Delphine Studios, a French record company specialising in instrumental music. Baudlot’s main focus was writing jingles for TV and radio commercials. According to Cuisset, the creation of the videogame company, Delphine Software, was Baudlot’s idea. Jean was a fan of the music you could create on the Soundtracker of the Amiga. He initially founded the company to create such music. This explains why the soundtrack for Flashback is unusually good, matching the superior quality of the visuals.
Flashback’s soundtrack, unsurprisingly, pays homage to the same types of films that inspired its story. The main musical theme is dark and moody with a throbbing bass and steady metallic rhythm. It has definite echoes of The Terminator theme, scored to reflect ‘a mechanical man and his heartbeat.’ Similarly, Flashback’s theme conveys the relentless stomp of a cyborg assassin. The main motif plays in the background at various times in the game, putting the player slightly on edge. The song uses a strong marching beat with those military snare rolls so common in soundtracks of the eighties. You can hear them in much of Silvestri’s music in Back to the Future and Predator. They create a feeling of inescapable dread. Interestingly, the music for Another World, considered the spiritual precursor to Flashback, also features such drums on its soundtrack. The snares can be heard during some of the more dramatic cutscenes, for example when Conrad is caught and captured by aliens. The drums add dramatic flourish to the music, as well as a dread feeling of foreboding.
The rest of the soundtrack is not so dark and moody. The soundtrack as a whole can be compared to the music of Harold Faltermeyer. On the one hand, Falternmeyer created the music for The Running Man, an ominous soundscape filled with intense, brooding melodies. And on the other, he created the ‘epic and heroic score’ for Top Gun and the ‘urban and bouncy score’ for Beverly Hills Cop. Much of Flashback’s music has an urban funk sound with catchy synth-pop lines, giving it more in common with Beverly Hills Cop than The Running Man. Consider the tune that plays when Conrad reads the diary of a dead scientist on an alien planet, which varies depending on the version of the game you’re playing. The Sega Genesis version emphasises the funkiness of the bass line. The synth bass notes pop more than the Amiga version. The line has been transposed to a lower register, giving it a deeper sound. Backing the bass is a compelling drum groove and above it a catchy keyboard melody. It relies on the same musical principle used in Axel F, the main theme of Beverly Hills Cop. A repetitive melody is combined with a straight synth drum beat and counterpoint bassline to form an infectious groove. It’s the reason why people who played the game in the nineties still have the song stuck in their head all these years later.
Thinking about Flashback’s soundtrack in relation to Faltermeyer’s discography, there’s the ‘dark’ music, the ‘bouncy’ music, and finally the ‘heroic’ music. The heroic music coincides with Conrad’s bold planetary exploits. One of these pieces plays when Conrad launches himself into New Washington with the help of an anti-gravity belt. The music bears resemblance to the Back to the Future theme. It consists of a brief brassy fanfare that rises in pitch and intensity as Conrad tumbles deeper underground. The crescendo rapidly accelerates until Conrad successfully sticks his landing. It’s short but effective, an exciting accompaniment to Conrad’s thrilling freefall. The music that ends the game is similarly triumphant in tone. It features some more of those military drums, but here they convey a celebratory rather than oppressive mood. Strings and bar chimes play sweeping glissandos, much like they do at the end of an epic adventure film. These sounds stand in stark contrast to those heard earlier in the game. The tones are brighter, the melodies bolder. There’s no doubt about it. The hero’s journey is complete, and Conrad is most definitely a hero.
Flashback’s brilliance resides in its effective use of the limited technologies of the time. The rotoscoped animation — inspired by the original Prince of Persia — allowed for some of the most realistic and fluid movement seen in a videogame up till then. The animation runs at a smooth 24 frames per second, the same frame rate as cinematic film, and still looks great today. It’s only the cutscenes, painstakingly made frame by frame using polygons, which look slightly wonky in places. However, there’s no denying that the hand-drawn backdrops and lifelike animation contributed to the game’s blockbuster success. It sold over 750,000 copies in France, entering the Guinness World Records as the best-selling French game of all time. Part of this is no doubt due to the impressive technical artistry on display.
Conrad is a largely featureless character. However, he moves like a real person in incredibly detailed environments that seem real. This creates a ‘masking effect’. As Scott McCloud explains in Understanding Comics, combining iconic characters with realistic backgrounds allows the reader ‘to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world.’ Conrad’s featureless face allows the player to supplant it with their own. He is easy to identify with because he lacks detail, in stark contrast to the world around him. In addition, he moves like a live-action Hollywood hero, making him seem more real than any other platforming character of that time. The movielike animation and rich fantastical backdrops are part of what makes Flashback so special. The player can easily imagine themselves in Conrad’s shoes, feeling his every leap and bound.
Flashback perfectly captures the flavour of retro sci-fi action cinema. Its story combines the plots of some of the most famous science-fiction movies ever made. Its synth soundscapes and detailed landscapes allow the player to feel immersed in its lush interplanetary universe. Each level tells a story. There’s cop corruption in New Washington, Lovecraftian weirdness on Morph planet, and media oppressiveness in the darkly gleaming Death Tower (which could be Trump Tower going by the looks of the gameshow host). The realistic animation and stylish cutscenes are technically impressive and, more importantly, create a real sense of cinematic spectacle. All of this combines into one richly thrilling sensory experience that truly is difficult to forget.