This month sees some potentially special games come out for the Nintendo Switch. From Wolfenstein II to Lumines Remastered via the arcade sports action of Mario Tennis Aces, the console’s not wanting for attractive offerings. Yet perhaps the most interesting of the month’s new releases is a game that’s actually fairly old, now faithfully revived for the platform. But don’t be fooled into thinking Flashback holds nothing but nostalgic appeal for greying gamers – this pixel-art masterpiece is as compelling today, for newcomers and veterans alike, as it ever was.
“We were just trying to make the best games,” says the game’s designer, Paul Cuisset, thinking back to the beginnings of his game development career. A simple mission statement perhaps, and a commonly cited one, too. Clichéd, even, these days – but it came to fruition at Delphine Software in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the studio came to define the parameters of the era’s cinematic adventures.
“Before I started with Delphine, I’d been an independent developer,” Cuisset continues, from his home in France. “And when I joined the team, the whole idea was creativity. We wanted to be free to make the games that we wanted to do. And we were lucky to get that chance, as the president of Delphine, Paul de Senneville, was a musician, so he knew that it was important to give freedom to the people who were working with him.”
With de Senneville at Delphine’s helm, Cuisset and those around him were encouraged to explore new ideas in video games, new ways to tell stories that had, outside of old-school text adventures and the emerging point-and-click titles, largely been generic tales of rescue or revenge. And didn’t they jump in with both feet. “Nothing was considered impossible,” Cuisset remembers of the time. “If it’s good for the games, go for it, and don’t be afraid to try things.”
In 1989 came the sci-fi, time-travelling adventure Future Wars, running on the appropriately named, in-house-developed Cinematique engine. It drew rave reviews from the press – as did Delphine’s 1990 follow-up Operation Stealth, a spy-themed affair which released stateside with the James Bond license attached. Both games were overseen in a significant way by Cuisset, but the game that he would come to be truly known for was still a couple of years away.
1991 was a watershed year for Delphine Software. The company had already enjoyed success with its two adventure titles, but now their profile was to skyrocket – and not as a result of Cuisset’s next game. While he steered the narrative-heavy murder-mystery Cruise for a Corpse to completion, for the Amiga and Atari ST, another talent at the studio was finishing up something that broke Delphine’s established style. A side-on, exposition-light, platform-puzzler, Another World brought Cuisset’s contemporary Éric Chahi to the gaming world’s attention.
Chahi had been the lead artist on Future Wars, but Another World was his project from the ground up. It shook the foundations of 16-bit gaming, attracting several awards and racing past a million sales. In 2012, it took its place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, one of only 14 games to do so. It’s been called, among many other things, “visionary”, “an experience every gamer should have”, and “the best video game of all time”. Suffice to say, Delphine had suddenly gone from something of a cult developer to playing in the biggest leagues of the industry.
“When Éric showed Another World to us, it blew us all away,” Cuisset says. “There was no question about what genre of game it was, that it didn’t fit our past games – it was just so beautiful and so great, that it was not possible to pass it up. We didn’t really have a unified direction with the games we would do, at that time. It was more a feeling of whether or not we liked something. What would be cool to do? We wanted to do that next.” And what came next would do for Cuisset what Another World had done for Chahi.
You may have heard about the genesis of Flashback before, but it bears repeating for its weirdness. Cuisset’s career high watermark (so far), the game is set in a future of intergalactic travel, alien infiltration, and high-tech cities beneath the surface of Titan. It’s all holocubes and hover-bikes. And yet, when Delphine began planning Flashback, it was because they’d received a request from British games publisher US Gold to adapt a very famous movie.
“US Gold came to us with the proposal to do an adaptation of The Godfather,” Cuisset recounts with a chuckle, like he never tires of the absurdity of it all. “They wanted to create a game about the movie. So, Flashback was originally created around the universe of The Godfather.”
Needless to say, the design of the game very quickly moved away from any obvious associations with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 Oscar-winner (a Godfather game did eventually come out, in the form of EA’s 2006 title, to a modestly positive reception). It wasn’t just the initial suggestion of a movie tie-in that was new to Delphine – for the first time, they were tasked with making a game for a console, rather than a home computer.
“US Gold proposed we worked on the Mega Drive, which was really new at the time,” Cuisset explains. “Traditionally, we used to do adventure games, point and clicks, so this was a big change for us. We had to use a new interface, and develop a new way to move the characters. We had to redesign how to tell our stories. It was an evolution of what we’d been doing before on the Amiga and Atari ST. We had to redesign the way the game would be. In fact, I had to change the whole interface, and I decided to have a game that would be more action focused.”
The Mega Drive was, Cuisset admits, “very technical and way beyond our experience”, which saw Delphine take time to adapt to developing for the new platform. “It took us a good year before we really started the project,” he continues, before revealing that even though the machine was powerful for its time, the team ran into their share of obstacles in realising Flashback for Sega’s flagship system.
“Having a game on a cartridge was something new. We had so many sprites that we had to use some new systems to decompress on the fly, for the Mega Drive. There were so many things we needed to do, including creating a new engine. We had to do perform some hacks to bring the game to completion. There wasn’t enough memory to save the game, so we used the memory on the sound chip to store the save game. That was the kind of thing we were doing.”
And then there was the small matter of the Mega Drive’s cartridge capacity, capped at the time to 16 megabits – a ceiling that simply wasn’t high enough to accommodate Cuisset and company’s ambitions. “For a long time, we weren’t able to test the game from beginning to end, because it was too big to fit into a cartridge,” he says. “So, we reverse-engineered the cartridge itself, and we made our own with 24 megabits. And we actually built it before telling Sega. When we showed them that we’d modified it… Well, I’m not sure if they were happy, exactly, but they were okay, and they didn’t sue us or anything. It was announced that there would be 24 megabit cartridges in the future, so we felt okay to go there ourselves.”
Flashback released for the Mega Drive in 1993, earning terrific acclaim for its gorgeously rotoscoped animation – protagonist Conrad Hart moves with the kind of rare fluidity that only Prince of Persia and Another World had previously delivered – and compelling story of human society slowly being overtaken by an alien menace. It mixed role-play with puzzles, platforming with gunplay, and slick side-on visuals with animated cut scenes that looked spectacular for the hardware. Accolades flowed in, with major publications considering it one of the greatest games of all time. It even scored an entry in the Guinness Book of Records, as the best-selling French-developed video game of all time (at the time).
But Sega’s version wasn’t the first to reach the market. That honour goes to the Amiga port, which arrived in 1992 – but Cuisset maintains that Flashback was a Mega Drive game, first and foremost. “The Mega Drive was the target,” he reaffirms. But had it not been, one wonders how different Flashback could have been.
“We had to cut some of the game, because we just couldn’t make it fit on a cartridge,” Cuisset continues. “At the beginning, there were some monsters in the (Titan) jungle, that we couldn’t include. There was a… well, not exactly a lion, but a strange creature that would run after Conrad, and you had to flee because it was very fast. But it had too many frames of animation, so we had to cut it. We couldn’t compromise Conrad’s animation, and the number of frames it needed.
“We tried different frame rates, for the game, and finally we settled on 24 frames per second, as it was really the most beautiful. We tried with 12 frames per second, and it was okay, but it just wasn’t smooth enough. When I saw the 24 frames per second animation, it was obvious that we needed to do that. Even when we did the calculations on the space that many frames of animation would take, it was an important thing that we needed to include. We had to do everything we could to keep these frames in. That meant there were some other parts that we had to remove, but I think we kept the essential parts. You can’t keep everything. You have to make those decisions.”
Nowadays, such trimming wouldn’t be a necessity. “There’s so much power on the Switch,” Cuisset exclaims, rightly excited about Flashback’s imminent return to a Nintendo console, having last been seen on the SNES. “I think it’s a really nice machine. For Flashback, it is so fast, compared to the Mega Drive.” But with power comes, as we’re told, responsibility, or something to that effect – and when he began to move Flashback onto the Switch, Cuisset realised he had to exercise some self-control.
“I had to limit myself, as the plan was never to do anything too different from the original,” he says. “So, there are just two different modes for Flashback on the Switch. There’s classic, which is the old game, and it plays the same way it did in 1993. And then there’s a modern mode, which includes some things that people are more used to in games today. There are tutorials, for example, as when you pick up a game it’s important to know how it works. And then there’s a new feature we call Rewind, which lets you rewind the time back, after you die. Because Flashback was, at the time, very unforgivable.”
Which means there’s no more despairing as you accidentally roll Conrad off a precipice or fall victim to those pesky alien Morphs – just rewind the game, as much as two minutes, and try again in light of your mistakes. Cuisset explains that just how much you can rewind over the course of a playthrough depends on the difficulty you select – on easy, it’s infinite, and on hard, you’re limited to five minutes’ worth across the entire game.
For that to be, pretty much, the sole concession to modern audiences on a game that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary of being on console, is an illustration of great restraint. But then, Cuisset has been burned by trying to update Flashback once before: a 2013 remake was rightly criticised for its ropey controls, dull visuals and voice acting that couldn’t have been more phoned in if it was a Maureen Lipman television commercial. (Now there’s a period reference for you.)
“With the remake, we tried something, and it didn’t work,” Cuisset says. “But now I’m very pleased that the game will get a new life with the Switch release. This is the original game. And even if we’ve added some features, I was really picky about what to add. I didn’t want to change the game – the experience had to be what we had before. People who played it 20, 25 years ago, they’ll know this game. And it’s cool that people can discover this game now, for the first time, with it being on Switch.”
But why is this the 25th anniversary edition, when the Amiga version of Flashback came out 26 years ago? “It’s 25 years since the SNES version, which is why this is the 25th anniversary version, as we’re on Nintendo again,” Cuisset answers, matter-of-factly. “But it’s not really important if it’s 25 or 26 years since the game came out. What matters is that people can play the game again now. And I hope they’ll be satisfied."
Flashback is available on the Switch eShop now.