The faces of Flashback

Posted by Mark Agerholm.
First posted on 07 March 2012. Last updated on 07 March 2012.
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The faces of Flashback
The animated sequences in Flashback are far ahead of their time, though they have been replaced entirely in later ports of the game.
The faces of Flashback
The Super Nintendo version of Flashback is the worst port among all ports of the game on the consoles.

1The listed release date for the game corresponded to the French release date only.

2The listed release dates for the game corresponded to the US release dates only.

If you are a longtime gamer, then you may be familiar with a classic game called Flashback. Indeed, if you hold an interest in the history of adventure gaming, then chances are that you already own this game or will want a copy of your own. Originally released for the Amiga (1992),1 Flashback is an impressive technological feat for a video game of its time, featuring animated cut scenes, beautifully hand drawn environments, and motion capture animations. Considered by many critics to be an artistic cyberpunk masterpiece, the game combines intrigue, deep storytelling, a living environment full of townies and unique enemies to explore, and an iconic soundtrack that interlaces ambiance, drum and bass, and gorgeous string arrangements—grounding the player in an adventure that is amongst the most atmospheric games of the early 16-bit era.

Delphine Software, Flashback's developer, also performed a rare and noble deed by tirelessly reprogramming their masterpiece so that it was playable on almost every available platform. Within a few years of its debut for the Amiga, Flashback was available for MS-DOS (1993), Sega Genesis (1993), Super Nintendo (1993), Archimedes (1993), 3DO (1993), Phillips CD-i (1994), Sega CD (1994), Mac OS (1995), and Atari Jaguar (1995).2

What is less discussed is how each version differs from the original. Obviously, if you have access to an Amiga, then I recommend that you play that version as your first choice. The Amiga version represents the purest original vision of the developer. It contains features not available in any of the ports. For example, the color scheme used in this version differs from those used in all other versions of the game. The scripts thereafter also appear to have been rewritten—perhaps tightening and conveying the same details, but changed nonetheless. If you do not have access to an Amiga, then I recommend that you try out ports which are considered to be near equals to the Amiga version. The DOS version, for example, has some trivial features removed—most notably the zoom feature heavily criticized in the Amiga version—but otherwise plays just as well. This is because once you delve into console versions, severe compromises and unwelcome additions begin to abound.

If you are a console gamer who is willing to compromise on certain technical deficiencies unheard of to a PC gamer, finding the perfect console port of Flashback may still prove taxing. At first glance, the 3DO and Sega CD versions appear to be ideal ports because of their improved sound quality. However, these versions replace the original version's animated sequences with Full Motion Video (FMV) and computer generated sequences that are inconsistent with the game's original art style. The changes are meant to exploit the hardware of their respective systems. However, the reworked sequences look laughably outdated in hindsight, whereas the original sequences have stood the test of time. The Sega CD version even attempts to add voiceover to every single conversation in the game. Consequently, the voices in the FMV sequences are not same as the voices from the in-game dialogs. This results in far too many different artistic implementations, coming from several different time periods, all of which are in stylistic conflict with each other. These versions also sometimes replace the ambient soundtrack with additional music, which effectively murders the atmospheric touches that have made the original so immersive in the first place. My advice is to stay away from these enhanced versions and to stick with other more faithful ports of the game.

Even to that extent, however, there are flaws to consider in the other console versions of Flashback. The most highly recommended console port is the Genesis version. This version very closely resembles the Amiga version, albeit with a bit of graphical slowdown and a less sophisticated color palette that washes out a great deal of the visual redesign created for the DOS version. Based on hardware alone, the Super Nintendo version is expected to be a higher quality port than the Genesis version. Unfortunately, this version turns out to be a disaster. Aside from a laundry list of technical flaws—some of which make the animated sequences slow down or speed up and thus impossible to follow; others of which slow the in-game frame rate to the point where the game is impossible to play—the game is also censored. Instead of meeting an important character in the game in a bar, you now meet him in a cafĂ©. Instead of participating in the Death Tower Show, you now climb the Cyber Tower. The latter censoring is a particularly insulting hypocrisy—just a year prior to the release of Flashback on the Super Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past released on the same platform features an area called Death Mountain.

The general rule with ports is that the most faithful transitions tend to occur closest to the original version's release. Dirty ports released long after the original incarnation often contain changes that can adulterate the purity of the original. Further, integrating cutting edge technology into old ports rarely yields successful results, as the new technology generally serves more to convolute the experience than to enhance it. Such is the case with Flashback's later Enhanced CD versions.

Ideally, consoles and computers are supposed to be interchangeable platforms for video gaming, much like DVD players for movie watching. In practice, however, because video games are programs to be interfaced with a user, their data are more variable and much more complex to read than movies, making interoperability across different platforms a near impossibility. Though each DVD player may contain unique hardware to bolster its capabilities, the data readout of a movie is essentially the same. By contrast, a gaming console can only run a video game specially designed to be read by that console. Thus, it becomes expensive for a developer to reprogram a given video game to release across several different consoles, as the game must be modified to fit the unique architecture of each platform before it can become playable. Additionally, to better compete in the gaming market, console developers are often offered lucrative contracts by console manufacturers for exclusivity to the rights of their games on a single console.

Recently, several third-party consoles have been developed in an effort to consolidate various types of older hardware into a single machine. For example, the Yobo FC 3 Plus, manufactured by Yobo Gameware and released in 2008, contains 3 distinct cartridge slots: a slot for the original Nintendo, a slot for the Super Nintendo, and a slot for the Sega Genesis. However, because the architecture for each cartridge slot is a bit different from the original hardware to which it corresponds, many games are incompatible due to conflicts with the original games' programming. The same issues also plague the current generation of mainstream consoles, including the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii. All of these consoles are backward compatible with their older counterparts; yet, they all still suffer from compatibility issues with older games.

Thus, porting a single game across a vast spectrum of consoles introduces an entirely new challenge beyond the hardships of developing a playable game on a single platform. A particularly notable console era, spanning from 1999 to 2001, involves 3 major consoles with completely different sets of strengths and weaknesses: the 32-bit disc based Sony PlayStation, the 64-bit cartridge based Nintendo 64, and the 128-bit disc based Sega Dreamcast. A disc based system can run FMV with high quality sound that a cartridge based system cannot. In order to port a game for the Sega Dreamcast to the more limited Sony PlayStation or the most limited Nintendo 64, many of the original game's finer details have to be compromised. Although a few games have eventually managed to achieve cross-platform releases, they are rare because of the extensive reprogramming required for each port. Today, developers face similar challenges when attempting to develop cross-platform games. In particular, the Nintendo Wii is simply incapable of running graphically intensive games, and the Sony PlayStation 3 requires additional programming due to its Blu-ray implementation.

In the age of internet, it is easy to locate information online of the different ports of the same game released in the current era. A gamer wanting to find the best version of a new game may simply run a quick web search to learn the current consensus of the gaming community. However, games released before the age of the internet are rarely given individual treatment per cross-platform adaptation. These games are also difficult to review in full scope because they require critics to play through the game multiple times in multiple formats. As well, game critics are not looked upon with the same scrutiny as critics of other mediums, such as cinema, theater, or literature, because of the open-endedness that inherently defines the medium. It is not uncommon for a game critic to have only seen a single version of a game to completion during the game's original release, let alone several ports of the same game. Despite the fact that the games of yesteryear are more straightforward than the games of today, it is nearly impossible to learn of the subtle differences between ports without experiencing them firsthand.

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