How was Flashback this good in 1992?

(Image credit: Flashback)

Flashback, a 1992 sidescrolling platformer starring a rotoscoped man in jeans, has stolen all of my free time this week. From the strange, jilted controls to the surprisingly good worldbuilding and lovely background art, it's a retro delight.

The game starts with some animation showing amnesiac jeans-man Conrad fleeing a mysterious facility on an extremely cool flying bike. He crash lands in the jungles of Titan, discovers a memory cube recorded by his past self. Thus starts his quest to discover what the heck his past self was talking about.

Flashback starts conventionally. An opening jungle section gives you time to learn how to jump, shoot, and roll. This is harder than it sounds, and it made me realise how slick modern platform controls have become. Normally I'd expect to run towards an edge, hit the jump button, and sail seamlessly across a gap. In flashback you want to get just the right distance from the edge, then hold down a button and press up to make him jump sideways.

This eventually clicks, and the levels feel more like puzzles than platforming challenges. After a while the act of entering gun-stance and crouch rolling into a shooting position feels badass, and the animations are excellent.

Flashback opens up when you reach Titan's city. Suddenly the game takes cues from Metroid. It's a circular open world connected by futuristic buses. There are noncombat areas where workers in jumpsuits wander around doing there business. There's a bar, and a combat entertainment zone called DEATH TOWER. I can't wait to get into DEATH TOWER.

There's also some beaurocratic admin to be done. You can't take on jobs without an ID, but when you take your ID to the job centre you need to get a permit from the admin office. The workaday challenges and industrial backgrounds create an effective sense of drudgery. In a facility surrounded by murderous jungle, all there is to do is work, drink, and watch DEATH TOWER.

A 2018 update of Flashback is available on Steam, and I'd recommend that for the rewind function alone. Without it Flashback is a punishing game that can send you far back to a distant save point when you die. There's a post-processing mode that smooths out the pixel art, and it isn't as horrible as some other attempts to do the same (I'm looking at you, FF6). You can play with the original art though, and that might be the best way to experience one of the best platformers I've played. Good job, 1992.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.