Not quite as I remembered.
It shouldn’t be that hard to update a 16-bit classic. Give it a shiny new graphics engine, add a jump button, maybe be a bit kinder with the checkpoints, and above all, resist the temptation to change anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Otherwise you’ll end up with Flashback, and nobody wants that.
Flashback is a reimagining of the 1992 classic, updated by many of the same people responsible for the original. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of respect for the simplicity of the original, though, and the end result is an unsatisfying remake that adds unnecessary systems while not focusing enough on making them matter. What’s the point of being able to upgrade how far you fall before taking damage, for example, when careful play means you don’t have to worry about it? Or stats that upgrade critical hit damage without actually giving any indication that a critical hit has landed? Or for that matter, having enemies that take so many hits that shooting them down becomes a chore, whether critical hits happen or not? Flashback‘s problem seems to be too much attention to the game’s sub-systems, not enough attention to the game those systems should be making playable.
Take the new addition of the Morph Eyes, for example. There’s a few of them scattered around each area, purple plants growing from the ceiling that can be shot down, and frequently tricky to find. Shoot all of them in a level and you get a bonus skill point to apply to one of Conrad’s three stats, improving his skills a tiny imperceptible bit. In the second level of the game, where Conrad is in the city running odd jobs, there are morph eyes in both the city area and limited-access job sections. In one job, shooting the target enemy and picking up the key he dropped resulted in being ripped out of the area, teleported back to home base without any say in the matter. Half the area remained unexplored but too bad, it’s closed off now. That wasn’t the only area with that issue, either. Why would there be a scavenger hunt in a game if the player isn’t allowed to explore?
More successfully updated is the shooting, which has been changed from shooting horizontally, crouching or standing, to a twin-stick affair. Despite the 3D graphic upgrade and the depth to the backgrounds, Flashback retains its 2D gameplay and the twin-stick shooting works perfectly for it. The downside of it being so much easier to aim is that enemies are loaded with hit points, taking just a few too many shots to bring down. The gun eventually upgrades to having a charge shot available that packs a nicely explosive punch, but taking out the morph enemies on their homeworld is a test of patience rather than skill. On the plus side, the buggy nature of the game sometime rears its head when Conrad bends 90 degrees backwards to shoot, instead of turning around. It’s completely wrong and an obvious bug, but also very funny when it happens.
Despite the problems, though, I can’t bring myself to actively dislike Flashback. It’s broken, buggy, poorly balanced, badly voice acted with a juvenile script that thinks one-liners are a substitute for character, and the original version of Flashback accessible from the start menu looks terrible and has no music. Even with all this baggage, though, the new game is still a very pretty update of a classic, and every once in a while some decent level design will pop up, requiring a satisfyingly clever use of Conrad’s tools to get through. There’s a very long list of issues and bugs that needed to be addressed for Flashback to have been a worthy update to its predecessor. The final result, however, still has a bit of the heart of the original beating quietly inside, even if it deserved a better revival than this.