Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Flash: An Unsung Hero by Guest Author Cluedrew

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Introduction

To many people Flash may just be an annoying internet thing-a-ma-bob that updates frequently. But for a time it was the root of one of the largest and most open gaming communities in existence.  And I was a part of that. Admittedly, my part was primarily as an observer, but that was enough for Flash to leave a significant mark on my gaming history. There is a huge collection of games I look back upon fondly. You will not find much in the way of beautifully rendered 3D graphics or epic open worlds, but there are other treasures to be found.

Flash is a browser plugin that allows websites to display animations and games. Well before the modern indie game scene got started, hobbyists produced hundreds of games that you can still find scattered across the web. Most were made by a few people in their spare time and most were completely free, so you got plenty of weird idea-focused arcade experiences, puzzle games with a twist, smaller adventure and a lot of art games.

Now Flash is going away. It had a good run all things said – a run that was a quarter century long – but it is definitely getting into its twilight years now. For one last bit of praise from an unremarkable fan: here is what I have to say about Flash.

About Flash

Before getting into the games, I would like to talk about Flash itself. I had to look up things about the early days. Flash was created in 1995 by FutureWave and was called FutureSplash Animator at the time. It changed owners and names over the next decade. By the time I became aware of it its purpose had shifted from a simple animation tool to a platform for web games.

Flash is the editor, player and browser plugin for .swf (Shockwave Flash) files. You can use it to create games, play them locally on your computer, or in your browser. And most browsers come – or rather came – packaged with it. In the early days Flash gained popularity because the files were small and downloaded quickly. Then people found it was surprisingly good at making games and, as they say, they rest is history. Flash will soon truly be history as many browsers have declared they are going to get rid of it by the end of 2020.

Over the years, however, a lot of games were created.  Many of these games were collected on Flash game sites. I got my start on Miniclip but probably spent the most time on Armor Games. Newgrounds was probably the largest site and Kongregate has possibly held up the best as the years have gone by. I also want to mention Nitrome, a game studio that created their own site and produced over 100 solid games on their own.

These collections are huge! Of the ones I have mentioned, Nitrome’s is the smallest by an order of magnitude or so. The bar to entry was very low to non-existent and the more popular ones had a lot people submitting to them, so the collections soon had hundreds or thousands of games. Sorting through them to find the ones you liked could be a bit of a challenge. In fact if it I ever get a bit vague it’s probably because I am talking about a game I haven’t been able to dig up again and so I am working on memories from many years ago.  On the other hand, if you were in an exploratory mood, it was great. Try a game and, if you liked it, then you could keep on playing; otherwise just move onto the next one. Playing Flash games could very much be about the exploration as much as playing any particular game.

Flash has had detractors for a long time. Some were concerned about the wide use of a proprietary format.  Others argued it should just be included in HTML (Hyper Text Mark-up Language), which did eventually expand to cover many of the things Flash does. But the thing that really killed it was the security risk.

Speaking of which, don’t run Flash games from un-trusted sources. It is not at all secure so people can slip in pretty much any virus or malware into a Flash application if they want to and are willing to put in the time. On one hand, the community is largely in the clear and this seemed to never happen. On the other hand, it continues to be a worry for users and the browsers which all depend on having a reputation for security.

Despite all that, Flash still held on for quite a long time. Even as people declared it dead, it kept going, supported by the weight of existing content and grassroots developers still producing new content. Even with browsers proclaiming they are taking it out soon, new Flash games came out this year, such as the long-awaited Epic Battle Fantasy 5.  That is where we are today: support is fading but there are huge archives and a small but dedicated community. In the rest of this article I will mostly be talking about all those games in the huge archives.

About the Games

Like many platforms, Flash had a huge variety of games but also had certain trends. I think in Flash the notable genres are arcade, puzzle and adventure. All three are pretty broad categories but they each have a particular feel to them:

Arcade games are roughly any action game that doesn’t fit another major group, like shooters or platformers. They tend to have very small game loops with a single game mode. Maybe you would get upgrades between rounds or level but otherwise most had a very simple pattern of activity.  And I mean simple. Some could easily be played with two buttons, or in the case of Onekey, one button. A simple example is Indestructotank which consisted of moving right, left, and smashing into enemies so the resulting explosion would send you high into the air. You would go for combos by bouncing around off multiple enemies. Between rounds you could upgrade enemies so you would have more things to smash into.  Amorphous Plus was possibly my favourite arcade game. It consisted of walking around and hitting glooples – basically slimes – with a giant sword. And then things escalate so you can deploy flying saw-blade robots and the glooples start creating black holes. It is also one of the very few games that included notes on the cellular structure of enemies in the bestiary. No explanation about why you were hunting glooples though.

The next group are puzzle games, which set up a series of rules that you have to use to untangle various twisted situations. Usually one situation per level; it’s a good way to divide it up. These games form a slower and more thoughtful group of games.  I think a prime example of this style of game would be Connections (I think it was called that but it didn’t turn up when I searched for it). In this game there were nodes that could give packets or require packets. You had to send packets from node to node to fill up every node. Then you started chaining nodes, broadcasting signals and packaging things for different communication networks.  The puzzles could be about anything such as pushing blocks, picking up puzzle pieces, folding paper, rotating a scene (or platforming level) to line things up, pouring sugar or attacking and getting attacked. As long it is about thinking through a problem instead of reflexes or getting levels or any thing else. Of course, it can have some of those things in as well.

Portal: The Flash Version

Adding some action in a puzzle game creates one of the biggest sub-genres of puzzle games: the puzzle platformer, particularly lab puzzle platformers. I can’t actually prove were all inspired by Portal but the two earliest examples I can think of are Shift and Portal: The Flash Version so I have my suspicions. Regardless the genre was so prominent that Qoosh was a parody of the genre. Mechanically they all took the basic running and jumping from platformers and stuck a twist on that would also form the base for the puzzles in the game. The twist could be anything from inverting air and ground so walls become paths, teleportation, shifting gravity or just a really strange set of respawning rules once you die. Explore it and play through a simple story of escaping the lab.

Adventure games are the ones where you go on an adventure. That may seem hugely broad (and rather circular) but not as many Flash games had space to tell a story, have the character abilities grow or even have a continuous over-world. More often if the game wasn’t abstract or the setting implied, it would be told in an opening cut-scene and a closing cut-scene and that is it. In bigger (ie: better funded) games these may be included just because but you can’t do that with Flash.

The first family of adventure games I will talk about are the point-and-click games. They are well suited to Flash which was used on computers with a mouse. They also tended to be the most story focused games as they had fewer other things going on. Alice is Dead is a notable example, The Several Journeys of Reemus is another, and if I kept going I’m sure I would eventually hit one that is not a horror game too. Horror was a very popular genre in point-and-click.  The smaller games were usually “escape-the-room” type. You are in a room and you have to get out. It’s a simple formula and one that produced many good puzzles, but individually they don’t stand out that much because each was so small. Even if one plays a bit loose with the definition of a room, they could only get so big before you completely lost the feel of the game.

The next family is role-playing games (or RPGs). This is your standard fair of turn based combat with a party against groups of enemies. Sometimes they were very story focused, others were classic dungeon crawlers and some even had maps and positioning. The biggest titles around here were Sonny – about a zombie trying to survive in a world he doesn’t understand – and Epic Battle Fantasy, both of which spawned series and were very polished.  Of course, there were other sorts of adventures. The Robot Wants series were some of the best Metroidvania games I have ever played, but point-and-click and RPGs were the most common adventures I saw.  There are a lot of Flash games that didn’t fall into these groups but these highlight some of the most popular groups.

Small Games

Flash games tended to be pretty small. They were usually made by people doing this as a hobby, making no money and with few resources – time, money, staff with particular skills – so they could not hit the scale of an industry game. There are obvious downsides to this but, on the other hand, it allowed games to be focused, experimental or even just a statement. It is a different type of game, but one that turns their small scale into a strength.

For an example of a really focused game, consider A Small Talk at the Back of Beyond, which is a game about choice. You have a small talk with a pretty well-done AI character that reads what you type in and then you make the one major choice in the game and it is a binary “yes or no” choice. Then the game is over. It’s not a grand adventure but there is no way to go back on your choice nor are you overwriting a previous choice, just one emotional choice and the consequences of that choice.

For experimental games, I am going to turn to one whose name I have forgotten as my example. The game begins by saying that you have foreseen a terrible calamity. You must prevent it and you only have 200 years. So begins a puzzle-adventure game of finding creative ways to wait and solve problems. And even if they could think of twice as many puzzles, that 200 year limit is ticking down over the entire game and if you use too much time early in the game, you will have to start all over again to avoid running out of time. It’s not something you would want to scale up to a multi-hour adventure.

For games that are statements, it isn’t hard to imagine why a 40 hour game that exists to say only one thing would be annoying. But, if the game is 5-10 minutes the whole thing could be a joke. Give Up was a game where you won by quitting back to the menu because you don’t have to succeed at everything. Don’t Escape is a parody of the escape-the-room genre where you wake up remembering everything and have to make sure you can’t escape from the room. They each provided an interesting moment (or two) and the game wasn’t much longer than that.
There are other boons to staying small. A lot of games really honed in on elegance in simplicity. Seamless tutorials that taught you how to play the game just by the situation are surprisingly common. Just as some things work best at a grand scale, some work well at a more modest level. That might not sound exciting but it works. There is a place for Flash to shine here.

Tower Defense

From the very broad to the very narrow: this is my favourite Flash genre and one that really found its home in Flash. It never really seemed to catch on elsewhere but Flash sites might have a whole section dedicated to them. They just games about with waves of approaching enemies that you fend off by building towers that shoot at them and all the variations of that idea you could imagine.

Some of the iconic games of the early days were: Balloons Tower Defense, a lighthearted game about monkeys popping balloons; Gemcraft, the dark and gritty adventure with some of the most complex tower rules out there; and Desktop Tower Defense, which had enemies advancing in different directions while you built paths out of towers for them to follow.

Kingdom Rush

By “the early days” I of course mean everything that was distinctly before Kingdom Rush. Kingdom Rush may not be the best or most popular tower defense game – although it may be both – but it is an influential one. I don’t know if it invented having towers deploy troops to fight and slow down the attacking enemies, but it sure did popularize it. That mechanic was used in a number of other games that followed, with some like Incursion pushing it to its absolute limit. It is one of the distinct examples of the Flash game community learning from each other.

That doesn’t mean tower defense games all became the same. Cursed Treasure stands out for me here because it used a lot of ideas I usually didn’t like and yet I managed to enjoy the game as a whole. Ghost Hacker 2 also gave you a mode where you controlled the enemies. Creeper World replaced waves of enemies with a single enemy that was a gelatinous wave. The Space Game really pushed tower defense out towards real-time strategy. Giants and Dwarfs TD was a spectacle as troops throw themselves from their towers to do battle upon the backs of approaching titans.

Now one could go into depth on any genre of games in Flash – and a lot more depth than I did here – but this one is of particular interest because there aren’t any “bigger and better” tower defense games out there. It’s a genre that has been missed by industry so, even counting production value, there are top tier games in Flash. Even if you don’t like the small and artistic games, here are ones that can stand by their content and polish alone.

What happens now?

So now that I have talked about Flash past and present that leaves the future. Flash is on its way out in a package with an official seal and no destination; what will happen to it? What, if anything, will take its place? What will happen to the collections of games?

Creeper World 3

First, if we look at the community, it is still alive and well. There is still plenty of room for web games. JavaScript, HTML5 and Web Assembly provide plenty of options to put a game on a website. Right now it looks like Unity, already a big indie engine, might become the new standard for web games. Then there is itch.io which hosts downloads for many small games. Meanwhile, the some people have moved on to making games else where. Nitrome has made some mobile games and you can find Creeper World 3 on Steam. You can still find new games of this kind out there.
So that leaves Flash itself and all of its many games. Luckily there is a variety of projects attempting to preserve the games. The most official one is from Adobe itself as Adobe AIR appears to be the new replacement for Flash. I have also heard tell of a JavaScript emulator that would be able go in browsers just like the old days; doesn’t appear to have succeeded yet. Other projects are focused on particular games. Newgrounds is creating the Newgrounds Player, which will support the games from that site. The Flashpoint Archives casts a much wider net and is collecting up games by the thousand.

I personally just grabbed a stand alone copy of the Flash player, not the browser plug-in. Then go to a web page with a Flash game, let it load, save the web page and then pull out the .swf file. I have collected up some of my own favourites. Pretty low effort once you know where to look and it will hold until the OS breaks backwards compatibility enough the program can’t work.
There are options, it’s probably going to take a bit more effort than it was before but they will not be gone forever.

In Conclusion

I still have more good things I could stay about Flash but if you want 3D games with photo-realistic graphics and dozens of hours of content you will not find it here. Industry is business and Flash is a playground. I have no idea how many Flash games I’ve played over the years, but it will probably be the majority of the games I have played for a long time yet.

It does have its own value but that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Even if you don’t want to play Flash games, there is something to appreciate in them. It filled in a lot of afternoons of the years, you could explore little games in every genre and a lot of people had their first attempts at making games with Flash too. No one talks about it but everyone seems to have happy memories about it when I bring it up.

Would The Infinite Ocean earn its place as my favourite game of all time if I had first played it today? Maybe not, but I stumbled across it years ago on an otherwise unremarkable day and it presented some ideas I had never seen before. It made quite an impact on me for a game I played once in a single sitting. So I would like to end this on a truly nostalgic note with a quote I remember being in The Infinite Ocean (but may not be):

“May your thoughts and dreams be as vast as an infinite ocean.”

This article was posted with permission on Gaming History 101 to feature the talent in the community.  It remains the sole ownership of the author, Cluedrew, and can be re-posted and distributed on any site they choose.  Upon request from the author, we will also remove this article.

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