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Flash: An Unsung Hero by Guest Author Cluedrew

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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.

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Jammin’!: The Story of ToeJam & Earl

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In proverbial “man I’m getting old” fashion, I’ve just realized that we’re just two-and-a-half years shy of the 30th Anniversary of ToeJam & Earl.  It’s not like I suddenly woke up and decided to write about this franchise, either, ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove will release this Friday, March 1st and while we can’t talk about it yet, tune back into the site on Thursday to get all the details and our thoughts. Permit me to take you back to the halcyon days of the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive for you players outside North America) and into the team that dared to make a roguelike in 1991 on consoles.

ToeJam & Earl (1991, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Developed by Johnson Voorsanger Productions, Published by Sega)

The story of ToeJam & Earl starts with its creator Greg Johnson and his fanaticism for Rogue while at UCSD.  The link above will provide you background on both Rogue and the now dubbed “roguelike” genre, but back in 1980s there was only one game influencing a slew of young developers.  Johnson would go on to EA working on PC titles, including his most notable releases as designer on Starflight in 1986 and Starflight 2 in 1989, the latter receiving Computer Gaming World’s Roleplaying Game of the Year award in 1990.  The franchise involves space exploration with integrated strategy, combat, and simulation in a non-linear fashion.  It was a starting point and notoriety for Johnson early in his career and allowed him to get more creative as he brainstormed his next project.  It was around this time, according to a Gamasutra’s interview I reference consistently, that Johnson met Mark Voorsanger, a programmer, while mountain climbing with a mutual friend.  The two hit it off so well that Johnson pitched the idea for ToeJam & Earl and immediately set to work on establishing Johnson Voorsanger Productions, the studio that would develop and release the game.

The concept was pretty straightforward, but also unique for the time.  ToeJam & Earl is about two rapping aliens dripping with 90s urban culture who have their ship breakdown on Earth and have to scour randomly generated maps to re-collect all the pieces.  Some may even call it a cartoonish, funky version of Rogue.  According to Johnson, the main concepts that drove design were randomized maps and survival to complete the grand task of rebuilding your ship.  I’m used to hearing about all the struggles that game development faces – in the Gamasutra interview you can read about Johnson’s in his formative years – but oddly enough this wasn’t the case with ToeJam & Earl.  To hear him tell it, the design doc was easily assembled and Johnson pulled old team members into development, including the talented John Baker who was responsible for the soundtrack.  A quick meeting with Sega that spelled out the design on note cards along with their combined experience on major games was enough to get the title published.

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Written by Fred Rojas

February 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm

Wonder Boy Retrospective Part 6: Blue Ball of Happiness

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Monster World IV

  • Released: 1994
  • Original hardware: Sega Mega Drive (Japan only, fan translated to English)
  • Other releases: Playstation 2 (Sega Ages 2500 Vol. 29: Monster World Complete Collection (Japan only), PSN and Xbox Live (as Wonder Boy Sega Vintage Collection), Wii Virtual Console (no longer available to purchase)
  • How to play today: Xbox Live Arcade Wonder Boy Sega Vintage collection Xbox 360 (backwards compatible with Xbox One), PSN (PS3)

We’ve now come to the final game in the series and Wonder Boy is now absent from the title. Well that’s because in Monster World IV it’s technically Wonder Girl now. This game would stay in Japan for a very long time and took on the Monster World titles because that was what most of the games were known as over there.

I played Monster World IV on the Sega Vintage collection for Xbox 360 brought to us from the fantastic developers M2 who do very fine work emulating old games to new systems. I brought this game day one for 800 Microsoft points (remember when that was a thing?) so I could play the official English translation of the game. The collection also included Monster World and the English arcade version of Monster Land, it’s well worth purchasing. While I did like Monster World IV it felt somewhat of a back step for the series but there is no denying this is the cutest entry in the series.

You play as Asha tasked with leaving your village to rescue some missing souls. These souls end up being bigger versions of the familiars (or buddies) you had in the previous game. The quests inevitably ends up with you saving the world – because lord knows we need to save the world just one more time. The setting has completely changed you’re now in an Arabian style environment, the game is incredibly colourful and definitely has the looks, pushing the Mega Drive’s colour palette to its limits. The music has also been re done and still maintains the charm and Wonder we have come to expect from the series.

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Written by jamalais

December 17, 2018 at 3:00 pm

Wonder Boy Retrospective Part 5: Spinning Spears

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Wonder Boy in Monster World

  • Released: 1991

  • Original Hardware: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis

  • Other Releases: Master System, Turbografx CD/PC-Engine CD (as The Dynastic Hero), PSN, Xbox Live, Wii VC

  • How to play today: PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch (Mega Drive/Genesis Classics Collection)

Wonder Boy in Monster World is up there with one of my favourite games of all time. This was my childhood Zelda, this was my epic adventure and it would stick with me for years to come.  I first played Monster World on my original hardware when I was growing up in the 90s. The game captivated me as a child with its colourful graphics, fantasy setting and all sorts of weird but cute monsters running around.

Monster World feels, to me, like the height of the series; after five attempts they finally found the winning formula. Although to fans this debate is often between Dragons Trap, Monster World and Monster World IV (this game’s sequel, but don’t worry all will be explained on that title in the next part).

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Written by jamalais

December 17, 2018 at 11:00 am

Wonder Boy Retrospective Part 4: Flight of Dragons

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Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap

  • Released: 1989

  • Original hardware: Sega Master System

  • Other releases: Game Gear, TurboGrafx-16/PC-Engine, Mobile, iOS, Wii VC

  • How to play today: PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch (on the remastered version of the game)

Yes, this is the second Wonder Boy III in this Wonder Boy retrospective. In all regions Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair was also released, and technically it was first if you count the first release in Japan.  This is not the case on consoles in the West, where The Dragon’s Trap actually released first. You see, on consoles in Europe The Dragon’s Trap released first in 1989 on Master System and Monster Lair released on the Mega Drive in 1991.  In North America The Dragon’s Trap released in 1989 on Master System alongside Monster Lair on the Turbografx-CD, and while Turbografx-16 owners could get this title as Dragon’s Curse in 1991 there was no Genesis release.  Confusing, right?

Monster Lair would be the first Wonder Boy III game I would play.  I first played The Dragon’s Trap when I downloaded the Master System version on the Wii Virtual Console (an online store now closed) and this would actually be the last game in the series I would play.

The Dragon’s Trap is very beloved by Wonder Boy and Sega Master System fans alike with good reason. The game is a direct sequel to Monster Land only this time the game has finally been adapted for consoles in all the right ways. The stupid timer is no where to be seen and you actually grind enemies for gold to upgrade your equipment. The level based design is also gone and the game now plays out as one large connected world you can explore at your own pace. I hear people call these sort of games metroidvanias now for some reason.

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Written by jamalais

December 11, 2018 at 11:00 am

Wonder Boy Retrospective Part 3: Pea Shooters and Beach Balls

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Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair

  • Released: 1988

  • Original hardware: Arcade

  • Other releases: Mega Drive (Europe/Japan only, no Genesis port), TurboGrafx-CD, Wii VC, Mega Drive/Genesis Classics Collection

  • How to play today: PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch (as Mega Drive/Genesis Classics Collection)

Wonder Boy III would serve as the Wonder Boy series’ final outing in the arcade world with only two console ports – sad times for microcomputer fans. But this was one hell of a note to end on for the arcade series and would serve as my favourite game in the arcade trilogy. I originally played this game on the Mega Drive (a NA Genesis version never released) as a rental and took to it very quickly. It was colourful, the music was catchy and the gameplay was fast frantic arcade fun. Strangely, when researching for this retrospective it appears the rest of the internet does not share my love. But this is my series not theirs so let the positivity begin.

Monster Lair once again tore down the gamplay style from the previous two games and started with yet another fresh canvas with a few minor things fetched back from the bin. The main carry over being that it still a 2D platformer and the big change was that it was now a sort of side scrolling shooter. Your default weapon was a shooting sword, what I like to call the pea shooter. As you mow down cute monsters you will regularly pick up new weapons which would last temporarily. Each weapon felt quite unique and encouraged you to adjust on the fly to the given situation. Even if the weapon didn’t suit you, at least you knew it would only last for a very short period before you returned back to the pea shooter. The vitality meter would make its final return in the series from the very first game, fitting in quite well with the arcade action. As well as tripping on rocks, enemy projectiles would also assist in draining your vitality. The dreaded alarm sound would fire off once your bar hit the red and you were about to die. Not quite as memorable as Sonic’s infamous drowning music but it still haunts me today. Similar to the first game you’ll still die in a single hit accompanied by an amusing sound effect and your sprite rotating to the bottom of the screen. Additionally your odd avatar picture turns from a boy (or girl) into a creepy green skull temporarily. Unlike the first game you don’t restart the level, instead a handy dragon dumps you back into the game to continue where you left of. Be careful though because if your dumb like me you can sometimes get the dragon to drop you off in a bottomless pit instantly killing you again. This would be the first and only game in the Wonder Boy series to feature simultaneous cooperative play. One of you playing green haired Leo and the other the fabulous Princess Purapril (who would sort of feature in a later game).

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Written by jamalais

December 10, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Wonder Boy Retrospective Part 2: Boy Meets Sword

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Wonder Boy in Monster Land

  • Released: 1987

  • Original hardware: Arcade

  • Other releases: Sega Master System, PC Engine, Atari ST, Amiga, ZX Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, mobile, Wii VC (arcade), Xbox 360 (arcade), PS3 (arcade)

  • How to play today: Xbox 360 (backward compatible with Xbox One, recently free as part of Games with Gold program)

My first venture into Monster Land was on a friends Master System a long time ago in a countryside village far away. I remember being wowed by the colour and hitting enemies with a sword. It doesn’t take a lot to impress me, I also don’t remember getting very far.

I didn’t get to really have a good old go at the game until it’s release on the Xbox 360. This version wasn’t even the Master System port, it was the English translation of the arcade port that was never released in the West. I have dabbled with the Master System port but this piece will mostly focus on my experience with the English arcade version.

Monster Land wiped the slate clean and started the series from scratch. The only main carry over being that the game was called Wonder Boy and it was a 2D platformer, otherwise a lot was thrown in the bin. No Vitality bar, no one hit deaths, no skateboard. Instead we got a health bar, swords, armour, a shield and even shoe upgrades, also you can drink alcohol in this game, yes… really. It’s a arcade game with RPG elements which still feels a little surreal thinking about it. This was one hell of a departure from the blonde kid in the green bush skirt. Of course if you played the arcade game you started out in what looked like a nappy (diaper) until you found your first suit of armour. The console versions showed more sympathy and your character was dressed in armour from the get go.  Our hero is now called ‘Book’ or Bocke Lee Temjin if you manage to finish the arcade game or read the Master System manual.

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Written by jamalais

December 9, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Wonder Boy Retrospective Part 1: Grass Skirt Roots

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One might argue that the Wonder Boy series has a more convoluted timeline than Zelda and since no one will make a book about it, I thought I would give it a bash in this series of articles. While this article series will explore the facts, it will be from my perspective, which means I’ll mostly be discussing the PAL (European) release of each game and only referencing other regions where necessary.

The Wonder Boy series holds an especially large place in my nostalgic heart. When I was growing up I didn’t have a Nintendo so the idea of the Zelda series being this amazing adventure title, was more of a myth that I’d only read about in magazines than a reality. For me, it was a very different kind of ‘Boy’ that took me on multiple adventures and filled my head with ‘wonder’ and captured my heart.  I’ve wanted to delve into the Wonder Boy series for a long time so thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Now without further adieu let me take you on a wonderful journey back to the first….

Wonder Boy

Released: 1986

Original hardware: Arcade

Other releases: SG-1000, Sega Master System, Game Gear, ZX Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, mobile, Wii (Virtual Console)

How to play today: PS4 (Japanese Store Only)

It seems appropriate that my introduction to Wonder Boy would begin with the very first game of the series. Although Wonder Boy did make it to the arcades in the UK my first experience of the game was on Sega’s portable system: Game Gear. Yes, that little portable system owners used to think was better than the Game Boy because it had colour! The Game Gear port was practically the same as the popular Master System port, the only main difference between them was that the screen size was adjusted for the portable system. A lot later down the road, at a retro convention in Blackpool, I was eventually able to appreciate the original arcade game. It was great to get that added wow factor of it being an arcade game, but I was more impressed by how similar the arcade was to the Game Gear version.

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Written by jamalais

December 8, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Horror Obscura 2018: Dark Castle (Mega Drive/Genesis)

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In the past Horror Oscura I have explored games which are focused around horror and the use of horror in games you would not class as a horror title.  This year I wanted to go back to my childhood and re-visit one of my biggest horrors: Dark Castle on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in North America).

Back in my childhood I was scanning the cheapest of the used Mega Drive titles in the retailer “GAME” on the South Coast of England when I came a came across Dark Castle. This was back in the 90s, I saved up my cash long and hard to treat myself to a video game. At a young age I was drawn to dark themes and games that just weren’t well known so Dark Castle, matched that category. Looking at the box now though one may question what I was thinking. The front of the box has a gargoyle on it stuck like old Clip Art on a background of a castle entrance. Not particularly appealing. The back of the box quotes, “climb the ramparts of the Dark Castle and dethrone the Black Knight.” An interesting quote but not a lot to go on. Keep in mind in the UK the back of the box often had a very short description of the game in multiple European languages. The instruction manual also included translation for 6 European languages. Flipping the back of the box over I guess it was the screen shots that appealed. Pictures of a eyeball creatures with hands, zombies looking monsters. Back then the game cost me £12.99 (the price sticker is still on my copy to this day), some may consider that a horror to itself.

So what is this game about? Dark Castle is a 2D adventure platformer. The game is presented as single screen levels most of which you just need to reach the end to survive. Some will require you to solve some head scratching puzzles. As young Duncan your objective is pretty simple: defeat the Dark Knight. However, to do this you need to complete three quests as outlined in the instruction manual titled “Trouble,” “Fireball,” and “Shield.” Completing the latter two will give you a item that will help you in your quest, more on these later. When you begin the game you are literally presented with four doors. Two doors have a “?” the other two “BK” with a shield. BK of course stands for Black Knight. If you are brave enough you could just attempt to take on the Black Knight and finish the game super fast, this goes against what the instructions advises but it can be done. Not so easy if you choose the Hard difficulty setting though. If you go in blind in the game you just have a choose a door and hope for the best.

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Written by jamalais

October 29, 2018 at 11:00 am

Come Out To Play-yay: How Fighting Actually Ushered In Arcade Camaraderie

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Final Fight by Capcom

The arcade was a diverse place chock full of different experiences.  Looking back at the early 80s it was comprised of single screen experiences, some scrolling and some not, mostly geared around challenging a player’s skill in hopes of consuming quarters in mass quantity.  Conceptually most games were simple but addictive, which is why you see many of the programmers from the classic arcade days transitioning into free-to-play mobile games with ease.  While there were games that involved a second player or massive cabinets, they were few and far between, just another part of the arcade’s myriad of experiences.  Then one day that all changed.  The arcade was about to become a place where large groups formed around a single cabinet and no game was complete without a second player.  Instead of ridiculous challenges leveled against a lone player, it was a machine against whatever talent was walking in the crowd.  It was a taste of things to come and it all started with the basic concept of beating someone up.

Stylized Male Violence

Roger Ebert used the above phrase to describe Paramount Picture’s 1979 thriller The Warriors, itself based upon the 1965 book of the same name by writer Sol Yurick.  In the film, the gangs of New York City assemble to discuss a truce between them so that they can gang up and outnumber the police.  During this meeting, Riffs leader and meeting coordinator Cyrus is shot dead and the Warriors are framed for the murder.  The meeting and murder take place in Van Cortlandt Park, which is located in the Bronx, and the Warriors turf is in Coney Island.  Those not familiar with the five boroughs of New York should note that Coney Island is about 30 miles directly south of the Bronx and therefore the Warriors find themselves a long way from home with every gang in the city eager to kill them.  You follow the Warriors throughout the film as they battle these gangs in an attempt to make it home safe and then clear their name.  The film relies heavily on street gang culture from the 60s and 70s that predominantly involved fists and melee as opposed to guns and knives, although the latter are definitely present in some altercations.  The Warriors has an unquestionable cult status among American moviegoers and expands to a larger worldwide audience.  Of those, a young Japanese game designer by the name of Yoshihisa Kishimoto loosely gets the idea for his 1986 arcade game Nikketsu Koha Kunio-Kun (Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio), which would be renamed in the West as simply Renegade.

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Written by Fred Rojas

June 30, 2017 at 11:00 am

Posted in Arcade, Features