You’ve surely read the headlines by now if you follow gaming press, or at least Twitter quote tweets – Flash is going to be dead by the end of this year, and everything it’s supported along with it. It’s not unexpected – when was the last time you played a Flash game or watched a Flash animation? Thanks to sites ditching it, users moving away from that content in favor of other things, the rise of mobile browsers that can’t natively support it, and the incessant amount of security breaches in Flash, it’s been outmoded by tools such as HTML5 for video players. But not really for games, which is what I fear the internet is losing the most with Flash being killed. Flash provided a space for a ton of more experimental games and gave the start to a lot of indie careers, with some of the most notable luminaries of that era being Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy, Binding Of Isaac, a ton of kick-ass Flash games), and indie studio The Behemoth (Alien Hominid, Castle Crashers, and more). But beyond the biggest success stories, I feel that this experimental spirit permeated the entire Flash game era. It was very easy to start hopping across game sites and end up playing someone’s university thesis, or random experiments by animators and amateur programmers, or the results of high school kids just messing around. A lot of the games I played back then were, looking back, purely remix games, putting 2 genre conventions together and seeing what sticks, with some kinda crappy Flash game glue to hold it all together. The Fancy Pants series of games (by the way, one of the first video games I ever played) were like if Sonic was also kind of a golf or soccer game, there were plenty of shooter / platformer hybrids such as the Thing-Thing games, and another personal favorite, the flying ace / turn based strategy hybrid that was Steambirds (anyone else remember that game? It made me have a steampunk phase). The whole Flash game culture was based on remixing genres and gameplay styles and seeing what happens. It was essentially a time for pretty pure experimentation, which with the death of Flash completely, will be lost forever.
Except it isn’t lost at all. While people do rightfully mourn the Flash era and all that came with it, the fact is that the experimental spirit that people talk about never died, but has moved on to new platforms and techniques. You still can play odd remix mini-games in plenty of places, just not only in the confines of your browser. And while Flash was a great tool, the fact that many of these are now downloaded directly onto your hard drive means that they can use more powerful engines and tools than before. Rather than mourning the loss of that experimental spirit, we should be highlighting the fact that despite the changing conditions – the death of Flash, the decline in Flash game revenues, increasingly restrictive game platforms, this experimentation persists and thrives. Sites such as Itch.io and Japanese indie gaming portal Freem feature plenty of examples of that old remix game ethos that I loved.
Itch.io is probably the best place to see that spirit going strong. Just checking the free section feels like traveling back in time and checking out onemorelevel.com or something, just with more modern aesthetics. Just the same as scrolling through those sites, it’s a mixed bag of quality, but just downloading / trying games out in a browser is a ton of fun just because of all the different stuff you can find. Want to play a demake of the sixth Touhou game, Embodiment of Scarlet Devil? You can. Want to play a fishing / horror game that looks like a PS1 game? You can. How about something just labeled “bad game”? It’s actually pretty good. Itch is basically where the remix game spirit has continued just as strong as it used to be, except, thanks to the increased power of modern computers and game engines, it can be more ambitious (or less, given the prevalence of 1bit games on the platform as well). Mario as a first person shooter controls like any other modern shooter, because it runs on Unreal. Some of the games that I’ve ended up trying out, like this sidescrolling Doom platformer, really feel just like Flash games – even down to the side perspective since that was the only way to really make a shooter in Flash. If anything, the fact that now we can directly pay devs for their games through Itch, rather than having them rely on ad revenue and other more restricted platforms such as Steam means that devs finally have more freedom to pursue creating games. As terrible as the general indie dev environment is today, with the steampocalypse and the instability of modern game sales platforms, at least there is this big bright spot.
Itch isn’t the only one of these sites either – you know how Japan has its own versions of a lot of anglosphere websites? Like Nico Nico Douga and YouTube? Basically, there’s this one website, Freem.ne.jp, that I can only really describe as that with Itch. I found it by chance, when I was scrolling through the Twitter feed of a game dev I follow, and they retweeted a link to this game site. Essentially, it hosts a ton of games that you can download or play in browser, with a very low barrier to entry – just like Itch, except with no monetization. I decided to make an account and download the game I was linked to, and it turned into playing through one of the most interesting games I’ve played in a while. On the surface level, the aesthetic is essentially a retro shooter, with purposely lofi graphics, a high move speed, and liberal distribution of health power ups. However, instead of fighting demons in space or cultists, you play an anime girl taking on a mansion of heavily armed anime maids with nothing but a trusty Uzi with infinite ammo. However, at the same time it feels that it takes some inspiration, especially with the enemy design, from Shmups, in a sense – as opposed to say, Doom’s imps, who slowly lay down their return fire as you rip and tear through their ranks, the enemies here remind me of the minor enemies in Touhou stages, who lay down withering bursts of the same kinds of slow moving projectiles, making you focus more on dodging. It embodies that Flash game remix spirit, and it rules. It really feels like the kind of game that I would find when I was younger and I had an hour on the family laptop. Even with google translate, I have a lot of trouble trying to figure out what a game is about or how it plays, so the whole site feels kinda like a gamble for me to spend my fairly limited hard drive space. Thankfully, a lot of the games that I end up getting are just neat to mess around in. It’s clear that a lot of these are random experiments and passion projects, and honestly, I’m just wired to like a grab bag of neat things a helluva lot. It reminds me of checking out the projects on dan-ball (aka the powder game website). Check it out when you have a bit, you find some neat gems on the website.
Ultimate, as Flash phases out this year, we all need to remember that it’s death wasn’t entirely outside of our control – sure, Apple refusing to support it dealt it a huge blow over time, but at the same time, gaming culture just left it by instead of hanging onto it. That Flash game culture was more resilient than the platform, and with places like Itch.io and Freem, might be able to do more than just repeat the Flash generation. Let’s all agree to make sure that this game spirit continues to thrive. Download some games and demos, man. Given the whole COVID-19 lockdown, what else are you gonna do? Scrub down your entire kitchen out of pure ennui?
Thank you for reading this short piece. If you want to read another piece I’ve done about gaming, I recommend my review of Into The Breach. I also recommend playing Into The Breach.