Flashback: The Quest For Identity

You are Conrad B. Hart, agent of the Galaxia Bureau of Investigation. Suave, sophisticated - a real man's man. Problem is, you've inadvertently discovered that a hostile race of alien shape shifters are plotting to wipe out mankind. Fearing the worst, and also fearing everyone will think you've finally lost your mind, you quickly download your memories into a holographic storage device and then get yourself captured by said aliens. Pretty standard stuff. The next thing you know, you're alone and have no memory and are stranded on an alien world with no idea who you are or what to do. Luckily, you just happen to stumble upon a pre-recorded Princess Leia-esque message of yourself, telling you to get your ass to Mars (it's actually to find your trusted friend Ian, who can fill you in on what's happening but I couldn't resist a Total Recall reference) and eventually foil the aliens' undesirable plans for the human race. And that, in a nutshell is the opening and plot to the epic 2D action adventure yarn, Flashback: The Quest For Identity.

Originally released in 1992 for the Amiga and later ported to pretty much every 16, 32 and 64 bit system around, Flashback was a collaboration between French developer Delphine and British Publisher US Gold and very much took the baton from previous titles in this mould - namely Prince of Persia and Another World (also known as Out of This World). The action is viewed from a side-on perspective and you control Conrad directly. You have buttons for actioning, drawing your trusty sidearm and you are also required to use combinations of the d-pad and action buttons to make Conrad perform rolls, leaps and hang from ledges etc.

The thing that really sets Flashback apart from the other titles in this genre is that it really does feel as if you're playing a movie. There are cutscenes aplenty (certainly something you wouldn't have expected at the time the game originally came out) and the way the story unfolds is great. You literally have no idea what's going on at the beginning and find yourself doing fetch quests in a mysterious jungle inhabited by gun-wielding mutants and electrocuting robots. It's only when you get to the second stage - the brilliant underground city of New Washington - and get to ride the subway, get a work permit to earn money and fight with corrupt cops (oh, and have your memories restored via another fantastic cut-scene), that the story starts to flesh out and the bigger picture is revealed. Along the way you'll get to take part in a Running Man style gameshow, travel to a dystopian future-Earth run by corrupt cops and even take the fight to the alien home world - this game has scope and isn't afraid to lay on the tropes and general plot points you'd really only expect from a mindless action movie...and it's all the better for it. While the graphics do look a little dated by today's standards, there is a lot of detail packed into the levels and the rotoscoped animation of Conrad and the other characters is astounding for a title of this age. I was stunned by the fluidity of the main character's movements the first time I ever played Flashback on the Mega Drive all those years ago, and I'm still impressed now.

This Jaguar port of Flashback came out in 1995 and was the last official port of the original game, and it's something of a hybrid. While it features the same cutscenes and visuals of the original Amiga game, it has the title screen from the 3DO version and a totally reworked soundtrack which has a lot more bass than any of the other variants I own. That said, in some ways this Jaguar port could be described as a lazy cash-in as all Delphine has done is take a 16-bit game, added some newly created music and pushed it out the door. However, when the original package was so damn good in the first place...there's little to really complain about. If I was being picky, I'd possibly have preferred them to have maybe spruced up the background graphics a bit, or even better - released it as a Jag CD title and included the rendered cutscenes of the 3DO and CD-i game. As it is, this Jaguar port of Flashback is still a cracking adventure and is one of the finest games on the system. It's true that not many people realise that Conrad's adventure was even released on the Atari console, but it was - and it's a fantastic addition to the library.

Guest Article: Why Did The Jaguar Fail?

In this second guest article, freelance games journalist Kieren Hawken looks at some of the reasons the Jaguar failed to take the market by storm, and relates back to his own personal experiences from the launch of the system. The following is an adaptation of an article originally printed in Atari User magazine.

One question you see asked again and again on the Atari forums and social media pages is “Why did the Jaguar fail?” Now I know what you're all thinking, this subject has been flogged to death on these very sites over the years and always seems to get the same answers. Atari didn’t have the money, the games were not good enough, it wasn’t advertised, Sony killed it and so on. Well I personally have always had a viewpoint very close to home on this subject that sees things from another angle altogether. I thought this would be something I could share with others and see what you think!

Back in 1993 I remember seeing the first previews for the new 64-bit Atari console that would be called the Jaguar. Like many Atari fans I was so excited about this and was dreaming about a return to greatness that just wasn’t to be. I pre-ordered my console from Telegames UK who, as well as being a mail order company, were also an official Atari developer having released games for both the 2600 and Lynx. As the release date got closer the number of consoles available seemed to get smaller and Atari cancelled many of big release events around the world, most notably Paris, simply because they just didn’t have enough consoles to go round. This shortage was down to manufacturing problems at the IBM plant building the Jaguar, something Atari stated was beyond their control. But was it? Was IBM really the only answer to building the Jaguar and did people really care about the system being made in the USA? As it turned out, no they didn’t. Atari did end up still doing the planned London release at toy store Hamleys but on a much smaller scale than intended as only 1000 consoles made it to England, of them a small number went Telegames. So I was lucky enough to get mine and enjoyed playing Cybermorph for along time before I got my second game – Crescent Galaxy.

Now fast forward to Christmas 1994 and I had a seasonal job working for Game, the largest seller of video games in the UK. And this is really where my story and my theory begins. In the year that had passed we still only had a trickle of games but interest in the machine was still high going into Xmas and surely in that last year Atari had sorted out the supply problems? And of course the answer is no! In our store alone we had a massive waiting list of people who wanted a Jaguar and had put their name down to reserve one. But as each delivery arrived at the store we were lucky to get 5 consoles! I distinctly remember our really big Xmas week delivery where all the staff had to come in at 6 am to unload the lorry and get the store ready for our busiest weekend of the year. On that lorry we got 7 Jaguars, yes SEVEN. Even worse we had tons of games, more than we knew what to do with, just no machines. The consoles were not even going on the shelves as each morning we rang the next few names on the pre-order list and they came and took them away. I know for a fact that we could have sold hundreds of consoles had we had them to sell. I always felt so bad for the people who came in asking for the Jaguar and having to send them away disappointed, especially as I had one at home myself and wanted the console to do well so badly.

Now this for me was Atari’s biggest own goal, they only had 1993 and 1994 to get a firm hold on the market before the PlayStation came along to take over the market and in the UK they certainly had the demand for it. In fact the boss of Atari in the UK Darryl Still was quoted as saying he thinks they could have sold over 20 times the units they did in 1994 alone had they had the stock to sell. The UK and Europe were always strong markets for Atari. The 2600 lasted well into the nineties, the ST was a massive success outselling the Amiga for many years and the Lynx sold over 1 million units alone in the UK and France respectively. In fact we were still selling them when I was working at Game in 1994. Atari didn’t have the bad name they had in the US and we hadn’t been affected by the North American video games crash either. The ST and Lynx were both still going strong when the Jaguar arrived and many Atari fans were ready to snap Atari’s new console up. Had Atari delivered in the UK and Europe, even at the expense of the US, would we be telling a different story today? Sure, you can try to say that without the US and Japan a console can’t be a success but go tell that to Sega and the Master System . . .

Defender 2000

Jeff Minter is well known for his work on the Jaguar - indeed Tempest 2000 is widely regarded as the system's best game. Whether or not you agree with that is down to individual taste, but there is no denying Llamasoft's space shooter is a fantastic experience and still holds up today. What many people probably don't know however, is that Minter programmed another title for the Jag that is perhaps a little less well known: Defender 2000. As soon as you fire up the Defender cart, it's unmistakable as a Llamasoft game and even though there's no mention of the company name, the psychedelic swirling colour schemes, rotating bovine heads and spaced-out techno music are all recognisable hallmarks of the self-styled Yak's work.

As with Tempest 2000, Defender 2000 is a sort of homage to an earlier game. And just as with Tempest, you get several games on the cartridge - the original arcade version of Defender, a slight redux in Defender Plus, and the main event of this collection - Defender 2000. There's also a rather interesting bonus game in the form of Plasma Pong, which is meant to be an unlockable only accessible once you've beaten Defender 2000...but my cart came with it already unlocked so kudos to the previous owner who did the hard work for me. As the name suggests, Plasma Pong is basically the original Pong but with a nice vomit-inducing background of kaleidoscope colours and some updated bleeps and bloops. It's a fun aside and a nice bonus for completing the main game. Which is what we're really here to look at, so without further ado...

The premise of the Defender games is pretty simple - miners are working on the surface of an alien planet and it's up to you to keep them safe. I guess that's why it's called Defender then. You pilot a heavily armed spacecraft around, zapping alien nasties by travelling left and right across the alien landscape at terrific speed, all the while trying to keep the humans safe but also dodging alien attacks and utilising the map at the top of the screen to locate enemy units. The original Defender hit the arcades in 1981 and was a massive success for Williams, and playing this faithfully-recreated arcade port gives a clear indication as to why - the game is super-fast and hard as nails, but ultimately very enjoyable and a real test of skill: all ingredients that combine to make a great arcade experience. This Jaguar version is a recreation of the 1981 original and is every bit as playable today in 2014 as it probably was in 1981. I say 'probably,' because I was but a twinkle in my old man's eye in 1981, having being foisted onto an unsuspecting world the following year. I can only apologise.

The second iteration of Defender included on this cart is Defender Plus - essentially the same game as the original but with a few added graphical effects and a newly drawn spaceship for you to control. It's every bit as enjoyable as the first game but has the added bonus of psychedelic colours sequencing across the landscape and some nice sprite work for the aliens.

The final piece of the Defender 2000 package, funnily enough, is Defender 2000 - the updated and 'modernised' take on the original. I have to be honest here - I'm not a huge fan of the main event, and much prefer the other two games in this collection and the simple reason is that in Defender 2000 it is too easy to lose lives and see the 'Game Over' screen. This isn't because the game is just plain hard and I'm rubbish (both true, by the way), it's because the ship you pilot is far too large for the environment - dodging enemies and their projectiles is a nightmare because rather than piloting a sleek little fighter, you're now in control of what might as well be a Transit van with lasers bolted on. Defender 2000 does introduce some new features, such as the way the game now scrolls vertically as well as horizontally, and the re-drawn graphics and background images are pretty nice...but the mismatched size of the ship is a real problem here. If it had been of a similar size to the one in the original game, dodging projectiles and waving between aliens would have been a breeze. As it is, this one thing stops Defender 2000 being up there with the other iterations the cart. It's not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, and the music and graphics are great (there is liberal use of the Jaguar's blitter in all three titles too), as is the inertia-based physics engine of the space craft...it just doesn't feel as nice to play.

That said, as an overall package Defender 2000 is great. You essentially get three games on one cart (four if you count Plasma Pong too) and while one of them is just 'OK,' two of them are outstanding arcade classics. As a side note, there is another Jaguar title in the same vein as Defender called Protector, which was an unfinished game that was completed by Songbird Productions in the early 2000s. I've not played it personally (although I've seen footage of it being played) I'm reliably informed that it is superior to Defender 2000. Might be worth checking that out too if you're into your retro space-shooters.

Guest Article: Jack's Last Word

This article was written by freelance games journalist Kieren Hawken in April 2012 to commemorate the life and times of former Atari President Jack Tramiel, who sadly passed away on the 8th day of that month. It was originally due to be published in issue 4 of Pixel Nation magazine but the publisher was put into receivership before the issue was published. Kieren kindly forwarded it to Do The Math for publication online, and here you can read it in its original form.

The influence of Jack Tramiel on the video game industry simply cannot be underestimated. From the Commodore VIC-20 to the Atari Jaguar he released a string of powerful games machines that had a profound impact on many of our lives. Sadly April 8th 2012 marked the death of the Polish holocaust surviving computer entrepreneur but his legacy lives on. In this article we look at the very last machine released under his management before he retired from the industry – the Jaguar CD, a machine that might not have been worth owning in 1995 but is more alive than ever in 2012.

The date was September the 11th 1995 and the long promised Jaguar CD finally hit the market at a price of $149.99 (£129.99 in the UK). An add-on for Atari’s already failing 64-bit Jaguar console that they hoped would help turn the tide on the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. It featured a double speed CD-ROM drive using a unique system that gave up to 790 Megabytes of storage. This was far more than other CD-ROM systems of the time. While it helped combat piracy it also made it more prone to disc reading errors. The unit was manufactured by Philips and used mostly standard parts to keep the cost down. The only extra hardware was a chip called Butch that interfaced it with the main unit and added Cinepak for full motion video. The initial production of 20,000 units sold out within 2 weeks and a second batch was then ordered. However it is unknown if that second batch even went into production or what the size of it was as Atari went into the reverse merger with JTS only months later liquidating all Jaguar stock. Many people who worked for the company believe that the original 20,000 units were the only ones ever made and this would certainly explain why the system is now so rare.

Sadly it was just too little too late to save the system, people had already lost all faith in Atari to deliver after the terrible launch of the Jaguar. The slow supply of games, many of which were downright terrible, and ports of titles already found on the 16-bit systems of the time helped put the nails in the Jaguar’s coffin. The Jaguar badly needed more titles the quality of the highly acclaimed Alien Vs. Predator, Tempest 2000 and Missile Command 3D. They promised the Jaguar CD would deliver them but the announced line-up of games were less than stellar. In fact half the games that appeared on the box for the Jaguar CD didn’t even get released at all! The one big thing it did have that got people talking was the Virtual Light Machine or VLM for short. Written by the legendary Jeff Minter this was built into every unit and was used when music CDs were played on it. An evolution of his Trip A Tron light synthesiser for the Atari ST it used complex algorithms to display graphics on screen that moved along with the music. The keypad on the Jaguar controller could be used to select different graphical styles or to make your own sequences, most people just stuck it on random and enjoyed the show. The system also came bundled with a demo of the game Myst and 2 complete games. The first of these - Blue Lightning - was a sequel to the famous Atari Lynx launch title but failed to impress as much as its original iteration did. The other game, Vid-Grid was a quite unique and highly enjoyable CD title that crossed a puzzle game with FMV music videos, and was later ported to the PC. The other item released for the Jaguar CD at launch was the Memory Track cartridge. This plugs into the cartridge slot on the unit and uses flash memory for saving up to 250 different games.

Only 11 titles were released for the Jaguar CD, several of which were 3rd party titles. It also received 2 after market releases from Telegames in 1997 - Iron Soldier 2 and World Tour Racing, both games were originally meant to be released by Atari. There were over 50 games that were announced and in various stages of development before being canned due to the demise of the system. Some of these have since seen release such as Brett Hull NHL Hockey, Varuna’s Forces starring Michael Clarke Duncan from the Green Mile and the fairly recent release of Silmarils’ Robinson’s Requiem (May 2011) by Songbird Productions. There is also highly regarded Jaguar CD version of Soul Star by Core Design. An update of the highly acclaimed Sega Mega CD game it has ended up being copied and shared in secret by the community after the owners of the game (Eidos and then Square Enix) repeatedly refused to allow a legal release for some reason. The real star of the original games was Battlemorph, a brilliant sequel to Cybermorph – the game that originally came bundled with the Jaguar. Some 17 years later unreleased prototypes continue to turn up, Highlander II has been recently confirmed as existing, Country Grid and Kid Grid are in the hands of a collector and 3 titles from Elite Systems were recently confirmed including the FPS game Virtuoso. Hopefully all of these will see an official release sooner rather than later.

Commercial Jaguar CD Games

  • Dragon’s Lair – By Readysoft
  • Myst – By Cyan Inc. / Sunsoft
  • Battlemorph – By Attention To Detail / Atari
  • Baldies – By Creative Edge / Atari
  • Highlander – By Lore Design / Atari
  • Hover Strike: Unconquered Lands – By Atari
  • Space Ace – By Readysoft
  • Iron Soldier II – By Eclipse / Telegames
  • Primal Rage – By Time Warner Interactive
  • World Tour Racing – By Teque / Telegames
  • Braindead 13 – By Readysoft
  • Vid Grid – By Geffen / Jasmine Multimedia
  • Blue Lightning – By Attention To Detail / Atari

Released Jaguar CD Prototypes

  • Varuna’s Forces (early beta)
  • Robinson’s Requiem (complete)
  • Caves Of Fear (early beta)
  • American Hero (early beta)
  • Soul Star (complete)
  • Native (1 level demo)
  • Demolition Man (FMV only)
  • Brett Hull NHL Hockey (near complete)
  • Dragon’s Lair II (demo)
  • Commander Blood (FMV only)
  • Thea Realm Fighters (early beta)
  • Jeff Minter Collection (tech demos)

In the year 2012 the Jaguar is a highly sort after machine that is increasing in value all the time. The CD unit is even more prized and regularly goes for £150+ on eBay, more than its original retail price! This is partly down to its rarity and also because there are many broken units out there, although the reputation that the Jaguar has for being unreliable is totally unfounded the most common fault is simply a pushed down spindle. The main reason for the machine’s current popularity though is its vibrant homebrew scene. This story starts in 1999 when Hasbro, as the then owners of the Atari brand, released all rights to the Jaguar and its encryption key into the public domain. This meant that anyone could develop and release games for the system without needing a license. However it was still expensive to produce cartridges and many of the early homebrews used the BJL set-up, this streamed code into a modded Jaguar via the second controller port. This was a very long a laborious process so the Jag CD was soon seen as an alternative. The problem was that while the encryption key for the Jaguar had been released the one for the Jaguar CD had been lost. A bypass cartridge was released to get round this that you plugged into the cartridge port in order to use self-burned homebrew games. Eventually the encryption code was found and that is when homebrew for the Jaguar really took off with people like MD Games, Reboot, Stormworks Interactive, Sinister Developments, Jagware and 3D Stooges all producing new games to play on the Jaguar CD. Many more simple titles have even been made available for free so you can burn them to CDR yourself and play them!

The Jaguar CD may have been a failure in its commercial life but it’s now a massive hit in its afterlife, and this is all down to the wonderful homebrew community. There isn’t another CD system out there with a scene as vibrant or as interesting (although the Dreamcast has it's fair share of homebrew/indie projects in 2014! - Tom). This makes the Jaguar CD a must have machine for serious retro gamers these days and it will be supported for a long time to come if the current output is anything to go by. Jack Tramiel will be looking down with a big smile knowing his last word was now so important!

Once again, massive thanks to Kieren Hawken for allowing Do The Math to publish this article.