NOTE: This essay originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Unwinnable Monthly magazine. With the decline of Flash even closer, though, it's as timely as ever. I've added some additional hyperlinks and explained the origin of the name "Neko-Kaitei Iseki Tanken." Anyway, do check out Unwinnable's site, and their magazine. They're great folks who write great stuff!
I don't really remember the internet.
I don't mean this word for word. As far as I can remember, the internet has always been there, either in the foreground or the background of my life, and I'm young enough that I can't for the life of me think back to a time when the internet, as a concept, seemed unfamiliar.
But that's my problem.
I spend a lot of time reading about the World Wide Web as it was remembered by people at ground zero, by people old enough now to have recognized it as the techno-psycho-epistemological frontier it was then, devouring stories like J.C. Herz's Surfing on the Internet and Leigh Alexander's Breathing Machine. And between the wide eyes and the gasps of fascination, I sometimes stop and wonder where I was when it happened, what I was doing when it hit.
Obviously, I'd missed most of it. I'd missed it by chance of birth. I'm not a '90s kid. It was before my time.
Even when I was online—and I was online, to be sure—I don't remember sinking much of that time spent, or most any time spent at all, into the kind of things that other people might look back on and smile at ten years after the fact. All I've got to my memory is a website, more or less complete, that never went online, a few hours logged watching speedruns on the fledgling YouTube and countless hours spent scraping every fansite, news site and miscellaneous database I could get my hands on for information about videogames, partly in hope that I might somehow understand how these games worked and why, and partly out of a resignation that I'd never have the games themselves (though mostly for fun, if we're being totally honest). The closest I ever came to foruming was a godawful Gaia Online account. The closest I ever came to an MMO was Puzzle Pirates.
But I did play Flash games. I played a lot of them, in fact. The Flash games that flooded the internet ten-plus years ago were a kind of a world unto themselves. Until high school, all I had in the way of consoles was a Nintendo 64 and a Gameboy Advance; anything "current" or "retro" or "high-end" had to be found by bugging friends and peeking over the next seat on the school bus. I missed most of the moments that people write about now as game-changers and childhood-definers. But I did play Flash games, and they were world enough for me.
NOTE: Though I talk primarily about Flash games in this essay, some of the games mentioned were actually made in Macromedia Shockwave, a format that predates Flash by a few years. Although these formats are distinct, the games made with them were technically similar and appeared in the same spaces, so I will use the catch-all term "Flash" to refer to all of them.
Flash games were...weird. Nobody seems to know when the first one appeared, but they were being seen not long after Flash was introduced in 1996. By the late '90s they were common and by the mid-'00s they were everywhere. On any given afternoon, I might type in the address of a site like freewebarcade.com or mofunzone.com and pick from a cascading list of games arranged by name and category. Sites like these collected Flash games from all over the Web, in addition to the occasional original production, so the games featured might vary wildly in terms of style and content. In the space of that afternoon, I might jump to and from any of the following:
Any one of those games might have an address at the bottom, and typing that address in would link me to a game's home site, with dozens of games by the same group or author, or even a completely different aggregation of games from other corners of the Web. The chain seemed to reach back into infinity.
Occasionally, you'd strike gold. The cat climbing game I mentioned earlier was called Tower of Neko, and it linked back to a site called Nekogames, which featured game after game starring the eponymous Neko, a sprite based on the Macintosh port of an old PC-98 program from the '80s. The games were largely small and straightforward—browser friendly at a time when "browser friendly" meant measuring game sizes by the kilobyte.
The hooks explained themselves. Here you'd open and close gates to guide your cats toward the exit and away from spikes. There you'd use the mouse to balance the cat on a tall stick while weaving through a multi-screen maze of spikes, or to blow a cat on a balloon around a single-screen maze of spikes (There were a lot of spikes in these games, generally speaking.) In fact, you seldom needed more than more than a mouse and a mouse button to play these games, and even then, sometimes just the button, sometimes any button.
While the creator of Nekogames, Yoshio Ishii, deserves credit for experimenting with pixel art before games like Cave Story brought it back in vogue, and while their games hold up nicely today, their approach to design was nothing unusual for its time and place. In large part, arcade games were the order of the day. Short, simple games rose to the top of weekly hotlists all over the web, and games that primarily used the mouse, like Mouse Hunter and Moai no Su, were common. Think mobile games today, but replace "touchscreen" with "mouse" and realize that this was years before iOS and the mobile game explosion. If you look closely enough, you can see the seeds of the mindset that would drive that explosion.
Granted, not everyone aimed for the top of the lists, because not everyone had to. Given the freedom to publish whatever they wanted, the range of games people produced had a unique capacity for stylistic whiplash. These games could change subject on a dime—see the list above—but it often went deeper than that. Close to the bottom of the Nekogames main page is a game named NEKO-KAITEIISEKITANKEN, after the famous "Submarine Ruins" (Kaitei Iseki) discovered under the shores of a Japanese island in 1986. I'm of the understanding that cats hate water, but this game cast Neko as a scuba diver and began by presenting you with an underwater trench. You dropped into the trench, which branched into a network of caves. Paths became more paths, flooded with the sound of deep water, darkening as you dove deeper, further, farther out of the light of the sun.
I found a clearing and shone my lamp, now the only light left, upon an impossible object, a pair of Moai at the bottom of the sea. I slipped through a crack in the wall and lost my way, drifting through the out-of-bounds. It was eerie, but it was also calm. I kept coming back.
The vast, empty quietness of Neko-Kaitei's world brings to mind similar games before it, such as Ico and Myst, and its approach to atmosphere in pixelated 2D harkens back to Prince of Persia or Metroid. Now, I hadn't played Ico or Myst or Prince of Persia, and I had to borrow Metroid from a friend. But it didn't matter: many of the ideas popular offline had trickled down to Flash games.
In this way, I was given a chance to get acquainted with a wealth of mechanics and styles and concepts I would've had to shell over piles of money to trace through the games in which they originally appeared. I learned the ins and outs of fighting games from the likes of Etherena Beta, Matrix Bullettime Fighting and PPGD: Battle in Megaville. My first exposure to keyboard-and-mouse shooting was Thing-Thing. My initiation into the sandbox genre wasn't Grand Theft Auto III, but God's Playing Field. My understanding of Tower Defense begins and ends online.
But this isn't to say that the inner world of Flash was just a rehash of the outer world of consoles and big-box PC games. Though it was aware of this world, it was also a self-contained ecosystem with its own unique trends and genres, from the physics-defying "spritefight" scene to the ubiquity of stick-figure characters. And it was as likely to cannibalize itself as it was to draw from outside. You could make, for instance, a game like NekoKiki-1Patu, where you use the mouse to put out a winding dynamite fuse with a water gun, only to find that someone later had made a game with the exact same premise, only you play as a dog now, and this dog is named Tobby and also has their own site with their own games.
Another example: I mentioned a game earlier, Neko Balloon, in which you used the mouse as a fan to blow your avatar through a spiky maze, suspended by a balloon. One year later, yet another Tobby game appeared, "Tobby Balloon," in which you used the mouse as a fan to blow your avatar through a spiky maze, suspended by a balloon. Nitrome made a game three years later called "Hot Air," in which you used the mouse as a fan to blow your avatar through a spiky maze, suspended by a balloon. The creators of these games didn't always communicate, but their ideas certainly got around; "use the pointer as a fan" is a common game template today, from console games like Super Mario Galaxy to other online games to various mobile apps.
Among the most extreme cases of this tendency is the fact that there was an entire genre of Flash games dedicated exclusively to escaping rooms—named, fittingly enough, "Room Escape Games."
The premise was simple: You were trapped in a room and had to get out. These were point-and-click games at heart; you'd search the room for helpful items to combine and cross-examine, clicking the edges of the screen to move from one part of the room to the next. Using an item in the right place would grant you access to another item, which you could use to collect another item, which would reveal a secret code, which would open a hatch revealing yet another item and so on.
These games were small and short and relatively easy to produce. I can't say if this is why they proliferated the way they did—and boy, did they ever!—but I wouldn't be surprised if it was (The ones I played over a decade ago were, ironically, the most difficult to track down, though a site with similar games stretching back years is Mildescape.) In any case, they were being made all the time and everyone offered a different variation on the theme. The reasons for your entrapment ranged from the convoluted to the believable to the downright flimsy (sometimes no reason was given at all), the rooms from the spartan to the luxurious. Some were photorealistic, others abstracted, some outright surreal. And although the plots were minimal, the best rooms radiated a sense of personality (and good room escape games are extremely hard to find, with most of them today looking and sounding like this). I used to entertain myself by imagining what kind of people might've lived there based on the pictures they kept and the trinkets on their shelves, much as I used to tour the houses of new friends to glean something about their lives and interests growing up (an itch that would be scratched anew when games like Gone Home came out).
I remember the infinite amount of time you were given to look at and think about these spaces and the patience their difficulty demanded. For a whole world of games remembered today as uptempo enthusiast action, it's striking to me just how relaxed these particular Flash games were.
And then I remember that there were games even more relaxed than these.
Enter Ferry Halim.
I found Ferry Halim a very long time ago, so long ago that I no longer remember how. By day, he made Flash games for the Cartoon Network website, standard-fare stuff starring their proprietary characters. By night, he ran his own site, Orisinal, showcasing Flash games made in his spare time dating all the way back to 2001 (There was an even older game, a slider puzzle titled Winter Girl, but it has since been removed.) The first game of his I ever played was Chicken Wings ("...are Not for Flying!"), in which some stubborn little baby chicks have jumped out of a tree, trying to fly, while you—a bigger chick, a parental chick ostensibly—ran back and forth along the bottom of the screen trying to throw them umbrellas to break their slow, fluttering fall. It's effectively a vertical shooter; you had to charge up the height of your toss so that your umbrella connected with its target at the peak of its arc and you could easily picture an imaginary reticule projecting up from your Legal Guardian Chick as though you were aiming bombs in Xevious.
But these aren't bombs. These are umbrellas and this is a game about cute, blobby chicks in boots doing cute things to the tune of a music box. His other games, largely continued this trend, combining an arcade design mentality with decidedly un-arcade subject matter.
Did I mention the one where you're a squirrel trying to find its way home?
Or the one where you're a tiny mouse floating down on a leaf, waking up your animal friends?
Or the one where your goal is to harmlessly scatter ladybugs?
Or the one where you are a pair of tiny mice working together to make the perfect cup of tea?
If the games industry of the early 2000s was playing tug o' war with nebulous ideas of edginess and maturity, Ferry Halim was too busy playing hug o' war to notice. Hosted along with the games was "Flowers," a page that allowed users to send a hand-selected and hand-arranged digital bouquet, complete with a friendly e-mail message. Also available was "Raindrops," a photograph of an outdoor walkway overlaid with simulated rain and set to a lonely guitar.
Underneath the picture were these words:
I love the sound of the rain
Unfortunately it's not easy to hear it anymore
My apartment walls won't let me listen
So I just wait..and wait
And the rain would fall
And I will step outside to listen
Considering all of this, I think the most compelling example of Halim's M.O., and that of Flash games as a whole, is High Delivery. The premise should sound familiar by this point: You play as a vase suspended, yet again, by a balloon. This balloon is propelled, yet again, by a fan, which is controlled, yet again, by the mouse. But the beautiful thing about this vast soup of intermingling ideas is that designers could draw on them to do or say whatever they wanted and, as it turns out, your delivery takes you up over city walls into the clouds and finally to heaven's gate. It was a flower delivery to the dead. The game itself was playing the harp and the song it sung sounded not just sad, but a particularly mournful, regretful kind of sad, the sadness of someone who not only dreams of making the delivery but also knows in the end that it will only ever be a dream. It's a feeling that hasn't left me since, and has only resonated more deeply with me over the years, as my oldest relatives began to pass away.
Games like these, like Neko-Kaitei, snuck up on you. Sometimes they appeared at random, deep within the chain of games, links and sites, hours into a session, somewhere between Tower Defense and Stickman Sam. I'm not the only person this has happened to. Indeed, this essay was partly inspired by Javy Gwaltney's retrospective on Newgrounds, "Kick Out the Blams," which ends with him recounting his encounter with Majesty of Colors, a game about a reclusive tentacle monster misunderstood by the townsfolk on the mainland, which unexpectedly struck a chord with Gwaltney and the friend he played it with, themselves outcasts in the small Midwestern town where they lived at the time. And while doing research for this essay, a friend told me about a game she had played a long time ago, whose name she doesn't remember, in which, to quote:
"...you're a small little rectangle with a pink line for a head wandering through a series of empty biomes in search of a set of "keys" or power sources or whatever and you just walk and jump through all these places where people could've been but maybe never were but definitely aren't going to be anymore, except for you, and then you collect all the power sources to turn on the machine you've been bringing them all back to and the camera pulls back on the space station you've been in this whole time as you activate the escape pod and fire it directly into the sun."
She never found the game again. She probably never will.
Which brings me, finally, to the bad news. If you've been trying any of the links sprinkled liberally throughout this piece, you might have already noticed that some of them are difficult to run. Some of them, in fact, might not run at all. And there's no guarantee you'll be able to play any of them in the future, because Adobe is planning to end support for Flash in 2020, with browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox already phasing it out. You might expect this to be front page news, given how rightfully incensed so many of us were about the shuttering away of EmuParadise's ROM collection...but would you, really? These games have largely been forgotten.
Nevertheless, it would be a shame if they disappeared forever. It's not just that some of the games are fun, but that even the bad games are worth keeping, because any one of those could have been somebody's first game. A lot of people were making their first games for their first audiences here, and that's a slice of gaming's fossil record that shouldn't be left to erode away.
And speaking of a fossil record, I've already mentioned that the relaxed, cursor-heavy playstyle favored by early flash games predates and in many ways predicts the type of play that would explode in mobile gaming years later. Many of the developers I've mentioned, from Nitrome to Mofunzone to Halim himself, would end up releasing games on mobile, while some well-known designers, such as Bennett Foddy and Terry Cavanagh, started out in Flash. The flash and mobile spaces are so compatible that a player today could download a game like Nanaca Crash and not even realize that it was originally a Flash game, let alone that it comes from a long line of Flash launcher games dating back to Pingu Throw in 2004.
The true value of these games, however, is yet to be known. That can only be known once we start examining them in earnest, and it will be unknowable if the games are all gone before we have the chance.
A few days ago, I checked back into Orisinal and opened up the guestbook. That's how you can tell this is an old site: it has a guestbook. People still sign it, too. Clicking back through 15 pages of the most recent entries, I was surprised to find that many of them were from long-time players, people who discovered the site over a decade ago, often as children, and never forgot.
The truth is that these games haven't been completely forgotten. If you know its name, a quick YouTube search will bring you to a playthrough of this or that old Flash game, its comments populated almost exclusively by people who were there when the game was new. Nostalgia typically makes me anxious, and I tend to shy away from it, but something about seeing these videos, about seeing these games for the first time in ages, gave me pause. It was the first time I'd become acutely aware that all of this was going to disappear someday, maybe someday soon. It was the first time I'd become aware of what that might mean. And it bothered me, because I knew there was nothing I could do about it.
I thought, briefly, about trying to archive them, but it was too big and expensive a task to undertake myself. Too much would be lost. There were just too many games.
Or so I thought. I'm happy to say that there are already efforts underway to salvage these games. Ben Latimore of the Archive Team has recently started a project called Flashpoint, which aims to collect Flash and Shockwave games from all over the Web and make them available for download in perpetuity from their own servers. Games can be submitted through their Discord, and anyone can contribute. I'm already there, naturally, and I wish them well.
In the meantime, I decided the least I could do was spread the word, make sure that people knew what these were and knew they were worth keeping. Even a few people, if that was all I could manage. That would be enough. This is what led me to the guestbook, to the word processor and, finally, to you.
I signed the guestbook as Phantom:
Woah, you made it all the way to the end. Thanks!
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