As someone “from the Internet”, Flash was my childhood.
No, I’m not sure you understand. Flash was my childhood. I’ve easily spent thousands of hours playing Flash games, and it’s shaped my thoughts on what games can be and what games should be. The death of Flash has been sad in ways that are hard to describe.
If you don’t have much time, Flash Game History is an excellent short article that captures the influence of Flash games on game development. If you have more time, the Flash Games Postmortem from GDC 2017 is an long, worthwhile talk that goes into why Flash became popular, with a deeper look at how games were created, distributed, and monetized.
There isn’t a short version of either of the previous links (and I heavily encourage watching them yourself), but if I had to pick one key point, it’s this: Flash thrived because it ran the same way on any platform in the world. Everyone knew Flash had problems, but they understood them, and out of that we got an incredible free library of creativity and expression.
I’m not sure the Flash era can be reproduced. The Internet was less of a walled garden at the time, and Flash guaranteed a uniform, easily shareable experience. Now the online experience is fundamentally split between desktop, mobile, and native apps, all with slightly different character, and monetization has homogenized around parasitic free-to-play transactions, rather than advertisements on a Flash game portal. It’s not that F2P is new…it’s more that it’s eating more of the world, and I don’t like the games it leads to.
With Flash officially unsupported, the best avenue for playing Flash games is BlueMaxima’s Flashpoint. It’s an archive of several thousand Flash games and animations, and I had a bunch of fun playing through some old memories.
Many Flash games have not aged well. Game design has evolved a lot, and as an adult it’s obvious how much filler many of these games had. Yet they suck me in anyways. This is why I don’t install games on my phone. It’s not that I’m too good for them, it’s that I’m too weak. All the psychological tricks to keep people playing work on me, and that’s not how I want to spend my time.
Let’s just reminisce about the good stuff. After doing a lot of research (read: replaying a ton of games), here are some I recommend.
Super Mario 63
Super Mario 63 is a 2D fangame that mashes up three of the 3D Marios: Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that the game is fun. It’s stealing mechanics and levels from three of the best platformers of all time. On the other hand, there’s still plenty of work required to execute that roadmap properly.
There’s a lot of hidden secrets in the hub area, tied together with a fun movement system. The story is pretty fanfiction-y, but the game is more about the platforming than the story. My one complaint is that Mario is too powerful. Many platforming sections are designed to be beatable without the FLUDD, likely because it’s not guaranteed you have it, but the FLUDD comes with so much water that it’s hard to run out. That gives you an easy get-out-of-jail-free card whenever you mess up a jump. Meanwhile, the spin attack inspired by Galaxy has 0 cooldown, so if you spam the spin attack button you’re practically invincible. Still, in single player games it can be fun to be overpowered, and the overall package is fun to play with plenty of content.
Sonny + Sonny 2
Sonny and Sonny 2 are RPGs where you play as zombies who don’t want to eat people, and don’t know why they became zombies. You travel with two goals: figure out how you got turned into a zombie, and survive.
Part of Sonny’s strength is its high production value. The game has a distinctive art style, voice acting, music, well-done sound effects, and a solid overarching story (that admittedly gets very silly at times). However, I love this game because of the depth of its combat system.
A lot of RPGs have skill trees that are basically variants of “do more damage” or “attack with this element”. Most of the skills are strictly better than other ones, and the progression is about grinding EXP to learn the more powerful ones. Sonny doesn’t do this. Instead, each skill is slightly different. You’ll have a stunning attack, or an attack that applies a damage-over-time status, or a spell that dispels enemy buffs, and so on. There are very few pure damage spells in this game, and it gives the game a puzzle feel, where gameplay is more about finding what skills work together, rather than brute-force leveling. In fact, it’s possible to beat the game on the hardest difficulty without taking any optional fights - doing so is required to unlock the final bonus bosses, and figuring out how to do so really stretches the limits of your available options.
This complexity extends to the enemies as well. Their attacks also apply complicated buffs and debuffs, and the game UI (usually) spells out exactly what they do, so you have all the information needed to decide how to deal with the current battle state. Enemy AI also follows simple patterns that you’re expected to figure out and exploit to beat the game. For example, one enemy alternates between doing 3x more damage, and taking 3x more damage. So strategy in that fight is about figuring out how to survive the first phase, to let you retaliate in the second. The fights can be gimmicky, but I think they’re gimmicky in a good way, they force fights to play out differently.
I will say that once you figure out the best skill combos, it becomes hard to play the game casually. Skills in Sonny are not strictly better than other skills, but there are definitely skills that are way stronger in most scenarios. Additionally, my praise is mostly for Sonny 2. Sonny 1 has some of the same flavor, but the skill tree isn’t as varied as it is in Sonny 2. I think the second game improves on the first on every way, so you may want to start there, but Sonny 1 is a fine game as well.
My main warning is that at times, the game feels complicated for its own sake. Almost every attack has a side effect of some sort, and a bunch of my early playtime was spent just reading skill descriptions to figure out what build I wanted to make. I find that fun, but I know not everyone does. I think the complexity could have been toned down without compromising on depth, but the complexity is why I like this game…so perhaps it’s fine as is.
Mastermind: World Conqueror
It’s been over 10 years since I played this game, and I still feel the same way about it, in a good way. Mastermind: World Conqueror is a real-time strategy game, where you play a villain trying to take over the world. Recruit minions, send them on missions to earn money, then spend money on other missions that advance you through the tech tree. The more missions you do, the more attention you attract from the good guys, and the more money you’ll need to invest into your base defenses to fight them off.
A lot of the features in this game aren’t that cost-effective. I’m still not convinced any of the henchmen are worth hiring, compared to just buying more guys after they die in combat. I also don’t like that you can only plan and execute 1 mission at a time. It really limits the multitasking ceiling, and once you’re in the late game you’re mostly waiting for progress bars to finish. The overall theming is top notch though, and the core gameplay loop of steal cash -> use cash to buy upgrades and plan other missions -> repeat works for me. It’s just plain fun to play the villain.
Epic Battle Fantasy 3 + 4 + 5
Okay. Okay okay okay. First things first: the series has really juvenile humor. Basically the series was started by a horny teenage boy who liked anime, and the humor never evolved past that. And the plot is an excuse plot that revolves around the main characters being idiots.
If you can ignore those issues, then you’ll find a quality JRPG. Epic Battle Fantasy 1 and 2 are pure boss rushes, and they’re fun enough, but from the 3rd entry on you get an overworld, block pushing puzzles, treasure chests, an equipment upgrade system, the whole works.
Epic Battle Fantasy isn’t trying to do anything crazy to the JRPG genre, but I think that’s fine. The one thing it does different is its equipment system. Instead of giving flat stats, all weapons and armors grant percentage based stats. So for example, a weapon could give +30% attack and +15% defense, or +50% attack and -20% defense. Old weapons are never strictly worse, because percentages naturally scale with your stats as you level up. Your equipment choice is therefore more about what passives you want, what playstyle you prefer, and what elemental weaknesses your foes have, rather than pure stats. I appreciate this - it’s nice to not have a ton of old useless items clogging up my inventory, and it leads to a lot of flexibility.
This game has one button: attack. That’s it. Despite that, it’s a surprisingly deep arcade game. Your goal is to kill Glooples with your giant sword. You attack in a wide arc in front of you, but every attack comes with a long recovery time where you can’t move and are vulnerable to attack. Different Glooples have different attack patterns, Glooples can interact with each other, and you get one life to clear all the enemies. If you die, you start over.
It’s an action game with minimal upgrades. You unlock rewards based on your achievements, but can only equip at most 2, so you reach max power pretty early and the rest of the game is solely about learning attack patterns and getting better at dodging. And if you want to get better, there’s a practice mode where you can spawn all the hard enemies you want.
I recommend treating this game as a roguelike, because, well, it basically is one, and part of the roguelike experience is learning the mechanics on your own. Then, once you’ve seen most of the monsters, you can look up a guide if you’re struggling on something. If you’re aim is 100% completion, a guide is practically mandatory. Many of the achievements require engineering pretty weird scenarios that don’t come up in normal play.
If you do go for 100%, I recommend using the glitch that lets you earn achievements in Practice Mode. I didn’t do this when I first played the game, out of a sense of honor, but this was a mistake. All my honor led to was spending many, many hours waiting for the right rare Gloople to spawn, just so I could get the “kill X copies of (super rare enemy)” achievements. There’s no honor in waiting for the right RNG roll.
I almost didn’t include this one…but it’s iconic, and I found it weirdly captivating on a replay, so I’ll give it a shout out.
The mechanics are very simple. Drill down to pick up ore. Fly back to the surface when you run out of gas to refuel. Sell your ore to pay for refueling, and to buy upgrades that let you dig deeper for more valuable ores. Rinse and repeat. Not a lot of depth, but there’s a Zen feeling in figuring out the shortest path to each ore. The key that makes the entire game work is that you can’t drill upwards. Because of this, you can make ore inaccessible if you drill poorly, and that’s just enough thinking to stop it from being totally mindless. It’s a bit like Bejeweled in that sense, although Bejeweled didn’t have an upgrade system or resource management.
My main issue with the game is that dying has an insane penalty. If you die, all drilled holes are reset. So if you die in the late game, get ready to hold down for several minutes to get back to where you were before. This wouldn’t be so bad if gas pockets weren’t a thing. After a certain depth, dirt blocks have a random chance of having explosive gas pockets. You’re warned about them once, but the game doesn’t emphasize how destructive they are. Gas pockets are 100% undetectable, can’t be avoided, and do massive amounts of damage, to the point that they’re a one-hit kill if you don’t have enough HP and defense upgrades. So basically, gas pockets are an invisible stat check, you have no way of knowing how to pass the check ahead of time, and if you fail the stat check then you have to redrill all the way back down.
Once you know how to deal with gas pockets, the game doesn’t have many surprises. The late game ores are so lucrative that it’s pretty easy to reach the end in a practically invincible state.
Elements of Arkandia
This game should not work. The mechanics are poorly explained. Some skill descriptions are incorrect. Art assets get reused a lot - you’ll have multiple shields that look exactly the same, with wildly different stats, which is a problem when deciding what to get rid of. There are massive difficulty spikes. And most importantly, who uses Impact font this much? I’m not even kidding, the font usage in this game is awful and it makes a ton of things harder to read than they should be.
Despite all of those issues, I like this game. It’s a mashup of mechanics from two games: Puzzle Quest, a match-3 RPG, and Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, a game about running an item shop. And, well, it’s not as good as either individual game, but there’s a kernel of fun that carries all the weird presentation.
You start the game with a large debt, that accumulates interest every day. To pay off the debt, you need to go on dungeon adventures to find loot. Battles are done through a Bejeweled board. Matching gems of the same color gives mana, gold, treasure, or rage, and forming a group of 4 or 5 gives an extra turn. Mana can be used to cast spells that affect the board or do damage. For example, there’s a spell that changes all gold gems to treasure gems, which you might want to cast if it would form a group of 4 to get an extra turn. Rage can be spent to attack with your weapon, which is usually your main damage source.
Once you find loot, you need to stock it in your shop. You can then spend a day running your shop to sell items. Unlike Recettear, there’s no haggling, but you can pick crests that increase the odds of selling certain items, and depending on market conditions customers may like some items more than other ones.
Everything in Elements of Arkandia revolves around money. You need to balance paying off your debt, upgrading your store, and buying battle upgrades that enable clearing harder dungeons. Then battles themselves are about figuring out what types of mana are easy or hard to achieve, and using that to decide what kind of spells you’re going to aim for. The game can get a bit grindy, so your enjoyment will depend on whether the match-3 combat works for you.
Two bits of advice. One: you can choose to play without debt, but you should play with debt. If you play without debt, you remove all the interesting trade-offs on how to spend your money, making the gameplay really boring. Two: if you want, you can try to min-max every move, since there are no turn timers. I don’t think you should do this. Battles are long enough that trying to min-max every board will just drive you insane. Just aim for an acceptable move and keep going.
Portal: The Flash Version
There’s an interesting story behind this game. The creators of the game watched the trailers for Portal 1, and were SUPER PSYCHED. They were so excited that they implemented Portal’s mechanics in Flash, creating puzzles based on all pre-release content they could find. After fleshing it out more, they got good feedback from friends and family, so they released it publicly 1 day before the official game came out.
The end result is missing Portal’s sharp writing, but the puzzles are uncannily accurate. The mechanics they added themselves also work quite well. The main problem the game has is that sometimes you know exactly what you need to do, but then you mistime the portal shot and have to start all over. The timings are tighter than Portal proper, so adjust your expectations going in. Objects will sometimes get bumped through walls as well, but I never experienced a game breaking bug.
There are four games in the series, and they all try to ride the wave of Portal’s popularity: a puzzle game with jokey, vaguely antagonistic writing from whoever’s making you solve these puzzles. SHIFT does so with fourth-wall breaking commentary, surrounding the core puzzles.
In retrospect, the puzzle gameplay isn’t that interesting. A lot of the levels have a problem where there’s one clear move at the start, then after you do that there’s another clear move, and another one after that, and then you reach the exit just by going through the motions. But this is kind of a universal puzzle game problem - very few successfully avoid this trap, and the ones that do usually end up being bigger experiences than what you’d expect from a Flash game. I don’t have a problem with it. Later games in the SHIFT series get better about this, by including more branching paths that make trial-and-error more time consuming.
A game about collaborating with yourself. Best played blind! It’s short, you’ll see how it works.
Ghost Hacker is a tower defense game, and I’ll be honest, it shouldn’t be listed over classics like Bloons Tower Defense or Kingdom Rush. But I like how it’s designed, and fewer people have heard of it.
In Ghost Hacker, your main resource is memory. Placing a tower costs memory, killing enemies gives memory, and you can spend memory on new towers or tower upgrades. The way Ghost Hacker differs is that towers are upgraded through modifiers. For example, in a standard tower defense game, you might have one tower that slows down enemies. In Ghost Hacker, there’s a slow-enemy modifier, which can be applied to any tower. Then it’s up to the player to (for example) realize that you get more utility from your slow-enemy modifier if you attach it to a tower that does splash damage, since it makes the slow apply to everything in splash range.
The other key part of Ghost Hacker’s design is that you can never, ever lose memory. Often, tower defense games will only refund part of the cost if you sell a tower. This can feel really punishing - misplace a tower early, and you either have to settle for the suboptimal placement, or pay a penalty to sell and rebuild the tower where it needs to be. In Ghost Hacker, selling a tower always gives back the full price…eventually. Any time you earn memory, instead of receiving it instantly, you get some of it every tick. In principle, that means you can completely change up and rearrange your towers between waves, as long as you have time to get back your memory and re-spend it. Pretty simple mechanic, but it goes a long way to making the game feel less punishing if you make a bad decision early on.
Fancy Pants Adventure
This is another well-polished platforming game. You can slide, you can wall jump, the levels are really open-ended and filled with collectibles, and at the same time you can beat the game very quickly if you just want to get to the end as fast as possible. And the animation for everything is super smooth. The entire series is worth playing, but I’d say it really hits its stride starting from World 2.
(There’s more than one game named Level Up!, you want the one by Nifty Hat.)
It’s a little hard to categorize this game, but the closest approximation is “platformer collect-a-thon”. As the name suggests, the game is about leveling up, and it does so with a pretty unique system - the more you do something, the better you get at it. If you jump a lot, you learn to jump higher. Run more, and you learn to run faster. Get hit a lot, and you learn to take less damage. Stand in place for a while, and you learn new ways to waste time (unlock new idle animations). It all feels very realistic to real-life learning.
I think the fun of this game is in the discovery, so I’m not going to say much more - just play it.
The sequel teased in the game’s 100% ending was never completed, so don’t go looking for it.
A scattering of games that play with game mechanics and tickle my self-referential soft spots.
In no particular order: Upgrade Complete (upgrade all the things!), Achievement Unlocked (unlock all the achievements!), This is the Only Level (finish the same level over and over!), and You Only Live Once (you only live once!). Parts of Achievement Unlocked 2 may not work well with the Flashpoint archive. It would be a spoiler to say what part, but you’ll know what it is once you see it. I didn’t figure out a workaround.
jmtb02 is the dev handle of John Cooney, a prolific Flash game developer who made a lot of games I liked. In retrospect, the reason I like his games is that they usually avoid filler or grinding. It felt like he understood the niche of Flash gaming and made many well-polished short experiences that didn’t try to overstay their welcome.
Achievement Unlocked and This is the Only Level were both by him, and in no particular order I would also recommend Hedgehog Launch, Elephant Quest, Sixty, Exit Path, Soviet Rocket Giraffe, Epic Combo, and Elephant Rave HD.
Don’t Look Back
A game by Terry Cavanagh, who later became well known for VVVVVV, Super Hexagon, and Dicey Dungeons.
Don’t Look Back is a game that tries to express a narrative through gameplay. The controls aren’t that tight, and the difficulty that leads to can be frustrating, but it’s pretty cool when you figure out the story.
Fisher Diver is a game by 2DArray, most famous for The Company of Myself. I find it hard to recommend Company of Myself these days - it has one very cool moment, but the rest of the narration doesn’t land for me the same way it did before. However, Fisher Diver does land the same way.
It’s a game about fishing, but I see it more as a commentary about the morality of fishing. You earn money by catching fish. Every time you attack a fish, it costs oxygen and breaks the fish apart. You earn more money if the fish stays intact. The natural conclusion? You should attack just enough to deal a lethal wound, then wait next to the fish and watch it bleed to death. It’s a cold-hearted callousness that’s really different from how a fishing game normally works. At the same time, the game is more true to real-life fishing, so if you feel scummy watching fish die in game…well, food for thought.
The description of a shop upgrade puts it best: “it wouldn’t be hunting if they stood a chance”.
Winnie the Pooh’s Home Run Derby
Okay, I’ll be honest, I haven’t played much of this game. I played enough to confirm the memes about its difficulty, then decided I didn’t want to finish it. This game is horseshit in a way that doesn’t feel fair. I can’t recommend anyone play it for fun, but the memes are excellent. Supposedly the Japanese version is harder - play that one for the full experience!