Faster than a pedestrian walking at an average pace! More powerful than a locomotive's... elderly ticket collector! Able to leap quite high but probably not over any building with more than one floor! It's Flashgal, a Sega-created superhero and star of the 1985 arcade game that bears her name!
Flashgal, aah-ahh, saviour of the universe, or at least a small selection of stages that are infested with the evil minions of this bloke.
Flashgal is one of those arcade games that keeps its cards close to its chest when it comes to plot and motivations. The closest you get to a storyline is a brief scene of this cheerful bald man laughing before walking out of a room. Surely that's not enough impetus for a superhero to go on a side-scrolling beat-em-up adventure? If heroes targeted people just because they laughed and then left rooms, Batman would be beating the crap out of me every time I walk into a branch of GAME and see how much they're charging for the latest releases.
I think there's supposed to be an implied element of organised crime. These guys do have a certain Mafia air to them, and the guy in the middle is presumably a boss, a Don, a kingpin of some sort.
Right then, the basics: Flashgal is mostly a single-plane beat-up-em in the Kung Fu Master mould. Enemies appear on screen, and it's your job to pound as much justice into them with your bare hands as you possibly can. Flashgal's karate moves encompass the familiar trio of punches, crouching kicks and jumping kicks, but the big gimmick is that the screen is constantly scrolling, pushing Flashgal forwards. I think that's what was supposed to happen, at any rate, but what actually happens is that the background is always moving from right to left but the gameplay remains resolutely un-scrolled, with Flashgal going about her business exactly as you'd expect her to if the stage was completely still. This is especially - and amusingly - noticeable when you crouch; Flashgal stays perfectly still but keeps movin' along as though she's sitting on a conveyor belt. Good work, Sega.
As I kick a dog while the Statue of Liberty looks on, I have to wonder - what kind of hero is Flashgal? Well, the kind who kicks dogs, apparently. I should make it clear that the dog was trying to kill Flashgal, and it's only the timing of the screenshot that make seem like the dog is patiently sitting there while I try to kick it to death. I wouldn't worry about upsetting Lady Liberty, because that's clearly a knock-off version of the famous statue that has only been recreated from the armpits up in order to save money.
Now I'm fighting in front of a bootleg White House. Is Flashgal's first mission to clear an America-themed amusement park of criminal scum or something? That'd explain the scrolling, the whole thing is a theme-park ride taking you through the history of the USA, and all these villains are animatronics that have gone berserk. Look, if Sega aren't going to provide a story then I have to come up with my own, right? I understand your concerns about internet fiction based on an existing property, character or franchise, but I promise it won't get weird. Flashgal's not going to start making out with the jet-pack troops or anything.
By the way, the guy doing the kung-fu kick in the screenshot above is a boss, I suppose. The screen stops scrolling when you get to him, the stage ends once you've battered him into unconsciousness and he takes more than one hit to defeat, all of which are good "boss" criteria... but he's just a bit lame. Walk up to him and punch him and he'll pop up into the air, where you can keep walking forward and punching to juggle him into a coma. It's a rare occasion, but in this case I'd tell you to keep the flying kicks to yourself.
Then stage two starts and Flashgal is riding a motorcyle. It's not a good motorcycle, either. It explodes if it touches anything that isn't the tarmac, and the sudden shift from the health bar of the first stage to the instant-death-on-contact mechanics of the second level is aggravating, especially when you realise that you can't attack the enemies in front of you. Oh, you can fire, but your rockets only travel straight upwards, so if there's an obstacle in front of you you'll have to jump over it.
Obstacles like these thing. At first I mistook it for an oil drum - this is a beat-em-up from the Eighties, after all - but on closer inspection it is quite clearly half a Coke can. It's got ringpull hole in the top and the letters "KE" on side and everything. I feel like that's something any half-decent motorbike should be able to knock aside, but I guess my ride isn't even half-decent. Now I know why it blows up so easily.
You can get some use out of the bike's upwards-firing rockets once you reach these monkeys that sit at the top of the screen and throw dynamite at Flashgal. They can't be part of the Mafia, can they? I refuse to believe that apes are allowed into the Cosa Nostra. I mean, big burly guys with names like Rocco and Crusher, but not honest-to-god simian apes. Maybe a specially-trained police monkey who goes undercover to bring down the mob from the inside, the idea being that a monkey can't be arrested and tried for whacking someone. That's Made Ape, coming to a YouTube channel near you as soon as I can hire a gorilla costume and find someone who can do a reasonable Sicilian accent.
This is more like it: in stage three, Flashgal has a sword. The extra reach comes in handy when fighting the samurai and ninjas that populate the stage, and you can even knock the ninja's throwing knives out of the air if you time it right. I always love it when you can do that in a game, it goes a long way towards making you feel like you're controlling a badass.
While Flashgal is being menaced by an ostrich wearing a tiny crown, let's talk about her character design. She looks like Wonder Woman, and anything you read on the subject of Flashgal will point this out. The game's rather bare Wikipedia article even claims that the game "was popularly known as Wonder Woman Arcade," although I can't find any proof of that.
She definitely looks like a bootleg Wonder Woman in the game's cabinet art, but here's the thing: her sprite looks a lot more like Marvel Comics' Elektra than Wonder Woman. She's got the same red clothes, black hair colour scheme and the same one-shouldered top. The sword seems like a weapon closer to Elektra's trademark sais than Wonder Woman's lasso. The villain of the game is an overweight, bald crime boss in a white suit, which is a pretty good description of the Kingpin, Elektra's former employer / adversary. My comics history isn't great, but wasn't this game also developed during the time when Frank Miller was finding great success with his Daredevil (featuring Elektra) run? I'm not denying that there's a healthy dollops of Wonder Woman in Flashgal's DNA, but I think there's just as much of Elektra.
A bit further along, and there is the Kingpin himself. Is this the final boss already? No, it can't be. I've only been playing for five minutes. I know arcade games are short but that would be ridiculous.
The trick to this boss fight is to stay in the air as much as possible. The Kingpin has a gun that turns Flashgal to stone for a while if it hits her, giving the Mafia goons a free hit on you, so bouncing around and doling out flying kicks is the best way to go. As so often with this kind of "flat" brawler, your aerial attack isn't so much a flying karate kick as it is the extended process of leaping into the air, sticking your leg out and then falling onto the enemy with your outstretched heel. I know I mentioned this phenomenon in the Running Battle article, and I'm sure it's come up in other games. In Flashgal, it's probably your safest method of attack.
After a thorough enough beating, the Kingpin surrenders. His goons keep on fighting even after their master has fallen, but they don't have weird petrification rays so mopping them up isn't much of a problem. Is that it, then? Is crime over?
I guess not, because there's a stage four and it's a crappy side-scoilling shooter. The return of the apes, now grown to gargantuan size as they sit amongst the clouds and throw explosives at Flashgal's gyrocopter, is the only redeeming feature of this Gradius-lite snoozefest of uninteresting enemy patterns and one-note gameplay. I have played a good few games where the action has been interrupted for a stage of side-scrolling shooting action, and I can't think of a single one of them that wasn't a tedious, poorly-arranged intermission at best. At least your helicopter can fire forwards, that's a step up from the motorbike.
Stage five sure is a stage in this videogame that I'm playing. Yup. It's got a new neon background, but it's the same old ostrich-punching action, Flashgal apparently having left her sword in the helicopter. No, I don't have any idea what the deal with the ostriches is or why they're wearing crowns. Are ostriches the kings of the bird-world? No, that'd surely be the peacock, all gaudy and noisy.
Even the boss is nothing new - the Kingpin is back, and he's brought some karatemen with him. An endless supply of karatemen, in fact, a particularly large dojo located just off-screen constantly pumping new recruits into the fray each time you defeat the previous batch. It's a touch more difficult than the first encounter, because the karatemen are better at knocking you out of the air when you try a jump kick than the Mafia henchmen were, but there's still nothing too taxing here.
Then you reach this stage, and Sega decide that the jolly, carefree adventure of Flashgal's early levels has gone on long enough and it's time that the player suffers. A good example is the introduction of the red-suited henchmen. They've got guns, guns that can fire a constant stream of bullets at head height. Ducking underneath the bullets might seem like a practical solution, but it only leaves you trapped in the situation pictured above - you can't crawl towards the gunmen, and you can't stand up or jump towards them because the gap between their bullets is too small for you to get squeeze through without being shot. If you find yourself trapped like this, you'll just have to suck it up and take the hit, I'm afraid.
The key to victory, in both this scenario and throughout Flashgal as a whole, is aggression. Get to the enemy and destroy them before they can set themselves. Accept the damage sustained from being hit by a bouncing tire or small robot bird if you have to, because it beats getting stuck in the middle of a pack of dogs or under the guns of the Red Velvet Mafia. They might technically be in the same genre, but Flashgal is Splatterhouse 2's mirror-image: a fast-paced game where all-out attack is your best chance of survival, , a game that feels somewhat imprecise and which lacks atmosphere, taking place in a slightly bland universe only occasionally enlivened by the appearance of giant green birds.
Oh ho, "lucky!" indeed. Now the tables have turned: this sickly-looking ostrich dropped a gun when Flashgal punched it. Now Flashgal has a gun, and she's going to make them all pay. Or she would if there was much else to the stage, once I'd found the gun I sort of wandered forward, firing off the odd shot, and then the stage ended.
Things took a downturn from there: not only did Flashgal lose her gun between stages, but now she's being attacked by R2-D2's homicidal, yellow-panelled cousins. I'd love to tell you that I'd discovered a Mega Man-esque slide move that's letting Flashgal slip under the lasers, but that's just the pose she does when she's been shot.
Of course, I was being unfair when I labelled those robots as merely "R2-D2's cousins." Thanks to the endless releases of ever more obscure Star Wars toys and the fan community's commitment to documenting any aspect of the Star Wars universe that was even so much as mentioned in passing by a minor character in a third-tier spin-off novel, I can guarantee that there is an astromech droid who is just like R2-D2 but yellow, and that it has been immortalised in the toy form.
Well, would you look at that. The droid's name is R2-C4 and it appeared in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This information took me less than two minutes to find. Welcome to the future. I think this is preferable to flying skateboards. I would have just fallen off of those anyway.
With danger closing in at every side and the volume of on-screen enemies reaching critical levels, the day was saved when another radioactive ostrich charged onto the screen. Sure, it tried to disembowel me with its powerful talons, but it was worth taking the damage just to let it get close enough for me to punch. Then I could take the gun it was carrying and proceed to the end of the stage in a more orderly fashion.
When I reached the end of the stage, something odd happened. The scrolling stopped, as it does for a boss encounter, and I was looking forward to taking on a bigger foe with some firepower on my side. A large, muscular man started to enter from the right of the screen - you can just about see their arm in the previous screenshot - but then suddenly, and without me doing anything, they turned around and just walked away. Then the stage ended. Did I scare the boss off? I think I scared the boss off. They were going to take Flashgal on, but then they saw that she was packing heat and made the quick (and totally understandable) decision that their sword was not going to provide adequate protection against Flashgal's handgun. Some bosses have the power of telekinesis or deadly martial arts skills, this boss had the power of common sense.
What fun, another vehicle section, with Flashgal taking to the water this time on her jet-ski. As far as I can tell, the jet-ski handles exactly the same as the motorcycle, and yet somehow it feels more irritating. I think part of this is down the the layout of this stage in particular. "Can you jump over this naval mine?" asks the game, and you can. "What about two mines at once?" it retorts, and again, you can jump over two naval mines at once because the jumping parts of Flashgal are so basic, so perfunctory, that half the time you'll get past them without even noticing they were there. Then the game ramps the challenge up to the dizzying heights of forcing to jump over three mines in a row, by which point your mind isn't so much wandering as it is desperately charging towards any other vaguely interesting thought that flickers through your brain.
Flashgal's gameplay isn't giving me much to talk about - it's the same old one-plane brawling you've seen a hundred times before, and it lacks the usual Sega magic - but the simple truth is that Flashgal is one of the very few games where the hero can be mercilessly kicked to death by a flock of angry flightless birds. That's not something that I can just leave undocumented, especially given the "superhero takes on organised crime" motif provided by the rest of the game. In summary: what the hell is going on? I haven't been this confused by a game's setting since the time I tried to play Silent Hill 3 while recovering from abdominal surgery.
I finally get to face the boss that ran away from me earlier, and either Link got buff or it's the hero from the Roman section of Great Swordsman. Only not so great, because all he can really do is slowly swing his sword at you, and for all the complaints I have about the vehicular sections, Flashgal is very nimble when she's got her feet on the ground. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the flying kick is more powerful than any stationery item.
Also, after watching some videos of Flashgal it seems like bosses fleeing in terror when they see my gun is not something that usually happens and you are supposed to fight them with a firearm equipped. Whether their reluctance to stand and fight me was down to an emulation error or me playing a different revision of the game I can't say, but I'm glad that it worked out this way. It's nice to feel powerful for once. That's the lesson to take from this: owning a gun will make you feel like a big (wo)man.
Oh good, more motorcycling. Sega thought that what would make the experience more fun and interesting would be to make it much more difficult. Sega were wrong. Trying to squeeze Flashgal's bulky ride through the swarms of birds and missiles is not fun at all. None of these vehicular sections are fun, and the frustration of this one is still preferable to the tedium of scrolling shooter bit, but Flashgal would have been a better game overall without their inclusion. It's very similar to My Hero, another Sega game from 1985, but My Hero comes out on top thanks to it sticking to what it's good at.
This is stage eleven, and the game is throwing everything at Flashgal now with no attempt to generate a cohesive theme. Dog, ninjas, Mafia thugs, blokes with jet-packs who drop bombs into the fray with the disinterested air of someone flipping playing cards into a hat during a boring camping trip, this stage has it all.
There's another fight with the Kingpin at the end of the stage. Not pictured: the Kingpin himself. He hadn't managed to get onto the screen yet and I didn't get a proper screenshot of this fateful encounter. That's a shame, because this is the end of the game.
Well, sort of - after section 11 the game rolls back around to section 1, which is more of the same with backgrounds you've already seen. There's a chance - a tiny chance, admittedly - that the game does something different if you keep playing it beyond this point, but I'll never find out because this is where I called it a day.
Flashgal is, to use a tired footballing cliché, a game of two halves. One half is a by-the-numbers but quite playable little walk-and-punch adventure, while the other half is bad vehicle sections. I know I keep harping on about them, and it might just be a personal thing, but they're boring, their difficulty curves are weirdly unpredictable and they break up the flow of the game. If Sega had given Flashgal a sword but no vehicles for the whole adventure, I'd have been much happier.
It didn't cause me a huge amount of excitement, but Flashgal does have its positives: the graphics are nice, with a lot of character packed into some fairly basic sprites, even if Flashgal's default expression is "trying to look at her own nose." The controls are crisp, even during the vehicle stages, and there no problems with wonky collision detection... but even for all this, Flashgal feels a little hollow, sterile even, that feeling only being lifted when you're attacked by all those ostriches. Man, those ostriches will bury your head in the sand if you're not careful.