When we are nearing the ends of our lives and our grandchildren ask us about "the olden days," what great technological wonders will we speak of? What cutting-edge advancements will we identify as having been groundbreaking in our day, but will have been so commonplace in our culture that children will barely believe we lived without them at one point? What will no longer even exist?
I can almost hear the innocent and bewildered voice of my future grandchild saying in disbelief, "You mean to tell me you didn't have Internet access until you were 10, and even then you had to 'dial' in using a 14.4k modem over a 'hard line?' Geez, what the heck did you even DO before then? It took you HOW LONG to download the Jolly Roger's Anarchist's Cookbook?!?"
Actually, my own son will probably be shocked at this same revelation when he is older, as he is growing up with common, everyday technology that was truly science fiction when I was a child. The moment he is albe to skillfully use a computer, he will have immediate access to an infinite sea of information and disinformation alike - a scary thought for a parent who knows how bleak most corners of the web can be.
While I'm not convinced that my son will get to experience science fiction technology such as self-driving consumer vehicles or robot butlers during my lifetime, I do feel pretty confident that physical media such as DVDs and CDs will be completely obsolete before our generation passes. They're already being phased out now... In fact, I've gotten rid of all my music CDs except for a select few because I simply do not need them anymore.
This might not seem like a big deal at first, as the convenience of direct and instant digital media is very alluring, and the technology is certainly amazing. The elimination of disc-based media can sure free up a lot of shelf space too. But think about the experiences lost with the elimination of such things... I vividly recall gazing out the passenger-side window of my dad's car, admiring the rushing alternation between disintegrating asphalt and mustard-yellow traffic as we navigated the concrete jungles of Chicago's southwestern suburbs to rent a movie or an NES game from Blockbuster Video on Cicero (update, 7/24/13 - which, sadly enough, is now an AutoZone).
It may sound like such a mundane thing to some, but that car ride was magical. The golden light from the setting sun reflecting off of sprawling window displays, the warm, collective hum of summer traffic, the anticipation of what was going to be available and what wasn't, the excitement at discovering something new... it all had so much weight and importance to it. I want my son to have a similar experience, so I am happy that our local library is not only an architectural wonder, but offers lots of amazing books and DVDs, and is found along a winding road that is a joy to drive at sunset after work.
Those early days of renting NES carts were exciting, especially because you didn't always know what to expect from a particular title. In the time of pre-internet, all I had to go off of in gauging the quality of a game was the latest issue of Nintendo Power, GamePro, or EGM (and eventually Diehard GameFAN whenever I could find it). Squinting at photographed screen-shots, admiring the corresponding artwork, and reading the hyped-up descriptions of a game were necessary tactics for making an informed choice at the video store, and even then, it was easy to get tricked into thinking a game was going to be good based on the cover-art alone. Thanks to renting, my parents probably dodged a Toys R' Us-shopping-spree-cart-load of shitty games that I otherwise would have begged to own (for some strange reason, Total Recall is the first one that comes to mind).
This game of "dodge the shitty rental" went on and on through the 8 and 16-bit eras, until my spoiled, little hands unboxed the Sony PlayStation that I received on Christmas of 1995, and I was introduced to the benevolent glory of the demo disc, specifically, PlayStation Picks.
PlayStation Picks is the epitome of the relentless and exciting 32-bit revolution that Sony unloaded on both Nintendo and Sega, featuring playable demos for, and previews of, so many terrific, classic PS1 games. Despite relying heavily on delicious Namco arcade ports, this disc is most important to me because it introduced me to this handsome little fella:
"Robbit," hero and protagonist of Jumping Flash!, was one of the coolest and cutest robot designs I had ever seen as a kid. In my opinion, he could have stood on the same mascot level as Sonic or Bonk if things had been different... hell, maybe even Kirby, as they're both expert platformers with a lot of style and personality. Robbit could have been the perfect mascot character for the 3D revolution, and I'm disappointed that he didn't gain more popularity in the west, because Jumping Flash's unique blend of first person shooting and 3D platforming was way ahead of its time. Please check out this video, which shows the terrific intro cinema, as well as plenty of gameplay:
If you've never played this game before, the best way I can describe it to you is that it is the perfect blend between a 16-bit sidescrolling platformer and a 32-bit 3D FPS. It honestly feels like a classic SNES game, extruded into three dimensions, and seamlessly bridges the gap between the gameplay dynamics of two very different generations. It hits all the oldschool nails on their respective heads: charming / wacky story, lots of fun powerups and diverse enemy designs, unique worlds, giant bosses, excellent sound effects / music, and tight controls. If any of this sounds cool to you, I'm fairly confident that it is available on PSN as a PSOne Classic. Stop reading and get it now - you won't regret it.
You know how after a while, more and more developers (mostly Western) started churning out 3D games that had absolutely abysmal controls, as if they had conducted no user testing, or had no knowledge of the fine art of game design? You know how you loved a game from this era as a kid, but find it hard to play today because it looks or controls like junk? This is not that kind of game.
Jumping Flash! is as good today as it was in 1995, which is shocking considering that it existed before dual-analog sticks. When it comes to shooting Robbit's lasers up or down, you'd think it would be impossible without y-axis control, but a quick press of the L-shoulder buttons smoothly tilts your view up or down, and it's surprisingly responsive even today. In terms of platforming, navigating the map is a breeze, as Robbit is gifted with a strong double-jump, and the camera automatically shifts downward so you can easily land on any platform or bop any enemy on the head. You even get to see your own feet in the periphery, something strangely missing from SO MANY subsequent and "more advanced" first person perspective games. Oh, and unlike many other games of this era - if you see something far off in the distance, or way high up in the sky, you can reach it. There are no invisible walls blocking you from your destination - just big, open pitfalls if you misjudge your jump's distance.
It's hard to imagine that such a well-balanced and expertly-crafted game like Jumping Flash! could have just appeared out of nowhere, as it seemed to when I was first introduced to it. Its developers, Exact Co., Ltd., aren't the easiest folks to find information about... However, taking a dive into their obscure history does reveal something so utterly fantastic and amazing, it makes me wish I had grown up in Japan moreso than many other aspects of their popular culture that I admire. I am disappointed that I never knew this existed until well into adulthood. This is why Jumping Flash! is as good as it is:
Geograph Seal. Now that is a fucking video game. It's like the bastard lovechild of Star Fox and Mechwarrior, and it is awesome.
The entire library of amazing games found on the Sharp X68000 (and my inferior knowledge of them) is pretty overwhelming to me, but this one is just... AHHH!. The intro, the music, THE POLYGONS. The history! While I was killing Nazi sprites in the confined corridors of Wolfenstein 3D, kids in Japan were obliterating polygonal mechs in death-from-above combat, leaping through the open skies in free-roaming arenas.
This game came out a year before Jumping Flash!, and as you can see, JF! borrows a lot from Geograph Seal, deemphasizing the combat elements in favor of perfecting the platforming aspects. 9-year-old me would have had a serious desire-meltdown if I had been endowed with information of this game's existence during its heyday. Before I ramble on too much more about how incredible this game is, here's another offering from Exact's back-catalogue that predates Geograph Seal.
Yeah. Bad-ASS. True oldschool.
The only other game that I can think of that Exact developed (aside from the aforementioned and JF!2) is Ghost In the Shell for PS1, which is also totally amazing, criminally underrated, and highly overlooked. This is another game that I was exposed to thanks to a PlayStation Underground demo disc:
Even if you don't care about the movie or comic, this game is excellent and a delight to play. Your Fujikoma battle tank can walk on almost any surface or wall, and navigating 3D space is just as smoothly and freely as Jumping Flash. These Exact guys had some kind of elusive, magical spark that perfectly translated 2D action and style into 3D space without all the problems of clunky controls that plagued so many 32-bit games in the mid-to-late 90's. Plus, they knew how to use futuristic-looking maps, grids, and made-up GUIs in cutscenes to make games seem extra cool.
So where are they now? I really wish I knew - it seems like they disappeared into thin air as far as I can tell. I would love to know what they worked on last, or where their superstar employees ended up, assuming that the company is no more. To think that such promise and such great games will someday be relegated to complete obscurity is a bummer. The best things in life are often ignored, and eventually all good things must come to an end. From what I can tell, Exact eventually became Sugar and Rockets, releasing a handful of other games including Robbit Mon Dieu and Pocket MuuMuu, both of which were Japan-only. Robbit appears to be Jumping Flash 3 in essence, but it sounds like it was the weakest of the series, and MuuMuu is a spin-off that made heavy use of the PocketStation.
I would have loved to see where Exact could have taken this series with more support and recognition behind it, as I think it could have been huge. It makes me wonder how many other undiscovered Japanese computer games are out there... It makes me wonder what children of future generations will think when they look back at this era of gaming, if they're fortunate enough to even still have a record of it. Will they look at games like Jumping Flash! and see their innovation and historical importance? Will motion gaming and voice recognition become so prevalent in the future that anything that requires a controller will automatically be dubbed a "baby's toy?" I think it's hard to believe, but not impossible.
In the timeline of game history, it will likely appear as if Exact was here and gone in a flash, along with so many other under-appreciated developers, games, and characters. It's hard not to think it sad that so much effort, so many development hours, so many concept drawings and renderings will just slip away with time. That's just the nature of things though, as someday we will all be gone and forgotten as well. I don't mean to end on such a heavy note, but that transience is unavoidable.
Those future generations that will ask us about our lives will sit and listen, wide-eyed in wonder, as we tell them of the games we played and the new technologies we experienced. Their memories of us will hopefully live on in their hearts and minds, and perhaps a spark of wonder will keep the spirit of gaming alive, even in the distant future.