Flicky – the little bird that could

The early days of video games were intriguing times. The genres we all take for granted now had not been set in stone and what you would think of as the classic 2D platformer was still not familiar to most players. During the early 80’s developers tested new ideas on how to navigate their characters around platforms. Retro Faith takes a look back at Flicky, Sega’s effort to build on this fledgling genre.

The press coined the term climbing game as many early platformers used ladders and elevators to move players between platforms. It would take a leap in imagination to break this convention and Donkey Kong provided it in 1981. Being the first video game to include a jumping character changed the landscape and moved the genre forward in ways nobody could have envisaged. 

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The next leap forward was taking the action from single screen to a scrolling environment. Five months after Donkey Kong, Jump Bug was the first game to use scrolling in a platform game. You jump the titular car around platforms while shooting enemies through several screens. It was advanced for it time as players move vertically as well as horizontally. 

By 1984 Sega, who were starting to find success in arcades, were looking into creating their own platformer. Yoji Ishii, famous for his work on Outrun and Fantasy Zone, was tasked with the design and looked for inspiration. Mappy, a 1983 Namco arcade game, became the basis for Sega’s platformer. 

Originally titled Busty, Flicky was released in arcades in May 1984. A scrolling platform game that stars Flicky who is on a mission to save his friends the Chirps from cats and lizards named Tigers and Iggys.  Flicky is a blue, flightless bird that can jump between the platforms collecting the Chirps as she goes. The goal is to escort them all to the goal in the quickest time possible.

Gameplay comprises of small levels that constantly wrap around as you move left and right. You jump up onto platforms to avoid enemies or collect projectiles to throw at them. The Tigers and Iggys constantly respawn from doorways as you clear them. If Flicky touches an enemy she loses one life and the game ends when all lives are lost.

The game has an added strategy element due to how the Chirps trail Flicky as they are collected. The more Chirps that you collect the longer the trail becomes. If the trail of Chirps touches an enemy it disperses back into the level and Flicky must collect them again. The Chirps will stay in the area they were left but will randomly move about at times.

If you deliver all the Chirps to safety in one go you are awarded with bonus points. This leaves you with a risk versus reward mechanic that creates for frantic gameplay as you target the high score. Sega were starting to develop their arcade heritage and fast gameplay with Flicky and this game is an early example of the colourful Sega style.

Flicky provides a tough challenge across its 48 levels. Once these are completed you start back at level one with increased enemies. Every so often you are greeted with a bonus stage. You increase your score by collecting Chirps in a net as they fall after being catapulted upwards. These bonus stages vary as you progress and are a welcome respite.

There is not much more to the game. Its simple premise disguises intense hand eye coordination gameplay that requires quick thinking and a little luck. The difficulty curve ramps up as you progress and more and more enemies flood the screen. To get through all the levels just once is an achievement let alone repeating them over again.

Following its success in arcades a scaled down port of Flicky was ported to Sega’s SG-1000 and several other Japanese home computers. A second port that was more true to the original game was released for the Mega Drive in 1991. The home ports were maligned for their, by then, basic graphics but praised for the addictive nature of the gameplay.

During our playthrough of the Mega Drive version it became clear quite quickly that Flicky is a dated game. It does not have the same polish of Donkey Kong and some of the level design is frustrating. However, it has a certain charm about it and there is a one more go aspect that makes this perfect for a quick blast.

The character Flicky would go on to join the Sonic universe as the little blue birds that pop out of Robotnik’s badniks. These Flickies became the star of Sonic 3D: Flickies Island where the trail mechanic was used by Sonic to rescue his friends. Flicky is often forgotten but she lives on in the Sega universe through cameos keeping her arcade debut classic alive.

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