A burning meteor is headed for the wide, weird world of online Flash games. Adobe will discontinue support for Flash at the end of 2020, rendering the delightful—and sometimes disturbing—’90s and aughts-era browser games unplayable. It’s bigger than losing access to classic time-wasters like Desktop Tower Defense and Line Rider. A seminal digital culture is at risk. To stave off annihilation, a small, underground movement of digital preservations is fighting hard to spare the little Flash games from their fate.
Ben Latimore, a 26-year-old Australian who goes by BlueMaxima online, has saved over 38,000 Flash games in a behemoth torrent as part of Flashpoint, a webgame preservation project. He set out in 2017, along with a band of nostalgic programmers and curators he’d met on vintage game emulation forums, to create “an all-in-one archival project, museum, and playable collection of Flash games, as safe as possible from the eventual death and server shutdowns of Flash game sites.” Asked why it’s important to archive Flash games this year, Latimore responded, “This year? Try four years ago, when the shutdown was first announced. Hell, try six, when people knew Flash was on a downwards spiral. Hell, try 10, when Steve Jobs announced that Flash wouldn’t be making the jump to Apple mobile devices, practically sealing the coffin shut then and there.”
Right now, the Flashpoint torrent is 241 gigabytes, downloadable to any Windows user for free—all in the name of conservation.
In the early 2000s, bawdy Flash games were cultural currency. Hyper and snacking on Doritos 3-D, kids traded The Worlds Hardest Game for Commander Keen—free games they’d play in-browser for hours and hours—over AOL Instant Messenger. On sites like Newgrounds.com or AddictingGames.com, bored office workers trawled the digital game aisles in search of a small dopamine hit. These weren’t polished masterpieces. In fact, some of them were blatant copycats, like Super Mario 63, or irreverent pulp, like school-shooting game Pico’s School.
“With Flash games, you threw something out there and people liked it or didn’t like it,” says developer Brad Borne, who created the Flash-based Fancy Pants Adventures in 2006. “It’s a very pure relationship between the developer and the audience. There’s no microtransactions, no ads. It’s just, is the game good?”
Studying psychology in college, Borne stumbled upon a Breakout-type Flash game in the early 2000s. On a whim, he decided to copy it. He’d never considered videogame design as a career or even a long-term hobby, but something about the handmade look of that Breakout Flash game got him thinking that, hell, he could make that, too. And because he could put his creation directly online, no big publisher or tastemaker or store curator could quash it.
Back then, if you were really lucky, Newgrounds founder Tom Fulp—who made his own Flash games—would like your game and drop it on the front page of his hugely trafficked site. Addicting Games developed or distributed 10 to 20 games a week, which owner Bill Kara says were played by millions. It was a free, or free-ish, ecosystem for indie developers and digital dilettantes.
“Flash offered animation and game development tools to people who may otherwise have never had them,” says Newgrounds’ Fulp. The videogame designers behind celebrated titles like Crypt of the Necrodancer, Hollow Knight, and Super Meat Boy all got their start noodling around with Flash, Fulp says. Fans of the Angry Birds franchise, which still generates hundreds of millions of dollars yearly, generally acknowledge its huge similarities to Crush the Castle. Bejewled started as a Flash game. The movement created a hunger for small, weird little games with low barriers to entry.