Let me take you back to the internet of 00s, when the net was neutral, and webpages lived on full-size screens. Before apps, before cord-cutting, and before Facebook became a willing tool of dictatorships. Many strange creatures thrived in this un-monetized Wild West, and perhaps none so strange as the ecosystem of flash-based games. We salute one such, Coastal Cannon and its home on physicsgames.net as an Unironic Good Internet Thing.
Every year, us Glowing Core-ists meet up in Des Moines, Iowa, around the holidays for brainstorming and beer. Usually more of the latter than the former. This year, on a snowy afternoon, we talked about our favorite video games of yore. We perused DOS and Atari games on YouTube and soon found ourselves at physicsgames.net for some Flash nostalgia.
Actually, nostalgia is the wrong word. “Archeology” might be closer to the mark. Downloading the flash plugin was like stepping back through time. Are you surrrreee you want to download this program? queried my computer, similar to the hieroglyphic seal Carter and Carnarvon broke through to open King Tut’s tomb. Are you surrrreee you want to desecrate this cursed, immortal domain?
So zero-day vulnerabilities be damned, there we were, running flash and ready to party like it’s 2009. The CPU cooling fan needed a workout anyway. Before long we were 10 levels deep in Coastal Cannon. A simple 2D physics game, the point of which is to blow up pirates with your cannon. You solve minor puzzles to trigger chain reactions, and the pirates’ smug little faces make for a satisfying target while a loop of Bugs Bunny classical music marches along in the background.
I don’t really mean to insinuate that Coastal Cannon is a great game. It’s not. Still, the utter simplicity of it really struck a chord with me. No loot boxes, no in-app purchases, no annoying power-ups or gifts that present themselves every 10 seconds, no premium tier, no notifications, and just a scant ad at the intro screen. And we all physically had to sit down and cluster around a computer, just like the old days. It wasn’t a cynical exercise in cash extraction like all of the incumbent mobile games that we’re used to.
gameplay from Coastal Cannon
A game this unselfish can only be encountered in the arcane hinterlands of flash. Indeed, as we blazed through all 30 levels leaving blown-up pirates in our wake, I wondered if we were the first people this decade to play Coastal Cannon all the way through to its conclusion. And conclude it we did. The victorious cannon fire on the final screen (which, presumably, would have continued all day if we let it) gave us a silly sense of accomplishment. And critically, no one would ever know about it. No hydra of social media and persisting cookies recorded the event at all. It was just a wonderful waste of an afternoon, shared exclusively between us and an indie game developer. No tale would ever tell of our battle against the smirking pirates, and later that day I saw no sidebar ads for other games popping up on CNN or Bloomberg. We could sit there playing all day if we wanted. Facebook would never know. And it was a lot more pleasant to play a game in a nice living room with friends, rather than to furtively grab a few seconds of distraction from your phone whilst standing in line at the DMV, while Washington Post pushes friendly reminders to your screen that post-Enlightenment civilization is circling the abyss.
Sadly, this is one Unironic Good Internet Thing that’s not long for this world. Flash is going to die soon, and though efforts are motion to preserve flash-based video games the vast majority of them will soon go to internet heaven. Or hell. So gather around your antediluvian non-phone screens and play these un-monetized gems while they last. Sure, a few of them might make the leap to HTML5, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll inherit all of the awfulness of modern games during the transition. To borrow a line from George R.R. Martin, the Iron Bank will have its due.