Flip and Flop is relatively unknown in the UK. Released in the US in 1984 by First Star Software and Statesoft, it only received very limited exposure in the UK.
The gameplay is best described as a twist on Q*Bert. Taking the role of a kangaroo that has escaped from the zoo and is being chased by his keeper, you find yourself trapped in a series of tiled mazes viewed from an isometric perspective. In order to escape to the next level, you have to jump on each tile to change its colour. Some tiles are also sticky, and if you can lure the keeper onto these, he will get temporarily stuck, giving you a few precious seconds to try to get away and complete the level (but watch you don’t get stuck on them too).
But – in the immortal words of infomercials everywhere – Wait! That’s not all. A monkey has also escaped from the zoo and, like the kangaroo, must change the tile colours. However, he hangs from underneath the platform tiles (and is chased by a net), which gives the game a very different perspective. On later levels, the colour of tiles has to be changed on both the top and the bottom (and sometimes twice) before you can progress.
When I first got this game, I HATED it. , so you might reasonably ask what it’s doing in the Hidden Gems series? Well, something happened to give me an epiphany moment where I realised that the game wasn’t rubbish or boring, it just required a little patience (not something that most 13 year olds have in abundance!)
This happened when I saw my dad playing the game. He was actually quite good at it and seemed to be enjoying it more than the myriad of Space Invader/Defender/Pac-Man clones I owned for my trusty C64. Now obviously, being 13, there was absolutely no way I could let my dad be better at a game than I was, so I reluctantly took up my joystick and started practising.
Part of the reason I hated this game was precisely because it was so different. The isometric perspective was a fairly unusual one at the time and took some getting used to.
The controls weren’t instantly intuitive either; partly because of the isometric perspective and partly because of the limitations of the one-button joystick. Unlike most games where left always moved you left, up always moved up etc., the movement in Flip & Flop was relative to the position of your character on the screen, so you constantly had to readjust your thinking as to which direction you needed to press. This was particularly tricky on the monkey levels, where you also had to deal with the fact that you were hanging from the underside of the platform and so the perspective was even more different.
This was Flip & Flop’s major problem and one which stopped many gamers from making much progress. Most games of the time were brutally hard, but at least the basic controls were generally pretty obvious (sit anyone down in front of Pac-Man or Space Invaders for the first time and they’d soon work out how to control the main character). Flip & Flop was hard AND its controls were counter-intuitive. Given that one wrong move could cost crucial seconds that would see the keeper catch you, or send you missing a tile and plummeting to your death, it felt unforgiving and frustrating.
However, if you were prepared to put a little time into mastering the perspective and the controls, you would actually discover a delightful little game. The kangaroo and the monkey, although small, were lovely to look at and full of character and you became immersed in the game. Levels were well designed and later levels were pretty large – larger than a single screen – and the best route through had to be planned carefully. Things became pretty tense as you had to watch so many different things at once- the position of the keeper, the layout of the level, the remaining tiles that needed to be covered, the position of any sticky tiles and, of course, the obligatory time limit in which you had to complete the level.
Once you had mastered the controls, they actually started to feel very logical and sensible. Whilst they always required you to concentrate, you did get to a point where you started to feel you had full control over you character and could get yourself out of some pretty tight spots. Once you reached this point, you realised how addictive the game was. Complete one level and you instantly wanted to move onto the next; fail and you wanted to try again and prove to that damned keeper that you were always one step ahead.
I’ve subsequently read complaints on the internet that the game has no actual end and once you reach a certain point, the same level just keeps looping around again and again. I’ll be honest and say that my gaming prowess is such that I never reached this point, so this wasn’t an issue. All I remember is a game that was very difficult, but rewarding if you were willing to give it some time.
I guess I should thank my dad to thank for this hidden gem. If I hadn’t seen him playing it, I’d have missed out on a very good (and very different) early C64 game.