Mark Essen, under the pseudonym and eventual team name Messhof, rose to prominence as an indie developer through the breakout success of his simplistic multiplayer swordfighting game Nidhogg in 2014. But within the burgeoning indie scene of the late 2000s and early 2010s, he had already been known as the developer of, among other things, a free 2007 release called Flywrench. Evidence of this indie community fame can be found in the 2010 game Super Meat Boy, which includes the ship from Flywrench as a playable character. By that reasoning, Flywrench should be at least as well-known as BIT.TRIP RUNNER.
But it would be another five years before Messhof would put the finishing touches on the full and final release version of Flywrench, which became available in 2015. This is a somewhat unfortunate fact, as by 2015 the indie scene had grown massively (not least of all with platformers). And so the game launched to relatively few sales and relatively little fanfare. Thus, one of the early notable titles of indie platforming, which with slightly faster development could have been remembered alongside Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, Limbo, Fez, Braid, Spelunky, and Cave Story as one of the forerunners of the explosion in indie games in general and indie platformers in particular, has in its final form been more-or-less lost within that very explosion.
In this article, I hope to help fix the timeline—by highlighting how Flywrench remains today, even among the countless competing options now available, a truly original, unique, and enjoyable game.
The Colorful Core Gameplay of Flywrench:
The first thing to mention here is that Flywrench is a platformer without platforms. The player-character’s ship does plenty of jumping and bouncing, to be sure, but it can never land and stand on a platform at any time. It begins each level in freefall, and must flap, glide, and ricochet to the goal.
But there are plenty of cheeky platformers that hide, move, or even do without the ostensibly genre-defining surfaces, so that’s not the bit of innovation I am hoping to highlight here. The noteworthy innovation comes in the way that the flapping, gliding, and ricocheting is accomplished.
Essentially, those three forms of movement correspond to three states in which the player’s ship can exist. First, gliding is the default state; when no face buttons are depressed on the controller, the ship is flat, white, and can rapidly generate horizontal momentum. Second, flapping is the basic upward movement, but horizontal movement is restricted while flapping; holding its button active shrinks down the ship and turns it red. Third, ricocheting allows the ship to make contact with the yellow surfaces enclosing each level, but takes all active control of the ship away from the player; holding its button active spins the ship and turns it green.
Each of those colors, however, is not merely associated with a style of movement. Each is also associated with immunity to a different color of hazard. This is the stroke of brilliance that causes this game to ascend above so many of its peers. This dual-purpose design makes it so that different movement options are not simply different ways of getting around; they are necessary keys to advancing through the intricately locked terrain. And as new hazard types are introduced throughout the game, inevitably versions of them bearing the navigable colors of white, red, or green soon follow.
By tying control over not just the movement of the ship but also the physics that govern the ship to these three states, Flywrench grants considerably more fine control to the player than most other titles. This situation requires finesse and care, though, as that level of agency makes it far easier to generate momentum than to wield or disperse it, and managing movement through the monochromatic barricades gets harder and harder at higher speeds. Moreover, because of the elegant decision to use the neutral state of the ship as one of the three all-important forms, Flywrench packs a huge density of complexity into a control scheme including just two buttons and an analog stick.
This set of mechanical designs make the game a unique test of dexterity, where breakneck navigation of each level is complicated by the extra color-coded demands made on the memory and reflexes of the player. The combination of these mechanics with the short duration of the levels results in a constantly satisfying experience—where completion of a goal is frequently accompanied by astonishment that your hands (not to mention your brain) were able to move quickly enough to do what they just did. The shortness of the levels can be labeled a virtue for a more general reason, too, insofar as even the most challenging levels in the game require precision and focus for less than 30 seconds in order to succeed; even as the difficulty steeply rises toward the end of the campaign, success never feels far away. This prevents the levels from ever feeling cruelly or needlessly long, as do some of the temple levels in Dustforce and the final ‘Farewell’ segments in Celeste.
And there are plenty of nice little touches that help make Flywrench feel great to play, such as the small amount of attraction that the goal exerts on the player’s ship, the way that the colored lines preserve momentum as the player’s ship passes through them, and the undulations of the visuals that coincide with moving through (or crashing into) parts of a stage.
A Few Minor Drawbacks of Flywrench:
Despite its prolonged development, Flywrench is not a perfect game. So, before closing out here, I’ll just list a few small issues I noted while playing.
First, despite me recommending it as a terrific platformer, in contrast to other terrific platformers like Shovel Knight and Super Meat Boy, the level design isn’t particularly exceptional. The levels feel somewhat haphazardly or arbitrarily arranged at times, and not enough was done to visually differentiate similar level concepts (which leads to a—mistaken, but persistent—feeling that there are many repeated levels).
Second, along the same lines, sequences of levels rarely feel like they are really building up linearly toward bigger challenges using each planet’s main mechanic, something at which other noteworthy platformers like VVVVVV and Rayman Legends excel. This leads to the difficulty curve spiking and dropping wildly within each planet. Most of the brilliance of Flywrench lies in its mechanical design, and not in its levels. Speaking of those spikes, though, the quality of the level design does oddly increase as the difficulty increases; perhaps the level designer simply had some trouble toning things down.
Anyway, the third and final minor demerit that I would pin on Flywrench is that its theming is obtuse in a way that feels lazy. The cutscenes’ mixture of impenetrable dialogue and a peppering of colloquial terms like “dude” leads to an overwhelming impression that all of the ‘story’ in the game was simply the first thing that popped into the writers’ heads, and we as players are reading that rough draft. But we know that isn’t actually the case, as the story material in the old freeware version, while equally brief, does a much better job of establishing details—that you are piloting an instance of a ship called a flywrench, that the difficult navigation is caused by a malfunction forcing manual control of what would’ve been automatic passage through security gates, and that the strange and cryptic messages are apparently caused by some kind of interference or revelation resulting from increasing proximity to the sun. Unfortunately, most of this stuff, like the old version’s neat interactive credit sequence, was lost in the upgrade.
When one begins to play Flywrench, they will surely feel clumsy. But in a matter of minutes, clumsiness gives way to adequacy. In a matter of hours, adequacy gives way to dexterity. And by the end of the brief-yet-memorable campaign, dexterity gives way to mastery. Few are the games that feel as good to play well as this one. Given its mechanical excellence; its simplistic, cleanly legible artstyle; and its high-quality, highly-digital soundtrack, Flywrench would be right at home in the library of any fan of the best-known works of Terry Cavanagh (such as Super Hexagon and VVVVVV).
One may wish that certain things were true of Flywrench: that its level design could be as consistent and strong as its mechanical design, that its story elements could add to the experience rather than being a neutral curiosity, and that it could have reached full release half a decade sooner. But it has a large store of user-generated levels to supplement its native set; its lackluster thematic material is amenably short; and, even though it wasn’t greeted with the success it surely deserves, it hasn’t gone anywhere and is still worth playing today.
Flywrench is a high-speed jaunt through the solar system, starting at the dwarf planet Pluto and ending several hours later at the sun. And if you’ve got the heart for it, I highly recommend you hurtle through space along with it.