Not only was 1998 gaming’s greatest year, it was also the year I learned to appreciate the value of simple, elegant game design. That year I played Banjo-Kazooie and Klonoa — two platform games starring cute animal heroes who spoke in bizarre fever-dream babble — in quick succession, and I found the latter much more appealing. Banjo isn’t a bad game, but its control scheme felt too complicated and the general design of the game seemed padded and overlong. Klonoa’s creators, on the other hand, were content to limit controls to two simple buttons — jump and grab/throw — and build increasingly intricate challenges by employing the hero’s stripped-down abilities in new and interesting ways. Complex games have their place, to be sure, but there’s something wonderful about a game that can lay down a few simple rules and find new and interesting ways to put the player through their paces.
When I sat down to play Capybara’s Super T.I.M.E. Force at Penny Arcade Expo, I experienced a brief mental flash of that dichotomy. I’d been watching others sample the game and marveling at the utter pandemonium on-screen. Yet when the guy running the demo handed me the controller to give it a shot for myself, he said, “The controls are… A to jump, X to shoot, and, uh… that’s all.” Yet those two buttons were enough to forge my way through one of the most insane 2D run-and-gun shooters I’ve ever played.
Super T.I.M.E. Force looks a lot like Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes as viewed through the lens of high-definition, low-resolution pixellation (a la Capybara’s own Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery). You control one of three different characters in an utterly manic sidescrolling setting. Enemies appear relentlessly, spewing bullets and fire and instant death upon contact. Your characters fight back with his or her own unique weapon — a machine gun, a laser, and a shield were available to the trio in the PAX demo — each of which can be charged for better offensive capabilities.
The rub of the game, however, is that you’ll die. Often. Mercilessly. You can die up to 30 times before it’s game over: That’s how much the developers expect you to fail. But this isn’t one of those games where you die and feel like the creators are scoffing at your weakness. On the contrary, death is where things get interesting — kind of like Dark Souls, I suppose, but insanely fast-paced rather than insanely methodical.
When you die in Super T.I.M.E. Force, your character is flung back to the beginning of the stage through a rewind effect. You start over, but with a twist: Your new life fights alongside a ghost image of your previous attempt, which perfectly replays the actions you took up until the point you died. This opens up a remarkable number of strategic options. You can let your ghost clear out the bad guys all over again and content yourself to perform mop-up duty. But you can also run ahead of the ghost and clear enemies in advance. If you should happen to clear out the foe who killed you the last time through, that previous life is redeemed — and, more importantly, the point at which you previously died (but whose fatal collision has been unmade through time manipulation) now becomes a checkpoint when your current life is snuffed out, allowing you to resume the former ghost’s adventure from its newfound second chance starting point. Of course, if that un-ghost dies, you’ll be sent back to the beginning again… unless, of course, the ghost had managed to save its predecessor’s life before it was offed, too.
Based on the PAX demo, it seems Super T.I.M.E. Force’s levels will be short — but their brevity is more than made up for by the game’s intensity. Despite its simple interface and fairly basic actions, Super T.I.M.E. Force starts chaotic and only grows more insane as more and more ghost images pile up. You can quickly lose track of which shots belong to you and which are your previous versions’. And you constantly have to balance the conservative approach of falling back behind your ghosts against the need to outrace the timer (and the potential to create new checkpoints by saving your own proverbial bacon). As I think about it, the Dark Souls comparison is actually quite apt: While the two games play nothing alike, both see you replaying sequences over and over again until you get it right, and your greatest opponents become your own impatience and inattentiveness.
Not bad for just two buttons.