While finishing my monthly viewing of Back to the Future, I couldn’t help but think of the many times I’ve assumed the role of time traveler in a video game.
The more I thought about those instances, the more I realized that time traveling might be prolific in gaming, but quality uses of it are a far more rare beast. The notion of being unstuck from the parameters of time is a wild one that often stumbles even the best of game designers with the ramifications of how to implement it in a game, without completely screwing the pooch.
Or, in time travel terms, killing their grandfather.
However, there are some examples of time travel done right that deserve to be highlighted. So without further adieu, I present the top 10 uses of time travel in gaming.
10. Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?
Call me crazy, but I’ve got a soft spot for education games, ever since my computer teacher in elementary school used to let us play them once a week. It was like a really nerdy rebellion against the school system, but I also happened to learn some of the lessons that stayed with me the longest, from those games.
That’s especially true of Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? It’s a time traveling trip through various historical periods that sees you pursuing the notoriously slippery thief Carmen Sandiego. The history lessons are far from subtle, but truth be told this is a pretty solid point and click adventure, that features a surprising amount of depth and difficulty.
Where in Time may be heavy on the textbook information, but it’s also an incredibly deep game that’s appeal goes far beyond classroom hidden pleasure.
9. Blinx: The Time Sweeper
Blinx is not a very good game. As a platformer, it’s fairly dull and relies on far too many genre tropes to fill in the blanks.
What Blinx does have going for it is a very interesting time manipulation mechanic, that is still pretty unique to gaming. Blinx has the ability to rewind, fast-forward, pause, record, slow-down and retry his world, which comes in handy during both combat and puzzle solving. The combat uses are fun, if limited, but the puzzles all take tremendous advantage of these abilities, and stand as some of my favorite in all of platforming.
I suppose the reason that Blinx is so enduring is that you rarely see a game devote such a significant chunk of its mechanics to the time travel concept. While Blinx’s flaws are bitingly obvious, it’s time manipulation hook leads to enough clever moments to make it rise above the sum of its parts.
8. TimeSplitters (series)
The middle child between the Goldeneye and Perfect Dark days, and the Halo revolution that would follow, TimeSplitters tends to not get enough love for being a mechanically sound next-gen first person shooter, at a time when such a thing was still an iffy prospect.
As you likely garnered from the title of this game, and this article, TimeSplitters features some pretty heavy time traveling elements, as nearly every level takes place in a different time period, and features weapons, characters and objectives specific to that era. TimeSplitters 2 is arguably the peak of this idea, as it completely abandoned reason for absurdity, and featured bizarre and entertaining trips to time periods such as the old west, and 1920s gangster Chicago.
TimeSplitters was a fast and fun series that left us far too soon. If you can find a way to experience the series today, please don’t hesitate.
7. Bioshock Infinite
Now we get to the thoroughbreds.
What I love about Infinite’s “Tear” idea, is the way the concept affects the overall culture of the world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the game’s soundtrack, which uses several more modern songs, and reconstructs them in styles that fit different eras.
It really explores the effects time travel have on a world, on a cultural level. That’s a viewpoint you don’t really get unless its explored in a dystopian type way and, as a result, Infinite provides one of the more unique time travel environments you’ll ever see in gaming.
The idea of time travel in any piece of entertainment by virtue of the mind-blowing implications of the concept, tend to result in works that are brilliant, but flawed. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Achron.
Achron is a real-time-strategy game that incorporates time travel as a strategic option, in a way that allows players to explore the past, present and future of a battle. For instance, if an enemies tanks are destroying you, you can go back in time and destroy the enemies tank factory while its under construction to prevent further tanks from being produced from it in the present.
That’s just a small example of the astounding depth in Achron. Unfortunately, the weight of its ambition crushed a lot of the other gameplay mechanics, and as a result the game feels like a broken experiment. Still, this remains one of the most creative uses of time travel in any game.
5. Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
With the exception of Adventure of Link, there is no title in the Zelda series more divisive among the fanbase than Majora’s Mask. That can be attributed almost entirely to its use of time travel.
Essentially, Majora requires Link to save the world by reliving, and manipulating, a very small frame of time. It’s a mechanic that’s been compared often to the film “Groundhog Day,” and that’s not far off. In both cases, the way the story chooses to use a small time-frame to show how the same passage of time can help a character (or the player) grow and learn.
The results are fantastic. Majora’s Mask is a darker, more intelligent approach to the Zelda world, and remains noteworthy for being one of the few games that successfully incorporates time travel into both the mechanics and plot of an experience.
Braid is another of those games that successfully incorporated time-travel into both mechanics and plot.
Where it gets the slight nod in terms of usage of the time travel concept, is in the fact that the time travel mechanics actually compromise a good deal of the plot. In case we aren’t quite past the statue of spoiler limitations on Braid yet, I’ll avoid details, but essentially what Braid does well is present its use of time travel as a cool puzzle aide for 99% of the game, then uses the ending to make you realize that there were plot elements to that mechanic that completely alter the implications of those actions.
Braid’s got enough praise to last it a lifetime, so I’ll just say that, fan of time travel or not, if you haven’t played it yet, you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice.
3. Day of the Tentacle
I’ve mentioned several games so far that crumble under the various implications that using time travel presents. These last three games do not succumb to that particular fault, and that’s especially true of Day of the Tentacle.
Made in the golden era of confounding point and click adventure games with a wicked sense of humor and style, Day of the Tentacle’s use of time travel may just make it the pinnacle of that genre. To solve Day’s incredibly challenging puzzles, you have to traverse several different time periods, with several different characters. When you’re simultaneously occupying a chronological distance that spans hundreds of years, the question of “what next?” is a much greater one.
At the same time, there is a joy that comes with solving these brain teasers that few other titles can match. Many developers struggle with the implications of time travel, but Tim Schafer and Co. took it a step further, and actually added new layers of twisted brilliance to the idea that makes it all the more complex.
2. Shadow of Memories
There are two types of time travel stories. Those that take a thought provoking look at the idea (like the film Primer), and those that don’t (like the movie Time Cop). Shadow of Memories is one of the gaming’s rare cases of the former.
The basic story in Shadow is that you play a character who must solve the mystery of who killed him. Due to spoilery circumstances, this involves jumping between different time periods, as well as keeping a close eye on the time you are spending in your own. Time is of the essence at every turn in this game, both in a grand sense, and a personal one. Because time is the defining mechanic, every one of your actions have meaning.
Shadow is one of the most original, intelligent and underrated games of all time. It would take a series of articles to break down every reason why that is, but they can all be tied together by the way it explores the idea of time travel as something that can affect even the most minute instances in significant ways. If you’re a fan of smart gaming, Shadow is essential.
1. Chrono Trigger
Really what else could it have been?
The idea of time travel in Chrono Trigger is introduced fairly early on, but its careful to limit the uses of it to crucial moments. That may sound like a knock against the game’s limitations, but instead I mean it as praise for the way Trigger tells a story that is very much dependent on the interesting ways it uses the idea of traveling through time, rather than feeling like its constantly battling the idea to try an make it work.
Chrono Trigger may use time travel in blatantly brilliant ways, but the real reason it tops this list is because its an undisputed masterpiece that can be enjoyed by anyone, whereas many of the other games on this list are for people with particular tastes. Much like the film that inspired me to make this list, it’s a timeless piece of time travel entertainment.