?Time travel is such a tease. It says so much about humanity that we can already make scarily specific artificial flavorings and terrifying blowjob robots but are nowhere near mastering this truly tantalizing idea. Fortunately, the high unlikelihood that we will ever actually discover and implement it in real life has been vastly counterbalanced by the amount of times it has shown up in our fiction, and video games have grabbed and run with it like no other medium. In its most basic form, the gimmick of traveling through different eras of history has proven to be an easy way for developers to come up with scenarios for their characters: thus the multitude of predictable, groan-worthy titles like Pac in Time. Those types of games that merely use time travel as a backdrop can be well-done, of course, but the more experienced among us know that a good game that uses time travel effectively, as both a theme and an element of gameplay, can be a magnificent open-faced orgasm sandwich that defines an era, or at least a really fun time-killer worth playing until oblivion.
Just to be clear, we’re talking about games in which your player characters actually travel through time, not games in which you use time manipulation (so no Braid). We haven’t yet seen all of the new Back to the Future games from Telltale, so they could very much belong on this list eventually. Until we get to judge those games yet to come (which is certainly one of the first things I plan to do with my time machine) these examples will have to stand for now as the most creative uses of the time travel concept in gaming.
10) Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped
Nobody really has nice things to say about the ‘coot anymore, and while his franchise has made a few missteps, that doesn’t mean we should overlook how tremendously fun the classics were. Though Warped might be a typical run-away-from/toward-the-camera-and-grab-stuff platformer, there is enough variety in most of the stages to keep it much more interesting than the average level-hopper. You get to use a bunch of different vehicles, play as Crash’s sister and fight Tiny in a Roman Coliseum. Plus, it is kind of one of the top selling PlayStation games of all time, so it’s worth some recognition. There’s also a secret world, if I recall correctly, in which you get to race men in black near Area 51, and that kind of level design merits some sort of respect.
9) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time
An arcade and SNES classic: colorful, fast-paced, insanely fun and full of great opportunities to chuck a foot soldier OUT OF THE SCREEN! So what if it follows the typical level parade of most time-travel platformers (dinosaur age, pirate age, train age, etc.)? The game is so well-loved that there is, of course, that 3-D version, Reshelled available on Xbox Live but as cool that is, there’s no topping the feel and vibrancy of the original (seriously, playing this game is like drinking a mai tai with your eyes). As a side note, I’d forgotten the hilarious Huey Lewis-ian theme song. I wonder if they kept that in the remake…
8) The Lost Vikings 2
Speaking of classic SNES games that have been remade in 3-D, by no means should you bother with Norse by Norsewest, the weird-looking PC version of this classic: seek out the original at all cost. Like the original game, this is an excellent action/puzzle platformer that requires you to use the specific skills of three different characters (one who can run and jump, one who can attack, and one who can defend himself and… other things) to collect objects and make it through your typical assortment of “time” levels. What makes this game so much better than its predecessor is the addition of two badass extra characters to the mix, a werewolf and a dragon, both capable of attacking. Timing is everything here,
7) Timesplitters 2
I’m frankly a little surprised that there haven’t been more first-person time-travel games, although the lack of rapid firepower in most of history might have something to do with that. The first one is a little too simple and the third is too goofy, but this is the perfect distillation of the series. The Quantum Leap approach, casting you as a different character in each mission, was an excellent way to tie disparate storylines together while still involving characters like Captain Ash and Harry Tipper, and though the cartoony spoofiness is there, we also get more sober chapters like the Neo-Tokyo and Siberia segments. And yes, the multiplayer is better in 3 but 2 is the most balanced overall and a general alien-blasting good time, Goldeneye ripoff or not.
6) Live a Live
Whispered on the winds of nerddom, this Famicom game was never released in the US but it’s been unofficially translated and is something of an emulator legend. You play as several characters in different stories throughout time, unrelated at first, from prehistory to the far future. Eventually, you discover that each character has faced an incarnation of the same immortal demon king, and in a unique twist, you get the option to either finish the game using a combination of the heroes, or play as the villain and destroy them all, one by one. I can kinda understand how distributors might have thought the subject matter a little too…uh…”culturally specific” to appeal to a wider audience (the “near-future” section is about a telepathic mech pilot and shares many similarities with anime, even including its own theme song.). But come on! You get to be a cowboy, a ninja, a kung-fu master and a robot in the same game! It’s a genuine crime that more people haven’t played this one, and to top it all off, the boss music is quite calypso-funky in a way more RPG fight songs should be.
5) Day of the Tentacle
Maniac Mansion was pretty unforgiving for a Lucasfilm/Lucasarts game in that it allowed your characters to die, making the game unwinnable. Plus, although it was clearly campy, the spooky atmosphere kept you on your toes. Things were made much cartoonier for this sequel: the Edisons are no longer freakishly blue in hue, the rooms of their mansion are bright and wacky, and the music is suitably Elfman-esque. You control nerdy Bernard, creepy Laverne, and metalhead Hoagie across three different time periods in an attempt to prevent the sinister purple tentacle from taking over the world. The key feature here is the ability to “flush” items to and from characters, changing things in the past to solve puzzles in the future. It’s a point-and-click classic, one of the great repositories of item puzzles, and gives us several reasons to trust tentacles even less than we already do.
4) Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time
The third and final game in the Journeyman series, Legacy of Time, may have had better graphics and the neat “chameleon suit” feature, but for my money this is the best of the trilogy. You are Gage Blackwood, a time agent/probable porn star with Lister hair charged with altering the past. Recruited by your future self to save your name, you must venture throughout time and space in an attempt to gather clues and save the continuum. What really sets this apart from other adventure games is the unique Journeyman jumpsuit interface, especially all the neat little “biochips” you get to play with, including a cloaking device and Arthur, the obligatory wisecracking AI. True, it means that the actual game environment window is reduced to about a quarter of the screen, but that’s the downside of wearing a bio-technological jumpsuit all the time, I suppose.
?If you’re wondering how a (gasp!) text-based game you’ve never heard of could wind up this high on the list, then you haven’t played Jigsaw, pure and simple. Spawned from the devious genius of Graham Nelson (but less diabolical than his aneurysm-inducing Curses!), this is sort of a sprawling, mystical version of Carmen Sandiego. It is New Year’s Eve 1999, and as the celebration culminates you find yourself wandering away from the party and into a mysterious chamber outfitted with a long table and an Ormulu clock. Your nemesis/love interest is a sinister yet attractive character named Black (cleverly written so as to be whatever gender you prefer), and it becomes your goal to Gump your way through the highlights of the twentieth century and ensure history unfolds correctly. It’s not always easy, and the first episode in particular distinguishes this game in tone right out of the gate. We get a few expected stops (the Titanic, of course) but also some delightfully specific events less-traveled by games of this ilk (the discovery of penicillin, the opening of the Suez Canal and the recording of Abbey Road, to name a few). Best of all, there’s a section of footnotes explaining the details of each scene, which may also make this one of the most fun educational games in existence. You can download it or even play it online here. Be warned, though: like many text games, there is a high possibility of cocking-up, especially at the beginning, so be prepared to save and restore often if you decide to play sans-walkthrough (and don’t be ashamed if you do).
2) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
You know those people who argue that videogames are not now, and never will be great art (perhaps a certain famous blogger we shall call “Sahjer Meebert”)? They’re totally free to take games or leave them. In the end, it’s their loss: greatness is self-evident and does not need our help defending it. My point is, this Mr. Meebert once held a ridiculous survey to see who would sacrifice every video game to save The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and as much as I respect him, my immediate response was: this man clearly hasn’t played Ocarina of Time. The source of some of the greatest music ever to waft out of your mom’s TV speakers, not to mention so much of the modern Zelda mythos, this one got the staples so, so right, from the Campbellian trappings of the plot to the grand final confrontation amidst fire and rubble. Though there were many great N64 games that preceded it, for many it was Ocarina of Time that transformed the polygonal awkwardness of a young console system into something immersive, expansive and beautiful. Not to mention the uncomfortable feelings stirred in many of us by the sight of adult Princess Ruto. Leave it to Japan to try to make a Zora into a sex symbol…
1) Chrono Trigger
I tried to think of a game belongs here more. I tried to come up with a surprising choice for number one. I considered being contrarian and putting Blinx the Time Sweeper or something up here that obviously isn’t deserving just to try and buck the inevitable. But there’s no contest. There’s nothing that comes close. And there’s not really much left to add to the conversation, except: we will always love you, Chrono Trigger. I think B of Progressive Boink said it best: to everyone involved, thank you. You pretty much made the best game ever.