[This article was originally published back in February 2012.]
Time is an abstract concept with very real consequences. We can’t sense time itself, we can only sense the tangible effects it has on us and our world. Wait a few minutes and not much will have changed except a few individual actions you have taken. Wait a few years and the landscape you are looking at may appear very different. Wait a century and you will be living in a different civilization! That is the powerful effect of time. Our lives themselves can be measured in time.
Time is such a central theme in our lives that it is no surprise that many video games seek to make use of time in different ways. Some use it as a simple restriction, for example the amount of time Mario has to finish a level before his time runs out. As he enters the dreaded 99 second countdown, the music speeds up, and just the knowledge of the time remaining puts us into a stressed and rushed mode, as we push ourselves to forget collecting extra coins and instead finish up the level as quick as possible. In Super Mario 3D Land and 3D World you are given the option of collecting little clocks which can buy you some much needed extra time.
But time has been used in much more fundamental and creative ways than that, often becoming a central theme in a game’s dynamics. Time can affect a core story element or a mechanic that radically warps gameplay. Join me as we take a look at some experiences throughout gaming’s history that made for memorable uses of time.
Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time
Ocarina of Time had a seven year jump in time, featuring a very different Hyrule, before and after. In the later time era, Hyrule was already controlled by Ganondorf and was ravaged, full of evil. While the change in your surroundings was very prominent, what may be even more remarkable in contributing to the depth of Ocarina of Time was the growth of the main character, Link. Hyrule began bright and innocent in its former state and this was reflected in the boyish innocence of Link. But, when Hyrule was in desperate need of a savior, Link has matured and can stand to face a grim, bleak environment.
Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
As central of a shift time had to Ocarina of Time’s distinct time eras, Majora’s Mask gave an even larger role to time. A three day Groundhog’s Day, to be precise. The contrast of profound love or utter disdain for Majora’s Mask found among Zelda fans can usually be traced back to whether they enjoyed the time mechanics or were annoyed by them. Whichever the case, it was always freaky watching that Moon loom closer and closer on its collision course with the planet.
Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages
Oracle of Ages features a more common time-travel concept in which Link never changes his age as he teleports back and forth a hundred years in time. The teleport was always really quick and was a mainstay in the puzzles of the game, constantly requiring the gamer to change his environments “back then” in order to advance in the “here and now.”
Probably no game is as famous for its use of time as Chrono Trigger. What an epic and evocative world was created from traveling through the millennia! The plight of the world became real as we watched the characters and perils unravel throughout history. What is more emotionally potent than watching one of the beloved characters vanish into thin air as her history is altered so that she would have never existed?!
Radiant Historia is an exceptional game that shares a lot in common with Chrono Trigger. It actually uses the time-travel mechanic in even more far-ranging ways than CT. Throughout the game you have the freedom to travel through both time and space to parallel universes. You have the option of revisiting important events and taking different actions and decisions, experimenting with different possible outcomes. Basically, you have the option to create an alternate history. Because of this, the game has many possible different endings. If you haven’t played it, I highly recommend Radiant Historia.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
PoP:TSoT became a critically acclaimed game with its strong theme of time in both plot and game mechanics. The plot is fascinating in its use of time especially as the Prince rewinds time at the end of the game, after completing his mission, in order to save his dead lover. When Farah is revived as if the ordeal never took place at all, she doesn’t even recognize the Prince or know of their relationship together. The evil Vizier however senses that the Prince somehow knows of his secret conspiracy and attempts to kill him. Interestingly, this final boss battle takes place chronologically earlier than the rest of the game, resulting in the consequence that none of the rest of the game ever took place! I haven’t even mentioned the gameplay mechanics which use the Sands of Time to reverse time, slow it down, or freeze it completely.
The World Ends With You
I consider The World Ends With You to be the best RPG Square Enix has developed since becoming Square Enix (in 2003.) If I had to recommend two RPGs on the DS I would start with TWEWY and move on to Radiant Historia — two games that use time mechanics heavily. TWEWY surprised me with an alternate universe with a premise as intriguing as the first time we all watched the Matrix: Two existences live side by side– the Real World (as we know it) and the Underground, a domain inhabited by a few chosen in the afterlife. Although the two planes of existence use the same geographical turf, the creatures and beings in both are mostly unaware of the existence of the other. The Underground houses an afterlife “venue” called the Reaper’s Game.
The Game takes place over seven days and a few select individuals are offered the chance to enter the game and win the opportunity to be resurrected in the Real World or to transcend to a higher form of spiritual existence. But the price of entry into this Game is the one thing most valued by the player- be it a loved one, their memories, their physical appearance, etc. A dangerous price to pay with an unimaginable reward at the end of it for the winner.
The rules of the game were created by the Composer, a godlike-entity who maintains the existence of modern Shibuya, the setting for the entire game. The identity of the Composer isn’t revealed until the end of the game but he plays an important role throughout. Each game is presided over by the Conductor, who defines the missions that must be completed throughout the game. Â Each game plays out through seven days, with a new mission dedicated to each day. The Player must form a pact with a partner and complete the mission each day in order to survive to the next day. The obstacles in the way to completing the missions are both the Reapers, mysterious humans who have taken on their new “enforcer” role in the hope of becoming Angels, and the Noise, monstrous creatures who are attracted by the negative feelings of the living.
The main character, Neku Sakuraba, is an anti-social teenager who appears in the Game without knowledge of who he is, how he died, and where he is right now. Throughout the game, Neku will have to complete the mission each day in order to survive the next, and become the first person to ever play the Game three times, for a total of three weeks, as he gets closer and closer to uncovering the identity of the Composer and many of the secrets and conspiracies going on behind the scenes in this life-or-death Reaper’s Game. Plot twists abound, religion and metaphysical themes lay subtext to the entire game, the style is unique with its contemporary Shibuya setting and soundtrack that encompasses many genres, combining rock, hip hop, and electronica, and the characters are lovable, despicable, flamboyant, inflammatory, and utterly unique — a rare feat for the modern JRPG. And lastly, the game makes an impressionable use of time as we the Player watches the minutes go by with the hope to make it to a new day and its mission, and finally counting down to day seven and the final winner of the Reaper’s Game. There are more twists and turns in relation to the use of time in the game but I don’t want to spoil anything major for those who have yet to play the game.
Giygas has taken control of the world in the future, so humanity sends back a messenger to Ness in present time, asking him to save the world before Giygas has reached full power. Ness realizes that the only way to defeat Giygas is to fight him back when he was still a fetus. Doctor Andonuts creates a time machine which can transport Ness and his team to that earlier time, but organic material can’t sustain time travel, so they must transfer their souls into robotic bodies in order to fight fetus Giygas (who can still destroy them quite easily.)
Ghost Trick Phantom Detective
Ghost Trick’s story centers on the protagonist Sissel, and his ghost’s struggle to discover who he was when he was alive and who killed him. The player assumes the role of this ghost, who has the ability to perform various Ghost Tricks to solve puzzles and navigate the world around him.
During gameplay segments, players can swap at will between the Land of the Living, where time flows naturally, and the Ghost World, in which time is stopped. In the Land of the Living, Sissel can animate these objects to perform actions, known as “Ghost Tricks”, that open new paths or influence the characters around him. For example, moving a tray of donuts will prompt a character to change where he or she is currently seated, as well as giving Sissel access to new areas.
Mario & Luigi Partners in Time
This adventure follows Mario, Luigi, Baby Mario, and Baby Luigi as they search for Princess Peach, who has been abducted by an alien species known as the Shroobs. There is a big emphasis on the time-traveling theme, which involves the protagonists traveling between the past and present of the Mushroom Kingdom.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
Professor Layton and his assistant Luke go to ten years into the future where they find a drastically changed Steampunk London, and meet Future Luke, who tells them that the crime lord ruling over the whole city is none other than the Future Layton. But is everything as it seems?
The gameplay of Viewtiful Joe features traditional 2D platform side-scrolling intermixed with 3D cel-shaded graphics. Abilities known as “VFX Powers” grant the player special actions for combat and puzzle-solving, such as slowing down or speeding up time.
Time Hollow is a graphic adventure game, in which the player controls protagonist Ethan Kairos as he attempts to find his missing parents. Using the “Hollow Pen”, he is able to open circular portals into the past after he has experienced a “flashback” of a certain location. By opening portals into different areas, he is able to recover or place items and people, as well as observe the past. Although time stops while a portal is open, certain characters are able to interact with Ethan. The player must draw these portals with the stylus, and if once the portal is closed, a certain amount of “Time” is lost, equivalent to HP. Portions of Time equivalent to one portal, called “Chrons”, can be recovered by finding Ethan’s cat, Sox, in the game world.