The possibilities of time travel are endless. You could fight to save the future like John Connor, or even fall in love in reverse like in The Time Traveler's Wife. Or maybe you just want to stop the meteor that killed the dinosaurs so you can see what it's like to have a triceratops as a best friend like in Super Time Force.
Out tomorrow for Xbox One and 360, Super Time Force is an absurd romp of a game. You control a team of time-traveling mercenaries, intent on changing the past and future in order to make the present as awesome as possible — which involves everything from selling the Holy Grail for a quick buck on eBay to turning the lost city of Atlantis into a tourist destination off the coast of Florida.
But time travel is more than just an excuse to send you into disparate locations like a post-apocalyptic future or Philadelphia circa 1980. It's also central to the gameplay — you can rewind time at any point and fight alongside multiple versions of yourself. It's chaotic and confusing, and it turns Super Time Force into much more than just another retro game.
You’ll need to manipulate time itself
At its most basic, Super Time Force is a side-scrolling run-and-gun shooter, like the Contra and Metal Slug games you used to play on your SNES and in the arcades. The core gameplay is familiar: you run from left to right blowing away bad guys, and each member of your team has different skills. One has shots that bounce off the walls, for instance, while another has a shield to deflect bullets back at bad guys. There's also a skateboarding dinosaur who can chomp down on foes at close range. On their own, none of these characters have the capability to complete a level on their own — so you’ll need to manipulate time itself.
In each level you have a limited number of rewinds at your disposal, which let you literally reverse time as far back as you like. So if you die, you can rewind a few seconds earlier, and start playing as a new character, while the ghost version that just died runs alongside you. This ghost will behave just as it did when you controlled it. Maybe you drop in a shielded soldier to protect a previously doomed character from enemy fire, or maybe you switch to a character with a grenade launcher so you can increase the firepower you're putting into the giant robot charging your way.
Things get crazy since you can do this multiple times: it's possible to have many little ghosts running around the screen at the same time, firing their weapons and helping you proceed through the level. This isn't just a way to create insanely chaotic scenes though — it's a vital strategy for getting through the game, and offers a terrific playground for experimenting with new strategies.
Take boss battles, for instance. Like many similar 2D games, STF features massive bosses with constantly shifting weak points that need to be exploited. My solution in most cases was to carefully position characters around the boss, so that I was attacking these vulnerable points simultaneously — this took a great deal of trial and error, as I’d often let characters be killed in order to find those weaknesses. Other times I’d be up against an insanely powerful enemy and I’d simply use brute force: constantly rewind just a second or two earlier, add a new character, start firing like crazy, rinse and repeat.
STF does a great job of throwing new challenges at you that require trying out all of these different strategies. Sometimes you'll be flying through heaven, wearing a jetpack, and murdering cherubs; other times you'll be protecting an absurdly huge nuclear bomb so that it can smash down the gates of a medieval castle. You’re up against insanity, and the only way to win is with your own, slightly more controlled insanity.
Death is just another resource
The different scenarios also ensure that you can’t get through the game using the same tricks, and they put you in a completely different state of mind compared to other 2D shooters. Instead of simply memorizing maps and enemy patterns like I used to in Contra, I found myself planning multiple steps in advance — I would even regularly sacrifice soldiers so that I could see just a bit further up-screen and plan accordingly. Death is just another resource.
What you might not expect is how slow this can make the game. Each level gives you one minute to complete it, but because of all of the constant rewinding it'll take you a lot longer than that to actually beat it. It may look fast-paced and hectic, but that feeling never lasts for long, especially during the trickier sections where you'll be doing a lot of meticulous rewinding. Once you beat a stage you'll be able to watch how your strategies played out in real time, with a minute-long replay that’s incredibly fun to watch. (If you’re playing on Xbox One, you can also upload and share these clips.) The videos also help you see other strategies to help improve your score.
Time traveling takes some getting used to — it also made the game particularly tricky to build for developer Capy Games — but once you get the hang of the mechanics, STF proves to be an incredibly rewarding experience. It may take you a few tries to beat a level, but successfully manipulating time so that you can beat a swarm of killer robots or stampeding dinosaurs feels amazing. Super Time Force may look like a classic, but it feels brand new.
Super Time Force is available to download tomorrow on Xbox 360 and Xbox One.