Time travel is such a wonderful storytelling device. It's played a great part in some of my favorite movies, including everyone's favorite 80's classic, Back To The Future. Time travel has also played a big role in some great video games as well. And for my money, the next best thing to watching a character on screen get through a sticky paradox, it's getting through one of them on your own.
Great Moments In Video Game Time Travel
The following games are heralded for their (mostly) unique execution of time travel mechanics over the course of the game.
Day of the Tentacle
Appearance In This Timeline: June 1993
Console / Genre: PC / Point & Click Adventure
Clever Time Travel Usage: Triple Timeline Puzzle Solving
Day of the Tentacle came during the peak of point & click adventure games in the early 90's. It was LucasArts' sequel to their immensely popular Maniac Mansion, which had three characters roaming through a wacky mansion in order to stop it's owner, a mad scientist named Dr. Fred, from taking over the world.
Shortly after arriving back at the mansion in the sequel, Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne are forcibly sent through time by Dr. Fred to stop his pet purple tentacle monster - who has grown arms, superhuman intelligence, and a desire to follow in his master's footsteps and take over the world - from ever drinking the toxic sludge that gave him these powers. Trust me, it all makes perfect sense. Mishaps ensue, and the three are mistakenly thrown into three different time periods - present day, 200 years in the past, during the writing of the U.S. Constitution, and 200 years in the future, when the world has been enslaved by evil, purple tentacle monsters.
You swap between all three characters as you attempt to return everyone to the present and ultimately save the world. Events that take place in the past affect the future - which you discover early on when Laverne, stuck on the branch of a 400 year old tree in the future, needs to be rescued by chopping down a tiny sapling as Hoagie in the 1700's. And the time travelling device, known as "Chron-O-Johns," (fashioned from, you guessed it, porta-pottys) also act a teleportation device, also the passing of items between characters through time, a key element in puzzle solving.
Day of the Tentacle's puzzles are clever, the characters are quirky and the story is hilarious, with an extremely satisfying conclusion. More importantly, (for the sake of this piece at least) the game's usage of time travel is brilliant.
Space Quest IV
Appearance In This Timeline: March 4, 1991
Console / Genre: PC / Point & Click Adventure
Clever Time Travel Usage: Visiting Future Games In The Series That Didn't Exist Yet
Space Quest IV came from Lucas Art's rival Sierra On-line who had a line of great adventure series by the early 90's, which, on top of Space Quest, included King's Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory, and of course Leisure Suit Larry (otherwise known as a Sex Quest). Space Quest had established itself has an irreverent comical sci-fi series, and the 1991 sequel used time travel to accompany it's recent leap to high quality VGA graphics (notably it was also one of the first games to use motion capture animation).
In the opening of Space Quest IV, perennial space janitor Roger Wilco is attacked by an old enemy's future self (you're going to have to roll with a lot of these) who has traveled back in time kill Roger, who remains "a blemish on what would otherwise be a perfect record of domination, terror and invincibility." Roger is saved by two mysterious men ([SPOILER ALERT] one of them is Roger's future son) and sent flying through a time warp that lands him in Space Quest XII. Over the course of the game Roger will visit Space Quest X, where he runs into a spurned ex-lover, as well as the original Space Quest, which still retains it's early 8-bit era looking graphics.
|Honestly, the contrast between VGA and EGA may have been more stark in 1991.|
Appearance In This Timeline: February 22, 2011 (US)
Console / Genre: Nintendo DS / RPG
Clever Time Travel Usage: Complete Control Of Timeline Over A Branching Storyline
Throughout the game, Stocke has the ability at any time to return to any point in the storyline, and shortly after discovering the book's power, he is offered a major decision that effectively splits the story into two. You're encouraged (and in fact, required) to play through both storylines because events that happen in one timeline will directly affect the other (you're comfortably rolling with these things by now, right?), and whenever you find yourself at an impasse, odds are you'll find your answer by messing around in the other timeline.
A lot of games these days come with important choices for the player that impact the storyline, and like any good reader of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure series, the reality is you really want to see what happens with every decision. This game happily allows you to do just that. And without having to worry about ever losing your character's actual combat abilities (he, and inexplicably, his teammates who technically aren't traveling through time with him maintain their levels, powers and items no matter where you jump in time), its a seamless transition from plot point to plot point, bouncing around the games chronology like it was an overworld map. Very cool.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Appearance In This Timeline: November 21, 1998
Console / Genre: Nintendo 64 (original) / Action Adventure
Clever Time Travel Usage: Playing Two Distinct Timelines Involving Younger And Older Self
Heralded as one of the greatest video games of all time, Ocarina of Time also just so happened to have a very cool time travel-related concept: playing as both a younger more innocent protagonist, Link, and an older, more interested in the ladies Link, both fighting to save princess Zelda and rid the world of the evil Gannondorf, a process that only ever lasts just long enough for the next sequel.
The Temple of Time is young Link's portal into the future. It's a little complicated, but basically the kid needs to be a little taller in order to wield the Master Sword, the ultimate weapon against evil (that and the game's titular magic flute). When you time jumping here you're not just aging, you're also bouncing between the young, innocent Hyrule (the world of all Zelda games) that is untouched by Gannondorf and a devastated Hyrule on the verge of total destruction. The world hasn't aged nearly as well as you have.
|The best part is Link looking inside his tunic a la Big once he turns into an adult|
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Appearance In This Timeline: November 21, 2003
Console / Genre: PS2/Xbox/GameCube (original) / Action Platformer
Clever Time Travel Usage: Rewinding Time To Stay Alive
The original Prince of Persia defined its own genre of action platforming in the late 80's, and when the series was later revived in 3D in the early 2000's, it similarly redefined the way people moves through the world. The prince in each game of the series moves fluidly through his environment, dashing along walls and bouncing from pillar to pillar as if the constant threat of falling to his death was merely an afterthought.
In the 2003 release, the first in a trilogy, time plays a large role in the story as well as gameplay. Early in the game the Prince (the one from Persia) gains the Dagger of Time, which allows him to rewind time up to 10 seconds. By doing so, he can reverse damage from an attack, undo a missed jump that would have led to his death, or simply replay a kiss from the beautiful princess Farah over and over again. Ok, that last one is technically not an option, but simply because the two never actually kiss.
|I'm listing this here simply to say that I won't be referencing this movie AT ALL.|
The Misadventures P.B. Winterbottom
(*Also See: Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time)
Appearance In This Timeline: February 17th, 2010
Console / Genre: XBLA (original) / Puzzle
Clever Time Travel Usage: Using Duplicates Of Yourself To Solve Puzzles
Now this is fun. Set in the backdrop of a black and white silent-film era world, players control P.B Winterbottom, a man with a top hat who loves pies and will do anything to get them - even bending the laws of time and space!
The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom is a simple 2D puzzle platformer where you create time clones of yourself in order to advance and collect/eat the delicious pies scattered (and often ominously floating) throughout the land. If you're curious as to how it works, imagine if you had to reach the top shelf in your kitchen - the one you purposefully put all the food that you don't really care about all that much in. Instead of a ladder or a stool, what you have is the ability to creates clones of yourself that exist briefly to give you a lift, toss you high into the sky, or, if you needed it, a pat on the back. Now imagine if you had the ability to make dozens of these clones, and think of the shelves you'd be able to reach, miles above the ground!
|Technically, other games, like Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time did this first. But this one has PIES!|
Appearance In This Timeline: March 11, 1995
Console / Genre: Super Nintendo (original) / Action RPG
Clever Time Travel Usage: A Diverse Adventure/Party Spanning 65 Million Years
By the mid-90's Japanese role playing games, like PC adventures games, had really hit their stride. Chrono Trigger is still considered to this day to be one of the best Japanese role playing games to ever hit consoles. You play as Crono, a young man who's apparently taken the very common vow of silence many JRPG protagonists take. The story, which starts off with "boy meets girl who is secretly a princess" and very quickly jumps to "boy and girl meet quirky scientist who accidentally sends girl hurdling through time" slowly reveals itself to be about saving the world from an alien that's been building power over hundreds of millions of years, finally arising in 1999 AD (this universe, while entirely fictional, apparently still recognizes the Gregorian calendar).
Over the course of the adventure you pick up other characters from the different time periods you visit. You find a gallant knight (who just so happens to be a frog) from the middle ages, an affectionate robot from the future, and a badass cavewoman (very progressive) from the prehistoric era. Early on your characters are bouncing through time through varies circumstances, but eventually you find a time machine called the Epoch, and it's around this time that you get down to business.
|You've got your Cavewoman, your Robot, and of course, your Frog Knight.|
Appearance In This Timeline: August 6th, 2008
Console / Genre: XBLA (original), / Puzzle Platformer
Clever Time Travel Usage: Various Time-Based Game Mechanics & Puzzles
Braid was a small indie puzzle game that took the gaming world by surprise in 2008, making many top 10 lists that otherwise included big budget powerhouses. Unlike every other game on this list, Braid is less about time travel itself than it is about the manipulation of time around you. At first glance, as you can see above, the game looks like a fairly standard platformer. And initially it seems like all you do is rewind time, a familiar trick that Prince of Persia had done years ago. But you soon discover that you're doing more to rewind time than just surviving. Certain items, environments and enemies are affected differently by the manipulation of time. So a time-locked key can be grabbed from a pit with no escape, then brought back upon rewinding your character's trip down, taking the key back with you through time as your arrive safely above the aforementioned pit.
Each world in the game manipulates time in a different way. On top of being able to rewind time in each level, you'll find worlds where time flows forward to backward depending whether the player is advancing left or right, a world where the character creates shadow, repeating versions of himself (like in P.B. Winterbottom) and one where he controls a ring that slows down time for everything around it. Your goal in every level is find pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that slowly reveal the story and allow you access to the final level.
The puzzles are really devilish at times, and the game really forces you to rethink the way you play video games. Showing might be better than telling here, so take a look for yourself:
I won't spoil the story here, partly because it's fascinating to experience, but mostly because it's actually kind of convoluted and purposefully ambiguous. Suffice it to say the final level of the the game continues the time manipulation theme and shows off a really clever, very much video game-specific way of revealing a clever storytelling twist. If you don't mind spoiling it for yourself, you can check it out here.
Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Appearance In This Timeline: October 26th, 2000 (US)
Console / Genre: Nintendo 64 (original) / Action Adventure
Clever Time Travel Usage: Repetition / Perfection Of A Three Day Timeline
Hey look, another Zelda entry! Majora's Mask came just a few years off of Ocarina of Time, and while it featured similar a graphical style and gameplay mechanics, it's story takes Link on an entirely new time travelling adventure. This time, Link finds himself in the land of Termina, an ill-fated name for an ill-fated land. Termina's moon is on a collision course with the planet, and Link has only three days to stop it before it crashes and destroys everything.
The conceit to this game (one that frustrated many gamers back in the day) is that three days is not nearly enough time to save the world, especially when those three days pass in an about an hour's time in real life. In order to beat the game, players must constantly rewind time the the 72 hour mark and make what little progression they can before the world comes to an end again. Items, weapons, and songs for your returning magical Ocarina are returned, but everything else is reset every time you jump back.
|Man, that is one PISSED OFF moon.|
Mario & Luigi: Partners In Time
Appearance In This Timeline: November 28th, 2005 (US)
Console / Genre: Nintendo DS / RPG
Clever Time Travel Usage: Adventuring With Your Much Younger Selves
This game almost didn't make the main list, since time travel is mostly just a plot point in this game. But what makes M&L: Partners In Time make the cut is the fact that in this story (the 2nd of several great RPG adventures featuring Mario and his brother Luigi, who is comically unfit for adventure) you travel back in time and ultimately begin adventuring with infantile versions of yourselves.
Naturally you're looking to save the land and rescue the princess that's spent more time in enemy clutches than ruling her land. There's something kind of awesome about wandering around with Mario, Luigi, and two bite-size versions of them, getting into battles and using them to reach through cracks and crevices that the adults can't fit into. Oh, and you even get to meet and fight Baby Bowser! How awesome is that?
|It's cute in a "Holy crap, I've just put two children into a life threatening battle!" kinda way.|
The following games didn't have a particularly clever use of time travel (mostly it was a backdrop), but it was featured prominently in the game and made for some interesting and amusing moments.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
Appearance In This Timeline: September 12, 2010 (US)
Console / Genre: Nintendo DS / Puzzle
Time Travel Usage: Coming Up Against An Evil Future Version Of Yourself
If you haven't played the series before, Professor Layton and his assistant Luke are puzzle solving geniuses who live in a world where the ability to solve puzzles is prized about all else. In one of the games, in a "battle to the death," the final boss has you solve a theoretical battle via a puzzle, and upon winning, concedes everything. The plot is consistently kooky, but the puzzles are oh so much fun to solve.
In this 3rd entry in the series, Layton and Luke are seemingly transported ten years into the future where an older, but very similarly dressed Luke tells them that London has been taken over by a mob lead by the now evil Professor Layton, and that he has summoned them there to help stop him. Because who better to take down an evil genius than a 10 years less experienced version of that evil genius?*
Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp
Appearance In This Timeline: June 16, 1991
Console / Genre: Arcade / Action Interactive Movie
Time Travel Usage: Wrecking Havoc Through Time
The Dragon's Lair series were less of a game and more of an interactive movie where the right choices let you continue watching and the wrong choices made the movie stop and asked you to insert more quarters. Though gamers quickly caught on that this was a bum deal, they still couldn't deny it was a pretty fun movie.
The sequel to the original 1981 classic, Dragon's Lair II upped the ante and sent it's hero Dirk the Daring hurdling through time to save his beloved Daphne. And the adventure doesn't just take you through time, it also takes you to some trippy fictional locations, like the home of Beethoven in the middle of a tripped out version of his 5th Symphony (5:05 below), to the Garden of Eden just in time to feed Eve her apple (3:46 below) and through Alice's looking glass for a quick jaunt through Wonderland (2:28 below). Check out this video playthrough and join Dirk on his adventure without investing a single quarter:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles In Time
Appearance In This Timeline: September 18, 1991
Console / Genre: Arcade/ Side Scrolling Beat 'Em Up
Time Travel Usage: Turtles. In. Time.
There's really not much to say about this game, and I'm not being paid by the word, so in summation: every kid in the early 90's best friends, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are inexplicably sent hurdling through time by Shredder. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael they must fight their way through various time periods (foot soldiers have been conveniently deposited in every era) in order to return home and save...the Statue of Liberty?
That last question mark wasn't me not knowing the answer, it was just me remembering just how little plot I needed to get by on in 1991.
Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?
Appearance In This Timeline: 1989
Console / Genre: PC / Edutainment
Time Travel Usage: Using Time Travel To Actually Learn Some Shit
The Carmen Sandiego series successfully tricked games into learning with three different series, asking them to find Carmen somewhere in the USA, the World, and next, naturally, somewhere in Time. Players would spend each mission in a new time period attempting to right whatever wrong Carmen and her cronies caused with their various misdeeds throughout time. Along the way, players inexplicably would learn facts about history, facts it would take many hours of the Disney afternoon to forget.
Time Gentlemen, Please!
Appearance In This Timeline: June 22, 2009
Console / Genre: PC / Point & Click Adventure
Time Travel Usage: Creating A Paradoxical, Universe-Destroying Timeline
Time Gentlemen, Please! is a point and click adventure game created by two big fans of the genre who missed their old favorite adventure games so much they decided to make a new one. It's actually their second game, taking place immediately after the events of Ben There, Dan That, in which heroes Ben and Dan are trying to stop evil future versions of themselves from going back into the past to make themselves leaders of the world (by now I'm sure you're just nodding in complete understanding to these plotlines). The story hinges on the invention of the coat hanger, and [SPOILER ALERT] the duo eventually muck things up with paradoxes and destroy the entire universe, eventually needing God himself to step in to press the reset button.
Back To The Future (The Game)
Appearance In This Timeline: December 22, 2010
Console / Genre: PC/Mac / Point & Click Adventure
Time Travel Usage: Something About A Flux Capacitator
I would be remiss to not mention this game, which continues the story of the original movie trilogy (and has the original voice of Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd himself, as well as the world's greatest Michael J. Fox impersonator) and sees Marty McFly and Doc Brown hit up the 1930's and one again have to deal with alternative timelines that come part and parcel with messing with time travel. When will these two ever learn?
*****That'll do it. If you guys think I missed any great moments in video game time travel, drop me a line.
*[PROFESSOR LAYTON SPOILER ALERT] I clearly can't help myself with these spoilers, but the Layton game is fairly new, and a popular series so I'm sticking this spoiler way at the bottom so you can just stop reading if you care. I won't go into full details about what happens - but basically Layton spends the whole game suspecting something is amiss, and the truth winds up being about 1000 times more complicated than if someone had just invented a time machine. The big twist, the one that reveals that of course it wasn't time travel silly, time travel's not real! involves a second, fake underground London, a supervillain with apparently a near-infinite amount of cash to burn, and a Truman show-esque army of willing actors. What did I tell you about this series? Super kooky!